Future of Higher Ed, Post-COVID

May 2020

President’s Blog

These days it seems that everyone in our business is prognosticating about the future of higher education.  At the risk of piling on, I am going to use my monthly blog to address this topic in light of what we think we know about COVID-19’s impact on our society. 

Spoiler alert:  nobody, myself certainly included, has a clear crystal ball on this one.  The dirty little secret is that none of us can provide a glimpse into the future with any real precision.  That said, I do believe that universities control a good bit of their own destiny.  As centers of creativity and innovation, American universities should be catalysts for helping us move forward…not to some unrecognizable post-apocalyptic future, but to a future where smart modifications have led us to healthier campuses and where the essential enterprise of learning continues unabated.

Let’s first dispense with Chicken Little.  There are many these days who, like the character from that old children’s fable, proclaim that the sky is falling.  The lingering effects of 2020’s global pandemic, they say, will usher in a new normal that is bleaker than we can imagine.  In this dark scenario, many young adults are afraid to leave the security of online courses and return to campuses and residential living.  Class sizes are slashed, cafeterias closed, degree programs dropped, and athletics cancelled.  Reductions in force mean faculty and staff join the ranks of the unemployed.  Unable to corral the vicious virus and stem the recurring waves of infection, some institutions will fold.  Darwin wins.

In full disclosure, I never liked Chicken Little.  Tell people the sky is falling enough times and, thanks to the tendencies of self-fulfilling prophecies, it eventually will.  Human history instead suggests a powerful resilience that defies the doomsday crowd.  To be clear, COVID-19 is a wretched reality right now, and it has left a global swath of death and devastation that we will long remember.  We cannot underestimate the threat or unduly diminish the challenges it will continue to pose.  That said, this is not the first abyss into which we have peered.  Every generation, every era, every epoch has had to stare down a nemesis.  Right here at Gardner-Webb, those who came before us had to battle the Flu Pandemic of 1918 that killed 14,000 in North Carolina alone.  They had to survive two world wars with a Great Depression sandwiched in between…and they did.  During its 115-year history, Gardner-Webb and the people of Cleveland County have learned to endure, innovate, and prosper.  Now, it is our turn.

It is profoundly human to fear the future in the wake of a crisis.  Take September 11, 2001 as an illustrative example. Those of us old enough to remember the terrorist attacks on that horrific day wondered if we would ever fly again.  We worried about living in big cities and being in crowds that could become “soft targets” for “dirty bombs.”  We worried that we might never again go abroad.  Nineteen years later, we do live in a changed world.  We arrive early and go through extra screening at airports, and in many other ways we travel smarter…but we still fly and we still globetrot.  We have in no way eliminated risk and uncertainty, but by necessity we have adapted and soldiered on.

Higher education will likewise have to adapt and soldier on.  In the short-run, we will be exercising an overabundance of caution to make sure we are keeping our campus community safe and healthy.  I’m delighted that Gardner-Webb will be adding an onsite student health clinic this summer, which is a big leap forward for us.  We are purchasing disinfecting machines that will help sanitize high-traffic areas.  We will be offering more single-occupancy rooms for our residential students, adding outdoor picnic-style seating adjacent to the cafeteria for take-out eating, distributing masks and hand sanitizers, tracking student absenteeism to check up on health, aggressively screening for symptoms, employing Zoom whenever appropriate in lieu of large gatherings, and placing reasonably-sized classes in the largest rooms possible so that students may spread out.  To be sure, there will be many additional procedural adjustments introduced as we continue forward. 

In the longer term, colleges and universities (our own included) will have to harness the collective ingenuity amassed on their campuses to help us move fully past the present pandemic.  Higher ed is home to smart people who ask and answer big questions in order to do good things for society.  I’m going to pause and say that one again for emphasis…Higher ed is home to smart people who ask and answer big questions in order to do good things for society.  The post-COVID world needs fully functioning universities.  Those who populate our campuses must embrace the challenges before us and dare to generate solutions. 

My pastor frequently uses the term “holy boldness.”  I like that.  At Gardner-Webb, we should step up with our own brand of holy boldness and help shape the future of higher education.  While others may passively await changes to our beloved Academy or even loudly lament the effort that might be required to adapt to new realities, at Gardner-Webb we should take ownership and write our own story.  Vigilant, nimble, and focused on delivering what our society needs…that’s a future for higher education around which we can all rally.

Be safe, healthy…and bold

Dr. William M. Downs
President