My Post-COVID Response - I Don't Know.

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

“I don’t know.” For me, and I suspect, many of you, this is a tough phrase to utter. But in the early stages of a post-pandemic world, these are the words I find most truthful and most impactful when I am asked what is next.

Admittedly, my sample size is small, but I have good reason to demure. My predictions at the beginning of the pandemic were wrong as often as they were right and the world we live in is as uncertain as any in history. A decade worth of change has occurred over the last 14 months, and the dust has only begun to settle. Moreover, own state of mind resembles that of a soldier returning from war. We all seem to underestimate the trauma and the time it will take to recover.

Cataloging my incorrect predictions is easy but painful. At its outset, I thought the crisis would last a semester and higher education would be back in business during the Fall of 2020. I missed the date by an entire year.  I was a supporter of beginning the fall semester early to escape an expected second wave in the winter, a decision that led to a second closing on our campus and others and a huge blow to campus morale.  I also underestimated the importance of continuous testing for all returning students and faculty.  

On a more global level, I overestimated the economic impact of the pandemic on the economy in general and, more specifically, on higher education. As it turns out, most colleges will make it till fall avoiding my predicted bloodbath. I also missed the dramatic increase in applications to selective schools and the dramatic decrease in attendance at community colleges as well as the remarkable momentum for eliminating college admissions testing or at least making the tests optional.   

I won’t make the same mistakes again when it comes to the big questions we can’t yet possibly answer. I have a long list. What is the role of online education post-pandemic? Surveys indicate a surprising number of students prefer online to in-person learning and a majority expect to enroll in a mix of online and in-person classes beginning in the fall. Faculty also have a more favorable view of online education in general and the forced covid conversion to online teaching has made them more comfortable teaching remotely. We don’t know if these attitudes will persist once campuses reopen. Much like office workers who question the wisdom of a five-day commute, students may conclude that living on or near campus and participating in face-to-face daily classes no longer makes sense.  Evidence from places like Southern New Hampshire University and Arizona State University, both with massive online enrollments, suggests that online education is attractive to students and can be administered at a fraction of the cost of traditional models. When I asked a professor at Arizona State who has written extensively on online education whether it was as effective as face to face, he said, “We don’t know.”

Another unknowable is how the nature of work will evolve post-pandemic and the impact of the current infra-structure bills now before Congress. Without major federal intervention organizations of all types are re-thinking the concept of the office and a recent video in the Times showed a new Google office with eight-person pods.   Seats are interspersed with video monitors to facilitate hybrid team meetings. Massive changes in the way we work will inevitably change higher education as well but again exactly how-we don’t know.

The racial reckoning precipitated by a rash of killings of African Americans and other minorities will also have a profound impact on higher education, but we don’t know exactly what that means. Test optional admissions, increased diversity in hiring and a renewed focus on a campus climate supportive of first-generation students are initiatives already well underway. What we don’t know is whether these incremental changes will be followed by a more fundamental restructuring of the concept of merit which is at the heart of higher education and which is now under assault from thought leaders from multiple disciplines and political persuasions. This call for systemic change has the potential to disrupt higher education at its foundations but what exactly that means, we don’t know.

The list of the unknowable goes on. Is it imperative that Americans obtain a college degree, or can other forms of post-secondary education achieve the same result? Can higher education play a useful role in bridging the massive divisions currently ravaging American life and threatening our democratic system? Considering the massive changes taking place post-covid can the basic values of academic freedom, shared governance, and the facilitation of upward mobility endure?

There is no shortage of people willing to answer these questions but how can they amidst so much uncertainty? For most of us, when to get on an airplane or eat inside is not fully resolved. Some decision must be made no matter how uncertain the environment, but I suggest a wise course is to get comfortable with not knowing and pause to let the dust settle. Post-pandemic life is about to reveal itself if we will just be patient.

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