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In our opinion: Now is the time to reinvent the American university

The higher education system could view the COVID-19 pandemic, and all its economic consequences, either as being forced into survival mode or opting to reinvent.

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Geralda Saint-Jean, right, front shown here walking across campus with classmates at the end of the graduation ceremony at Rowan University, Glassboro campus, in New Jersey, Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Utah colleges and universities will begin classes a month and a half from now. Though some details are still speculative, it’s apparent that fall semester — featuring socially distanced classes, masks and enhanced online offerings — will be unlike anything students and faculty have previously experienced.

It also marks a momentous opportunity for change in higher education. It requires something bigger than just COVID-19 precautions and forced “hybrid” learning. If taken advantage of, now could — and should — be an opportunity for colleges and universities to reinvent themselves.

In an exclusive interview with the Deseret News, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee explained as much. Gee has been a university president for 40 years and has held more presidencies than any other American alive. His wisdom is born of experience.

“I think the American university, in many ways, has been living on fumes and on reputation,” he said.

An important first step is lowering costs. College tuition and fees have increased 172% in the past two decades. Student debt has ballooned to $1.5 trillion. And still, nearly 9 out of 10 students aren’t paying full tuition because financial aid has risen to meet the increases. That means schools are applying Band-Aids when they should be addressing the cause of the injury.

Dabbling with online offerings might be a start. It seems unlikely that tuition decreases are likely for this fall, but as universities continue to tinker with online classes, especially for the massive, 100-level courses, the cost of producing themwill decrease. 

Yet, this should be much more than an opportunity to change how classes are taught. Universities should rethink what will be taught. The post-COVID-19 workforce will need different skills for a different economy. The pandemic has fast-tracked technological advancement in many fields, like finance, and will continue to mold the future job force — something that universities must prepare for.

“I believe that writing, thinking (and) expressing may be the only skills people are going to need (in the future),” Gee told the Deseret News. “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.”

Universities might also consider the role of athletics as a fundraising — or fund-sucking — entity. Relatively few athletic departments are self-sustaining financially. And with COVID-19 threatening the football season, universities are taking a hard look at which sports are worth maintaining. Some, from Southern Utah to Stanford, have already started making those hard decisions. 

The higher education system could view the COVID-19 pandemic, and all its economic consequences, as either being forced into survival mode or opting to reinvent. Now is the time for colleges and universities to expand their view and make the adjustments that would help them become more efficient, student-centric and sustainable. “We love to look in the rearview mirror,” Gee said, speaking of higher education in aggregate. “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.”

Many of our state’s brightest minds lead our colleges and universities. Over the next several days, we will feature op-eds from college and university presidents across the state. Their ideas and insights are designed to further discussions of the future of higher education amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Reinvention and innovation are absolutely necessary. “There’s no choice,” said Gee, “but to change.”