Like you, I have spent many, many years following the rhythm of the academic calendar. From the burst of excitement in late August and early September, through the long stretch through October and November, to the sprint to finals week after Thanksgiving. Then, in spring semester, the bitter cold gives way to slush and occasional sunny days, a nice long spring break, and the rush downhill to graduation. The year always ends abruptly with the leaves emerging and the students leaving. East Lansing goes quiet. The rhythm of the academic year shapes my conception of time, so when I say “the end of the year,” I mean May, not December.
The pandemic has thrown aside so many things that we take for granted. Our daily patterns, our year-end traditions, and the way we interact with one another have all been thrown into the wind. One of the most striking realizations came when one of my colleagues, Joe Salem (MSU’s Dean of Libraries), texted me during a meeting to comment on the tremendous effort necessary to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. “This all makes me realize how much of the university runs on autopilot from year to year. I pay attention to the change because I am usually involved in it, but so much just rolls along. When it all has to happen anew it is nuts.”
It makes sense that most of what we do is consistent year to year and that rapid change feels chaotic to us. After all, universities are medieval institutions, and even a school as relatively young as Michigan State has educated many, many generations of students. After 165 years, we should have figured out the best ways to do things, so there ought not be much that we want to change from year to year. However, we know all too well that there are actually a great many things that ought to be reformed at every institution of higher ed.
I have asserted for the last several years that – tradition and habit aside – we ought to be scrutinizing every aspect of MSU to ensure that we are meeting our Land Grant ideals of access, equity, and opportunity. In fact, many of the ways in which we recruit and orient new students, how our curriculum is structured, and the manner in which our campus culture has evolved undermine the great work done at MSU by making the campus less accessible and less equitable. I have called these policies, procedures, and norms “low bridges,” and have called for a systematic evaluation that would identify and remediate them. But the status quo is remarkably resilient, so the process of reform is painfully slow.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of our normal activities is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to move our reform efforts along much more quickly. Rahm Emanuel made famous the line, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” in reference to the 2007-08 economic collapse. It was a pithy statement – borrowed from the economist Paul Romer – that summarized his approach as President Obama’s Chief of Staff. Emanuel went on to say, “What I mean by that is it is an opportunity to do things that you could not do before.”
As terrible as the pandemic has been for everyone, it also presents us with an opportunity to get many things done that we have not yet been able to accomplish. The most obvious of these has been our rapid shift to online education and to styles of work that allow for remote work, online meetings, and asynchronous communication. All across campus, new leaders have emerged to help reform and guide the institution’s shift to online learning and instruction. In addition, we have seen units and divisions begin to question “the way we have always done things” and start to rethink policies, procedures, and norms that may be prohibiting or limiting student success both during the pandemic and during normal operations. The pandemic has presented an opportunity for us to explore the “low bridges” on campus so that when we come back in the fall, we can have an opportunity to do things we have never done before in support of our Land Grant ideals. Let’s not waste this opportunity.