What better way for the White House to learn about the challenges facing U.S. higher education institutions seeking to reopen for the fall semester than to engage in a conversation with college and university presidents? That’s what happened May 13, and I was among 14 presidents talking virtually with Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx.
The presidents, representing large research universities as well as smaller private universities, discussed the future of higher education and the impacts of the coronavirus. We gave the White House team a good rundown of the obstacles we’re encountering and offered opinions about what higher education needs in terms of medical and government guidance to reopen in the fall.
At the start of the meeting, it was clear that the university leaders unanimously desired face-to-face learning on campuses in the fall—if it is safe to do so. We emphasized how the in-person experience is central to our missions, and we’re hearing loud and clear that it is what students want as well. We also agree that the safety of our campus communities is the top priority. I’ve been asked about the moral case for doing everything we can to open campus in the fall. At Marquette, we believe that our Catholic, Jesuit mission is best fulfilled by providing a direct residential educational experience focused on caring for the whole person. Our students expect a transformational education, and frankly we are better able to provide that in a face-to-face setting. It’s the rare day when I don’t hear from at least one student who says that he or she wants and expects to be back on campus in the fall. As educators and leaders, we have a duty to try to make that happen in a safe way.
From my perspective, the meeting was helpful and productive as each president was able to discuss specific topics that are relevant to their campuses. There were three primary themes that most of the presidents mentioned:
- To safely open in the fall, the presidents agreed we must have clear guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), especially with regard to social distancing in classrooms and residence halls and frequency of testing. The CDC recently put out new guidance for bars, restaurants, and places of worship. We asked that, as soon as possible, the CDC also update interim higher education guidance released in mid-March. We need time to ensure proper implementation for the fall semester. It’s not possible to understate the importance of being ready with COVID-19 testing processes and of having appropriate systems to track cases, trace those with infection, and isolate when needed. This is particularly important, Dr. Birx shared, since the current understanding of COVID-19 is that most cases in people aged 18-24 are asymptomatic.
- The presidents emphasized that another important aspect to providing a safe environment on campuses was the ability to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to faculty, staff, and students and the capability to provide large-scale testing services. As Dr. Birx articulated, most campuses in the country have the equipment and personnel required to perform Covid-19 testing. Given that most universities have thousands – and, in many cases, tens of thousands – of individuals on their campuses daily, it is critical that there be adequate numbers of PPE and testing materials. The university presidents wanted assurance that the government would facilitate their ability to obtain the equipment and supplies that are necessary to perform testing and tracking and to keep individuals safe.
- Finally, the presidents expressed a strong desire to resume academic research, especially in fields in which that research can help with the pandemic. Universities are the research engines of our country, and we need that innovation now more than ever.
In addition to the above themes, there were other topics mentioned on the call such as the ability for international students to return to campus, the psychological impact that the pandemic had on campuses, and the increased need for mental health services for students, faculty, and staff. Finally, Secretary DeVos stated that she and the Department of Education are committed to providing as much flexibility as possible around accreditation and student aid over the next academic year.
One item that I specifically mentioned was the need now—more than ever before—for partnerships among government, higher education, and corporations. Well-designed partnerships with clear objectives and opportunities for universities large and small have the widest potential payoffs. All U.S. industries have been disrupted, and we have a chance to innovate in new and better ways. Our obligation as universities is to drive innovation, build job pipelines, and spur economic innovation. Universities are a key part of our nation’s recovery effort, even though we, too, are facing significant fiscal challenges.
Hearing from my fellow university presidents and knowing we are aligned gave me energy and hope. With all of us collaborating and sharing ideas, we can continue to work with the federal government to protect all members of our campus communities. Everyone involved in the meeting appeared to be willing to continue the conversation, and we will be meeting again in early June. I am confident that through genuine collaboration, we can respond to challenges, see what does and doesn’t work, and develop best practices for our sector. It was an honor to participate in the meeting and to be among individuals and organizations seeking to be part of the solution to what is, for most of us, an unprecedented predicament.
Finally, it is clear that the pandemic is going to require all of us to think differently about how we deliver a transformative education. I believe that many of these changes and online disruptions were already coming, but the pandemic accelerated the need to adapt. Universities have so many talents and innovative individuals, and I’m confident our higher education system will find a path forward. Two concrete examples of ways Marquette has begun to recover include:
- Hundreds of faculty, staff, and students have been meeting virtually, often daily, to determine a back-to-campus plan that we are starting to implement. This plan will be executed in stages over the next few months with the goal of having our entire community back together in mid-August.
- We recently announced plans to start our fall semester early so that in-person education can conclude by Thanksgiving – ahead of when COVID-19 is anticipated to return to our part of the country.
Although the future remains uncertain, we need to have the courage to make the best decisions for our students.
Michael R. Lovell, PhD, is the president of Marquette University.
Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.