A Reminder of Why We Are Here

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

It’s been a tough few weeks here in Chapel Hill.

The decision to cancel on-campus classes barely a week into the semester sparked waves of criticism from all directions—faculty who predicted the effort as doomed from the beginning, lawmakers who wanted to see the campus work harder to maintain in-person instruction, and parents and students who alleged the whole reopening plan was driven by economics instead of epidemiology. Being a chancellor of a research university is an objectively impossible job even in normal times, and the intense criticism Chancellor Guskiewicz received goes with the territory. Leading in the time of COVID-19 is not for the faint of heart.

But for the hundreds of people who have been working since March to safely open the campus, the reality that the plan simply didn’t work has been a gut punch. With no clear timetable for a vaccine and the prospect of another surge in cases late this fall and winter, there is a lot of outright despair about the prospect of returning to any kind of “normal” on campus. Whatever your feelings about the reopening decision and the subsequent reversal, it can be disheartening to see a partially open campus when we remember the alternative so well. In all honesty, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the way the school year is unfolding.  

Unacceptable levels of COVID-19 among the student body forced UNC to make a sudden shift to online learning for the fall. As a result, we rescheduled week three of my class for doctoral candidates, The American Professoriate, co-taught by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and School of Education Professor Matt Springer. Our students needed time to shift to online learning, not just for the classes they’re taking but also for the classes they’re teaching as part of their graduate studies. Even with a pause for adjustment, we lost students. We learned that their stress levels are off the charts as they worry about job security for themselves and, in some cases, their spouses. Talk of drastic budget cuts has been in the air since this summer when state leaders demanded detailed contingency plans for huge cutbacks in the face of cratering state revenue. That weighs on everyone, especially these students who are thinking about the next steps in their academic careers.
Childcare is also an issue for our class.  One student had to delay finishing her dissertation for a year to supervise online learning for her two young boys. And even those without family obligations are figuring out how to learn, teach, and research without access to many of the usual campus resources, from libraries to offices to labs. Dropping an optional class like ours was a rational response to an overloaded, highly stressed life. And it illustrates that high-value “extras”—a class of deep thinking on higher ed. issues, with lots of networking baked into the curriculum—suddenly feel like a burden during the pandemic crunch. Our students are scrambling just to cover the basics.

Fortunately, after spending a few hours preparing for our class with the renowned Georgetown sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, I began to see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s true that our grand plan for opening up the campus proved untenable, and that the Carolina community has been rocked back on its heels by the twin pressures of the pandemic and the economic crunch it’s creating. But it’s also true that we live and work in a community determined to pull every last usable insight out of these experiences and make them valuable to others. The chair of the faculty has been speaking out about lessons learned, and the need for a stronger national response; professors at other institutions used our experience to inform their own attempts at reopening. Lastly, scholars in disciplines from public health to economics to journalism are conducting real-time research on Carolina’s efforts to salvage the fall.

In the coming weeks, our own class will hear from Professor Dyson, from Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, from the brilliant economist Susan Dynarski, and our own former Chancellor Holden Thorp, now the editor of Science magazine and one of the country’s sharpest advocates for de-politicizing the pandemic response. Thanks to Zoom, I’ve never seen a richer, more timely collection of voices contributing to a graduate seminar, and I know our students will rise to the occasion with fantastic questions and insights of their own.

This is simply to say that for all the anxiety and understandable angst about what lies ahead, the University is still delivering on its core mission. We haven’t retreated from what we do best: teaching, public service, and the search for new knowledge that will immediately impact our current epidemic and far beyond.

For me, the disappointment of August has given way to a reimagined fall where students and faculty can construct a radically different but nevertheless meaningful semester. The process of recovering from adversity and creating a way forward makes me more confident than ever that the American university will continue to be a defining institution in this country, the restless and aspiring heart of the American experiment.

Lessons Learned from UNC's Failed Reopening

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

When I wrote earlier that the fall semester at Chapel Hill would be a test case for broader reopening in society, this isn’t quite what I had in mind.

UNC has been in the national news as one of the first schools to reopen — and now one of the first to pivot back to teaching exclusively online. These are not the headlines we’d been hoping to make, and certainly not the outcome we wanted for students or the wider community.

But to a significant extent, we chose to be the canary in the coal mine on the theory that a public university with the resources and research capacity of Carolina had an obligation to make the effort. There are real costs to remaining online-only, and not just financial. The support services and social experience of campus life matter a lot for equity and student success, even if the quality of online learning is strong. In any case, there is no point in failing if you’re not willing to share lessons learned, so here goes:

-  Beginning with teaching and learning, we found that it’s possible to keep classrooms safe with masks and appropriate social distancing. As far as I know, contact tracing at Carolina turned up no instances of classroom spread. At the same time, a lot of us learned that a face-to-face classroom with required masking/distancing precautions is actually inferior to a fully online classroom. At least Zoom classes allow everyone to see facial expressions, hear all participants in the classroom, and avoid the unsettling experience of being one of 25 students in a classroom with 100 seats. “Hy-flex" class — “hybrid-flexible,” where some students are online and others are in the classroom — are the worst alternative by far. Unless you’re in a specially (and expensively) outfitted classroom with all the high-tech gear needed for that kind of hybrid discussion, having a passel of masked, spread-out students in person and a bunch of others online was a compromise not worth making. As long as we are living with the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the online learning experience is probably better than a muddled face-to-face experience.

-   A number of positive surprises emerged from teaching online over the first two weeks. Students and faculty seem more comfortable with Zoom than they were in the spring. Office hours are well attended. Class discussions and group work go at least as well over Zoom as in person and in some cases better. Online allows for large classes to break easily into smaller groups in ways that can’t be accommodated in a traditional lecture hall. Surprisingly, faculty seem to be more not less accessible in an online environment.

-    We learned the hard way that university housing makes real social distancing impossible. UNC’s first COVID-19 cluster of five or more cases emerged less than a week after classes began, and it was followed by many more — mostly centered in shared housing. Unless a strict policy of sheltering in place is adopted for student housing and density is dramatically reduced, it is not feasible to even consider congregant living arrangements. A strict lockdown combined with massive testing might make a difference, but that hardly seems like a campus experience that will appeal to a significant number of students. Stringent policies that are tough to enforce on campus will prove even more challenging in off-campus housing.

-   We also learned that most students — and, crucially, their parents — prefer a residential experience even if the actual classes are all online.  Knowing that the majority of courses would be taught online, and that any individual student had the option of learning remotely, the vast majority of students returned to Chapel Hill for the fall semester. When classes switched back to entirely online and students were encouraged to leave the dorms, there was a huge rush to off-campus housing as an alternative to returning home. Now, even with undergrad classrooms shuttered, there’s an off-campus housing shortage around Chapel Hill. The ultimate impact of this ad-hoc, student-led decision to stay “at college” is yet to be determined. But in the near-term the burden of student safety is shifting from gown to town a scary prospect for the average citizen who is now living among thousands of young people who just moved from campus to the town of Chapel Hill.

-   We quickly saw the disproportionate impact that fraternities and sororities have on spreading the virus. Aside from outbreaks in the fraternity and sorority houses themselves, it appears that many of the hot spots were triggered by what we politely term “Greek life.” Both the university and the town were concerned about frats and sororities from the beginning, and those concerns were totally warranted. We probably would have been forced to pivot online even without them, but one thing is certain: in the age of Covid-19, you can’t have an open campus and open frats. Until there is a vaccine, shutting down Greek life is a requirement for any shot at reopening.

Our understanding of what’s possible in the COVID era is already much improved since March and April — three cheers for outdoor gatherings! — and as we work through this crisis, our understanding of how higher ed can better meet its mission will undoubtedly improve as well.

UNC’s attempt to fully open was not triumphant, but it can still prove valuable. At the very least, we provided a vivid case study for those schools who plan to reopen in the next several weeks. Bottom line — If you plan to reopen—don’t.

Meritocracy, Public Service, and the People's University

Kevin Guskiewicz

Daniel Markovits doesn’t think the meritocracy is broken; he thinks it works far too well. 

“Training works, education works,” said the Yale professor and author of The Meritocracy Trap, during his guest appearance at my American Professoriate class last week. “That means elite children dominate meritocratic schooling, they dominate meritocratic university admissions…Meritocracy has now become a new kind of aristocracy based on schooling rather than breeding.”

It was a tough message to deliver at “the people’s university,” which is how I’ve always thought of Carolina. The whole point of a public institution like ours is to deliver a world-class education to students of all backgrounds, to insist that a first-generation student from a rural high school can master chemistry or creative writing as well as any lawyer’s kid with a prep-school education. I see that happen every day at UNC, and I’m immensely proud that 1 in 5 of our students is the first in their family to attend college.

But Markovits is right that it’s getting harder to maintain such an idealistic mission. Not because of anything that happens in university admissions offices, but because of the bigger forces at work in the outside world. 
Rising income inequality means that some families have enormous sums to invest in their children’s education, creating gaps in opportunity that start from a child’s earliest years. A changing economy means the rewards to a high-quality education have grown larger, creating more pressure on students to land a spot at the ‘right’ college. And a wealth of political science research shows that some of the deepest divides in our public life break down along educational lines.

“This system puts enormous pressure on universities,” Markovits said. Higher education didn’t create the stratification in American society, but our credibility and our mission suffer when we’re seen as gatekeepers to the good life instead of institutions devoted to public service.

The students in our class had great questions for Markovits, some of them pushing back against the notion that higher education can somehow ‘fix’ the meritocracy. Shouldn’t public policy — taxes, school investment, zoning laws — play a bigger role? one student asked. Don’t we want strong rewards for academic achievement? asked another.

Where Markovits writes largely about university graduates who launch into “elite” careers like finance or consulting, the students in this class are mostly planning for careers in academia or public service. We have students who have devoted their young lives to studying global health disparities or improving the food supply chain to benefit small farmers. I don’t think anyone goes into a years-long PhD program, or signs up for a course like The American Professoriate, because they’re looking to strike it rich.

That ethos of service needs to be the norm for higher education. Markovits’ most compelling point is that a top-tier education is an enormous privilege, no matter what you did to earn it. That privilege carries an obligation to give back, an obligation even more obvious for the graduates of a public institution like UNC. The founders of this university, and the North Carolinians who have paid for it generation after generation, didn’t intend for its graduates to benefit only themselves. It was to benefit all.

“The position that you’re in now gives you more opportunity and makes you freer than 999 out of every thousand people who have ever lived,” Markovits told our class. “Do the work you care about in the way you want to do it.”

I would make one amendment. “Do the work you care about, and make sure it improves the lives and livelihoods of all those who are counting you.”

Kevin Guskiewicz is the Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Coping for Today, Building for Tomorrow - The First Day of Class

Kevin Guskiewicz

Universities are built to handle productive tension. It’s one of their great strengths, this ability to host competing ideas and ideals, to be an inspiring arena for smart, sincere people to hash out hard questions.

“The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself,” University of California President Clark Kerr brilliantly observed in The Uses of the University. I have that quote framed on my office wall, and I read it to a class full of aspiring academics on the first day of The American Professoriate, a seminar I’m co-teaching this semester.
I don’t expect our course to end in open warfare, but I am looking forward to being in the classroom every week for an intense discussion about the future of higher education, led by some of the very people who will have to build it. We have doctoral students from every part of the campus, from biomedical engineering and the business school to art history and anthropology. Some of them are putting the final touches on dissertations and thinking about the next steps; some are just getting started on the path to a PhD.
But all of them are deeply invested in one of the great questions of our age: what will higher education look like in the decades to come? How will the American university adapt to a fast-changing world?
On our very first day, with some students masked and carefully distanced in the classroom and others Zooming in from home, we touched on everything from the future of undergraduate admissions to the need for broader career paths for PhDs. We talked about faculty diversity, remote teaching, translating research into effective policy, and the challenge of student mental health.
The whole idea of this course is to identify some of the toughest problems facing the university and test creative solutions. The fact that we’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic that has upended campus operations only underscores how much we need innovative thinking from a rising generation.
One student has a background studying telepresence and the effectiveness of video conversations; highly useful for our Zoomed-out age. Another specializes in moral development and decision making, the science of how people frame choices and weigh ethical tradeoffs. That has to be on the mind of any honest chancellor right now, and I’ll be grateful to have his/her insight as the semester moves ahead. Still, another study labor automation and how people respond to changing job markets, a matter of intense concern as we think about how best to prepare students for challenges we can barely predict.
Everyone in the class brings their own vein of expertise. One of the great joys of my job is that I’m always surrounded by brilliant people who have read and researched and thought deeply about some very challenging topics. I’m supposed to be teaching this class, but I’m mostly there to learn.
Matthew Springer, chair of the faculty in the School of Education and one of the co-instructors for the course, pointed out that World War II was a time of huge disruption to American society, but also a harbinger of great progress. Careers opened up to women and minorities; universities opened their doors to a much wider population of students; public investments in research paved the way for incredible advances in science and technology.
Absolutely no one relishes the hardship and heartache that the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed. But no responsible leader should ignore the changes it’s likely to set in motion, either. That’s the productive tension of this moment, the competing demands we’ll hold throughout this class — how to cope with a terrible situation, and simultaneously build for a brighter future.
No matter what else happens this semester, I’m grateful to be in a classroom with people who welcome that challenge.

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.

The Prospect of Teaching in August Gets Real

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

This is my last blog until school starts in August. My friends and colleagues look to this newsletter for thoughtful comments and clear analysis. I have neither. My effort to write something definitive has been derailed numerous times over the last week by new information and a rapidly changing landscape. The reality of planning a 25-student interdisciplinary graduate seminar for the fall has added to the confusion. As a result, I have many questions but very few answers, and I know I am not alone. Two days ago, a colleague from the University of Virginia told me he would probably wait until the week before classes to decide whether to teach in-person, online or in some hybrid form. Campus leaders are in the same boat. Plans to open campuses with online and face-to-face classes were announced a month ago before the latest surge in new cases of the virus and before those plans were fully vetted. So, as of the last week of June, the only thing I know for sure is we are going to be living with a great deal of uncertainty for the foreseeable future.

The uncertainty is fueled by external and internal factors. To begin with, the results of our battle with the virus are discouraging at best with record numbers of cases being reported daily. Plans made a month ago for a late summer opening assumed we would be seeing a bend in the curve of new cases and hospitalizations by the time classes started. That is far from a certainty. The dramatic increase in infections among college-age students further complicates the situation. Limited attempts to bring football teams back to campus for conditioning have resulted in far more new cases than anticipated notwithstanding the small number of athletes involved and the relatively controlled nature of the experiment. This new reality dramatically influences any determination that it is safe to open the campus as planned.

Even if the experts continue to believe it is theoretically possible to open safely, a host of issues must be confronted as institutions move from bold aspirations to the hard job of implementation. Notwithstanding the opinion of experts, undergraduate students are willing and even eager to return. I suspect the desire to leave home, be with their friends, and graduate on time are the motivating factors. College-age students have demonstrated over the last several weeks they are not particularly concerned about contracting the virus. Although surveys indicate that students prefer face-to-face over online courses, it is less clear that in-person classes are what is driving their interest in returning to campus.

This enthusiasm to return to campus is not shared by many on the faculty. Petitions not to reopen abound nationwide and the sentiment seems to be picking up steam as trend lines of new cases and hospitalizations bend upward. At a recent campus-wide conversation on re-opening, many of my experienced faculty colleagues were skeptical that students would abide by the safety standards required for reassembling the campus community. Pictures of crowded bars and beaches give graphic credibility to their concerns. Many colleagues are worried not so much about their own safety but that of their immediate and extended family. Childcare and family responsibilities were also raised as impediments to on-campus teaching in the absence of the reopening of schools and daycares. Even the most dedicated and committed teachers are concerned about safety. If they teach some or all of their classes in person, I suspect they will spend a limited amount of time on campus during the fall semester.

Another unknown that has been added to the mix is the unprecedented racial reckoning sweeping the country. The fact that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts racial minorities will shape the dialogue on faculty and staff safety. The prospect of putting at risk those who are most vulnerable will no longer be acceptable, and this point will be articulated forcefully throughout the campus community. If reopening gets to be a close call, many schools will choose an additional semester of online classes over the inequitable treatment of people of color. This is written as the drama of forcing faculty and staff to work in what they perceive as an unsafe environment is beginning to play out. I suspect faculty will prevail because, at the end of the day, they are required if classes in any format are to be conducted and online classes are better than no classes at all. Staff is another matter. The appropriate treatment of the front-line workers necessary to open campus and keep it safe may be the most intractable problem facing a campus hoping to open in the fall.

I will end with an interesting idea from the University of Massachusetts. Why not let students come back to campus and resume campus life as safely as they can but with most, if not all, classes conducted online. Such an approach would address many of the student’s concerns about the need for an on-campus experience without placing the health of professors and their families at risk. It would also lessen the risks to university staff because the exposure to virus carriers would be drastically reduced.  As the first day of classes approaches, more and more faculty will become reluctant to wade into a sea of newly returned students and will request or, if necessary, demand to teach online. As events unfold in the next week or two, it may be time to consider opening the campus to students but extending social distancing for faculty from six feet to at least several miles.

A Virtual Internship During a COVID-19 Summer

Vivian Karamitros
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

Every college student yearns for at least one internship during their career; it’s the icing on top of the cake in terms of a job and a degree paying off. However, March came along, and with it came internship cancellations. Seeing more and more internships being canceled in front of my eyes, I couldn't help but feel on the edge. I had an internship secured in September of 2019 for the summer of 2020. Having this taken away from me would have been a dagger to my heart. 

Thankfully, the company that hired me stayed true to their promise of putting people first by shifting my summer to a virtual internship. Of course, I’m treasuring this opportunity. I can’t help but think of the summer I would’ve had in Seattle--traveling cross-country to live with other driven interns. 

I’m one week done with the internship, and I’ve already noticed stark differences between an in-person and virtual internship, to say the least. I sit in my room from 9 am to 5 pm, with a lunch break. It’s difficult to stroll around my 100 square-foot room between meetings, but it’s the only place in my house free of distracting noise. I eat my lunches and breakfasts alone in my room--quite different from an office setting. However, the company and its employees have put a vast amount of effort to ensure the best virtual internship experience ever. Interns have scheduled programming to interact with managers, other interns, and top-level executives with panels, 1-on-1s, and game breaks.  

No one imagines having their first summer internship in her/his room in a virtual form. It’s just another side effect of COVID-19 that has drastically altered my college experience and my professional career, but I’m still grateful for still taking on my role in a unique way.  

One Student's Response to the Carolina Roadmap

Melinda McCabe
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

I’ve been greatly impressed with UNC-Chapel Hill’s communication and problem-solving skills when it comes to getting students back on campus in the fall. Chancellor Guskiewicz regularly sends campus-wide emails with the latest information, and the administration has created the Carolina Roadmap to guide students’and faculty’s return. UNC’s status as a leader in research to combat COVID-19 only adds to my level of comfort.

The rules of engagement are nothing out of the ordinary, at least for those of us who have been following WHO and CDC guidelines for mitigating COVID-19 spread. Masks will be required of all students and faculty at all times, and buildings will become “one-way,” with clearly designated entrances and exits. These small inconveniences seem like a minimal price to pay for the greater good of public health. I’d much rather have my classes in-person or “mask to mask” than alone from my childhood bedroom. To me, some part of UNC is better than no UNC at all. 

I am more concerned, however, with the student body’s collective decision to adhere to social distancing guidelines. While wearing masks may be enforceable, limiting off-campus gatherings will not (without a staunch violation of privacy and norms, a violation that may be warranted given the circumstances). UNC consists largely of undergraduate students who are 18-22, students who are not necessarily known for their fully developed frontal lobes and premier decision-making capabilities. I, and many of my peers, often think of myself as invincible. But this virus has proved that no one is immune, and it will be up to the student body to sacrifice our short-term plans and fun for the long-term common good.

While many undergraduate students may not be at high risk for COVID-19 complications, this is not necessarily the case for elderly faculty, the town of Chapel Hill at large, and immunocompromised students. The actions of undergraduates will impact these vulnerable groups, and I worry about our collective ability to prioritize public health. I believe UNC’s return to campus in the fall will be a great test of our ability to adapt and organize, but I trust the administration to lead the fight.

Navigating the Tsunami

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

In a former life, I co-founded a start-up that grew into a public company. Every day brought fresh uncertainty, trying to navigate changing markets and regulations while taking care of our customers and employees. What got us through those constant travails was time — enough time to make mistakes, learn, and recover. We also had the flexibility to make quick decisions without multiple layers of reporting and accountability, so we could adapt as conditions changed.

I keep flashing back to those intensely stressful years as I think about the environment college presidents are facing right now. The most serious crisis in the history of American higher education is forcing campus leaders to act like start-up CEOs, making huge decisions with limited information and fast-changing conditions. But they’re doing it with all the bureaucratic and regulatory constraints that make universities some of the more rigid institutions in our society. By their very nature, it’s almost impossible for colleges to respond as quickly and decisively as current circumstances require. Universities are not corporations and can’t operate with the same freedom. Holden Thorp and I wrote an entire book on this subject. But until the coronavirus subsides, universities will need new ways of operating that maximize the chance more of them will survive intact.

What already looked like a perfect storm for higher education has now grown into a tsunami: a pandemic, a major recession, and a long-overdue reckoning on race in America are hitting campuses at the same time. An analyst at Moody’s characterized the situation as “a greater systemic shock” than the financial crisis of 2008 or the terrorist attacks of 2001. I have seen estimates that up to 25% of colleges and universities will go bankrupt in the next year.

And this is only June, where the work is mostly planning. Come August and September, every college campus that has chosen to reopen will be in uncharted territory, engaged in a massive set of experiments where there are more questions than answers. Will new COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to decrease over the summer, leading to more confidence in a fall reopening? Or will optimistic plans have to be scrapped in favor of another scramble for online-only classes? What happens if there’s a major outbreak traced to a college campus? How serious will the current recession become, and what impact will it have on enrollment, financial aid, and on state and private funding?

On top of all of those concerns, colleges will be wrestling anew with their response to the national call for racial justice. The past few years have already seen major unrest on university campuses, and it seems inevitable that there’s more in store when students return.

With so much unknowable and with so little time to respond, decisions will have to be made quickly and with imperfect information. Yet the structures and traditions that have over time made American higher education great are ill-suited to the current environment. Endowments, grants, and appropriations all come with restrictions and conditions that make them hard to deploy for the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic. As Peter Salovey, the President of Yale, wrote recently: “The endowment is neither a savings account nor a rainy day fund but rather a collection of gifts… usually with restrictions on how the earnings can be spent.” Foundation and government research grants are similarly restricted.

Schools are already looking to loosen these constraints through modifications to endowment gift agreements. Donors might be asked to opt into a program where all constraints on endowment and contributions would be suspended during the pandemic. The broadly expendable funds could flow directly to the school or department that previously received the endowed funds, or it could go to a general fund to be used for the whole institution. The simplicity of the approach would allow schools to mount a broad-based campaign asking donors to opt-in, giving leaders the flexibility to take quicker action at a time when speed and flexibility may be the only things to stave off financial ruin.

The same approach can be applied to foundation grants and government appropriations.  Most grants are already immediately expendable, but an opt-in program for increased flexibility would allow grant funds to help meet emergency expenses during the pandemic. The appeal to grantors should be simple: extraordinary measures are required in the short run in order for the original intent of the grant to be accomplished in the long run. A similar appeal can be made to federal and state funding agencies and legislative bodies. It’s unfair to demand that campus leadership be agile and decisive if they don’t have the tools and discretion to do it.

Trust is a two-way street. If traditional funding constraints are temporarily abandoned, the responsibility falls to campus leadership to build confidence in how the funds will be spent. Ideally, they should have been cultivating that trust long before this moment of crisis. But there are plenty of examples of proactive university presidents reducing planned expenditures, instituting hiring freezes, and being honest about the uncertainty associated with any plans for the months ahead.

On my own campus, a think tank of infectious disease specialists and university administrators has outlined a general plan for reopening the campus, undertaken a series of faculty and student surveys, and promised to be forthcoming with details as they are finalized. Hiring and discretionary spending have been limited and backup plans are being tested. Openness builds trust with alumni and other supporters, opening the door for the kind of flexibility that will be required for colleges and universities to survive the epidemic of uncertainty they now face.

Declaring a Major During a Pandemic

Melinda McCabe
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

There are various schools of thought regarding how college students should decide what to study. Should they devote their four years to advancing the mind in the abstract or conducting pre-professional published research? Declaring a major only furthers the schism between liberal arts and research-based educations, with schools like UNC-Chapel Hill attempting to bridge the divide.
But how does this question change in the midst of a pandemic? Unemployment claims are growing exponentially, not unlike the rate of their causal COVID-19 curve. Entry-level workers are being laid off in almost every industry; not to mention 2020 graduates, forced to enter one of the most abysmal job markets in the last 100 years. It’s not just that the competition is as fierce as ever--no one is hiring.
Once idealistic college students have been faced with a dismal reality: the lack of strong employment prospects for college graduates post-pandemic. I chose a double major in public policy and business because I enjoy public policy--discerning the best policies for the greater good. Just a year ago, business seemed like a complementary addition for a versatile degree with an array of employment opportunities. Now, it seems like an essential choice for any hope of employment. Scores of college students made a similar decision in the wake of the Great Recession, leading to an uptick in “career-oriented subjects like health sciences or engineering.”
I can’t help but wonder how the pandemic will influence the two most pertinent fields at the moment: healthcare and policy. I have lots of friends who are decidedly “pre-med,” but many of them remain aghast at the treatment of health professionals during the pandemic. Essential workers have become almost disposable, sacrificial--what does that tell the students who want to one day join their ranks? And we need strong policymakers and leaders more than ever, but I speak for myself when I say I’m exhausted. It seems like none of the norms of policy analysis are being followed, and nothing anyone can do would help. So why sacrifice my sanity and quality of life for seemingly fruitless ends?


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