Anything But Normal: 8 Voices on What the Pandemic and Protests Are Teaching Higher Ed

As campuses across the world grapple with serving their students during the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice protests, Liberal Education asked educators from a range of institutions about their experiences. These educators offered insights into how the current moment is affecting student well-being and community engagement. They also talked about the interconnectedness of the pandemic and racial justice—and what that means for making lasting change.

Laurie Leshin
President
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Public-private partnerships: I was the only person from the education sector serving on Governor Charlie Baker’s Reopening Advisory Board, but we rallied public and private institutions from across the commonwealth to develop a framework for campus reopenings. Since safety equipment and PPE are the norm in research labs, we determined it was safe to reopen labs when Massachusetts entered phase one of its reopening plan. We also determined that the repopulation of campuses with large numbers of undergraduates wouldn’t happen until phase three, which the state entered before the fall semester. Many people expressed concern that colleges were opening too fast; others said we weren’t opening fast enough. I think we’ve gotten the right balance of figuring out how to live safely and smartly with this virus, but it’s certainly too soon to declare victory.

Experiential learning: Almost 90 percent of our students do a global project. In any given term, several hundred students are in a dozen different places around the globe. The pandemic was a real shock to the system, but because we had built strong relationships with different organizations worldwide, many students were able to use Zoom to carry out their project work with a local sponsor—whether in Moscow or Copenhagen.

In the world ahead of us, work will be global, but we may all be traveling less. Figuring out how to have an impact in a community, even from afar, is an extraordinary skill set, and these students are going to have great stories to tell about how they did just that.

A new meaning of equity: Recent crises have shined a light on disparities of all kinds: health and wellness, racial justice, technological access, and educational attainment. Those are not going to be solved overnight. This is where the goals of liberal education—long-term thinking, creativity, and problem solving—are well aligned with the work we need to do.

Ultimately, this may not be about helping students to reach instructors’ goals but rather enabling students to set and make substantive progress toward personal and educational goals that are meaningful to them. Ultimately, that’s what I think equity looks like in this moment.

Charles Monty Roessel
President
Diné College

Interconnections: In the Navajo worldview, all things are living—we’re intertwined. The circle encompasses everything, including the pandemic. It isn’t happening to us. It’s happening with us.

At Diné College, which comes from a perspective of education that values the Navajo tradition, our faculty told us, “Don’t forget the human part.” It isn’t just about safety and academics. It’s about the spiritual and the mental health of the student. We talk about K’é, relationships. I have a responsibility to you because we’re related. 

Support for students: We have students who have lost their parents. We have students who have passed. Students wrote to me saying their mom and dad and younger brother had COVID, and they had to take care of them. They had to haul water and take care of their livestock. They had a job. Yet they were still trying to go to school. One of our students tested positive and was in the hospital. She said, “I want to be in class,” so there she was on Zoom in her hospital bed.

We tried to find ways to help students. A huge number of students took incompletes. We left dorm rooms open for students who had nowhere to go. 

Remote learning: Tribal colleges have the worst technology access of any group of colleges in the country. We bought laptops and MiFis, but there was still the gap. Professors delivered content in four different ways for different students: by Zoom, telephone, email, and text. One student only had a phone and had to climb on top of a mesa to connect. 

Support for the community: We are very much embedded within the community, but we had to close off to be safe. Before COVID, our library was one of the few places the community could use internet. Our food service used to have surf-and-turf nights with hundreds of people. How do we continue to be a part of that community? We’ve provided three thousand meals for seniors. We’ve helped K–12 schools transition online. We reached out to two universities so all these students can move forward. We’ve got to stop looking at boundaries and look at education collectively. 

Resilience: In Navajo history and origin stories, there are things we’ve had to overcome, since the beginning. Things have been happening to us—as Navajo, but I think everybody—forever. We have the resilience to continue. 

Kathleen Wong(Lau)
Chief Diversity Officer
San José State University

Support for students: Since our campus is 41 percent first generation and 37 percent Pell qualified, a lot of students didn’t have WiFi and equipment. Many worked in frontline service jobs in retail places that closed. We issued a whole bunch of laptops. Our food pantry stayed open during almost the entire summer. We moved our counseling and psychological services online.

Support for faculty: We put together a summer teaching institute certificate program on teaching remotely. Faculty had four required modules to get the certificate, and one was on equity, inclusion, and diversity. A lot of it was looking at what engagement means for different communities, especially if your identity is different from your students. More than one thousand faculty participated.

Mobilizing for change: COVID has magnified the awareness and experience of inequities like systemic racism in police brutality and in the health arena. At this time when people can’t see each other face-to-face, attendance of online workshops and advocacy programming is off the charts. Activists have had a chance to reach out to people they wouldn’t have met before.

Lessons from the racial justice protests: One of the biggest lessons is to get on board. If you haven’t been on board, the train left the station a long time ago, but here’s your second chance. Students are demanding that we understand that just doing additive things is not going to be acceptable anymore. It’s time for organizational change at a global level. Students want their syllabi decolonized and systemic racism recognized. They want to see meaningfully framed, equity-based scholarship about different communities that will help them when they go out into the working world. Our students see this as a window that they are going to refuse to shut.

The hard work: The enterprise of education is to provide experiences and opportunities for people to learn so that they can produce a world that is more just, equitable, and safe. It’s time to realize that just doing more of the same things is not necessarily going to get us there. It’s going to be very hard work. It often produces conflict and fear. It often challenges us in terms of being experts in our own arena. That’s really hard for people in higher ed. But this experience of uncertainty and being intellectually vulnerable is one of the ideal windows in which we do our deepest learning. 

Walter Kimbrough
President
Dillard University

Racial justice: Everyone is sitting at home because of the pandemic, and then you have this eight-minute-and-forty-second video of somebody dying in a way we had never seen before. People are already tense because of the uncertainty about their jobs and ability to take care of their families, and they are watching George Floyd die, thinking, “This is just too much.” It was the perfect storm to get people out in the streets and say, “We’re ready to change all of this now.”

The role of HBCUs: We’ve been places that have not been afraid to tackle racial justice. You have an entire institution that is painfully aware of the issues and works as a collective to address them. For a lot of students, the heightened activism has increased their want to be back in a space with a like-minded group of people.

Student activism: We need to help students learn to be students of history and see what they can learn from previous generations. John Lewis has been described as the Black Lives Matter of the 1950s and ’60s. He was radical but thoughtful and purposeful. In this social media age, people think if they go protest and then post photos on Twitter, they’ve done all they need to. It’s much harder than that.

I also hope that students learn that this isn’t a short fight. Getting some Confederate statues taken down is a quick win. But what about the systemic issues? In New Orleans, a nine-year-old was recently shot, and there’s nothing about it on social media. Why are we angrier about an inanimate statue than about this little boy dying?

Real change: We need to take the energy of the protests and ask, “What laws need to change? What elected people need to go? Do we have a citizen’s review board for the police?” Tackling the harder questions isn’t as quick a high as going out and protesting.

Community: Colleges and universities should be neutral places for the entire community to have conversations about the things that matter. I like to hold debates on campus with different groups or people running for office. Facilitating those conversations makes sense for an educational institution. We can create spaces for people to come, really hash out the issues, and figure out what needs to be done. I’m going to be challenging folks around here to deal with the uncomfortable stuff.

Lisa Coleman
Senior Vice President for Global Inclusion and Strategic Innovation/Chief Diversity Officer
New York University

A new unusual: A pandemic or a fiscal or natural disaster—maybe this is not the new normal but a new unusual. Disruption may be part of our working realities. What if we had teams for disruptive innovation? Now is the time to pivot to be less static and more nimble and ready for whatever is next.

Global learning: There is so much to learn from our global connections. What might we learn from COVID-19? Viruses move, morph, mutate, and grow because we are globally connected. I hope COVID-19 helps us learn, work together, and navigate disruption with more empathy. Maybe then we might avoid the tendency some have to try to annihilate those they find different and instead move toward collaborating and debating in ways that broaden our understandings of our collective humanity.

A new reckoning: Some in Generation Z have stated that this is a civil rights moment—a reckoning with systemic inequities. This is not to be disregarded. Black Lives Matter, climate shifts, Title IX, COVID-19, and more have affected emerging generations, resulting in new social movements. Elders are not the leaders, and, historically, they mostly never were. However, it’s important to note that recent activism and protests are intergenerational, intersectional, multiracial, multiethnic, and global in new ways. This is also a shift and reckoning. People who are not Black, Indigenous, of color, women, queer, or socioeconomically disenfranchised are saying, “It is simply not OK to treat my fellow humans this way, and I am going to take action.”

Lessons from this moment: In higher ed, we do innovative work, but we do not always apply it to our own systems and traditions. We have diversity, a lot of it. Institutions will need to engage diversity and the resulting innovation to navigate shifting landscapes. The world is changing—more people of color, more people with disabilities, more women in the workforce globally. Instead of trying to resist our collective future, we might ask: How do we ready ourselves and our partners? How do we colearn with diverse students, colleagues, and stakeholders and unlearn that which is no longer useful? Those most prepared, innovative, and willing to leverage the dynamism of diversity will thrive. That’s the best of higher education—leveraging our research, learnings, and intellectual curiosity; cocreating with diverse minds; and generating new questions to innovate again and again.

Ahmed Bawa
Chief Executive Officer
Universities South Africa

Solidarity in South Africa: Universities South Africa is a representative body of the country’s twenty-six public universities, with about 1.2 million students in the system. South Africa is still a deeply unequal society, and universities have a singular role in generating social mobility. Progress is being made, but certainly not sufficiently. When Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd hit the headlines, the reaction here was one of solidarity with what was happening in the United States.

Student activism: Between 2015 and 2017, two student movements shook our campuses: Fees Must Fall, a campaign for free education, and Rhodes Must Fall, a campaign to decolonize higher education and, more broadly, society. At a point in 2016, we thought the university system would collapse because of the activism.

The movements were a wakeup call that universities had really priced themselves out of reach of the majority of South African families. A large part of the problem was that state subsidies to universities had declined substantially over the past two decades. And twenty-some years after the demise of Apartheid, students were reminding us that the transition simply did not produce social justice.

Lessons from the pandemic: COVID-19 happened with such a ferocious uncertainty that universities were left scrambling. Because of underfunding, universities couldn’t simply buy devices so every student could do remote learning. What government and higher education leaders have to learn from the pandemic and the 2015–17 student movements is that we have to significantly reduce society’s inequalities. And that won’t happen through some sort of trickle-down effect.

The virus is just a spark—the conditions required for the pandemic to explode were already here. Campus leaders must think deeply about how they deal with the short-term crisis, because those solutions will have significant implications for the way in which universities relate to society down the line.

The role of leaders: We have to build a social compact that recognizes that none of us is safe if one of us is not safe. The Zulu expression ubuntu essentially means “I am, because you are.” We must use this idea to generate a new, more equal society, and universities have a huge role to play in that—not just in what they do with their students but also in their research engagement. They need to reach out to communities, government, and other sectors and bring them into this notion of building a stronger society.

Mays Imad
Professor, Department of Life and Physical Science/Founding Coordinator, Teaching & Learning Center (TLC)
Pima Community College

Challenges of the pandemic: An immediate challenge that Pima students faced was access to basic life necessities and technology. The Pima Foundation launched a virtual donation campaign to meet students’ needs and support their continued learning and success. Community donors also provided computers to students.

Well-being on campus: Since March, our TLC has offered more than 120 workshops and webinars on transitioning to remote teaching, which more than 800 faculty have attended. We also offered weekly “Zen Moment” webinars to help faculty alleviate their emotional distress. As a neurobiologist who studies stress and its impact on learning, I recognize that as educators, we can help students become self-regulated learners by helping them recognize and mitigate the impact of toxic stress—to empower them with knowledge about the biology of learning. We also provided trauma-informed resources for both faculty and students.

Social justice: The pandemic has amplified challenges in higher education such as mental health. Many of these challenges mirror those in our society and stem from witnessing and experiencing oppression, racism, and poverty. Because Pima is a Hispanic-Serving Institution, these issues are particularly important on our campus. Colleges and universities across the nation have initiatives on inclusion, diversity, and equity, but educators need to link these initiatives to well-being. Trauma-informed education is intimately connected with restoring justice at the individual and the community levels. We experience trauma when we are placed in a threatening situation that takes away our sense of agency and control, and that trauma undoubtedly affects our ability to learn. A trauma-sensitive lens challenges us to interrogate where our understanding of rigor comes from and invites us to consider the balance between rigor and grace and how we can engage students in their learning without overwhelming them.

The future: We have an opportunity to forge a post-pandemic higher education that enables all students to thrive. What if learning goals included imparting empathy, love, and the cultivation of the moral imagination? Re-envisioning a human-centered approach to higher education is a huge undertaking but not an impossible one. Let us be audacious in how we approach this responsibility and work with scholars, community members, and civil rights activists to create holistic programs that become part of the fabric of any learning institution. We often think of emotional health as an issue for only counselors and psychologists, but it is a higher education issue. It is a societal issue. It is a human rights issue.

Christine Navia
Associate Vice President for Student Success
University of Wisconsin System

State systems as social justice advocates: Our systems of public higher education will be pushed to play the role of social justice advocate whether they want to or not. Students are calling for policies that level the playing field to ensure access and more equitable outcomes for students of color, students from limited-income backgrounds, and first-generation students.

How public systems respond remains to be seen. We will have to be problem solvers of the highest order. If the social unrest this summer was any indication, there will not be much—if any—patience with a return to the status quo.

Prioritizing mental health: I am most worried about the behavioral or mental health of our students, faculty, and staff. None of them are going to emerge from this pandemic unscathed.

We recently conducted a systemwide survey of students who used campus counseling services over the past year. Students are shouldering incredible amounts of stress, anxiety, and depression—more than before. Some have trouble sleeping, and some find it difficult to focus on their coursework, while others increasingly turn to alcohol and other substances as a way of coping. The UW system will look closely at how we can provide greater mental health support for the people who live, learn, and work on our campuses.

We also need to take care of the people on the front lines who are ensuring that our students are engaged and supported: staff in student affairs, advising, counseling, housing, dining, student health, multicultural affairs, veteran affairs, and LGBTQ+ services. This pandemic has probably been toughest on them, since they must contend with the impacts COVID-19 is having on our students every day.

What equity means now: Equity in the pandemic means one thing to me: letting go, once and for all, of insisting that the fairest way to operate is to treat everyone as though they are all the same. COVID-19 has exposed how inequitable our society truly is and how deeply that inequality is rooted, particularly in health care, education, employment, and law enforcement.

Homes are the new classrooms, so to speak. Our students need faculty to lean in, preferably at the outset of a course, and learn about their home lives. Faculty don’t have to loosen standards or lessen rigor so much as provide students with alternative ways to complete assignments and be flexible about when students get them done.

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