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What Liberal Education Looks Like, AAC&U’s new vision of excellence in undergraduate education, calls on higher education to pay more attention to issues of affordability. But when it comes to undergraduate education, don’t improvements in affordability (e.g., budget cuts, tuition reductions) necessarily debase quality? Is it possible to maintain or enhance the quality of learning, equitable access, and affordability simultaneously?

I’d lived through Black people being beaten or killed on camera, and I’d lived through the resulting unrest. In this COVID-19 pandemic, however, everything has felt more immediate and intense. We need time to breathe.

Until we dig deeper and recognize the racial hierarchy that infects virtually all of us, reforming policing and trying to solve other manifestations of institutional racism will only put Band-Aids on a chronic wound that infects our entire body. Unless we confront our true history and its legacy, get to know each other as individuals, and elect leadership committed to unity and equity, the Band-Aids will soon dry up and fall off. And the wound will reappear—unhealed and more acute.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a big question mark on the continued viability of higher education’s most cherished ideals. What will happen to liberal education if students can’t meet face-to-face in the classroom, develop in-person relationships with faculty mentors, attend events in common, engage in high-impact practices like study-abroad or community engagement, or live together on or near campus? However, while experiences that foster and strengthen liberal education may be temporarily on pause, liberal learning can still go on.

I found it on CNN. In a video from my alma mater, the Olin College of Engineering class of 2020 stood clutching origami hats, catching the wind with their garbage-bag gowns. What started as a student suggestion twenty-four hours earlier—”What if we had a fake commencement?”—was now the first (and hopefully last) Olin faux-mencement. In the midst of the COVID-19 catastrophe, Olin united to celebrate their graduates and provide emotional catharsis.

The brain that is focused on worrying about microaggressions, or not belonging, or stereotype threat, or physical and psychological safety, is not available for learning. There are things we can do to create learning environments in which all students feel safe and respected and visible, in which they can recover some bandwidth. The COVID-19 pandemic, and now the tragic events related to systemic violence against black and brown people, have served to spotlight inequities in the United States that have been around forever, but which many of us have been able to ignore.

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