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Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

April 28, 2021

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: The Risks of Returning to 'Normal'

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Six takeaways on the risks of returning to ‘normal’ — from an event inspired by you.

I don’t typically hear a lot about the dangers of force fields or the value of a piano lesson when writing about higher ed. Last week I got a welcome earful of both, along with several more insights that could guide colleges as they emerge from the crises of the past year.

Six takeaways on the risks of returning to ‘normal’ — from an event inspired by you.

The insights came from Michael Crow and José Antonio Bowen, the two keynote guests I interviewed as part of The Chronicle’s virtual Higher Ed’s Reset event. If you happened to catch any of the three half-days of programming, some of it may have had a familiar air. That’s because, in conceiving the agenda, my colleagues and I were inspired by your thoughts on practices we should leave behind or embrace, which I covered in newsletters last year (here and here). But the event, which is now available on demand, had a decidedly forward-looking lens.

The reference to force fields was by Crow, president of Arizona State University, who used them as a metaphor to highlight a realization that, before the pandemic, his institution and many others weren’t doing enough to help their communities. After seeing how deeply our social systems are interconnected, “we can’t be selfishly focused on ourselves,” Crow said. “The force fields that have come down at most places need to stay down.”

The piano lessons were from Bowen, a jazz musician and former president of Goucher College. Music teachers, he said, know that the purpose of their 45 minutes a week with pupils is primarily to provide feedback, guidance for taking on the next challenge, and some inspiration. It’s up to the students to do the work, in many more hours of practice. During remote teaching, said Bowen, “in some ways all of us began to teach more like piano teachers.” A scholar of teaching himself, Bowen considered that a win. He’s long advocated for professors to put more structure into their teaching: “How do I think about what you’re doing when you’re not with me?” as he put it. For many professors, the pandemic made that more of a necessity.

Crow and Bowen dropped a lot of other wisdom too, on topics like the missed opportunities of Covid-19 to teach how scientific hypotheses change and the potential for using technology to create “super faculty.” (You can catch the interview with Crow beginning at about 5:55 here and with Bowen at about 8:30 here.) While I hope you do check out the short talks, I’ll share below four more points that caught my attention at the virtual event:

The risks of not recognizing a “new normal” are enormous. Bowen and Crow each made that point in different ways. Colleges need to understand how vulnerable they are to sudden and sharp changes in the society around them, said Crow. That will require continued flexibility and technological capability, he said. Bowen put it in terms of students and their classroom expectations. Many have come to appreciate capabilities like rewatching a lecture later or chatting online with their instructors during a class. Colleges that can’t or don’t accommodate those expectations post-Covid might find themselves losing out to institutions that do.

The pandemic could spur higher education’s next evolutionary wave. That thought was from Crow, whose scholarship includes the history of science and technology. Generations after the United States created land-grant and research universities and community colleges, maybe the time is right for new sorts of institutions to emerge, he said. As for the traits of these new models, Crow emphasized the importance of thinking expansively about institutions prepared to engage learners at any time, anywhere, and “at any scale.” He also made a case for more “leaguing” among institutions, going beyond athletics so that colleges with different points of focus could work together to better serve students.

Colleges will still have to prove that the experience they offer is worth the money. Sure, when campuses reopen, students will probably be eager to return. But Bowen argued that simply restoring a campus experience without thinking very intentionally about how to do it won’t be enough in an increasingly competitive landscape. If you’re a college that has invested heavily in physical spaces, he said, “you better figure out how to extract value out of your sunk costs there, because the price that you charge is high, and you just have to make sure it’s worthy of that price.”

In classrooms and beyond, higher ed needs to addressthe systemic racism it is perpetuating. Bowen made this point most passionately about the practice known as inclusive teaching. Sometimes it’s simply about representation. In his own schooling, he said, he never once got a word problem in which it was a José or a Juan “dividing up the apples or the oranges.” But the issues can go a lot deeper, for example, with intro courses too often scheduled or taught in a way that discourages or diminishes students of color, said Bowen. “There’s no good teaching that’s not inclusive.”

Crow was just as adamant. “We have to fully embrace and admit that our institutions are systematically incapable of being equitable at the level we need for our democracy to be successful,” he said. Colleges’ responsibility, he argued, goes beyond what happens on campus. The scholars of the past helped create some of the existing problems in systems like policing and criminal justice, he said. It’s up to today’s academics to be the architects of new designs. The time for timidity on that front has long since passed, said Crow: “We need to take that stuff on with a vengeance.”

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.