No university can be considered thriving — no matter its ranking — if its community is suffering.
With that in mind, the question bears asking: How well have institutions of higher education met society’s expectations during the pandemic? This is not a facile question, considering that according to Pew Research Center, overall public favorability toward higher education in the United States dropped from 63% in 2015 to 50% in 2019. After all, a healthy enrollment and a significant endowment are hollow measures of value if the university is an island in a sea of financial precarity and ill health.
It is right to applaud the tenacity of our campus communities to survive in this time — and often to thrive by producing cutting-edge, lifesaving research, and continuing to teach under the worst of conditions. Yet, it is also essential for colleges and universities to ask uncomfortable questions about their overall performance in the pandemic. These reviews, if they are focused on questions of how long it took to get back to pre-pandemic normal, will be limited at best — and ultimately unworthy of the responsibility of higher education to society at large. They will count the wrong things, and return us to a normal that was already morally indefensible before the pandemic began.
Looking inward: In the classroom — how ready were we to pivot to delivering high-quality pedagogy online and in blended formats? Universities could have been much more well-prepared, considering the well-documented value of distance learning for working students, and for faculty and students with disabilities.
We need to take a transparent and honest accounting of what the stress of this time has meant to faculty and staff already used to working more than full time — what new supports do they need coming out of the pandemic? Child care and flexible schedules are two modifications that are obvious and actionable right away. Universities must be reconfigured to withstand the shock of a disaster while continuing to provide quality education that students need, without working faculty beyond their capacity, or exposing people unnecessarily to infection.
Looking outward: It is also a moment to ask whether our knowledge production and teaching are focused on areas of maximum need — again, the pandemic shows us a grim future unless we heed its lessons. COVID-19 locates every weak pillar in society and kicks them over. Higher education must take this lesson seriously, and redesign itself accordingly. Our faculty, students, and staff tell us again and again that they want campuses that reflect their sense of purpose — it’s time to start rewarding that by funding and crediting community-focused research, teaching, and service toward tenure, promotion, and graduation.
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement was also a reckoning: Did we find that our campus communities reflect the diversity of our broader communities — and if not, well, what did we do about that? The imperative to hire and commit to the success of Black, Indigenous, and other faculty and staff of color requires resources and will, not endless self-study. We already knew that higher ed suffered from the same legacies of racism that shapes society off campus.
The problem is that universities are more strongly incentivized to pass the narrow tests of institutional survival than rise to the more ambitious mission of community action. But now is the moment to seize the call for reform and greater responsibility in the future. Counterintuitively, this will mean two things.
First, an intense localism. If higher education reproduces the processes that create social bifurcation, that lead to the inequalities so profoundly demonstrated by COVID-19, then universities have failed to reach their higher calling in a democracy.
Second, an intense internationalization. As we look at the world in the age of COVID-19, we know that the disaster is related to the other two great disasters of our time — climate change and racist/ethnic violence — and these are global problems.
Disasters, dramatic as they are, don’t make new worlds — they reveal the world as it truly is. So it’s time for some tough talk in higher ed. How did we do in the COVID-19 crisis, and what can we learn to make universities places of genius, solidarity, and moral commitment? Every institution of higher education should be engaged in a serious, searching, honest discussion about this question. If not now, then the trust we’ve lost will not return. And why should it?
John Fry is the president of Drexel University. Scott Gabriel Knowles is a professor in the Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.