The institution I work for is just 15 miles from the much-discussed “containment zone” set up in the coronavirus epicenter of New Rochelle, NY. So upon the announcement of the college’s first confirmed case, our campus community’s response was predictably chaotic. Just days before, academic staff were hastening to move all classes online. Students were filling our offices, anxious about the ambiguity of what was to come. Administrative officials, in a losing battle against time, were busy deciding when to remove staff from campus. In response, student-facing staff members were impatiently voicing their safety concerns.
But when the announcement came, these concerns were in an instant eclipsed by the impulse to leave. There was no more time to plan what we might do to help our students succeed, what we might do to ensure the staff is able to operate normally. The time for planning was over; it was time to adapt. Within mere hours our campus, which at this time of year is usually at its most lively, was a ghost town.
It has been a few weeks now since my campus’s COVID-19 mass exodus. And ever since my quiet drive home from campus I’ve been struggling—amidst the news reports chronicling the rising number of confirmed cases in the U.S., the fall of the global economy, and the rapid spread of the virus across the world—to find some sort of meaning in all this, some sort of lesson we might take out of it. With the major concerns rightfully left to the epidemiologists and economists, what can I, a college administrator, do in such a dire time?
Recently, I came across an article by Samuel Abrams, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, an institution not too far from my own. In it, I found an answer to my question. Abrams argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to inspire a ‘critical realignment.’ Writes Abrams: “A ‘critical realignment’ is generally considered to be an election that reflects a set of significant, path-changing events that enable a real transformation of extant party ideologies and leaders, a shift in what issues matter…”
The abrupt societal change brought on by the virus, Abrams argues, might reduce societal division rather than exacerbate it. “When people come together to support businesses that in turn are helping needy people in their community, when business owners make it a priority to pay hourly workers who find themselves without work, when young people who find themselves home from college reach out to babysit the younger ones, our built-up divisions start slipping away,” writes Abrams. We’re seeing this across higher education, too. As one example, many throughout the field have mobilized via platforms like Twitter to provide funds to students who are struggling with food insecurity.
Tragedy, much as it did in the aftermath of 9/11, is reminding people of what’s important in life: decency, the wellbeing of others, communal respect.
That last part of Abrams’ definition – a shift in what issues matter – is, to me, most pertinent for those of us working in higher ed. At a time in which political polarization transforms many types of campus discussion into fervent arguments ripe for public criticism, perhaps we can emerge at the other side of the pandemic with a renewed sense of what matters when it comes to campus interaction. This troubled time may well be impetus for us to revive the aspects of campus discussion that, at times, are lost, such as respect for those who disagree ideologically and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. What I hope the country will learn from our current crisis is that the health of our social fabric depends not on political squabble but common humanity. It depends on our ability to connect with those around us in the name of a better society, despite our many differing priorities and beliefs.
If the pandemic does cause this change in thinking, it provides us with an opportunity to mend the social landscape of higher education. Here’s what we might do on campus when the dust settles:
- Ease student anxiety through meaningful interaction. Even when our institutions reopen and we return gradually to normal life, students’ levels of anxiety won’t immediately return to normal. Many will be recovering from the prolonged nervousness brought on by the virus’s rapid spread and the country’s subsequent lockdown. Some will also be recovering from the effects of loneliness and isolation, which we know to be detrimental to students’ psychological health. If we provide opportunities in the classroom and co-curriculum for students to connect with one another about their experiences, we might help alleviate some of the adverse effects of anxiety and isolation. And given that crisis tends to unite people, we might bring them closer together in a way that was simply impossible before the pandemic.
- Take advantage of the new shared perspective. If my time in isolation has taught me anything, it’s that most of my pressing concerns weren’t so pressing after all. Nearly all of them pale in comparison to the distress I now feel for my colleagues, for our students, for our families. Our students must be feeling the same, and I predict that they, too, will return to campus with a new view of the world. It might be the perfect time for our faculty and staff to promote the pertinent, yet difficult discussions that were too divisive before the virus. Starved for personal interaction and equipped with a fresh perspective on what is truly important, students might be more willing than ever to listen to the opposing side of a given argument.
- Capitalize on our altered relationships with students. Whether you teach students in the classroom or work with them on the student affairs side, your communication with them has likely gone online. To account for the change in educational medium, many institutions are increasing the amount of outreach they are doing and changing the avenues through which they connect with students. My institution, as an example, used a personalized mass texting campaign to ensure that students have internet access. I’ve also sent out numerous emails to my caseload of advisees, making sure that they are safe and aware of how to reach me. Many of these conversations have resulted in new relationships with my students and even strengthened some old ones. If staff and faculty keep these relationships going when students return to campus, we might be better able to guide students toward engaging productively with their peers. This could be timely if students are able to return to campus around the time of the 2020 presidential election, which is sure to invite contentious debate about challenging and ambiguous topics.
Of course, all of this is informed speculation. But if the observations Professor Abrams makes about American society at large affect our campus communities as well, we may very well find ourselves in a period of renewed compassion on campus.
I wish none of this were happening. I wish no one were in danger. I wish we were all back at our institutions preparing for the final weeks of this semester. But if it has to happen, we might as well take something positive out of it. Until our collective bout with social distancing is over, planning to make the best of the aftermath is one of the most productive steps we can take.