The Semester Begins

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

Welcome back to the Our Higher Calling newsletter.

In May, I suggested that schools had a duty to reopen safely if that proved possible. With all of society struggling for the right path to reopening, universities have the resources and intellectual firepower to figure out best practices and share them with the world.

That path is looking rockier by the day. I am determined to practice what I preached about finding the best path forward. Starting August 11th, I’ll be teaching alongside Kevin Guskiewicz, the UNC Chancellor, and two other colleagues in a course that focuses on the biggest issues confronting higher education. We’ll get to see the day-to-day reality of teaching amid a pandemic and analyze in real-time how this unprecedented moment is changing all of higher education. And change is the operative term. With less than a week before class begins, I still haven’t decided whether I will participate on campus or remotely; even the course syllabus is in perpetual change. My colleagues and I will be reporting on how this all plays out throughout the semester in this newsletter.

The class is called “The American Professoriate” and will welcome, as of this writing, 23 doctoral candidates who plan to enter academia. There are three main modules in the class. We’ll first cover the intellectual foundations of American higher education, with an emphasis on the unprecedented change precipitated by COVID-19, the economic recession the virus has spawned, and the racial reckoning sweeping the country. The second theme focuses on the practical skills that junior faculty will need to successfully enter academia—everything from cover letters and campus visits to media engagement.

The third theme will focus on applying principals of innovation and design thinking to the wicked problems facing higher education. On the first day, the instructors will outline these situations including innovations to keep the campus safer during the pandemic, innovations that address inequality and access, and innovations in pedagogy.  The class will be divided into four teams assigned to develop, prototype, test, and implement a solution to a real-world higher education challenge of their choice.

The faculty for the class, in addition to the Chancellor and myself, includes Matthew Springer, a professor in the UNC School of Education with a special interest in public policy; and Susan Greene, a professor of the practice in the Shuford Program on Entrepreneurship in the Department of Economics. The students come from the arts and sciences and from virtually every professional school—public health, education, medicine, and business. Guest speakers will include, among others, Daniel Markovitz, Michael Eric Dyson, and Nobel Laureate Sir Angus Deaton,.

The class is currently envisioned as "high-flex,” allowing students to participate both face-to-face and online, with asynchronous participation accommodated for those with particularly challenging circumstances. Two of the four student teams will meet online and two will meet face to face. The structure permits a seamless transition to all online if the circumstances of the pandemic should require it.

We plan to share with our readers the challenges of undertaking a high-level seminar involving extraordinary doctoral candidates. Undoubtedly there will be innovations on the fly. The class projects aimed at campus challenges in real-time will be an essential element of the newsletter as well. Pushing graduate students outside their comfort zone to focus on immediate and critical problems yields drama, disappointment, failure, and perhaps some unexpected successes. We’ll share the inevitable ups and downs throughout the semester.

Predictably, there have been surprises even before the semester begins. We have not made the progress on containing the virus we were hoping for back in May. Both graduate and undergraduate students have enrolled for the fall semester in larger numbers than expected but there has been greater resistance than we expected from faculty concerned about their own health, the health of their students, and the impact of reopening on the surrounding community. Adherence to community standards is very much an open question as students return to campus this week. In our own class we were surprised that of our 23 students, 8 opted for in-person participation with the remaining 15 opting for the online-only alternative. The reasons for taking the online option varied from health concerns, childcare, geographic distance (not returning to campus for the fall semester), and concern about community spread.  On the bright side, the online option has increased our ability to involve colleagues from all over the country resulting in a group of outside speakers that far exceeded our expectations.

As we kick off the semester, I can make only one promise: no more confident predictions. My colleagues and our students will report what’s actually going on: what is working, what has failed, and hopefully some exciting ideas for how to improve higher education this semester and beyond.

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