Colleges and universities have arguably led the way in the nation’s response to COVID-19. Early on, they put aside their inclinations to continue normal operations and took tough steps to promote societal health and safety. They interrupted the transmission of the disease by sending most students and workers home and making an unaccustomed shift for most institutions to completely online instruction. They shifted the research effort of their faculty members to addressing and mitigating this global crisis and asked other faculty members to put their current research on hold. They postponed or canceled in-person commencement exercises for graduating seniors and athletic competitions, large and small. They took, and will continue to take, financial blows as they offer refunds to students, prepare for students not to return in equal numbers and clean and sanitize their facilities. These courageous decisions by leaders across U.S. higher education were matched by the herculean efforts of the faculty and staff at colleges and universities to continue the academic mission in the new circumstances.
This valuable and difficult work will continue indefinitely as each institution deals with a variety of thorny issues: how to provide a semblance face-to-face community for students in an online environment, how to plan for uncertain enrollment for next academic year, how to re-establish derailed research agendas and how to handle the financial fallout from the pandemic.
Those are all crucial issues to address. But no institution will be able to return to anything like normal operations unless the health crisis is resolved. Colleges and universities are poised to lead efforts beyond our campus borders. Long after the dust from the COVID-19 disruption has settled, higher education institutions will be remembered for how they helped bring this crisis under control and supported broader communities through the upheavals caused by it. They have the opportunity to continue to demonstrate by their actions today the deep societal value of education, research, expertise and community commitment. They can help win this war, not merely respond to one front of it. They can do so in the following three ways.
By advancing experts and their expertise. The connection between research expertise and people’s welfare has rarely been this clear. Colleges and universities should find every way to support the medical personnel, life scientists, public health professionals, epidemiologists, disaster-preparedness experts and data scientists who are at the forefront of the response to COVID-19. They are essential personnel who are asking and answering important questions, and their research and public-serving activities should continue.
Every health crisis invites disinformation, scapegoating and poor policy choices, which affect, as well as cost, lives. Experts from a range of disciplines can provide accurate information, historical analysis, comparative studies and real-time commentary on policies and options. Colleges and universities have a wealth of such expertise, and the global effort against COVID-19 needs it.
By sharing newly created excess capacity. Sending students home and canceling athletic events has freed up space in residence halls, gyms and other campus buildings for at least the balance of the spring semester. Responding to the health emergency requires physical space and buildings, whether for hospital overflow, daycare for children of essential personnel who cannot stay at home, drive-through virus testing centers or distribution of food for the housebound and children who are not in school to receive meals.
Higher education institutions should consider working with local and regional officials and civic organizations to allow those who serve the community to use excess campus space. College leaders can resolve the logistical and liability challenges that repurposing physical spaces in this emergency situation might raise. Another match can be made between the biomedical and safety materials that colleges and universities can afford to give up and what health-care providers need: pipette tips, vessels and reagents for testing, as well as masks and gowns and other protective equipment for front-line health-care workers.
By supporting new and continuing community needs. Colleges and universities should not forget community members who have come to rely on them and who need the interaction and stimulation that libraries, arts performances, athletic events and lectures a few weeks ago provided in person but that are no longer available. When possible, higher education institutions should seek creative online substitutes for activities that involve the community, using email lists and social media to reach out to those who are now at home. Reading groups and book clubs, “lunch and learn” webinars, small-size broadcast student and faculty performances, job and career skills workshops, and virtual exercise classes are just a few possibilities to serve more than the students currently enrolled.
Undoubtedly, the public mission of colleges and universities to be of use when the nation is struggling will be more important after than before the COVID-19 attack. New community needs and evolving social challenges are emerging with daily changes in the COVID-19 situation. As a harbinger of what will come, the “staggering rise” in unemployment insurance claims is an already visible indicator that community needs will be much higher than a month ago. The experience of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 showed that communities with stronger civic health weathered the economic downturn better. Colleges and universities bolster the participatory skills, information flows, social networks and feelings of attachment that build civic resiliency. Their community engagement efforts are essential parts of robust civic health.
The academic community has demonstrated firm resolve so far during this crisis. It undoubtedly has much to handle and difficult choices to consider. Yet continued attention to what higher education can do beyond its immediate confines will not only help end the war against COVID-19. It will also be a lasting contribution to a world at risk.