Polymers are substances that are bonded sets of identical, very large molecules, chained or tangled together. The “poly” is the many and the “mer” is the parts. For example, some bullet-proof vests can contain such materials. Since polymers can fracture over time, losing their functionality, studies have been mounted to increase their resilience. They have focused on properties of the structure that might yield a self-healing property. Some of these materials store within them self-repair features, which upon trauma to the material, are released to heal the material. One can imagine the value of a self-healing material in a hostile environment (e.g., outer space or a soldier in extended combat).
Thoughts about self-healing come to mind in thinking about universities. For many decades, the external environments of US universities have been benign. The baby boom and its echoes led to much higher demand for education and research in universities. Support of governments, at both state and federal levels, provided resources for growth. The social compact that universities and the federal government outlined in the Vannevar Bush framework in Science: The Endless Frontier propelled forward the “research” university.
Unfortunately, shocks from the external environments of universities have been increasing in frequency. Legislatures have cut funding for colleges and universities in many states. Boards of Overseers/Directors/Regents have insisted that universities be run as businesses, focusing on a limited set of functions. Federal support for scholarships have not kept pace with inflation. The size of the entering cohorts of students is shrinking. External support for research activities have not kept pace with inflation.
Further, in this time of COVID-19 it’s reasonable to view the external environment of universities as deeply hostile. Indeed, it has forced largely unplanned, abrupt changes in how we fulfill the mission of education, research, and service. Faculty, students, and staff are creating new protocols, out of necessity quite quickly, that try to maintain activities in a new medium. Few claim that this state of affairs is optimal.
So, as universities move to planning the fall, it is tempting to once again find a way to muddle through, in hopes that all this will pass and we will return to the status quo ante, Fall, 2019. This is most tempting if one labels the cause of our difficulties as COVID-19. That is, once this pandemic is managed, we can reinstitute all the features of Fall 2019.
This ignores the fact that COVID-19 is just a proximate cause of our current disruption. But COVID-19, itself, is an effect of other phenomena, which will not disappear when COVID-19 is managed. These more distant causes have produced COVID-19. Ignoring them, and focusing only on the proximate cause may be a mistake.
What are those more distant causes? Environmental degradation that threatens biodiversity, growing human encroachment that places nonhuman species in more frequent contact with humans, global warming, disastrous weather events, drought threatening food supplies, threats of interruptions in flow of electricity and internet connectivity. All of these then can lead to economic shocks. These global trends are outside the power of a university to control.
Taking lessons from both the self-healing features of nature and the man-made self-healing materials may be helpful to us. Inside these are seeds to protect the entity from external attacks or shocks. A portion of the resource base of the entity is solely devoted to protecting it whenever the attack occurs. It is a design feature.
How can we weave into the fabric of the university capabilities to bounce back from shocks like those above? How can we create sensors within the university design to detect the onset of those threats? How can we rush resources to the organizational location of the shock to return it to functioning? In a university, these questions must focus on answers to the chief functions of education, research, and service to the common good.
So, while academic year 2020-2021 is an important focus, it is also important to make changes to create a more robust, self-healing universities to the known threats they will inevitably face.
Universities have repeatedly adapted over the centuries of their existence. Our generation has been given the honor and burden of helping them do this again.