In July, AAC&U partnered with ABC Insights to conduct a survey of Presidents’ Trust members. Instead of operating in “panic mode,” most presidents are maintaining their cautious optimism as they look forward to the fall. Taken together, the findings signal a resolve on the part of presidents across the higher education landscape to protect students and the core educational mission of their institutions by avoiding tuition increases and cuts to academic programs, focusing instead on reductions in operational expenses and staffing. At the same time, presidents are expecting an increase in organized student activism this fall while making an array of long- and short-term plans to address racial injustice and systemic racism on their campuses.

For too long, views of compassion have been at odds with academia: Compassion lowers standards. Compassion doesn’t teach discipline. Compassion doesn’t build resilience. Compassion promotes laziness. These beliefs help neither educators nor students, and they serve to reinforce the power inequalities that make professors the arbiters of that which is right or wrong. At their worst, these beliefs deny students their humanity. If we want our colleges and universities to be places of discourse and growth, we must acknowledge that our students are human beings who are facing incredible challenges. And to that, I say we need to lead with compassion.

In 2007, when AAC&U was leading the development of the VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, we hadn’t anticipated a pandemic sweeping across higher education or that so many accepted expectations and patterns of behavior would be disrupted. Now, those of us working in higher education need to take a breath and think about what we can do next given the remaining uncertainty about the future. The good news is that several resources are already available to help faculty and staff rethink teaching and learning—especially as they focus on affirming the quality of student learning. We need to seize the opportunity to act!

Before the necessary triage that took most of our attention this spring, educators across all sectors were energetically leading a broad array of quality and equity reform endeavors designed to ensure that colleges and universities would expand opportunities for the nation’s new majority of college learners: first-generation students, students of color, adults, and military veterans—often working, often low-income. Conventional wisdom might indicate that institutions should maintain a holding pattern on those reforms for the coming academic year. As long-term leaders in ongoing reform efforts, we urge a different view.

As we neared the end of the last semester, faculty created final exams and students stressed out trying to study for them—just like every semester. But spring 2020 was not like every semester. So how could we have final exams? How could we develop a good, valid, and reasonable way to measure student learning at the end of the course? Now we’re in a position where being innovative isn’t just a good thing—we MUST do it for our students.

What does it mean to learn and lead from a place of hope during these exceedingly uncertain times? Research tells us that, particularly during periods of uncertainty, hope tilts us toward action and toward engaging with life—even as we remain uncertain about what will happen next.