Short-Term Challenge: Long-Term Vision

Richard Ekman headshotBy Richard Ekman

You, and other readers of this newsletter, undoubtedly have faced difficult challenges in recent months. You may have lost a neighbor, colleague, or family member to COVID-19, or your community may have been affected by business closures and job loss. These are personally challenging times for everyone, and perhaps particularly so for those who lead colleges and universities.

As a leader of one of America’s independent colleges and universities, you are shepherding through an especially tumultuous period an essential American institution and important traditions in education and learning. In doing so, you have been faced with too many decisions to make on short notice, often with incomplete information. Further, these are often weighty decisions with long-term consequences.

We need to remember that small independent colleges and universities are human-scaled, nimble, and imaginative. Because the pathways of the pandemic are unclear and may remain so for some time to come, many smaller colleges planned for and announced a traditional on-campus opening, while also preparing for the possibility of a last-minute switch to online or hybrid instruction. Larger and public institutions lack this degree of flexibility. Some innovations, designed to keep students, faculty members, and staff safe, are noteworthy for their originality. For example, one college in northern climes set the date of opening the academic year several weeks earlier than normal, plans to end the term in early November before the first snow, and constructed gazebos throughout the campus so that many classes can meet outdoors, allowing the small number of large rooms inside buildings to be used with adequate social distancing.

Even as campus leaders focus on such near-term solutions, they have had to contemplate potential near-term roadblocks, not under their control, that are by definition hard to anticipate. An outbreak of COVID-19 on campus or a change in public-health regulations are just two of the most obvious; market volatility or changes in the priorities of major donors are others.

And the stakes are high. Campuses that return to online operations for the duration of the fall term can do so with high standards and robust offerings, both technologically and pedagogically, but the loss of revenue from room, board, space rentals, activity fees, and other sources could be financially devastating to some institutions. The prospects of a federal bailout to replace lost income are uncertain at best.

What is a college to do when prospects are so uncertain and stakes so high?

It may be that, in the short term, some of the educational practices which are highly valued by independent colleges will be suspended or offered in different forms. Athletic teams may not be able to play, in-person advising and mentoring may take place via Zoom, and hands-on laboratory experiments may become digital simulations instead. Club meetings may take place in Google Hangouts rather than student-center lounges, senior research presentations may be delivered on video, and campus rituals may be broadcast. But these are short-term accommodations in some cases—and perhaps, in other cases, heralds of an emerging new normal.

In the long run, private colleges and universities, those distinctively American institutions of higher education, must and will continue to serve a patriotic public good by maintaining an essential educational tradition.

As a result of the current pandemic, the nation faces a challenge with regard to degree completion and workforce preparation. Many current students will experience pandemic-related disruption to their academic progress. Some may be delayed in completing their programs, and some may drop out entirely. Further, a “demographic cliff” in 2026 will lead to marked change in college-going patterns, both generationally and regionally. When private colleges emerge from today’s necessary public health restrictions, they must be prepared: to help students currently in the pipeline complete their programs; and to help new cohorts of learners prepare to launch careers as liberally educated nurses, teachers, engineers, business leaders, artists, and public servants.

In that mission, the enduring values of face-to-face instruction, advising, and mentoring, and of a transformative education that develops leadership and social responsibility through campus-based activities, athletics, and community service programs will be more important than ever. Preserving the capability of America’s independent colleges and universities to develop the leaders society will need is, ultimately, today’s most important goal.

How can CIC help? In the short run, CIC’s programs and services have already proven useful in identifying problems shared by many colleges and in spreading the word about solutions that some have devised so that others can adapt them to their own settings. Contributors to CIC’s confidential listservs have been especially active, candid, and generous in helping leaders of our community of 650 colleges and universities learn from one another. Webinars focused on the specific circumstances of smaller private colleges also have addressed immediate issues such as legal liability and late summer enrollment melt.

In the longer run, CIC members share a fundamental commitment to independent governance, learning in communities, reliance on the intellectual traditions of core arts and sciences disciplines, and education of the whole person in both the formal curriculum and the co-curriculum. The differences among our institutions are of degree, not kind: Our wide spectrum, for example, in enrollment selectivity and in institutional wealth does not substitute for our confidence in a form of education that is distinctively American and widely emulated throughout the world. We must survive the short-run crisis of today—as we have survived so many crises in past decades—in order to create the educational future that new generations of students deserve and our country needs.