Reimagining Colleges and Universities to Make Them More Equitable

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It hit me when the university president’s e-mail landed in my inbox: “We will be suspending all classes, sending everyone home and all instruction will take place remotely.” The national emergency prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic had just upended everything! As a board member, I felt that one of my worst nightmares had been realized. Suddenly, students lost their campus connections and had to move to online instruction. It wasn’t clear what freshman classes would look like or if prospective students would even be able to complete common admissions requirements such as providing certified transcripts or standardized test scores.

For many faculty members, this was their first time teaching online; most investigators were forced to shutter their labs. Only essential staff remained to maintain the physical facilities, continue critical operations, and care for plants, animals and cultures. For most of us, life had become virtual as we practiced physical distancing while trying to retain our social connections. 

What happens to students who don’t have the money to get home or even a home to go to? Or those who don’t have access to Wi-Fi or a device adequate to participate in online classes? What of those who end up food-insecure or working their way through school or providing money to family whose jobs have just disappeared? As faculty shuttered labs, except for those involved in COVID-19 research, what happened to their work? Their graduate students and postdocs? How quickly did faculty adapt to remote instruction? Would they seek help if needed in trying to provide a positive learning experience under difficult circumstances? Shutting down is nontrivial. But we had no choice. We had to respond, all the while knowing the answers to these questions would exacerbate existing inequalities.

Colleges and universities face incredible challenges as we grapple with the consequences of COVID-19, addressing circumstances that have completely disrupted our personal and institutional lives. While the health and safety of students, staff, faculty and other members of the college and university community are paramount, as a trustee I know that there will be longer term consequences that need to be managed, including the budget fallout, planning how and when to return and reopen safely, and even constructing a counternarrative to the growing chorus of doubters about the continued relevance of higher education as we know it.

But the institution we return to will not be the one we left. As colleges and universities work to develop plans in the face of uncertainty, we do so knowing that the lens through which we view our work will be forever changed. This disruption offers us opportunities to reimagine our colleges and universities and to make them better.

The recent disruptions have not affected all members of our community in the same way. The pandemic dramatically unmasked many inequities in the larger society and in higher education; attention to inequities must inform how institutions view the way we work going forward. Many faculty, students and staff have had to balance their work lives and professional responsibilities with home schooling or care for family members. The duty of care often falls disproportionately on women whose productivity may subsequently be viewed as lacking during the period of “parental pandemic pause.” How do we prevent equity from becoming another casualty of the pandemic?

As though responding to a global pandemic is not enough, we are compelled to address the systemic racism in our country that was once again unveiled on all our screens, in the demographics of the pandemic victims and in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshad Brooks and many more before them at the hands of police—systemic racism that extends into our institutions and within the access, education, research, practice and applications of our science.

Since we cannot go back to business as usual, we have an opportunity to go forward with reinvention. Every institution is different, so the pathway to reimagining will be different. But these newly articulated visions must include diverse voices and redesigns that incorporate lenses of equity and inclusion. Those of us in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical (STEMM) fields have special roles, tools and responsibilities to address the challenges that have been unmasked in our dual crises.

The solutions to many of our global challenges are based in STEMM, including development of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 and whatever the next biological, social or economic pandemic might be, in ways that can decrease, rather than amplify, inequities. We can also better understand, document and analyze the ways in which systemic racism is a barrier to equality and how its impact might be mitigated. Accessing the best minds and engaging the full range of talent and perspectives to craft sustainable and equitable solutions to these crises will depend on developing a futures-focused strategy that moves us beyond the next experiment, the next grant, the next crisis and our treasured traditions.

We need to hear from our neighbors about the problems they encounter and find opportunities for everyone to participate in the work in which our institutions are engaged. Could such connections help communities become consumers and supporters of the work of the institutions? What needs to happen to tear down the walls within institutions and between institutions and their near neighbors? Can colleges and universities join with communities in solving difficult problems and engaging in candid discussions about racism in America—including empowering faculty and student leaders whose scholarship and expertise have this focus to bring truth to the surface?

We need institutions that will boldly demonstrate through action, not merely words, a commitment to removing systemic barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in all aspects of their mission, embedded throughout institutional culture and organized in ways that are participatory rather than patronizing.

As we begin our reimagining, let’s do the necessary work on diversity, equity and inclusion, especially in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Let’s commit our institutions to expanded purpose befitting the seriousness of the challenges we are being called upon to face. As our institutions emerge from these crises, we need to put in the work to make them better.

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