‘Living on fumes’: America’s universities desperately need a post-COVID-19 overhaul. Here’s why it won’t happen

‘Living on fumes’: America’s universities desperately need a post-COVID-19 overhaul. Here’s why it won’t happen

Illustration by Alex Cochran

America’s most experienced university president views the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity for a massive update. But the universities themselves don’t seem too keen on changing.

Like most university presidents these days, Gordon Gee has a lot on his mind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left higher education with plenty of question marks, he acknowledges. But the Vernal, Utah, native — whose seventh tenure as a university president places him at West Virginia University and makes him America’s most experienced university president — doesn’t seem the least bit worried.

“We’ve got a unique problem coming up (this fall),” he tells me over Zoom, the medium-of-choice for educators nowadays, on a recent Friday afternoon. “How do we wring fear out of the system? How do we make parents feel in control, make students feel comfortable and make our faculty feel comfortable? And how do we teach?” He stops and thinks. “Other than that, it’s simple.”

He grins, pausing just long enough to let the sarcasm sink in. “It’s like planning the Normandy invasion.”

Humor and optimism have become second-nature for America’s longest-tenured university president. He’s needed it, guiding colleges through the effects of Black Monday to 9/11 to shootings on campuses to his offices being robbed. But the COVID-19 pandemic is something new, something different. He’s never seen anything like it. No one has.

“I tell people all the time, I feel like a new freshman again,” he says. “I’m a little kid walking along a picket fence, hoping I don’t get impaled.”

Luckily for Gee — and probably unluckily for everyone else — he’s not tiptoeing the fence alone. Most industries in America (and the world) are on the tip of massive change, from health care to technology to travel. But America’s higher education system might be poised for the biggest change of all — a complete transformation.

Some hypothesize the pandemic will force universities to utilize more digital tools. Others speculate that degree programs will be forever altered. But Gee views the pandemic as something more — an opportunity to completely reinvent university structure, recalibrate professors’ focus and rethink the way students are taught. And, Gee adds, these are changes our country’s education system desperately needs.

But that change may come much slower than even the most reasonable minds would like to admit. In fact, they might not come at all. While the world shifts into the new-look post-COVID-19 phase, universities may well go unchanged. And while the rest of the world zooms into whatever the “new normal” may be, universities might restrain themselves from a much-needed update.

“That is the danger of higher education — we love to look in the rearview mirror,” Gee admits. “People talk about universities being very liberal places. They may be liberal sometimes, politically, but in terms of change, they haven’t changed since the year 1200.”

 Associated Press
Then-Ohio State University President Gordon Gee, center, smiles as he meets with a room full of student leaders Friday, July 13, 2007, in Columbus, Ohio

‘Reinvention or extinction’

The year 2008 was a dark time for higher education. Scratch that — 2008 was a dark time for most American industries which relied on some sort of external revenue. For colleges and universities in particular, though, the Great Recession hit hard.

Gee was a year into his second stint as president of Ohio State when the stock market crashed. A year later, he’d headline Time Magazine’s 2009 list of “The 10 Best College Presidents”; he had already served as president of West Virginia University, University of Colorado, Ohio State University (once before), Brown University and Vanderbilt University. But decades of experience can’t always prepare one for a major nationwide crisis.

He wasn’t alone in foreseeing the toll the economic decline would have on America’s education system. But he also knew that some of America’s biggest shifts in education came during large-scale upheavals. Think Abraham Lincoln and the 1862 Morrill Act, which sparked the creation of land-grant institutions (like Utah State or Ohio State) during the Civil War. If history had anything to teach, it was that crises most certainly can spark innovation.

Knee-deep in the recession’s debris, he was the keynote speaker at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting. His remarks didn’t match the patois of the prototypical intellectual. He didn’t preach from an ivory tower or simply laud the longevity of our nation’s education system. Instead, he called for revolution.

“While giving deference to our proud history, our challenge today is radical reformation,” Gee told a group of university presidents in that setting. “The choice, it seems to me, is this: reinvention or extinction.”

Plenty of Gee’s associates — those at the Harvards and Dartmouths and Cornells of the world — likely dismissed his call for massive overhaul in 2009, instead favoring the legacy of an educational system with centuries of proven potency. Gee hasn’t yet surrendered, though. His track record doesn’t allow him to. He’s long slashed the status quo, cutting against the grain and sparking innovation. When a handful of faculty members early in his career asked him to exchange his bow-tie-and-khakis outfits for a more “presidential look,” he complied — then gave up. It just wasn’t him. He’s most comfortable when he’s breaking norms. And when it comes to an outdated educational system, he’s more than willing to assume the role of the outspoken contemporary.

Higher education’s tipping point didn’t come in 2008. But now, a decade after his “reinvention or extinction” speech, Gee — unsurprisingly — foresees another massive overhaul to America’s educational framework. A thousand colleges and universities nationwide will shut down permanently as a result of our current economic impasse, he predicts. “I think the American university, in many ways, has been living on fumes and on reputation,” he says. Will the rest of our nation’s educational leaders listen to him, buckle down and orchestrate major overhaul? It seems unlikely. But that won’t stop him from trying.

Extinction can be avoided, he reaffirms. The institutions that revert to differentiation and latch onto their roots will thrive. Land-grant universities need to stick to their purpose as the “people’s university” and not waver. Religious universities need to be proud of that heritage and let it define them (he specifically cited BYU as an example, where he served as a dean at the newly-formed Clark Law School in the 1970s). The key, then, is not reinventing a university’s identity, but rediscovering what already makes it unique.

In many cases, that differentiation will require structural overhaul. Gee’s 2009 “reinvention” speech called for a restructuring of universities, away from the “vertical” order of colleges and departments and toward a “horizontal” organization — formed around institutes, centers and working groups, allowing ideas to take the front seat and promoting interdisciplinary study. This reorganization would give way to free intellectual commerce and build a more fluid university system.

He sees a shift away from the semester schedule and toward a more cyclical approach — a few months on campus for students, followed by a few months off in experiential learning, then back again. He also thinks a paradigm shift in how professors view “teaching loads” and “research opportunities” is an essential step in prioritizing the student experience.

Now, he adds a renaissance of the humanities to his post-pandemic projection of the American university. While the Recession sparked sharp decreases in students studying English, world languages, philosophy and other liberal arts fields, Gee thinks our nation’s COVID-19-induced shift to telework and digitization may only increase the need for graduates with liberal arts skills. “I believe that writing, thinking (and) expressing may be the only skills people are going to need (in the future),” he says. “If the predictions are correct, 80% of the jobs that we’re training people for right now will not exist, because they’ll be taken over by artificial intelligence.”

Gee dissects the futuristic American universities with the precision of a surgeon — this function here, this discipline there, allowing this part and that part to work in unison. He promotes fluidity and opposes siloed departments. And, in true physician form, he justifies his revamped university structure in basic medical lingo: “I think that will be much more healthy.”

Will America listen? If our current response to a legitimate health emergency is any indicator, it seems unlikely that we’ll give real attention to the health of our universities. And, if history can teach us anything, it’s that universities have been here before.

 Associated Press
In this Jan. 11, 2014, file photo, West Virginia president Gordon Gee greets a fan before an NCAA college basketball game between West Virginia and Oklahoma State in Morgantown, W.Va.

A missed opportunity

Regardless of how riveting Dr. Gee’s call to arms may have been in 2009, his colleagues hardly marched off to war. If reinvention and extinction can be seen as the two extremes on higher education’s continuum of survival, America’s universities have spent the past decade sliding the wrong direction — in dramatic fashion.

In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, state funding for higher ed dipped by $9 billion and tuition costs increased by 35%. Student debt more than doubled — ballooning to $1.5 trillion. And, as one Washington Post op-ed speculated, financial strife handcuffed administrators from typical long-term planning, forcing universities “to focus on short-term issues rather than the long-term sustainability of their institutions.”

Universities seem to be reinventing themselves in all the wrong ways. Gee championed community outreach and education for underrepresented demographics; universities instead reverted to tuition hikes that deterred low-income students. He called for a broad unification of departments and colleges; rather, budget cuts led to slashed programs and downsizing.

And, perhaps in its biggest blunder, the university’s preeminent export evolved into its most profitable import — the student. Since state funding cuts forced many public universities to find other ways to patch together a functional budget, the financial strain was balanced by increased tuition costs, tossing the fiscal burden upon students.

In the center of universities’ financial identity crisis, an increasingly vocal faction began questioning the merit of a 21st-century college education altogether. College degrees are outdated and unnecessary, they contended, and based on universities’ track record in updating themselves (or, rather, their unwillingness to do so), their argument wasn’t entirely off-color.

Now, a decade removed from 2008’s financial crisis — one which seems mild, compared to what we’re currently facing — universities are again at a crossroads. They can take the route that Gee suggests, reinventing themselves for a learning-centric, student-driven future. Or they can follow the path they chose in 2008 — a path which may lead to slow decay and eventual irrelevance.

What seems like the quick fix, the easy solution, is an all-out move to digital learning. That’s only a mirage, though. Without doubt colleges will learn from their spring 2020 crash course in remote instruction and latch onto some form of “hybrid” teaching. But we cannot expect remote classes to completely replace the traditional higher education system.

Students who wish to forego the intricacies of the on-campus college experience already have the option, but there’s a reason online universities have yet to take over the four-year, on-campus undergraduate path. Digital tweaks and hybrid offerings aren’t the revolution that Gee calls for.

In their landmark book “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out,” Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring lobby for an overhaul of the university system, including a major shift to technology — but as a supplement, not a replacement, of the on-campus environment. “The world desperately needs its university communities,” they wrote. “Above all else, they are uniquely positioned to mentor students on their campuses.”

If digital learning isn’t enough to prepare universities for the post-COVID-19 world, what is? Gee’s checklist of long-overdue updates may be a good place to start. Restructuring universities — from vertical to horizontal — will reinvigorate interdisciplinary research and create a more learning-centric university environment. Rethinking the semester system will give students real-world training and soften the blow of future pandemic-like disruptions. And reemphasizing the humanities will prepare future generations for a futuristic job market.

 Jennifer Shephard, WVU photo
West Virginia University president Gordon Gee, center, poses for a photo with student Anita Lanpolsaen, right, and her father Pranee Lanpolsaen during move-In day at the school Saturday, August 12, 2017.

The world is in a process of reinvention. The cliché of 2020 may be the phrase “a new normal” — but buried in its overuse lies some fragment of truth. The world, collectively, is working toward a new status of existence, a new way to operate, a new pattern for functioning. The systems and processes that found previous success may fail in the plight for economic recovery. And while other industries reinvent and revamp, our nation’s educational system — once lauded as the “envy of the world” — must do the same.

But that’s the problem. Higher education, in its current state, has been so good for so long. The institutional structure is what makes it distinctly American, and the institutional elite see little need for adjustment. And in an effort to catch up, to assimilate, many of the others — the land-grant institutions, the religious universities and the liberal arts colleges — have lost their identities. Gee calls the U.S. News & World Report, the premier ranking system for colleges and universities, one of the most destructive things to ever happen to higher education. “When they play the rating game,” he says, “we end up with a lot of mediocrity.”

Universities found themselves at a similar — but admittedly less consequential — crossroads in 2008. The choice, as Gee framed it, was reinvention or extinction. Universities opted against reinvention, and though extinction didn’t hit them then, irrelevance and financial impasse seems to be inching closer. For many of our nation’s colleges and universities, failing to give the system a post-pandemic update might be the block that tips the scale.

Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different result — and as we enter the “new normal,” most organizations won’t have a choice but to shed insanity. The verdict’s out on whether universities will follow suit.

“There’s no choice but to change,” Gee reiterates. But before I can close our interview by asking the real question on America’s mind — how much the American university can really be altered without losing arguably its main distinctive quality — Gee gives a reassuring smile and emphasizes that football has a future in the American university, and will be played this fall — even if he has to suit up and play himself.

“For me, college football is about hope,” he emphasizes. “I believe that intercollegiate enthusiasm is something that really will help the national mood, if nothing else.”

See, some parts of the American university may never change. But other parts desperately need an overhaul. And if Gee has any say, now’s the time to make those changes. Forty years into a career leading universities, Gee and his colleagues could be on the verge of the biggest upheaval yet.

Gee doesn’t mind. He’s been calling for change for a decade. If only the rest of the country would listen.

Email: sbenson@deseretnews.com.

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