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Several voices in these pages have affirmed that higher education is at a pivotal moment. There is little doubt that the confluence of a potential culture change in social justice, a global pandemic and an economic crisis makes this a time that demands courage and creativity. College and university leaders must rise to a momentous occasion -- one we did not anticipate and hope will never come again in our lifetimes.

The graphic video of George Floyd’s murder was shock education into the reality of systemic racism. The challenge for educators is to move forward from fury and heartbreak to awareness and progress toward a sustained cultural revolution. Clear-eyed assessments of campus climates and practices will begin the difficult process of uncovering unpleasant truths and then working for change. It’s time to rethink our own systems so that students can recognize their strengths, build on them and devote themselves to principled civic action.

Addressing injustice cannot wait until the budget picture improves. In fact, we must bring new ways of thinking to the fiscal crisis. For economic history, we must think far past the Great Recession of 2008-09 to the 1930s and the New Deal, when recovery meant putting people to work. This academic year is not the time for layoffs and furloughs. The only academic cutting that we should consider is the usual “never let a crisis go to waste” elimination of seriously underenrolled majors. But even there, the better option is to rethink and update programs. What about social justice across the curriculum as part of that rethinking?

In higher education, we need a new kind of math. Addition -- increasing tuition -- is not an option, given students’ uncertainty about what colleges and universities will continue to deliver. Subtraction -- cutting faculty and staff members -- may not be advisable, especially in areas where new investments are needed, such as the development of courses on the history of race, student counseling and the construction of highly effective remote and blended courses. Necessary investments may require strategic use of federal and state supplementary funds, expending reserves, drawing where possible on endowments, and cautious borrowing.

The pandemic has proven that higher education can be nimble, despite criticisms to the contrary. With only one or two weeks to plan, community colleges, regional publics, private liberal arts colleges and flagships across the country committed to the goal of continuity of instruction through alternative modes of course delivery. And we did it, discovering new ideas along the way.

For instance, at Governors State University, an institution I led for 13 years before retiring last month, a professor of printmaking redesigned her assignments to encourage students to make artistic materials from everyday household items. Not only during the pandemic but also throughout their lives, these students will now be able to use packing tape, magazines, sponge and water for image transfers. The professor, illustrating the virtue of imaginative improvisation in response to a severe challenge, sent students demonstration videos, critiqued student work and provided feedback online.

With the summer to plan, colleges and universities across the nation have been developing robust and engaging ways to be flexible about teaching platforms: person-to-person, blended and remote. “From cocoons, butterflies,” another pertinent phrase by anonymous on Facebook, is an idea essential to human experience and to higher education leadership. Bad things happen. The challenge is to bring about positive transformations as we emerge from the darkness.

Creating New Opportunities

My life as president at Governors State University began on July 1, 2007, just in time for the short-lived optimism that soon gave way to the Great Recession of 2008-09, necessitating new financial thinking. It was essential to go beyond incremental change to one of the most difficult tasks in university budgeting: the reallocation of resources. Through shared governance and budget transparency, the university was able to move forward with innovations designed to educate the new majority of students -- first generation, those of color, adults and military veterans.

Then, the year after the institution’s 2014 transformation from an upper-division campus to a full-service university, the Illinois budget impasse burst upon us. The university did not receive a penny in state appropriations until 10 months into the fiscal year and then experienced a 70 percent cut -- funds that the state has never reimbursed.

Having not just survived but also prevailed over the Great Recession and the Illinois budget impasse, we have now had to deal with, as a grand finale to my presidency, worldwide disease, injustice and widespread unemployment.

Looking back, I’ve decided one of the most important lessons to learn from the earlier catastrophes is that it is, of course, essential to address the immediate circumstance: What will the fall schedule look like? How do we budget for the next fiscal year? But it’s as much or more crucial that we think beyond triage.

That means the time is now to set up task forces to develop social justice initiatives, to design new budget models, to prepare faculty members and staff to provide the highest-quality remote and hybrid instruction, and to create new campus spaces for person-to-person experiences.

In the last four months, we have heard loud and clear that simple answers won’t work. Higher education in the long term cannot and will not go entirely online. The COVID-19 emergency confirmed that many students yearn for irreplaceable coming-of-age on-campus experiences. We must develop new ways to fulfill those needs while at the same time improving the quality of remote instruction and fully implementing its interactive capacities. High-impact practices should define all modes of delivery. As part of that, the relationship-building necessary to combat bigotry must be incorporated into the curriculum and co-curriculum.

As I reflect on my leadership career, I also think about dealing with profound uncertainty and constant change with the goal of addressing challenges and creating new opportunities. I’ve realized that now is, in fact, also the time to formulate courses and experiences that more explicitly than ever teach students to live with ambiguity, to address problems without clear definitions and to apply what is learned to very different circumstances. In short, now is the time to help them learn how to make butterflies emerge from cocoons.

Teaching students to reflect is the key. The high-impact practice of projects that span more than one semester motivates students to look again and examine previous thoughts. In the first semester of English composition, for example, Governors State University faculty members assign what they call a literacy autobiography: students’ written reflections on early experiences in reading and writing. In the second semester, students rethink and redraft these pieces in the wider context of their enhanced understanding of literacy, submitting finished essays for monetary awards that are celebrated at a luncheon hosted by the president. Readers of the final essays, published on Opus (the university's open-portal scholarly repository), see several accounts of negative and damaging early literacy experiences, redeemed by contemplation and resiliency.

Active learning and questioning in all courses will help students to apply what is learned in one setting to very different circumstances. Explicit guidance from instructors is essential. For example, an English instructor can point out that analyzing character and voice in short stories can be applied to analyzing opinions expressed in a commercially oriented focus group.

Connecting academic work with community experiences will inevitably involve students in wicked problems -- those without clear definitions or solutions. Governors State works with local community colleges so that students in the dual-degree program perform community service before transferring to the university.

Now is also the time to reconfigure courses to probe such topics as systemic racism and restorative justice. We have long believed that every educated American should understand the significance of the Fourth of July. It’s time to expand that definition to a recognition of Juneteenth and Tulsa's Wall Street.

Making high-quality liberal education available to all students is an investment in the future. The antithesis to accomplishing these goals would be to cut courses in the arts and humanities and abandon general education to contingent faculty. We should invest in students’ first-year experience by preparing the best and brightest full-time teachers and researchers to participate with their highest levels of creativity.

But we have to do more. This coming academic year must be one of transformative thinking about what students really need to learn in what will be a new world -- one where we must be much better prepared to combat new viruses and old injustices.

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