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How Does Higher Ed Respond to the Sweeping Calls for Social Change?

Our country is going through a seismic transformation and, at some level, so is the world.

June 9, 2020
 
 

Our country is going through a seismic transformation and, at some level, so is the world. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and are also seeing countries across all of the continents rise up in support of racial justice in the United States. In many ways, it is also awakening consciousness around disparities at home in those foreign countries where mass demonstrations in solidarity with the U.S. have taken place. After months of intentionally avoiding the news to allow myself the space to make informed and rational decisions based on empirical data like the trajectory of the spread of the virus in our state and in our region, and anecdotal data from our students, faculty and staff, I find myself voraciously devouring the news. From Britain’s The Guardian to France’s Le Monde Diplomatique, Mexico’s Reforma and Brazil’s Fohla, it has been fascinating to read varied perspectives on this international phenomenon.

As an atheist, I have always been fond of Pope Francis, but Padre Francisco, you are the man! As a Boston College alumna, I have a soft spot for the Jesuits but have always been a little tepid for full-on Catholicism. Pope Francis is changing that. These are not embers; they are fires and they have caught on even in the Vatican. Mutantur mundo est!

What does this mean for higher education? Higher ed loves tradition and, at times our inability to evolve has cost not only our institutions, but also the communities whose identity, way of life and economy are tied to our colleges and universities. To my colleagues in higher ed, I say wake up! Whether it is our academic enterprise model, our curricula, our credit-hour model or the composition of our hierarchy, let’s embrace change and evolution before tradition buries us.

Conservative or progressive, our students have a clear sense of the world in which they want to live. Rural or urban, they want to explore other cultures and perspectives. Before the pandemic, young people were leaving our rural regions for more metropolitan lifestyles. We live in an increasingly globalized world, where their video game competitors are playing with them from across the globe. Our students are far more inclusive and aware of disparities than we are. We need to listen to them more and less to ourselves to help our country make progress.

For all of us, the fall semester will be an anomaly. Assuming we return to our campuses in January for the spring semester, it certainly will not be business as usual. Nathan Grawe had already warned us of the challenges that this decade would bring. Joseph Aoun was exhorting us to equip students with robot-proof skills, competencies and mind-sets.

When our students come back, we can expect them to hold us to a higher standard for ensuring equity in opportunities and outcomes. We need to help them build social capital, not simply award them degrees. The levels of debt with which students have been graduating at the bachelor’s level have not been conducive to achieving the economic prosperity that prior generations have enjoyed. Things have to change. We must change them, especially for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students.

Yves Salomon-Fernández (she/her/hers) is president of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts.

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