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Phone: (202) 687.6400



After This is Over, Then What?

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:

  1. Increasing environmental change threatening biodiversity and increasing contact among species
  2. Inadequate public health surveillance, control, promotion across the world
  3. The need for basic and applied scientific and other scholarly focus on those issues
  4. 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.

2 thoughts on “After This is Over, Then What?

  1. A very nicely laid out comment. I would only add that universities need to remember their retirees and alumni as they seek to address the issues you have noted we must face in the coming years.

  2. I agree that “future episodes, whether globally prevalent or not, may occur.” One of the lessons of the COVID event is that our civilization as it is currently designed is self-terminating. Short-sightedness on health infrastructure is only one of many factors that got us here: just-in-time supply chains left no inventory of critical materials; global outsourcing further exacerbated supply constraints; unnecessary travel and tourism is an accelerant for spreading the virus; dysfunctional and untrustworthy communications media and the erosion of trust in our institutions have hampered effective mobilization of the citizenry, and the financialization of everything drives enormous waste, particularly of food as farmers dump milk and destroy crops while disadvantaged communities go hungry. More and better public health is needed, but the question we must really ask is: do we really want to live in a world that, by its very design, gives rise to recurrent pandemic threats and very likely global ecological collapse?

    The more important lesson of the COVID event is this: we have a choice. The “dynamic and threat-filled future” is not inevitable. We bring that future into being through our choices, as individuals and as institutions. The leading question as we emerge from this crisis period can and should be: what kind of world are we called to make? Along with resilience, can we focus on regeneration?

    It is indeed the “start of a new era.” But we have the power to shape this era to become the time when we embraced the opportunity to bring about the more beautiful world we’ve always felt was possible. As an institution, particularly a Jesuit institution at this time in history, we have a unique role to play in bringing about a more just, sustainable, and ecologically integrated civilization. Laudato Si provides a roadmap. Let’s think big — planetary-scale — and embrace the moment. We do indeed have work to do.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

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