Thinking outside the box, imagining the formerly unimagined — we have a lot of expressions that seem pertinent to these days.
As the COVID event proceeds, all of us begin to imagine how to organize our behavior in a world that may see repeated waves of prevalence of a virus over months. Right now, it’s COVID-19. But all the signs are that future episodes, whether globally prevalent or not, may occur.
This pandemic has brought to the forefront of our attention several large scale global trends:
- Increasing environmental change threatening biodiversity and increasing contact among species
- Inadequate public health surveillance, control, promotion across the world
- The need for basic and applied scientific and other scholarly focus on those issues
- The damage of socioeconomic and educational inequality on resilience
These intertwined features of human life have created vulnerabilities that clearly now affect all of societies.
It seems clear that universities in such an environment must focus on their essential missions. These are the same as they have been for centuries for the educational sector: formation of freshly educated people to begin a work career, research and scholarship to expand human knowledge, and, through those two works and others, serving the wider community.
However, the university of the future also needs to be robust to the four trends above.
These past few weeks have reminded us of how much of the work of a university is done in physical proximity. Students working hand in hand with faculty in an environment allow them to have unusual focus on their work and minimal burdens of day to day life (e.g., finding a place to work, converse, and think). Undergraduate students use co-curricular activities to build group collaboration and leadership skills. Dormitory life permits the building of lifelong bonds. Graduate students engage in cutting edge research as apprentices to senior scholars.
Thinking of the four trends above might motivate an effort to recalibrate attention within universities. Having relearned the damaging effects of socioeconomic inequality during COVID-19, universities cannot reduce their commitment to being vehicles to social mobility. Having experienced how education is critical to the appreciation of scientific facts, they can’t waver in their educating the next generation of education leaders. They must assure that the STEM fields continue their movement towards problem-informed basic science, in anticipation of new threats to humanity from environmental change. Having seen how short-sightedness regarding basic health infrastructure cripples a country during a crisis, they need to construct and promulgate policy solutions and governmental action to increase the resilience of the society to the next threats. No institutions in a society can do these tasks as universities can.
To do this, however, universities themselves need to be robust to coming threats, both from environmental degradation and public health threats. We cannot afford to think of COVID-19 as a once in a lifetime event, but the start of a new era. The universities that take the lesson of 2020 and refashion their physical plant, their residential activities, their academic and research programs to be robust to such events can thrive in this more dynamic and threat-filled future. We have work to do.