By Dr. Wendy Purcell PhD FRSA
The Massachusetts Women’s Forum hosted a virtual roundtable event on May 12th 2020 to explore the ‘Impact of COVID-19 on the Higher Education Sector’, with the session opened up to a global audience through the International Women’s Forum. Joined by distinguished university and college Presidents1 from seven very different institutions across the Commonwealth, Dr. Wendy Purcell designed and moderated the discussion. Representing a diversity of missions and contexts, from community colleges to liberal arts universities, those focused on adult learners, others offering an immersive on-campus experience, women’s colleges, urban and rural locations, public and private sector, it was clear there wasn’t a one-size fits all approach to tackling the challenges now and ahead for higher education.
Kicking off the discussion, Wendy Purcell noted that “The COVID-19 challenge is unprecedented in our lifetime, representing a humanitarian and economic crisis that is re-shaping our world in real-time.” The discussion went on to explore how the pandemic is impacting on sustainability of the higher education sector, revealing its fragilities and highlighting issues of equity in our system. Helen Drinan noted that “We entered this threatening period on a lot of weak notes.” As these seismic shifts re-shape higher education, the panel shared their views on what it will take to re-imagine a ‘new normal’ for the sector. Commenting on the incredible agility shown in moving online in a matter of weeks, in a sector not known for being fleet-of-foot, Helen said this tells us “If we want to change, we can change.” As the longer-term implications play out, it was clear these institutional leaders were thinking deeply about the profound disruption in, and to, the sector. As we move now into the recovery ahead, Wendy asked “When and how we will open?” and went on to explore “Will we open at all?”
Key themes from the discussion are explored here, together with responses to audience comments and questions.
Paula Johnson captured the mood of the discussion, saying “This is a moment of crisis and also of tremendous opportunity”, highlighting how the COVID-19 crisis had laid bare tremendous inequities in society as well as the opportunity to build back better. Toni Hays developed the theme of equity and called on higher education to be made “more affordable, more accessible, more efficient and more collaborative.” Deborah Jackson reminded us of the critical role of higher education in opening doors to opportunity, reminding us that in sending students home some of them are “not a child going home to parents, rather they are the parents”. Going on describe the particular concerns of adult learners at Community Colleges in low-wage, low-benefit frontline and service jobs at risk from the pandemic lock-down, Deborah outlined the targeted support offered from Wi-Fi hotspots to providing access to computer labs. Highlighting the importance of campus as home and campus as community, Paula emphasized the importance of higher education and diversity as essential to our democracy. Taking the discussion on, Yves Solomon-Fernandez underlined the special needs of those in rural communities where lack of access to transport and Wi-Fi were major issues. Yves forecast that “The world to which we will return will be dramatically different.” And she called on us all to “Chart a brighter and better path forward.”
Helen Drinan reminded us all that “Hope is not a strategy” and pointed to the work ahead, representing some of the most difficult leadership decisions any President in the sector will face in a lifetime. Drawing attention to the tensions between pricing and online/on-campus delivery of teaching, Helen was emphatic that “Tuition must fall”. Alison Davis-Blake demanded that we “Improve productivity in higher education”, noting the need to both invest and disinvest and learn from other sectors about process improvement. Alison went on to describe “creative destruction”, reminding us to “find the intersection of mission and market”. Deborah Jackson agreed, stating it was “Hard to justify the cost of higher education today” calling on the sector to review the way we teach and learn – both the how and the what, noting that online learning is a strategic priority and is not the correspondence course of old. Valerie Roberson drew attention to the important role of higher education in recovery of the economy, noting that when unemployment is high more people enter education and called on us to “support the new economy after the crisis.”
So, while it’s said that ‘Forecasting is hard – especially the future!’, one thing is sure, the only certainty for higher education is more uncertainty. But, if the far-sightedness and determination of the assembled Presidents is any guide to the high caliber of leadership in the sector, we can feel confident we are in good hands. Closing the session, Dr. Purcell offered a quote to guide us on our way:
“Start by doing what’s necessary.
Then do what’s possible.
And, suddenly you’re doing the impossible.”
Francis of Assisi
COVID-19 is challenging everything we do in universities and college, from teaching and learning, research and innovation, the students’ experience, faculty and staffing levels, investments in technology and student support, infrastructure projects, fund-raising, internationalization efforts and so much more. The discussion on Higher Education and the COVID-19 Crisis can be viewed here.
1College and University Presidents interviewed by Wendy Purcell were: Helen Drinan, Simmons University; Paula Johnson, Wellesley College; Toni Hays, Regis College; Deborah Jackson, Cambridge College; Yves Solomon-Fernandez, Greenfield Community College; Valerie Roberson, Roxbury Community College; Alison Davis-Blake, Bentley University.