In our efforts to understand COVID-19, contend with the suffering that it causes, and mount an appropriate response, it is tempting to resurrect well-worn clichs. One clich in particular, the idea of a "new normal," stands out to us. One does not need to look far for thoughtful descriptions of how COVID-19 and its cascade of catastrophes are shaping so-called "new normals" for individuals, families, communities, and industries. But for one industryhigher educationCOVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious problems more than it presents new problems. For higher education, the new normal is partly an old normal that many ignored.
The notion of a new normal has always been compelling. You may recall this term being used widely in the wake of the Great Recession to describe the sea change in the U.S. labor and housing markets and the decreased public funding for higher education that followed. The phrase itself emerged from Vice President Dick Cheney's characterization of heightened security in the wake of 9/11 as a "new normalcy." Its perennial reuse reveals how the complex, highly interdependent systems that comprise our "normal" are designed to function only in a fragile state of equilibrium and are seldom prepared to adapt to unexpected shocks.
We know something about these shocks and the new normal they each created in higher education. For example, our institution, Arizona State University (ASU), is one of the largest in the country and the largest in the state that during the Great Recession cut more from higher education than any other. While we can learn from past negative events, we must appreciate that the conditions COVID-19 asks us to embrace as part of its new normal have been around for yearsor even decades. While some of these have been widely appreciated, others were emerging suspicions. We describe a few of each here.
[F]or one industryhigher educationCOVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious problems more than it presents new problems. For higher education, the new normal is partly an old normal that many ignored.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?
First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.
These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as disruption, technology management, and so-called "mergers and acquisitions" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.
Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students areand should remainthe core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interestsor worse, shareholder interestsare placed above student well-being.
Photo: Getty Images
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?
Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.
In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional closures and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.
While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail.
Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.
For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary.
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Where can the new normal take us?
As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.
COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher educationand these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years.
ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but driving innovation in higher education. We have adopted a charter that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "who we exclude." We adopted an entrepreneurial operating model that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as InStride, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU EdPlus, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale.
For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 enrollment speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time."
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