Post-Pandemic College: 10 Guidelines for Getting There

We should be thinking about what we want higher education to look like after the pandemic subsides and what we need to do now to accomplish that vision, writes William G. Tierney.

June 30, 2020
 
 
Istock.com/ahmet ağlamaz

For more than a generation, when higher education has faced a fiscal crisis, two responses have been inevitable: faculty members on campuses demand more say in the decisions of the institution, and tech boosters outside campuses proclaim that an online revolution is about to happen and will disrupt all of academe.

Both groups have a point. If shared governance were functioning, then the faculty would feel involved in governance rather than simply being told what decisions the administration had made. Online instruction has certainly grown over the last decade, and some students seem to learn just fine.

Neither argument, however, is particularly convincing. The point should not be that faculty want to be involved in decision making, as if that were an end in itself. Meanwhile, however much Clayton Christensen -- and before him, Peter Drucker -- were academic Jeremiahs, predicting “The end is near” for traditional face-to-face higher education, it has not happened. Even today, when academe faces the worst financial crisis in a century, predictions are that only about 5 percent of the 4,000 postsecondary institutions face closure. While institutional closures are certainly significant, that does not represent total disruption and devastation for the postsecondary education system.

Certainly, significant changes must be made, some of them quite financially painful. But for those of us who work at colleges and universities, our time would be better spent trying to think about what we want higher education to look like after this pandemic subsides -- and then considering what solutions we need to develop in order to get there. Shared governance is a process to an end, not the end. Higher education in general, and residential campuses in particular, are distinct from online behemoths. One lesson learned from these past months is that many students prefer in-person classes with other students and a professor. Unlike the witty portrait of the disengaged professor who cares not at all about their students, we all can cite examples of numerous faculty members who’ve made Herculean efforts to teach their students and reach out to see how they are doing.

Academe in the 21st century has four key goals. First, we must educate students so that they are employable. Second, we must conduct research and provide service to our communities that advances the public good. Third, we must continue to act as a gateway out of poverty and into the middle and upper classes. Fourth and finally, we need to imbue in our students the skills necessary to advance democracy in a multicultural society. Advancing democracy depends on academic freedom, and tenure is the structure that has protected academic freedom.

In every previous crisis, colleges and universities have made financial cuts that appeared necessary but often had little to do with academic mission. If we acknowledge that the pandemic is forcing institutions to cut budgets in an unprecedented way, and we want to maintain the four key roles of academic institutions, then how we make those cuts should enable our institutions to come out of this crisis with having achieved clear goals and benchmarks. Simple “survival” is not sufficient.

What, then, are the goals we should set? With the fall of 2021 as the target for a return to normal life, I propose the following:

No. 1: There will be as many tenure-track faculty members as there were before the pandemic. Institutions might have hiring freezes, but given that tenure protects academic freedom, the goal should be to ensure that tenure-track faculty positions are not cut.

No. 2: Numbers of tenure-track faculty members of color will have increased. If college or universities hire new faculty members, they should focus on identifying and hiring qualified faculty of color insofar as they remain underrepresented on our campuses.

No. 3: Any merit raises will have been reserved for early-career faculty members, and reductions to retirement accounts will be targeted for senior faculty with 20 years or more of service. Salary freezes and reductions to retirement have a much greater impact on younger faculty, and their careers should not be derailed or made untenable.

No. 4: Student debt for people of families making less than $150,000 will have decreased. Institutions should not have raised tuition. The state, and in particular the federal government, must increase grants to students who require assistance. Further debt in this economic climate is untenable for the poor and middle class.

No. 5: Any reductions in personnel will have been two to one of administrators to faculty members. Administrative costs have ballooned over the past 20 years, and the administration -- not the academic side of the house -- should bear the brunt of rightsizing.

No. 6: Reductions in salary will have been parceled out according to employees’ current compensation. Some sort of scenario like this should occur: the top 5 percent of salary earners will take a 20 percent reduction, the next 20 percent will take a 15 percent reduction, the next 40 percent will take a 10 percent reduction, and the rest will have no reduction. Wage differentials have significantly increased, and the pandemic should not exacerbate them.

No. 7: Any sweetheart deals between the president and board that provides delayed compensation upon retirement will have resulted in a recall of the board and the firing of the president. Far too often, boards act as if their nonprofit CEOs should receive compensation akin to that of for-profit ones. Such gifts and perks are anathema in academe, especially at a time of fiscal crisis.

No. 8: Academic benefits that have been raided to reduce the deficit will have been restored. In a crisis, colleges may have good reasons to curtail travel, eliminate sabbaticals and even defer payment to retirement plans. What is not viable is to turn a “one-time” deferment into a permanent policy without considerable justification and broad discussion.

No. 9: Students will have been able to take credit-bearing classes in the final term of senior year of high school and throughout the summer. We should use the coming academic year as an opportunity to expand what we achieved online with college students this past spring to high school seniors, enabling them to speed up their time to degree.

No. 10: Students will be able to attain a three-year bachelor’s degree. We will have reopened the campus in 2021 and built on what we have learned to provide a better, streamlined learning experience.

Presidents and provosts are struggling with a challenge that no one has experienced since the Great Depression. The budget cuts they must deal with dwarf what institutions faced during the recent recession. Such cuts have to be tied to advancing the academic mission. If we all can agree on that mission, then we are more likely to reach agreement on where those cuts should fall.

Bio

William G. Tierney is University Professor Emeritus and founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

 
Back to Top