It’s time to rebuild—with diversity in mind

COVID-19 is offering leaders the opportunity to re-envision higher ed—fostering more open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement
By: | June 1, 2020
(Photograph from Antenna CW on Unsplash)(Photograph from Antenna CW on Unsplash)
Debra Mashek is executive director of Heterodox Academy. (Photograph by Heterodox Academy.)

Debra Mashek is executive director of Heterodox Academy. (Photograph by Heterodox Academy.)

COVID-19 has razed the once-familiar landscape of higher education. College and university leaders have the opportunity to think anew about what higher ed can and should be, and to re-envision and redesign with that purpose in mind.

Robust and productive engagement across lines of difference should undergird all aspects of the academy since it is central to both ongoing knowledge production and the proper functioning of our diverse democracy. The pandemic offers an unexpected chance for leaders and educators to fortify their classrooms and curricula by building these values into the foundations of whatever they rebuild.

Leaders will understandably focus first on pressing issues such as delivering excellent courses, getting students back to campus, keeping staff and faculty employed, and dealing with the double hit of deflated endowments and reduced enrollments.

With so many urgent and complex issues demanding their attention, it would be easy for leaders to inadvertently de-emphasize the values that sit at the core of higher ed and their institutional missions. That would be an opportunity missed.

The values that are centered as we move beyond the COVID-19 crisis will become institutionalized—and ultimately realized.

Read: Updated: 115 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic

Offering opportunities for open inquiry

Some individuals and colleges have already begun exploring the possibilities. Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio offered an eight-week pop-up course titled “Uncovering COVID,” which was designed around transdisciplinary questions. It invited students—and the many faculty involved—to understand how the pandemic “is reshaping how we work, play, learn, and engage with each other … demonstrating the interdisciplinary approach necessary for fully comprehending the current crisis.” Central College in Iowa will be offering a similar COVID-focused interdisciplinary course this summer.

Robust and productive engagement across lines of difference should undergird all aspects of the academy since it is central to both ongoing knowledge production and the proper functioning of our diverse democracy.

Technology makes it easier than ever to invite remote guest lecturers and other thought leaders to class, or to introduce competing theories or perspectives in flipped courses. Where expense or ossification may have previously stood in the way of providing students with authentic first-hand experience with others who see the world differently, technology makes such exposure relatively easy.

For example, professor Mark Urista at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon, and professor Lindsay Hoffman at the University of Delaware had their students—who were three time zones and worlds apart—pair up for conversations on challenging topics in their “Argument and Critical Discourse” and “Media & Politics” courses, respectively. Both professors noted that their students enjoyed talking to peers they had never met before and that the format helped establish trust and rapport, allowing them to have the difficult conversations that some instructors try to avoid.

Read: Student mental health has ‘significantly worsened’ during pandemic

Re-envisioning higher ed

Of course, it’s hard for presidents, chancellors and others to have time for meaningful conversations about the purpose of colleges and universities, and about their institutions’ obligations to advancing that purpose, when all of us who work in higher ed are in crisis mode. Indeed, so many are exhausted by innumerable fires on both the personal and professional fronts. Perhaps a thought experiment can help.

I consult with higher ed leaders to help them develop programs and solutions. My favorite part of the discovery period goes something like this: “Imagine your institution was forced to close its doors due to bankruptcy. A couple of years later, there’s a tidal wave of money from a donor who asks you to reconceptualize and recreate the institution. You are asked to reinvent. And you are asked to do so in a way that centers robust and productive engagement across lines of difference in all aspects of the institution’s existence. What would you create? What would you want to keep the same? What would you want to do differently? How would you build your institution, if you could hit reset?”

Read: How to have better conversations about race

While some colleges will be forced to close their doors in the wake of the pandemic, many others will survive. For the vast majority of our nation’s more than 4,000 institutions of higher learning, the resource environment will demand we do more with less.

Higher ed leaders would do well to invest those resources in building campuses, classrooms and curricula that enable diverse people with diverse perspectives to come together, humbled by the limits of their own knowledge and committed to the sometimes uncomfortable, yet often rewarding, process of collaborative truth-seeking.

Debra Mashek is executive director of Heterodox Academy, a group of nearly 4,000 college and university educators, administrators and graduate students who believe diverse viewpoints and open inquiry are critical to research and learning.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.