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In moments like this, I think it is worth considering our past. When my university, Northern Illinois University (NIU), graduated its first class of 16 students in 1900, I don’t think anyone back then could have imagined what we would be facing in 2020.
Or could they?
About this time, American society was recovering from the Civil War, coming to terms with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and dealing with great technological advances in transportation with the advent of the automobile and airplanes. Americans were coming out of the depression of the 1890s that left many destitute due to the lack of a governmental safety net. Books like The War of the Worlds and The Picture of Dorian Gray were published that reflected a certain amount of social angst.
If we fast forward to the 1910's, we continue to see challenges. NIU saw significant enrollment declines due to World War I and classes were suspended on campus during October of 1918 due to the influenza epidemic of the era. NIU President Cook, writing during this time, said, “When we shall begin again is a matter for the future to decide. There is nothing that seems of consequence right now but the war and the epidemic.”
During 1918, whole families died from the flu. Around the world, the war and the pandemic were not the only issues. This was the year when the Russian royal family was assassinated within the sweeping events of the Russian Revolution, and a few short months before Zapata was killed near the culmination of the complex Mexican Revolution. These were very difficult times.
I could go through a range of changes and challenges that NIU and other universities faced since 1918: The Great Depression, World War II, The Vietnam War, civil unrest in the 1960’s. During each of these moments, universities evolved and changed with the times.
I have no doubt that American universities will continue to be vibrant institutions on into the future. However, as history shows us, universities rose to the challenges they faced. As we look toward the next decade, we have to ask ourselves how universities will change with our times.
I joke with my colleagues that the word of the year is "pivot". It seems like we pivoted to online course delivery back in the spring semester and around the country we are pivoting to a blended delivery system this semester with the expectation that we should be able to pivot to whatever the situation demands in the future. Over the last few weeks, I have added the word pivot to my administrative bingo sheet along with words and phrases like biggest bang for the buck, paradigm shift, leverage, put a pin in it, and my favorite, it is what it is.
But the term pivot implies that you are basically just circling a central point. Pivoting means that the basic conditions don’t change as you circle that central point.
In our current era, the term pivot isn’t really accurate. We are actually going through rolling motion. We are rotating around a central point which is itself going through motion. What matters in this rolling motion is that there needs to be intention of direction. Certainly we have outside forces like COVID and our national economy influencing our direction. However, we give up our own power of intention if we are only reactive to the changes impacting our direction.
We have the opportunity in higher education to make decisions over the next few years to direct us in a path of our choosing. Certainly we will have to deal with the momentum of our times—the issues of budget, COVID, and others. But we have choices in this unusual situation.
As we start to think what the fall of 2021 looks like when we start to emerge from a post COVID world (hopefully), we should do so with intentionality. At all levels of higher education, we need to think about what we want to be and how we want to get there. We need to put our own spin on things so that we don’t pivot in a single spot. We need to design our own forward motion.