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Something amazing happened in the days that followed the start of distance learning. As a department chair, I saw camaraderie among faculty and students alike. In many cases, it was reverse mentoring. Junior faculty took pride in teaching senior faculty the ins and outs of online teaching, and senior faculty who see themselves as mentors were open to learning new techniques and pedagogies. What took me by total surprise was that some students even respectfully guided faculty through technical glitches. This teamwork made it possible to do the heavy lift of switching from teaching 2 percent of our classes online to 100 percent within a week.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented change to higher education. The implications of moving pedagogy online raise significant concerns about traditional student evaluations of instructors at many institutions. These surveys, usually administered at the end of each semester, allow students to provide feedback to help faculty inform teaching practices. In addition, these surveys provide institutions with information that can be used, in part, for annual reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions. If instructors are evaluated in classes that are substantially different from the ones they’d planned, it may be unfair to administer these evaluations in an environment that is primarily beyond their control.

In the midst of calls for an end to state violence against Black people, white faculty, staff, and administrators at colleges and universities across the United States want to be helpful, but many of us don’t know where to start. Some of us worry we’ll make mistakes and make the situation even worse for our Black colleagues and students. This uncertainty, which steals our bandwidth and makes us even less capable of acting, is understandable. Allyship is full of paradoxes.

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!

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