In late February and early March, most major U.S. universities sent students home, shut down nonessential research, and embraced online working and teaching. The radical changes of that moment came at a high price. Universities refunded students for unused room and board, they lost revenue when nonemergency clinical services were canceled, and they experienced a fiscal shock when state governments cut or withheld appropriations.

Since then, universities have had a chance to catch their breath and study their budgets. The numbers are shocking. In April, the University of Michigan forecast losses between $400 million and $1 billion through the end of the calendar year. A month later, Stanford University projected losses of $267 million between March and September alone. Rutgers University, of which I am president, is anticipating a shortfall of $160 million for the 2020–21 fiscal year. Universities have responded to this financial cataclysm with several measures, including travel cuts, salary and hiring freezes, furloughs, layoffs, construction stoppages, and radical reductions to discretionary spending. These cuts will help, but they likely will not be enough to solve all of universities’ financial woes.

Because of the scale of the shock, the world of higher education could look very different on the other side of this crisis. Most major research universities will survive, but many smaller colleges may undergo mergers or even close. Universities might double down on online teaching, thereby making higher education more broadly available. Some institutions could move away from the four-year degree model and toward flexible certification instead. But for all that might change, some aspects of higher learning must remain the same.

Now and in the future, universities must continue to pursue knowledge wherever it is to be found—in the laboratory, the seminar room, the studio, or the concert hall. They must dedicate themselves to an intellectual, social, and cultural agenda that crosses international borders. And they must redouble their efforts to produce good citizens who do their earnest best to fight inequality. 

Today, universities face a number of daunting obstacles—more than they have faced at any time in recent memory. Administrators worry that budget cuts and remote learning will erode collegiality and the intellectual environment; that borders will harden, leaving scholars estranged from their international peers; and that the political and intellectual climate will become inhospitable to critical inquiry. But they must persevere in their mission and remain committed to the values of higher education, regardless of the constraints the pandemic imposes and the difficult choices now forced on schools.

SCHOLARS FOR A RECOVERY

The importance of a strong commitment to research has been made plain in the fight against the novel coronavirus. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to defund the World Health Organization and disempower the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers at the world’s universities will continue in their efforts to develop protective gear, therapeutics, and potential vaccinations to battle the virus. These health researchers are joined by other scholars who will play a critical role in the eventual global recovery. Anthropologists, literary scholars, philosophers, statisticians, political scientists, performing artists, language instructors, and legal theorists are just a few of the many specialists whose contributions to understanding the human condition will eventually allow societies to rebound from this crisis and ideally, to improve.

The importance of a strong commitment to research has been made plain in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Identifying and cultivating expertise has rarely been more essential. The present moment is one of self-declaration, when anyone with an Internet connection can try to shape public opinion, often in ways that are totally self-serving. University-based experts, who rely on peer review, quality control, and critical inquiry, can play an important role in restoring reason to the public sphere and to political debates. The hardening of international borders, however, makes it increasingly difficult for scholars to engage in their work in the most productive ways. As researchers’ exposure to different worldviews declines, their ability to gain valuable perspectives that will improve the quality of their work is similarly diminished. For these reasons, U.S.-based universities must continue to seek out and nurture overseas ties, whether with fellow universities or with such organizations as the Institute of International Education, which is committed to advancing scholarship, building economies, and promoting access to opportunities through international engagement.

Cynics will say that universities are desperate to reestablish these links because they run many programs that rely on international students’ tuition dollars. There is no denying that the tuition and fees that international students pay are important to universities’ bottom lines. (At Rutgers, for example, international students contribute $200 million in tuition on an annual basis.) But international scholars and students offer something still more important to the mission of American universities: they expand the circle of expertise and inquiry. The more diverse the group of people that universities engage when considering a complex problem, the likelier the group is to find a proper and sustaining answer. This is why preserving the international free flow of ideas is so critical; it represents the best investment universities can make in order to realize a safe and secure future in which global emergencies can be met and mitigated as quickly as possible.

SHAPING THE WORLD

Although an international phenomenon, the pandemic shock comes at a time when the cultural mission of American universities is under increased scrutiny on the domestic front. At the same time, the pandemic has exposed deep social, economic, and racial inequities woven into the fabric of the United States. This moment of rupture serves as an invitation to universities to play a more active role in improving the collective quality of life at the local level. Universities must accept this invitation and redouble their efforts to educate and train a new generation of citizens who can bring open, critical inquiry to society’s most pressing problems, many of which are present in the very neighborhoods that institutions of higher education call home. Furthermore, universities should make clear that they value scholarship that highlights the complex humanity of those people who have too often been ignored in textbooks. On the administrative front, universities should invest themselves in improving town-gown relationships, explore business opportunities for local service providers, and develop paid internships that support the local community through partnerships.

The pandemic has presented universities with an array of new problems, but despite the difficulties, these institutions must preserve their commitment to new ideas, advocate for the lowering of global barriers to the free flow of information, and become engaged and active partners in the communities around them in the name of mitigating inequality. Is doing all of this at the same time difficult? Of course it is. But any university worth its salt must embrace the task. Indeed, if universities shy away from this moment, they will have ceded their role as contributors to the common good.

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