In one week in March, we jumped from 2020 to 2030. That’s the assessment of West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee. In some ways, the response to the COVID-19 virus brought the world of 2030 to the world of 2020, Gee said in a joint meeting of the editorial boards of The Herald-Dispatch and The Charleston Gazette-Mail earlier this month.
While Gee was specifically addressing what higher education had to face as the national economy shut down, his comment applies to other segments of society, also.
In two weeks, WVU moved 33,000 students to all-online instruction, Gee said. One thing that is apparent at WVU and in education at all levels is the fact that West Virginia’s internet infrastructure is not up to the task of online education.
“We’ve got to get broadband everywhere as quickly as we can,” Gee said.
Educators, business people and government officials have been saying that for years, but progress has been frustratingly slow for people in the rural areas of the state. Cities have better internet access than rural counties, but most West Virginians don’t live in cities. That puts the entire state at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting businesses and in retaining the ones already here.
The shutdown has been hard on small businesses that don’t have the cash reserves or the access to capital that larger ones do. Some may not reopen. They might not have been around in 10 years anyway, so the shutdown may have hastened their demise.
Gee said one estimate he has seen suggests that 1,000 institutions of higher education might not survive the pandemic. Talk of the fragile financial nature of some schools has been around for years. Again, the pandemic may have accelerated trends that have had them on the bubble.
Gee said even schools the size of WVU won’t return to normal. Business as usual is over, he said. Universities will need to ask themselves what are their strengths, how will they attract and retain students, and how will they get rid of bureaucracies, he said.
The growth of academic administrative offices has been the target of critics of higher education and of university faculty for several years. Ohio University, which is about the size of Marshall University, recently cut more than 140 jobs because of budget problems. Faculty there had noted that the number of administrators had increased 45% in the past decade, according to an article on the Inside Higher Education website.
Last week WVU announced it will furlough 875 employees. Those employees will return to their jobs before the fall semester begins.
Gee said much of the growth on the administrative side of higher education is the result of increasing federal regulations. If the government will ease off some on regulations, universities would be better off, he said.
People talk about the “new normal” we will have once the pandemic has passed, whenever that may be. Maybe we will retreat from 2030 to 2020 or somewhere in between.
As West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky gradually reopen the economies that were abruptly closed two months ago, keeping the long-range view in mind will help us adjust to the changes we will encounter.