They say every crisis is an opportunity. But you could excuse the higher ed sector for being able to embrace this truism, swamped as it is with the financial pain, logistical burden, and overall uncertainty inflicted upon it by COVID-19. Amid the struggle to adjust budgets, plan for re-opening, and stay in touch with students and faculty, how can this present time be considered opportune?
Ah, but it must be. It is not hyperbole to say universities are having an existential moment. Meet that moment and survive, or shrink back and fade to oblivion. Remember that doomsday prediction of a big chunk of institutions becoming insolvent in the next 10-20 years? Turns out that prediction was wrong, but only that it won’t be 10-20 years, but rather 10-20 months.
Every crisis, including this one, is an opportunity. Most opportunities present themselves in response to a crisis, or in the case of higher ed, many overlapping ones. COVID may be an unprecedented and singular challenge, but its main effect on universities has been to exacerbate and amplify existing fissures that existed pre-COVID and that must be addressed. Consider all that is before universities to do and be if they will only recognize, plan, and act:
- ROI of higher ed. Students and their families were at a breaking point on rising tuition and student loans even before COVID trained a critical eye on exactly what people get when they pay for college. Do we need a degree at all to participate in tomorrow’s economy? Is there more to education beyond lectures, homework, and finals? Do the liberal arts pay off to society and student in the long run? The burden of proof is now squarely on universities to speak forth a resounding “yes” to all these questions and then to back up that talk with plans and actions that prove it.
- Social/racial impact. Amid a much-needed national reckoning of our core political systems and economic structures, higher ed needs to get off the sideline and play for the right team. On the table right now are the fairness of our capitalist system of commerce, accessibility and representation in our democratic governance mechanisms, and equity and humanity in response to deep-seated racial disparities. COVID has shone a bright spotlight on all these issues. Universities would do well to reconcile how they operate, reconsider where they devote their resources and attention, and commit to being social and racial change agents.
- Being a good neighbor. COVID has upped the stakes for strong town-gown relations in at least two ways. First, sudden school closures gutted the positive spillover economic effects that had helped communities support a rich environment of retail, restaurant, and other amenities. Second, community need grew exponentially at the same time that campus shutdowns meant fewer available helping hands. Universities must realize that right now, even and especially at a time of unprecedented financial distress and operational uncertainty, their very identity and mission fulfillment hinges on being spent in service to others. And that had better include finding solidarity with, reaching out to, and working alongside those communities right around them.
- Society’s thorniest problems. Our present challenge is COVID, and it is a multi-faceted one, public health primarily but also involving policy, commerce, education, infrastructure, and human services. If we are to have any hope for today’s trials and tomorrow’s, it rests heavily on the educated populace, scientific discoveries, and inter-disciplinary thinking that emerge from our higher education institutions. Simply put, we will only go as far as our universities’ ability to gather people and resources, create an inclusive and innovative environment, and produce inspired leaders and research breakthroughs.
There is a lot of opportunity in this crisis, and a lot of crises these opportunities can address. Even as universities contend with the difficult task of financial survival and operational adjustment in the face of the COVID tsunami, they must dig deep to consider what they ought to be about, and summon the will to step up into that.
Lee Huang brings over 20 years of experience in economic development experience to Econsult Solutions’ (ESI) public, private, institutional, and not-for-profit clients. He leads consulting engagements in a wide range of fields, including higher education, economic inclusion, environmental sustainability, historic preservation, real estate, neighborhood economic development, non-profits, retail, state and local government, strategic planning, tax policy, and tourism/hospitality, and is a sought-after speaker on these and other topics.