Facing The Pandemic

Administration August 2021 PREMIUM
College Presidents’ Dilemmas

Presidents worry about a thousand and one things every day. But it got worse a year and a half ago: COVID-19 knocked institutions for a loop and it continues to affect them negatively.

The pandemic was devastating. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that more than 600,000 fewer students enrolled at America’s colleges this spring compared to last year. The data collected from 97 percent of all degree-granting institutions revealed that enrollment fell by 3.5 percent -- 17.5 million students to 16.9 million -- the largest year-over-year drop in a decade.

Such enrollment deficits hindered most of higher education and it will take years to recover.

Hispanic students, many the first in their family to attend college, were particularly hard hit. Many who were accepted as freshmen decided not to go to college; numerous Hispanic students who were already enrolled dropped out.

Worse yet, this may not be a temporary setback. Past statistics note that if their higher education is interrupted, most Hispanics never return. The pandemic damage will not be easily mended.

Presidents: Scrambling to prepare for “An Unsettled Future”

Rick Seltzer has written that COVID-19 has kept college presidents “scrambling” for months on end; it’s a good descriptive word, for it captures their daily anxieties well.

The webinar  “Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis: A Survey of College and University Presidents" sponsored by Inside Higher Ed covered issues presidents have faced.  

Findings of the survey show that Presidents became lightning rods. They had to deal with urgent problems, which frequently changed daily. Many struggled as they tried to integrate changing present realities and future expectations. Most, I think, did their best, but still a lot of turmoil and fear ensued. Colleges aren’t equipped to be battlefields.

Presidents, certainly the good ones, had “to prepare their institutions for an unsettled future that looks very different from the old status quo.” Former alliances were shattered. New ones were hard to create.

The American Council on Education polled college presidents as well to identify the main issues. The number one concern among presidents by far was the “mental health” of the faculty. Their anguish was uppermost in the minds of most presidents.

Second was the mental health of students. Both faculty and students suffered anguish that impacted campuses. Its ramifications are not fully understood, yet still permeate daily realities.

Presidents always impact the present and influence the future. So why is this era so different? Because the pandemic was so devastating, the decisions they made had monumental and far-reaching consequences.

American higher education was impacted as rarely before. Changes have dramatically altered most institutions. It’s not a matter of roughing it out and then returning to the old ways. That just isn’t going to happen. It can’t.

Teaching and learning

Teaching changed. Out of necessity, most colleges introduced or significantly expanded their distance learning offerings. On-line classes, virtual classrooms, Zoom conferences and other platforms were employed, which rescued many an institution.

It was a bumpy ride. Faculty and students had to learn a new, and to most, a foreign way of teaching and learning. We read of successes, but not of the many failures. These existed; some think they affected the quality of our education. Whether we like it or not, those forced changes will modify our future. The transition will be difficult and the final results are not known.

Effects on presidents

The turmoil was intense.  Presidents were blamed for the instability and decisions even if they weren’t of their making.

Dropping enrollments, with their financial implications, forced presidents to implement unwanted personnel decisions. Many institutions cut all adjuncts. Some released full-time non-tenured professors. And in a move rarely seen throughout history, some tenured professors were terminated as well. Heavier cuts were made among staff and administrative personnel.

Understandably, unrest and resentment ensued. In times of campus upheaval, the president is the focal point. Little could be done to assuage the fear and anger. Some presidents endured “lack of confidence” votes by the faculty.  In most cases, that’s a devastating professional event.

Many students felt cheated, for they were not receiving the campus experience they expected and paid for. Their point can be appreciated.

The result? In many cases, regardless of their collaborative leadership and their attempts to fashion reasonable accommodation, presidents become the target.

Some presidents resigned, on their own – others were forced out.  Some opted for early retirement, some fired. It was a personal and an institutional low point.

I suspect studies are underway to explore how presidents lost their jobs and their reputations.

A summing up

A number of colleges, mostly small Liberal Arts institutions, curtailed their offerings, closed, or plan to close. Living on the edge for decades, their existence was terminated by a tiny virus that the world is still trying to overcome.

Mills College in Oakland, California, announced it would not accept first-year students after fall 2021.Founded in 1852, two years after California became a state and nine years before the Civil War, Mills faced many an obstacle, but always soldiered forth.

In 1891 Norwegian settlers founded Concordia College, near Manhattan, New York; it was forced to close.

MacMurray College, founded in 1846, one of the oldest colleges for women and one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in Illinois, also closed. 

Urbana University in Ohio, founded in 1850, and Wisconsin's 136-year-old Holy Family College, had to close as well.

These colleges aren't the only ones to close. Although many survived the Civil War, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, two world wars and other adverse events, they did not survive the current virus.    

These closures represent a loss of opportunities, of careers, and of communities. 

So what!?

The death of these colleges affects the fragile fabric of American higher education: we all share in the loss.

Some may disagree, dismiss these tragedies. I refer them to John Dunne’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. In 1624, Dunne wrote that upon hearing funeral church bells tolling, one need not ask who died - for every death means part of us has died as well.

“ any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” 

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