Here is the brave announcement I wish I would read in the New York Times or the Chronicle of Higher Education: a college or university president fearlessly announcing that . . . no decision has yet been made. A few presidents have gone in this direction. Some, appallingly, have not. I offer this as a fictitious model--and will be happy to list the best, real examples of presidential sound judgment and articulate expression of principles as I hear about them. We all need models, good models.
Dear College Community:
As your President, I am pleased to announce that, in September, we will do what is safest for our community—all of our students (including the most vulnerable), staff, faculty, town.
If the best science available suggests that it is safe to meet face-to-face again in the Fall, we will welcome you back to our campus--while maintaining the highest safety standards. Indeed, I will be physically present at every welcome event, putting myself, our Trustees, our Endowment fund managers, and all of our executive officers in exactly the same situations you will be in and taking exactly the same exemplary safety precautions that we are mandating for our students, faculty, staff, housekeeping and custodial staff, food services workers, and all others—to ensure the well-being of every vital member of our community and their families.
However, if it turns out that the best science suggests it is not safe for us to meet face-to-face, we will guarantee that we will work to make the online experience intellectually respectable and exciting, including with a range of engaging and rewarding activities that students can pursue independently and with the guidance of faculty advisers, including our Teaching and Learning staff, our Online Learning Experts, and the many adjunct faculty who have offered their services tirelessly (and without sufficient compensation) to their students during this crisis.
We will have advisers ready to answer all your questions and we will do everything necessary to ensure that students have the courses they need to graduate in a timely fashion, including with career counseling. If you are willing to do your part, staying focused and determined against odds, we will do ours and make sure you graduate with a degree from our institution. Indeed, although we are first to say that online experiences cannot duplicate all that a residential college experience offers, we are all working harder than ever to make sure that we can draw from the best online programs to deliver the highest quality distance and hybrid forms of education possible.
One reason college tuition is so high (i.e. in addition to declining public funding) is that we take our responsibility to our students and to the public good with utmost seriousness. As president of your chosen college, I am hoping you share those goals. I hope you are willing to invest in us at this perilous time, for all of us and for higher education in particular. I hope you are willing to invest in your education and your future now, in this crisis. To be candid, our costs have not been reduced because students are not on campus. In fact, with stepped up advising and the transition to online, our costs have risen. Please know that we are working all day, every day, in every department of our institution, to do what we can with our research and expertise to help out in this global health crisis and to design the best, high quality education we can offer in these terrible, trying circumstances in which no one has a clear idea of what will happen next.
If you are willing to support us now, we will make a commitment to support and invest in your future. If we do meet online this fall, we will use what we learn to continue mounting robust online courses in the future, to supplement our on campus offerings and we can offer our COVID-era alums special, lifelong free access to our college’s online courses as well as to onsite educational events when you are in the area. We will also offer you ongoing access to campus educational resources, such as the library, museums (and maybe we can even offer you a special COVID alum discount on coveted sports tickets).Consider the tuition and fees you pay now to be a down payment on a lifetime of relevant, engaged learning from your alma mater.
We all want this global health catastrophe to end. And, as educators, we will set the best example for our community in promoting that goal.
We look forward to your joining us in the Fall, onsite or online. I know many of you are considering a gap year--but COVID has not given us a "gap" and now is the wrong time to take one. We all need to be engaged, smart, focused, positive in a dispiriting time. We cannot let this global crisis defeat us. On the contrary: there has been no time in American history when it has been more important to be a student. We do not have answers now--which means we all need to be learning together. We need to learn how to understand and fight the current pandemic--medically, financially, socially, ethically, politically, psychologically, spiritually, artistically. We need all of our knowledge and talents. Now. More than ever.
X College/University is uniquely equipped to equip you for a complex future. We offer x, y, and z. [Specific examples.] Our advisers and our faculty will help you chart your way through courses and curricula that are relevant, urgent, meaningful--and will help you make meaning out of your own life in this uncertain time.
The jobs of the future will require preparation for the unexpected, an ability to take all we know and retool it for the situations we face. What better time to be learning than in this moment of crisis? As students, you need to be educated for the complexities of the future now. As a society, we need you: you are the next generation of leaders and your education is more crucial than ever.
At X College/University, we will do everything we can to ensure that your time here, in the midst of this crisis, is precious, thoughtful, and relevant. For, after all, that is what college and universities do. As a public good, it is our job to insure the best possible future for our graduates and for society as a whole.
Yours sincerely, President ______."
. . . . . .
I offer this model modestly because, frankly, I am not a college president. In my own very limited domains, I am busier than I have ever been. The administrators I know are working 24/7 and they care deeply about doing the right thing. No one I know is taking this decision-making lightly. I am humbled at the idea of making such a dire decision, with such massive impacts in any and every direction.
And a number of presidents have, in fact, taken a “wait and see” attitude (I've learned of wise words and actions from the Presidents of Ithaca College, UC Irvine, Wayne State University, the University of Washington, and Duke University and I’m sure there are many others: I'd love to hear more and I'll add them to this list). Some have already made provisions to go online. I’ve not seen anyone make the kinds of lifelong education promises my mythical president makes but I hope others will consider alternatives along these lines, should it prove unsafe to bring students back to campus again.
If we believe in the importance of higher education, we should be setting a wise example for the rest of society and establishing the best, most careful practices. As educators, we say we believe in the scientific method and we believe that knowledge and logic should be essential to good leadership and decision making. I do not minimize the stakes in going on line. I realize it must be do-or-die for some precarious institutions. Yet giving up the intellectual, moral, educational public good of higher education in favor of a bottom line undermines the very values that make higher education a crucial public good..
A lot of corporate, EdTech pundits have been saying for decades that a college education isn’t “worth it” any more. If a president of a university doesn’t listen to the most educated thinkers before making a decision of life-or-death importance to the well-being of the members of the university community, then, ironically, they may be proving the EdTech pundits right.
If even a university president doesn’t use knowledge to make the best, wisest, and most ethical decisions, then what is a university education good for anyway?