Depends on How You Look at It
Remember mid-March? When you had that conference scheduled around Memorial Day and no one was sure yet whether they should pull the plug? Or back on April 26, when Brown University’s president wrote a column in the New York Times, headlined “Colleges Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It.”
The rhetoric has since taken a sharp turn:
- Colleges Are Deluding Themselves, Michael Sorrell in The Atlantic.
- Colleges Aren’t Reopening in the Fall, Robert Kelchen in The Chronicle
- The Misguided Rush to Reopen Universities, by Irina Mikhalevich and Russell Powell in Inside Higher Ed.
Increasingly, though, when you scratch at all of this you realize a lot of it is about language. Obviously words matter — whether for political or marketing reasons. But no one thinks we’ll have business as normal in the fall. So the words “open” and “closed” have less meaning than they seemed to a few weeks back.
The excellent Chronicle list of colleges’ stated plans for the fall shows that two-thirds of institutions are “planning for in-person.” Dig a little, though, and you wonder what that means. Maybe no large lectures? No sports? No clubs? What will it mean to abide by public health recommendations — which every college assures us they will — and have an “in-person” fall?
The tide started turning earlier this month when Cal State announced it was planning to be virtual in the fall. But Chancellor Timothy White’s statement included a wide list of potential exceptions including clinical classes with training mannequins for nurses, certain science lab classes, and access to unique arts facilities.
Could the chancellor have said something more like: “We’ll open up our campuses in limited ways, with a focus on hands-on, experiential classes”? Sure — and maybe if he were the president of a small tuition-dependent private college, incentives would have shaped his language differently.
Here are three examples of “planning for in-person” statements:
We’re Coming Back — But With a Loophole Big Enough to Drive Our Entire Endowment Through
“First, Duke University will be open in the fall, with the specific details of attendance and schedule to be determined soon. Throughout the pandemic, our education and research programs continued, so in a sense we’ve never closed. … [emphasis ours]
Second, we expect to make decisions about the structure of the coming academic year by the end of June. Why not decide now? We are committed to getting this right, and responsible decision making must be based on a clearer understanding of public health and safety issues than is now available. …
And finally, we know enough to say that next academic year will not look anything like the past.”
We’re Coming Back, Come Hell or High Water
Mitch Daniels, Purdue University’s president, came out in late April with a strong statement about the fall.
“Whatever its eventual components, a return-to-operations strategy is undergirded by a fundamental conviction that even a phenomenon as menacing as COVID-19 is one of the inevitable risks of life. Like most sudden and alarming developments, its dangers are graphic, expressed in tragic individual cases, and immediate; the costs of addressing it are less visible, more diffuse, and longer-term. It is a huge and daunting problem, but the Purdue way has always been to tackle problems, not hide from them.”
We’ve Got Plans — Lots of Plans
Indiana University of Pennsylvania wants students to know school won’t be business as usual and it’s willing to outline — with a lot of detail — how classes could work:
“Face-to-Face Class Delivery, Teamwork Style: A class is divided into teams of students. Each team would physically attend class on a specific day, in classrooms sanitized and set up to maintain social distancing. On days when a team is not scheduled to be physically in the classroom, that team’s students would participate and interact with the class’s other teams via Zoom or similar technology. We’re now installing technology in additional classrooms to do this and similar scenarios.”
Meanwhile, McSweeney’s successfully cuts to the core of the murkiness in an item titled “A Note from Your University About Its Plans for Next Semester”:
“After careful deliberation, we are pleased to report we can finally announce that we plan to re-open campus this fall. But with limitations. Unless we do not. Depending on guidance, which we have not yet received.
Please know that we eventually will all come together as a school community again. Possibly virtually. Probably on land. Maybe some students will be here? Perhaps the RAs can be let in to feed the lab rats?”
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A Time to Rethink Everything
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, we wrote about how this all was making us question a lot of things. In our world, standardized tests loomed large among them.
The University of California made a big move on that front yesterday, deciding to no longer require students to submit the SAT or ACT. By 2025, the system said it would either create a new UC-specific test or eliminate testing requirements altogether.
It’s a decision that many people believe could start to reshape admissions across the country.
H. Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science and a former college administrator, added another staple of this world that he wants to see change: college rankings.
He’s worried about how the pandemic will amplify inequities in who gets into college and who graduates. So he argues for using this crisis to start leveling the playing field — and, in the process, doing away with parts of higher ed (at least temporarily) that have long been questioned but have proven hard to change.
“Two places where these inequities are quite apparent is in the reliance on standardized-test scores, which we know are highly influenced by family income, and the rankings that U.S. News does, and the selectivity that they induce for institutions,” Thorp — who was previously chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and provost of Washington University in St. Louis — told The Chronicle in an interview this week.
“So I’m recommending that we pause both of those things for now, and then, when this is over, see if there’s a way to come up with a more progressive way of doing both.”
How To Be a Better Neighbor
As campuses shut down, busy streets turned silent, and local economies collapsed, colleges and their surrounding communities were suddenly thrown into a shared crisis. Leaders from several campuses that consider themselves to be “anchor institutions” in their communities discussed this week how colleges can help themselves while also helping their cities and towns close economic and resource gaps.
Here’s some of the advice they shared in a webinar about campuses and communities held by the Association of American Colleges & Universities:
Broaden how you define community. Lily McNair, president of Tuskegee University, says HBCUs like hers are often located in under-resourced areas and have a responsibility to help. During the pandemic, McNair says the university has created a public health advisory committee, including community members, faculty, and students, to assess how to best help an area that’s lagging in terms of medical facilities and professionals as well as testing. Tuskegee has donated PPE from campus labs, and the university’s scientists are helping expand the area’s capacity for Covid-19 testing.
Help campuses that help others. While many campuses look inward when trying to solve problems, community colleges by their nature are oriented toward the needs of the places their students are from, says Robert Pura, former president of Greenfield Community College. Those places, after all, are right down the road. At the same time, community colleges tend to be among the least supported by public resources, Pura says. He wants state policymakers to restructure funding formulas to dole out more dollars to institutions that serve and engage their communities.
Reward engagement. Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, says schools should revise their own longstanding practices to better serve their communities as they look to rebuild from the pandemic. Separate from the crisis, WPI changed its full professor promotion criteria last year to include service and emphasize the school’s focus on project-based learning with community impact.
“To think about transforming education in ways that are more embedded in communities,” she says, “we’re going to have to have our rewards systems evolve to align with that.”
(An added bonus to the new policy, Leshin says: For the first time in the school’s 150-year history, more women were promoted to full professor than men last year.)
In the States
We’re keeping tabs on how the plummeting economy continues to impact state funding and budgets at public colleges and universities across the country.
Here’s some of the latest news in our state tracker:
- The University of Missouri is preparing for a revenue loss of up to 25 percent through the next academic year. The system already lost $30 million on refunded fees like room and board and $37 million in state funding cuts.
- Texas lawmakers are asking higher education institutions to cut their 2020–2021 budgets by 5 percent.
- The University of California system president and the chancellors of its 10 campuses will take a 10-percent pay cut next year. The system lost $1.2 billion between mid-March and April alone, and the governor recently announced a budget with a 10-percent state funding cut for the system.
Elsewhere on Open Campus
Subscribe to our other newsletters to read more about how the pandemic is reshaping the future of higher education, the relationships between American colleges and the world, and the experiences of first-generation students. Here are highlights from the latest issues:
latitude(s): Faced with the choice of whether to stay or go as the coronavirus shut down campuses, international students overwhelmingly made the decision to stay, according to a new survey. What students chose to do in March, Karin Fischer writes, could offer a rare bit of good news for colleges worried about their international enrollments come August and September.
Next: Managing enrollment in higher ed over the last decade has turned into Moneyball, Jeff Selingo writes. Quants with sophisticated models have helped colleges figure out who is most interested in the school, who will enroll, and how much financial aid it might take to attract them. Now, these enrollment models, largely built on historical trends, are rendered almost useless. That’s part of why there’s been so much hedging from colleges about fall plans.
FirstGen: Happy Fauxmencement! Zipporah Osei graduated from Northeastern University this spring by way of a Zoom call and a live-streamed ceremony.
“I’m not typically a person for pomp and circumstance so the act of walking across the stage has never felt like the be-all, end-all of my college experience,” she writes, “but as a first-gen student it’s hard to separate commencement from the personal accomplishment it represents.”
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