For many universities across the United States, the fall semester is a mere three months away. And although university system administrators have begun to communicate intricate plans for a return to campuses in the fall, many faculty, staff, and students remain skeptical about how those plans will actually keep campus communities safe. Too, the upheaval of the sudden transition from in-person classes to digital space is fresh for many, and a return to an attempt at a socially-distant campus will be equally as stressful and likely equally as lacking in pedagogical and social cohesiveness. In a worst-case (and highly likely) scenario, we would be thrown into chaos once more as students return to campus from various locations around the country bringing with them, the virus. Social distancing measures will be difficult to adhere to in most situations. A number of factors including facilities, discipline-specific practices and a dependence on every person in the campus community to practice social distancing make enforcement of new campus protocols nearly impossible. Are universities ready to take responsibility for casualties certain to occur?
The necessity on the part of many universities to resume in-person instruction and campus activities in the fall rests in part, on the threat of financial ruin. With many universities teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy as it is, another semester online will amount to the eradication of programs and departments across their campuses, if not outright closure. Dependence on tuition dollars to keep institutions of higher learning afloat is an example of how our capitalist system undermines the inherent value of people, the value of learning, and our ability as members of campus communities to shift our priorities in times of challenge or opportunity, of which the Covid-19 pandemic is both.
One thing is certain: we are living in astonishing times. History will be quick to show us that society is irrevocably changed by this event. Instead of striving to return to business as usual, why couldn’t universities use the coming year as an opportunity to demonstrate active concern for the people who bring their campuses to life? Why couldn’t the academy use this time to dramatically reimagine higher education and effectively retool itself for a post-Covid world? I don’t mean a push to have the academy of the future exist exclusively online. I don’t mean a decimation of public institutions in favor of fewer, larger, private ones. I mean, under these special circumstances, stop classes. Stop portfolio reviews and exams. Stop meeting in space — digital or physical — for the purpose of transmitting discipline-specific material. Stop assigning grades. Stop expecting that faculty and staff will be able to create optimal learning environments without adequate time and training to prepare and adapt. Stop assuming that all students will be able to rise to the challenges of interrupted learning. Stop perpetuating the notion that we should all perform denial while the pandemic rages on.
I know, the first question that comes to mind is, “where will the money come from?” I’ll get to that. But first, let’s do some Imagineering. What if next year was a gap year for everyone? I’m not referring to a vacation, but a year where everyone in the campus community takes on tasks in relationship to the circumstances of the pandemic.
Let’s start with students: instead of a roster of classes, students could take on physically-distant service projects in their respective communities in keeping with the skills they were developing in school before the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, students studying apparel design could construct masks and gowns for essential workers. Doing so would allow them to practice their skills in design and construction, while offering a high-risk population some much-needed personal protective equipment with the flare I’m certain such students would include in their designs. As another example, education majors could become digital mentors to children whose parents are struggling with homeschooling and working from home, should businesses and schools need to remain closed. Service projects could be completed for credit to be used toward electives in students’ majors. Some service projects could stand in for credit toward general education classes needed to graduate. Students who are unable to participate in a service project due to family responsibilities, health, housing insecurity, or other circumstances, will not be dropped from matriculation during the gap year. They will be able to pick up where they left off when it is safe to return to campus. They will have access to institutional support during the time away in the form of things like mental health services and academic advising.
Faculty in this scenario could be doing one of three things. The first would be for some faculty to identify themselves as people who would like to advise service projects. These faculty may provide guidance or organizational support to students, but they wouldn’t be assigning projects, papers, or grades. Other faculty could be working on curriculum and course redesign. The volume of on-campus responsibilities during a regular semester makes reimagining curriculum difficult, if not impossible. Often taken up during end-of-semester retreats or as part of curriculum sub-committees, faculty rarely have the opportunity to dive in deep to reassess the accepted canon of their disciplines, address issues of diversity and inclusion in their syllabi, update stale content, and learn new technologies for course delivery. The faculty not in the two aforementioned groups could be immersed in valuable research related to the pandemic. Social scientists, economists, urban planners, environmental scientists, mathematicians, artists, philosophers and more could delve into the ways the pandemic is shaping and will continue to shape society. They could think of ways to address our country’s most pressing concerns: healthcare disparities, racism, economic stratification, environmental decay. Contingent faculty would not be left out of this equation. Rather, contingent faculty would be invited to participate in the activities above, while also being given the opportunity to reimagine the way non-tenure track faculty exist as indispensable members of the campus community. They would be compensated accordingly. These activities could help cultivate a vibrant revitalization of the academy — one that is more attuned to the zeitgeist of our time and reflects the need for compassion and equity among university workers and society at large.
Staff could also be working to make improvements in their respective areas. From housing to food service, mental health services to academic affairs, staff have little time or space to slow down and reassess mission, workflow, and the efficacy of policies and procedures. Departments and offices remain understaffed and under-resourced while experiencing mounting expectations during a regular academic year. Like faculty who may choose to work with students on their service endeavors, service-oriented staff could also take on such roles. Likewise, they could opt to perform community care for fellow staff, faculty, and students by continuing to provide remote mental health services, hold space for virtual support groups, among other necessities.
So now, the money. It would be important that faculty and staff remain on the payroll. Everyone should have health insurance, contingent faculty and part-time staff included. As we are in the middle of a health crisis, it is important for those who keep our universities operational to be healthy. At the same time, students ought not to pay for services they’re not using: housing, meal plans, and activities fees. Students should also have their tuition put on hold, if they are not taking any classes. Yes, this will be expensive. However, the money exists. As universities begin to make decisions regarding faculty furloughs, suspending contracts for contingent faculty, and eliminating low and mid-level staff positions, it is important to consider that many athletic coaches — who make six and seven-figure salaries — will see no changes to their paychecks over the coming year under current plans. Nor will many high-level administrators. A redistribution of portions of the highest salaries alone would be a great start. The administrators who have done this already are to be lauded. In addition, the billionaires in our country (I’m looking at you, Bloomberg) could help foot the bill for a host of industries, including higher education. Finally, while it is highly unlikely the government will ultimately move in the direction of eliminating college debt for students, it could support America’s universities for a year, looking at the gap year as an investment in the recovery of the country once the pandemic is over.
I understand that unprecedented shifts would be required to have a gap year like the one I’m imagining. Yet I believe that while challenging, the ethics of bringing students, faculty and staff back to campus with no guarantee of safety far outweigh any challenges we may confront. The urgency of the academy to reimagine itself in a rapidly changing world compels us to employ revolutionary tactics. This pandemic is strange, frightening, tragic, and ultimately revealing. It’s beating us down. But it’s also showing us who we are and who we could be. Why wouldn’t our institutions of higher learning want to help lead the way forward to a new way of life? One that is more compassionate, more giving, more celebratory, more creative? We can do it, and the 2020/2021 academic year is as good a time as any.