The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many gaps and vulnerabilities throughout the U.S.A. and around the world. As its fuller impact evolved, Inside Higher Education compiled a summary of COVID-19's impact on higher education and work. The financial toll of COVID-19 worsened moving into the fall of 2020 and predicts to continue into 2021, exaggerating various aspects of higher education that haven't been working. Resolving these gaps looms as one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of our time and there are those who believe that the crisis can lead to positive resolution of multiple issues. Views of the most important realizations from the COVID-19 era vary, while others focus on the vulnerabilities of higher education.
One of the darkest characterizations of higher education is Daniel Bessner's "Can the American University Be Saved." Bressner's summary of two books, The Gig Academy (Kezar, Depoala, and Scott) and The Meritocracy Trap (Markovitz), criticizes higher education for administrative bloat that replaces long-term faculty with temporary workers and offers crowd-pleasing facilities as it claims merit as the driver of excellence when it's really more about restricted access for a privileged elite. Bessner's sharp criticism will likely be dismissed by many in higher education but those who know higher education from the inside will recognize many of his points as valid and important to consider.
Inside Higher Education offers their take on what will be required of campus leadership in a post-COVID-19 environment in College Leadership in an Era of Unpredictability. Excerpts from the interviews conducted to produce the report offer a glimpse of what dozens of college and university presidents say are the leadership skills that will be required in the new higher education world. As higher education institutions attempt to regain their footing in the haze of COVID-19, the trends that were already underway and were exaggerated by the pandemic will have to be addressed with leadership that can handle not only logistical challenges but also activate adaptive change that better advances post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
The Inside Higher Education's report proposes that new era leadership must address the three long-standing pandemics of health, the economy, and racism that have created the debilitating forces of; 1) economic inequality, 2) systemic racism, 3) technology, 4) the pace of change, 5) a shrinking world developing growing rifts, and 6) political and leadership atrophy. (Executive Summary, p. 1) These central issues will have to be addressed in the middle of the storm when the end state after the pandemic is still unclear and when predictions for the future are a moving target, to say the least. The Inside Higher Education report makes it clear that the idea of returning to normal or even a new normal is delusional.
Creativity is at the core of the type of leadership required in a changing environment and fostering innovation without getting rejected is key. In addition, the idea of "leadership" during and after the COVID-19 pandemic needs to be shared more broadly in the academy if higher education is to thrive. Calls for boards of trustees to step up is obvious. Broader administrative staff who often make budget and infrastructure decision as well as faculty and students must also see themselves as stakeholders in the processes of change that will be considered.
Particularly because some medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, indicate that the U.S.A. may not be able to return to anything that looks "normal" until well into 2022, questions about how higher education is beginning to consider remaking itself are emerging. As efforts are undertaken to change, as in the example of the University of Colorado's Arts & Sciences Dean's move to replace retiring tenured faculty with instructors, opposition emerged immediately. On the other hand, some believe that the University of Colorado approach has the potential to correct misappropriated funding coming from student tuition for unfunded faculty research. Some institutions are handling the COVID-19 pandemic better than others, employing budget cuts of various types across institutions. When faced with difficult times or problems, those who are handling the turmoil can sometimes adopt a "there but for the grace of God" perspective, as Susan Henking suggested. John Warner agreed with Henking that leaders should not rest in the comfort of escaping calamity but should join together across the breadth of higher education institutions to find solutions to COVID-19 and the other problems that have been exposed by it. Failure to engage actively has already begun to result in "no confidence" votes for leaders, as demonstrated at the University of Michigan. Warner said, "I see worrisome little evidence that institutional leaders are truly facing up to the severity of the threat. Every school that broadcasts this year's recently released U.S. News rankings demonstrates that they absolutely do not understand what is happening to them. Your rankings are not going to save you now. They never were. The first step to being treated as a public good is to start acting like one, no matter the consequences. It is a terrible and painful choice, but a necessary one."
Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, captured the opportunity and the challenge higher education faces in this quote from the report, "Higher education and its leaders should ask themselves, 'Why shouldn't this be our moment? Society needs us in a very real way. But also, we have to hold ourselves accountable, because every single person that is responsible for this condition of society right now came through our doors." (Executive Summary, p. 9) Morton Shapiro (President - Northwestern University) and Barry Glassner (Lewis & Clark College) offered a similar compelling view when they urged that support to the current generation of students be increased to unrivaled historic levels. Only then will the graduates of the future be able "to reconstitute an economy and social order, even as they resurrect their own lives. The prospect of rebuilding a devastated economy while reckoning with long-standing racial and other injustices is as daunting a task as we can imagine."
Matt Reed offered a short essay following the release of the Inside Higher Education report asserting that having a moral center should be one of the most important attributes of leaders in today's environment, primarily because having such a center brings coherence to decision making in turbulent times. Leaders who remain transactional and tactical may suffer in credibility and even those who engage actively will often face criticism.