The Future of Higher Education and Our Democracy in a Post-COVID-19 World

At the beginning of the 2019–20 academic year, no one could have anticipated that the world as we knew it would be upended; that COVID-19, social distancing, shelter-in-place orders, and local and national lockdowns would become part of our daily lexicons; or that the threat of Zoombombing, a catalyst for hate-filled rhetoric and intimidation, would emerge as a disruptive force in the pivot to remote learning and online education.

Faculty, staff, students, and campus leaders across the country have demonstrated extraordinary resilience and innovation in meeting unprecedented challenges. Yet, there is widespread consensus among higher education leaders that short-term tactics in response to this crisis will not suffice and must be combined with long-term strategic planning around a continuum of possible futures. In preparing for a post-pandemic world, colleges and universities face a new sense of urgency around identifying more flexible financial models while safeguarding high-quality, equitable, and inclusive learning environments. This will require creating a comprehensive vision for the future grounded in a commitment to shared governance and centered on student learning and success. Implementing such a vision necessitates enhanced professional development support for faculty and staff. It also demands returning to a focus on the civic mission of colleges and universities, reaffirming their importance as anchor institutions, whose success is inextricably linked to the well-being of their local communities.

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has showcased profound inequities in higher education and in our society as a whole. The sudden evacuation of residential campuses unveiled the vast number of students who are experiencing food and shelter insecurities alongside an expansive digital divide. At a time when a global pandemic has triggered an economic recession that has brought the world to the brink of a depression, paying attention to and taking action to redress the growing economic segregation in higher education becomes paramount. By mid-April, more than twenty-six million people filed for unemployment following the initial state-issued shelter-in-place orders enacted in March. In an uncertain, increasingly competitive job market, access to excellence in higher education—at colleges and universities of all types—is essential, not only for the advancement of individuals but also for the public good.

Colleges and universities across the country are fulfilling their civic responsibility by contributing academic, financial, and physical resources to their communities. From transitioning dormitories to hospitals and using 3D printers to produce face shields and other protective gear, to conducting clinical trials of medications (such as Remdesivir) that could potentially treat the coronavirus, the academy is helping lead the response to the current health-care crisis. Perhaps most importantly, members of the higher education community are providing accurate scientific information about the spread of the virus and the disparate impact it is having on poor communities of color amid misinformation campaigns and calls to reopen states at the risk of public health and safety.

As the United States surpassed 800,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, protesters in several states took to the streets, decrying the restrictions imposed upon them. Some reported being at the rallies out of sheer desperation following the close of their businesses, ineligibility to file for unemployment benefits, and waits in miles-long lines at drive-through food banks. However, many also gathered as part of organized campaigns spurred by militia, anti-vaccination, and alt-right movements. Within this context, President Donald Trump’s economic advisor Steven Moore created a firestorm by comparing the anti-quarantine demonstrators to leaders in the civil rights movement. “I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks,” Moore said. “They are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.”1 Swift repudiation on social media included the following tweet by Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University:

Stephen Moore calls them “modern-day Rosa Parks.” But Parks desired different freedoms.

These folk want the freedom to infect, like they have wanted the freedom to enslave, lynch, deport, exclude, rob. They have always protested the “loss of liberties.”2

The current culture wars being played out on the national stage highlight the enduring value of liberal education and how it prepares students to discern the truth and be mindful of the dangers of ideological filtering; to speak across differences; and to engage in deliberation with respect to competing arguments while cultivating personal and social responsibility.

These skills and a disposition to civic involvement and lifelong learning fostered by a liberal education are essential to a thriving democracy and the creation of a more just and inclusive society. Addressing a range of persistent inequities and structural barriers that jeopardize these values, the authors in this volume illustrate why, at this moment of global crisis, AAC&U’s mission of advancing the vitality and public standing of liberal education, by making equity and quality the foundations for excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy, is more critical than ever.

Notes

1. Toluse Olorunnipa, Shawn Boburg and Arelis R. Hernández, “Rallies against Stay-at-Home Orders Grow as Trump Sides with Protesters,” Washington Post, April 17, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/rallies-against-stay-at-home-ord....

2. Ibram X. Kendi Twitter Post, April 18, 2020, https://twitter.com/DrIbram/status/1251549681785716736.

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