Chapter 9: Toward a Post-Pandemic Preferred Future

by Mark Mitsui, M. Ed.

Posted on March 23, 2022

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How is higher education emerging from the pandemic better, stronger, and more equitable? What have we learned during this historic moment? As we emerge from the global pandemic and the intersecting public health crises that it helped to expose, our nation needs its community colleges to shape the near and distant future of our country.

The historic call for the growth of the comprehensive community colleges was made during another post-crisis period, in the aftermath of World War II. Our nation had been pulled out of a period of isolationism by a global conflict that took the lives of millions of people. There was a longing, even a need, to pull from the destruction of a second world war in the same century, some constructive lessons and hard-won discoveries that would lead to a better post-war future. President Truman charged his Commission on American Higher Education to identify those lessons learned and craft a set of recommendations based on them. 

“A carefully developed program to strengthen higher education, taken together with a program for the support of elementary and secondary education, will inevitably strengthen our Nation and enrich the lives of our citizens.” (December 15, 1947, Statement by President Truman upon the release of “Higher Education for American Democracy,” the first report of the Truman Commission). 

In this landmark report, the commission identified the need for a national network of community colleges to help meet the challenges our nation faced after that particular global crisis. 

Fast forward to today, and the current post-pandemic period, and the nation once again needs community colleges to play a critical role in shaping the near and distant future for our country. 

In Pursuit of an Equitable Recovery 

The pandemic has already changed the landscape of work: in every recession/recovery cycle, old jobs are replaced by new ones that require new skills. For careers in fields that offer family-sustaining wages, the skill requirements continue to rise and evolve. Postsecondary credentials are the new minimum— according to Georgetown University, 99% of jobs created during the last recovery went to those with at least some postsecondary education1. This trend will accelerate in the coming recovery. Improving equitable access to and completion of postsecondary education will be key to making the next recovery more equitable. 

According to Georgetown University, 99% of jobs created during the last recovery went to those with at least some postsecondary education.  

One barrier to equitable access to a community college education is basic needs insecurity. According to a national pandemic survey by the Hope Center at Temple University2, nearly 60% of respondents indicated experiencing either food or housing insecurity; 14% indicated experiencing houselessness. To address this issue, PCC is leading a statewide initiative called Pathways to Opportunity (PTO)3. All 17 of Oregon’s community colleges are working with Oregon’s Department of Human Services to integrate public benefits and wrap-around support services to help students meet their basic needs so they can focus on their education. One component of PTO is STEP (SNAP Employment and Training Program). In partnership with the Oregon Department of Human Services and the USDA, we are employing a career pathways approach to moving SNAP-eligible students out of poverty through education and training. This work has inspired Oregon HB 2835, a state bill that, if passed, would put a benefits navigator on public community college and university campuses across the state. Legislation like this ensures that all students are able to access the benefits and resources they qualify for to gain the skills and credentials they need for good jobs. 

In addition to PTO, PCC also launched YESS: Yes to Equitable Student Success. YESS involved the scaling of multiple initiatives to improve equitable student outcomes. The initiatives include strategic enrollment management, a redesign of advising, and the implementation of “guided pathways.” Our student completion rates hit new highs for the graduating classes of 2018 and 2019; however, we knew we had more work to do. As we proceeded through this work, we completed a study of our organizational structure and determined that we needed to reorganize if we were going to achieve equitably high rates of student success. In January 2020, just before the pandemic, I announced to the College that after a year and a half of study and input from hundreds of stakeholders, we were moving forward with the “One College for Equitable Student Success” model, where faculty across all four campuses and seven centers report through carefully determined lines and levels to a single Vice President of Academic Affairs and all Student Affairs personnel report to a single Vice President of Student Affairs. Previously, there were four distinct, “vertical” reporting lines, one for each campus, and multiple “horizontal” committees trying to coordinate work across the entire college district. This new structure is intended to improve the scaling and alignment of student success initiatives across the district. 

Preparing Students for Jobs That Haven’t Yet Been Invented 

Once key barriers to postsecondary education are addressed, what kinds of careers do we need to prepare our students for, and what kinds of skills will be needed in a post-pandemic economy? One thing we know is that the pandemic and rapid advancements in artificial intelligence accelerated automation as employers sought to pandemic-proof their operations and increase productivity. For example, robot sales increased in non-automotive manufacturing by 64% in the fourth quarter of 2020.4 The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, on a worldwide basis, the time spent on work by humans and machines will be equal. On a global basis, this shift will displace 85 million jobs and create 97 million new jobs within the same time frame.5 Here in the U.S., this shift will disproportionately impact our most marginalized communities.6 Clearly, community colleges are at the intersection of these trends. We need educational options for existing workers to upskill as well as options for new talent to enter into quality jobs that offer economic mobility. 

The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, on a worldwide basis, the time spent on work by humans and machines will be equal.  

As a member of the Oregon Governor’s Workforce Talent Development Board, I had the opportunity to co-chair a task force on artificial intelligence (AI). One of the recommendations7 of the task force was to develop a curriculum that not only addressed the impact of AI and automation across sectors (along with an AI-specific career pathway), but also emphasized those skills that make humans better humans. Finding ways to link the technical and “human” skills was also a prescient recommendation from the Truman Commission. 

“It is urgently important in American education today that the age-old distinction between education for living and education for making a living be discarded” (p. 61). 

“If the semi-professional curriculum is to accomplish its purpose, however, it must not be crowded with vocational and technical courses to the exclusion of general education. It must aim at developing a combination of social understanding and technical competence” (p. 69).8 

At PCC, we formed an Artificial Intelligence Task Force to develop curricular recommendations, based on industry feedback. We also reorganized our academic departments around six new “Academic and Career Pathways.” These pathways place the career technical education programs in the same department as relevant academic transfer courses and workforce training programs, creating a better context for interdisciplinarity. In addition, like most other community colleges, PCC is also engaged in the assessment of learning outcomes, many of which reflect the communication skills, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving abilities needed in the post-pandemic workplace. 

Finally, finding real-time data on in-demand skills and associated wage premiums is particularly important as we emerge from the pandemic. Like many community colleges, PCC accesses this data from a combination of sources, i.e., technical advisory committees and state employment data that is augmented with regionally specific information from private vendors. 

A Renewed Call for Racial Justice 

The killing of George Floyd triggered worldwide protests against police brutality and the need for racial justice. In Portland, large crowds participated in sustained protests for months. Like many college presidents, I issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter and the importance of acknowledging and addressing systemic racism. It was clear that we needed to double down on our previous work in the area of racial justice if we were going to “walk our talk.” 

In 2016, following the last presidential election and in response to anxieties expressed by many of our students and staff, I created the President’s Preferred Future Task Force9 to pay attention to external, sociopolitical issues that could have an impact on our communities (e.g., SCOTUS rulings on DACA). The focus of this task force was to provide resources and support to help create a responsive culture of care. The response team model created through this council, especially considering the cascading crises of 2020, proved invaluable. 

Many of our other systems of support for the college’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals were amplified and mobilized during these intersecting public health crises.  

Many of our other systems of support for the college’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals were amplified and mobilized during these intersecting public health crises. Our Office of Equity and Inclusion offered workshops, resources10, and information throughout this truly historic moment. PCC’s Teaching and Learning Center11 continued to offer programs and support for colleagues to incorporate culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies in online modalities. 

A year-long pilot cohort program for leaders across organizational and disciplinary boundaries called Transforming White Privilege in Leadership (TWPiL), begun in 2019, met remotely throughout the year of the pandemic. Working to recognize, interrupt, and change racist systems and practices within their own spheres of influence, the TWPiL cohort helped lead several important community conversations this year. 

Our Human Resources department continued to utilize culturally responsive diversity recruitment practices as the college strengthened its commitment to hiring a more racially diverse workforce. PCC continues to support the hiring of minority and women-owned businesses when contracting and is partnering with the Portland Black Enterprise Council. 

Finally, the President’s Cabinet commissioned the creation of a council for Belonging, Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (B-JEDI). The charge of this council is to coordinate and align the myriad—and sometimes disparate—DEI programs, trainings, initiatives, and organizational learning opportunities that take place across the College’s district. The B-JEDI Council, co-chaired by our Vice President for Academic Affairs and our Chief Diversity Officer, will help to align programs and initiatives to the College’s strategic plan and budget. 

The World Is on Fire 

In September 2020, the Oregon wildfires generated so much smoke and ash that Portland essentially shut down for several days. For our community, this was another stark reminder of global warming and the need for climate action. Climate change is a global, existential threat that does not honor national boundaries. It is a problem that requires both local and global action, action that many community colleges are taking. 

I serve on the Climate Leadership Steering Committee for Second Nature12, which counts several community colleges as members. Second Nature plays a key role in mobilizing higher education institutions to “act on bold climate commitments.” Through Second Nature, I have had the opportunity to serve on the Leadership Circle for America is All In13, which is an expansive cross-sector coalition of U.S. leaders committed to reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% by 2030. 

What can community colleges do to pursue climate justice through climate action? One way is to develop and implement a college Climate Action Plan.  

The linkage of global and local efforts is an important one, particularly for PCC students, many of whom come from communities and neighborhoods that are disproportionately impacted by climate change. What can community colleges do to pursue climate justice through climate action? One way is to develop and implement a college Climate Action Plan. PCC’s 2021 Climate Action Plan,14Resiliency, Equity and Education for a Just Transition, is the College’s roadmap towards climate justice. Unified under a shared vision, this plan establishes a new carbon neutrality goal of 2040 and outlines clear pathways for equity-focused climate action to be woven throughout operations, academics, student engagement, and future planning.15 

As we move into a (hopefully) post-pandemic era, we are assessing how much of our work will return to an in-person format and how much will remain remote/online. There is much to consider, of course. The opportunity to reduce our scope 3 emissions is one important factor. 

We continue to learn valuable lessons from this “year of the pandemic.” We know that the structures, systems, and processes that higher education had in place before 2020 were not necessarily equitable or responsive to the material realities of our most marginalized and vulnerable communities. Our nation’s community colleges are uniquely positioned to help usher in a more inclusive and equitable post-pandemic future for the students and communities we serve. 

A special "thank you" to Dr. Traci Fordham, PCC Program Administrator – Office of the President; Kate Chester, PCC Director of Public Relations and Community Engagement; and Jeannie Moton, PCC Executive Coordinator – Office of the President, for your invaluable assistance on this chapter.


#RealCollege 2021: Basic Needs Insecurity During the Ongoing Pandemic | The Hope Center.

Pathways to Opportunity Executive Summary: Closing opportunity gaps and increasing economic mobility.

The spread of covid-19 led to a surge in orders for factory robots.

The Future of Jobs Report 2020.

The future of work in black America.

WTDB Report: Talent Development for Artificial Intelligence in a Post-Pandemic World.


Preferred Future Task Force | Office of Equity and Inclusion at PCC.

10 COVID-19 diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) resource list.

11 Teaching Learning Center at PCC.



14 Climate Action Plan | Sustainability at PCC.

15 PCC is fortunate to have the opportunity to build on a robust history of work in this space, work that was recognized by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education as the top U.S. community college in terms of overall “STARS” (Sustainability, Tracking and Rating System) ratings in 2018 and 2019. We were also recognized by Second Nature with a Climate Leadership Award in 2017.