Whenever I meet with parents of University of Colorado Boulder students, I begin by thanking them for entrusting their young adults to us. I tell them their loved one’s safety is my No. 1 priority.
That’s why when I first learned of the seriousness of COVID-19, we immediately moved to action. We transitioned CU Boulder to remote teaching on March 16, before other higher education institutions in the state and most around the country did the same. And we moved students from the residence halls as quickly as possible.
This, of course, has had huge ramifications. The hardships we’ve endured – and will endure – can’t be overstated. Almost overnight, our bustling campus became a ghost town. Students not only had to say goodbye to in-person experiences with classmates, friends, campus activities and student groups, they also had to navigate new ways of learning and new ways of carrying out timeless rituals.
Employees are being furloughed amid one of the nation’s biggest financial crises in nearly a century. Understandably, many are upset with this new reality.
Not a single decision has been easy, as lives and livelihoods are in the balance. But we are listening to experts and making the most informed, empathetic decisions we can with the best information available.
We are all flooded with information during these trying times. And we should stay informed. But as an educator, I think it’s important to widen the aperture and look to history for guidance.
In the fall of 1918, 12 members of the Student Army Training Corps, whose members had come to our campus from a military base in Kansas, fell ill. The flu pandemic had come to CU. Almost immediately, the campus community implemented quarantines, enacted social distancing and practiced better hygiene.
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Fraternities became makeshift hospitals, the hospital became an infirmary and nearly every medical student performed medical relief work. The university budget was in a freefall, but the university stopped the spread of the virus and saved lives.
The community came back stronger and wiser than ever, looking to the future. The next year – the year women earned the right to vote – the university drew up plans for the first female dormitory on campus.
Today, universities have the greatest opportunity to reinvent themselves since World War II. The G.I. Bill opened college doors for millions of veterans, often from the middle-class, with a passion to pursue their academic dreams.
We need to open more doors for those who dream of college today, whether it’s an 18-year-old looking for a traditional college experience, or a parent with scheduling demands who needs an additional degree for tomorrow’s jobs. We need to embrace technology to understand and adapt to the needs of students from all walks of life.
We need to come together as a community and embrace each other’s strengths. This is an opportunity for us to learn, improve and make the best decisions for each other with an eye to the future.
As we adjust to our new reality, It’s important to also stay focused on our university mission: to advance the public good, address the great humanitarian challenges of our day and shape tomorrow’s leaders.
That includes collaborating more with other universities and sharing best practices. Someone once said “we all do better when we all do better.” That’s especially true now in higher education.
We need to utilize technology to tighten our relationships with each other – faculty, staff and students.
When the economy recovers – and it will – new skills will be required. That means we need to lead the way on experiential learning, apprenticeships and innovative credentials. We need to better tailor education for a variety of different students from different backgrounds. Universities have been slow to come around to this new reality in a rapidly changing economy. We no longer have the luxury to wait.
Finally, for those wondering what campus life will look like: we will be back. We will do everything we can to make that happen safely, with the highest level of care for anyone on campus and anyone who may come into contact with those on campus.
This includes increased testing, limiting certain activities and using the latest science and data to inform decision-making. There may be risks, and we will work tirelessly to minimize them because colleges and universities are crucial incubators of learning, experimentation, discussion and free thought.
None of this exists in a vacuum; in-person collaboration is essential to our mission, while technology is an invaluable tool. Lectures, labs, events and other campus activities will look different, but we will redouble our efforts to help humanity and society recover and thrive, just as we have done before.
We all began a new semester, year and decade excited to learn together and tackle the most intractable issues together. I’m still excited about our future, in part, because of our past.
At CU Boulder’s graduation in June of 1935, as the United States began to slowly emerge from the Great Depression, the late CU President George Norlin issued a “charge” to graduates, which is now read at every commencement: “The university is not the campus, not the buildings on the campus, not the faculties, not the students of any one time – not one of these or all of them. The university consists of all who come into and go forth from her halls, who are touched by her influence and who carry on her spirit.”
Those words are more relevant than ever, even – especially – as our world transforms. The needs of our graduates in 1935 were different than the first six graduates in 1882. And tomorrow’s students will need different skills than the thousands of CU Buffs who graduated virtually this month. It’s up to us as educators to anticipate those changing needs, innovate and adapt.
Phillip DiStefano is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder.
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