Will our colleges and universities (C&U) ever be the same after COVID-19? Their doors - classrooms, athletic fields, auditoria and other facilities have been shuttered. Classes have been going online via technological means. C&U has survived many calamities in the past, including the pandemic flu of 1918, a depression, two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, and other catastrophes. While the flu of 1918 closed elementary and secondary schools, C&U were rarely affected. Now, it is questionable whether C&U will be open, in their usual sense, for the fall semester.
The coronavirus has forced C&U to make difficult decisions about a collegiate education. Higher education planners are forecasting declining enrollments. CCSU enrollment was down 5% and is reimbursing students for unused room and board costs. This is in addition to absorbing unplanned costs of the technology required for online courses. International students may decide not to travel to the United States. Many purely residential colleges are closing their doors for good.
Residential colleges, like CCSU, are an inheritance from England. The model from Oxford and Cambridge was brought to Massachusetts in what became Harvard. Named after John Harvard, who on his deathbed made a bequest, of about $150,000 to develop a “schoale or Colledge,” earlier established by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A residential college is established to house and feed students and place them among scholars of the various academic disciplines. Often such colleges were not located in urban environments; today that is not usually the case. CCSU was originally planned to be in Farmington, but following a bidding war, New Britain industrialists raised over $16,000 and the General Assembly of CT approved the present location.
So, what will C&U be like in the coming semesters ahead?
Many C&U offer courses, even degrees online. With the COVID-19 virus most C&U, including CCSU, are doing all course work online at the current time. Both students and faculty are struggling as they try to adjust to the new normal of online academic programs. Many C&U do not know if students will return to their campus this fall. Athletics, like them or not, are suspended, some of them with lucrative income and revenue streams. Large lecture sections may be absent on campuses this fall. Food emporia, another major expense, may vanish.
From my standpoint, I value the extraordinary value of the classroom experience and still can recall as a biological sciences major engaging with my professor who was an internationally respected arachnologist. While not enamored with arachnids, as his lab assistant, I got to identify and categorize species from around the world. In a history course, I was able to write a paper about why the Civil War of the United States was not about freeing the slaves, but about industry versus farming, states’ rights and expansion among other causes. I learned that when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, it only freed slaves in the Confederacy, not in the North. Then in my senior year, because I had fulfilled all the academic requirements to graduate, I enrolled in a course on Shakespeare. There I learned that Hamlet was thinking about life and death. And never, to this day, is this a forgotten lecture. In a music appreciation class, I learned why Beethoven was such a genius and why he said, “Music is a higher revelation than philosophy,” or Chopin who effected radical and fundamental changes to 19th century piano compositions.
Only a live professor in a real classroom could provide those intellectual gems. And then, add to the academics, the enrichment provided by the cocurricular and extracurricular activities.
Students say taking classes online is not easy and they want the faculty to understand that every home is not conducive to learning. But some say the faculty is limited in what they can accomplish online. One student says, "This online experience has been draining: Not only with the constant deadlines but also getting in contact with some of my professors." (Buzzfeednews.com, April 28, 2020)
Yet, change is here. It is doubtful that C&U will refund tuition. Online courses will continue even though I contend students do not get their money’s worth. A college degree does what it does because of libraries, laboratories and interaction with the faculty who teach and mentor them. Faculty, in person, provides students with different perspectives of the discipline and of the global community in which we live. Most online education is simply not as effective or as good for students as is face-to-face faculty instruction.
One highly respected Middle East expert notes, “….because of the continuation of the virus, colleges and universities may not be able to open in their usual sense…”
A well-respected communications professor, now retired, notes “…While I personally find that Public Speaking online is an absurdity, as did Neil Postman, since how can there possibly be public speaking absent an audience? …”
A distinguished historian said this, “…I had half a semester in the classroom to develop a rapport with my students. This is tremendously important because only getting to know my students can I gain their trust to discuss often emotional and complex historical ideas…” Many of the faculty shares that sentiment. But online is here to stay.
No one knows, with this pandemic, whether students will return to their campuses this fall, and if they do, major changes are a-foot. There will be deep fiscal impacts; tuition shortfalls are likely. At state intuitions like CCSU, where most of the funding comes from the state, which is now running a huge deficit due to the coronavirus, student tuition is likely to increase. Will parents and students accede to this? Major cuts will affect all sectors of a university’s operating budget.
No one knows whether students will return, or new students will embark on the new normal. It is my strong conviction that the faculty and students are up to the challenges presented. The future is here, not tomorrow, but now.
Richard L. Judd is President Emeritus of Central Connecticut State University