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Hope and Higher Education in the Time of Pandemic

May 5th, 2020

While almost every part of our world has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact on higher education will likely be more profound and long-lasting than that in almost any other area. By disrupting the ability of students to experience community in the classrooms, at sporting events, and in residence halls, and forcing a migration to purely online instruction, the coronavirus strikes at the very heart of what colleges and universities do and how they have done it for the past two or more centuries. The University of Saint Francis was not spared this disruption in Spring 2020, and is unlikely to be spared it in coming semesters (or years) as the pandemic continues to unfold. However, despite sending our students home in mid-March and quickly transitioning to all-online delivery of classes, with all the unanticipated financial and organization costs associated with these decisions, and the uncertainty about when “normal” classes can begin again notwithstanding, there are reasons for optimism both at USF and other small private colleges like it across Northeast Indiana.

One of the strengths of our small private colleges is their ability to adapt quickly to a changing environment. While higher education is notoriously slow to change, private colleges like USF have been able to quickly change delivery methods, redesign curriculum, explore new majors, and shift marketing and recruiting methods to meet the new challenges we face. Nimbleness is an advantage in a rapidly changing environment, and small colleges—despite their relative lack of deep pockets—have it to a degree larger peers may not.

Another major advantage small colleges like USF possess is a faculty and staff who are especially committed to the mission of the university. This makes for employees who are loyal in the face of great economic uncertainty, which is (for better or worse) always the future for small private colleges. This loyalty leads them to be willing to wear many hats and expand and vary their duties with a great amount of flexibility, and to do so with a smile and deep compassion for our students. This “high touch” approach to student experience is critical not only for our students’ success but also for the distinctive edge our school have in the marketplace.

Finally, the liberal arts tradition that underlies our small colleges breeds a creativity and capacity for innovative thinking that will be essential for our survival and flourishing in the future. Critical thinking, interdisciplinarity, and teamwork are not just learning outcomes for our students, but are also indispensable parts of our institutional cultures where budgets are usually stretched and easy solutions to countless problems are hard to find. By working closely with and drawing upon the expertise of our colleagues in every discipline, and ignoring the organizational chart when it doesn’t give us access to the knowledge we need, small colleges are built to confront times like these.

Moving forward toward a new academic year filled with unprecedented uncertainty—Will on-ground classes resume? Will students return in expected numbers? Will federal and state aid for our students remain the same?—small colleges like USF will need to use every trick in their books to carry out their missions. Rather than despair, though, they should look to their own histories and the even greater challenges they overcame in the past for inspiration. Most began in very modest circumstances with decades of precarious budgets and close calls with closure before they established themselves on a firm footing. Looking to that past, and the passion and values on which they were founded, USF and other small colleges today have every reason to hope for a long and vibrant future if they remain true to who they are, while adapting and responding to the environment in which they find themselves now.

- By Dr. Lance Richey, Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the University of Saint Francis