Pandemic bringing changes to higher education that could be long-lasting

By: - April 16, 2020 11:47 am
Image: Adobe Stock

Some say “new normal” at UNC could feature more faculty input, fewer applicants, depleted budgets and an expanded commitment to online instruction

This week Eric Muller dialed in to a UNC-Chapel Hill faculty leadership video conference to wrestle with some heavy topics:  the ongoing pandemic, its effect on teaching, looming budget cuts and an uncertain future.

But when his image popped up on the call it was with a custom, tropical-themed background he’d downloaded just to lighten things up a bit.

Muller, a UNC law professor, has been doing what professors, students and administrators have all been doing for the last month — the best he can.

Working from home. Checking in with students and colleagues remotely. Shifting his UNC law courses to online. Making allowances for the stress of the pandemic and the limitations of online-only education.

It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t always gone perfectly. But he’s been getting it done.

“This semester, this came upon us as an emergency,” Muller said. “And I think we’ve done a fabulous job, administrators and faculty alike, at reorienting and kind of making silk purses out of a sow’s ear. But it’s not an emergency as to the fall.”

Prof. Erik Muller

As administrators and the UNC Board of Governors consider bringing students back to campuses in August, many faculty members say the university should be much more deliberate about when and how professors return to teaching. The current pandemic has transformed university level education — and as public health officials warn another spike of infections could happen during the next cold and flu season, some believe the state’s universities need to do better than just returning to the status quo.

“It’s going to be very important for the faculty to not just have a voice but a very significant voice in how instruction is delivered,” Muller said.

“We’re entering a time when we as a faculty could have a much more prominent say in instruction,” Muller said. “This is what we’re here for. We need to have a process that is really vibrant in engaging faculty voices — having influence rather than just a forum where faculty say things and then administrators move on and make the decision. I don’t mean to express any mistrust in administrators. I have great trust in them. But this is one of those areas where the faculty has a distinct role. This is kind of the essence of what we do.”

Exploring the options

Cary Levine, professor and director of undergraduate studies for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Art and Art History department, said he understands the drive to return to a comforting, pre-pandemic “normal.” But the university needs to be realistic and cautious, he said.

“We really, as faculty representatives, need to make sure we have a voice — particularly in the decision of whether and how to go back to school in the fall,” Levine said. “Because, of course, this impacts us not just as teachers but as individuals with family members that might be impacted if we ourselves get this virus. It’s important that faculty have a say, that it’s not just a decision that is made in terms of whether we can pack students into a big classroom or not.”

Early this month the UNC system office advised campuses to move summer sessions online. UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, UNC-Charlotte, East Carolina University and UNC-Greensboro all announced they would do so even as Duke University cancelled its Summer Session I courses, which run from May 13 to June 25.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

UNC-Chapel Hill is planning on bringing students back Aug. 16, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said this week. But that’s a goal more than a firm plan at this point. A final decision won’t be made until mid-to-late-June at the earliest, he said.

“I have the registrar beginning to look at some different scenarios just so we can be prepared,” Guskiewicz said. “What if we needed to go all online for the fall? What if we decided that because the tail has drawn out longer than what we had expected, we need to start the semester two or three weeks later?”

Information on the pandemic, its numbers and how long North Carolina may need to continue social distancing measures change almost daily.

“We have some of the best infectious disease experts in the world, ” Guskiewicz said. “They continue to advise us daily on the models that are out there. Even after we see the tail on this — we’re going to see the peak here soon, we hope — it’s the rate of that tail and how quickly it drops off.”

“But there’s going to be an extended period of social distancing after that,” Guskiewicz said. “I’m sure you’re reading and hearing in the news concerns about this thing possibly spiking back up again in November, December, whenever the cold weather comes back. So we just don’t know.”

UNCG is struggling with the same questions, Chancellor Frank Gilliam wrote in a message to the university community earlier this month.

“We in the administration are engaged in a series of scenario-planning activities based on various assumptions,” Gilliam wrote. “For example, how much lead time do we need to get a currently shuttered campus ready for the next academic year? Given the economic impact, what can we do to continue to support our students, faculty, and staff in the face of potential budget limitations? If students have new and additional barriers to staying in school, what can we do to keep them going? If we have to remain with online courses in the fall, what can we do to better support both students and faculty? We don’t have all the answers, but we are developing what we believe are the right questions.”

The pandemic’s effect on the economy — and the heavy budget cuts that will likely mean for universities — is on everyone’s minds as they try to envision a post-COVID-19 landscape for higher education.

This month a survey of 142 college and university presidents found 70% anticipate budget cuts of at least 10%  in the new fiscal year starting in June. More than half of those surveyed at four-year public universities said they are looking at across-the-board cuts and 67 percent said they may need to lay off staff. Nearly half said they anticipate some academic program cutting but 85% said they plan to maintain tuition at its current levels.

“This will change things — and it should”

Some voices in higher education think permanent change is on the way. Marty Kotis has been pushing for more investment in online education for more than six years, since he joined the UNC Board of Governors.

“I don’t know how many people were actually listening,” Kotis said. “But I think, I would hope, it’s being taken more seriously now.”

Marty Kotis

At last month’s UNC Board of Governors meeting Kotis managed to convince his fellow board members to reconsider their long-term budget planning and funding and asks of the General Assembly.

Moving forward as though the pandemic is an anomalous blip just isn’t an option, Kotis said.

“I would like to see us pausing capital investment and putting that money into expanding online ed,” Kotis said. “I think this may be the trigger that changes the way education is delivered.”

The UNC system needs to think about how the pandemic is affecting instruction now, he said, but it also needs to be realistic about how it is likely to effect how students and their parents see college going forward.

The economic effects of the pandemic are likely to lead to a significant dip in enrollment. Last month, a survey of high school seniors and college students found 8% of seniors who planned to go to college in the fall had changed their minds because of the pandemic. Forty-one percent of those now in college said their view of college had gotten worse as a result. Half of current college students surveyed said the online instruction they’re now getting was worse than the in-person instruction they got before the coronavirus closed their campuses.

“This will change things,” Kotis said. “And it should.”

Kotis, a Greensboro real estate developer who owns a number of restaurants, a brewery and a movie theater, said the UNC system should consider the way the pandemic is already changing other industries in lasting ways.

Universal Studios decided to begin releasing its films as video-on-demand streaming offerings rather than simply pushing back the release dates as theaters are closed, Kotis said.

“They haven’t said this is going to be just for now,” Kotis said. “This is a change we’re seeing. And whether or not I think that’s the best decision, that’s what they’re doing.”

If consumers shift from valuing the social, communal experience of their local theaters less than the immediacy and relative safety of seeing first-run films in their homes during the pandemic, Kotis said, it could permanently change the industry.

In a similar way, Kotis said, students and parents who have experienced online education through months of a pandemic may expect more and better online education after it is over. Whether because of ongoing health concerns or the need to work their college educations around their living and job situations in a recession, Kotis said, online education is going to be in high demand.

“Schools that are already doing this and doing it well are going to be able to take advantage of that,” Kotis said. “We need to make sure that we are those schools.”

Larger universities — especially big state schools — have traditionally been able to rely on the pull of traditional campus life to lure students, Kotis said.

“Most people would prefer to go away to school, live in a dorm, live and go to school on campus, have that experience,” Kotis said. “So you can see why there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on online.”

Smaller schools — whether private universities or some of the smaller enrollment schools in the UNC system — have developed more comprehensive online offerings because they have to, Kotis said. They realize many of their students are working while going to school, are adults with families now going back to school or may not live near a university campus.

All school should now be focusing on online ed more heavily, Kotis said, both for the good of students and to avoid being left behind.

For a relatively small fraction of what UNC schools plan to spend on new academic buildings, dormitories and physical campus improvements in the next few years, Kotis said, the UNC system could transform its online education offerings, making them more comprehensive and competitive in a tough market.

The UNC Board of Governors is meeting in committees Thursday and as a full board Friday.

“We’re definitely going to be discussing this,” Kotis said. “I know I am.”


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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.