COVID Won't Change How Universities Work, but Antiracism Might

tags: racism, colleges and universities, COVID-19

James Mulholland is a professor of English at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Before the Raj: Writing Early Anglophone India (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021) and has written about higher education for the Chronicle of Higher EducationProfession, and The Guardian.

Higher education is in trouble, again. Disconnected students, burned-out faculty, and a year of operating in a pandemic-induced emergency mode have further exposed the flaws of a system still strained by a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. This has led many academic leaders and public commentators to proclaim that the COVID pandemic is the breaking point at which decades-long dilemmas about affordability, economic inequality, and racism finally have begun to be addressed. But initial evidence shows that the opposite is happening. Coronavirus is entrenching inequalities rather than providing the motivation to abandon them.

If you believe that the problem with higher education is non–Ivy League schools selling students a “Hyundai for the price of a Mercedes,” then you might agree with Scott Galloway that coronavirus has provided the chance to save the university. Galloway, in Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, proposes numerous changes for higher education after coronavirus, including a federal “Marshall Plan” that expands admissions and reduces prices, a tax on large endowments for universities that don’t admit more undergraduates, and tech companies that create “tuition-free universities” to “leverage their brand.” (He imagines Apple linking up with art schools, Google collaborating with computer science faculty, and Amazon starting a supply-chain institute.) Even though Galloway has been portrayed as “higher ed’s prickliest pundit,” his proposals align with many of the demands of progressive reformers, including their insistence on a “New Deal” for higher education.

The problem is that Galloway and all the other optimistic commentators mistake prepandemic predictions for postpandemic realities. They see coronavirus as the catalyst to reimaginereinvent, and rethink the university. In fact it’s an impediment. Responses to coronavirus are entrenching the worst trends of US higher education from before the pandemic, not disrupting them. On its current course, higher education’s post-COVID future is a more exaggerated version of its prepandemic self, stripped down to bare institutional survival that necessitates increased competition among institutions, attenuating an already stratified sector. Calls to transform the university after COVID are noble, but the political and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have made change harder, not easier.

For education’s future to be so strained reveals the real problem at the heart of today’s university, the one Galloway and others ignore: racism. The consequences of the university’s inability to address racism are revealed in Matthew Johnson’s Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality, Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, and Sekile M. Nzinga’s Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity. Together, these authors demonstrate why it has been so hard to reverse America’s growing economic and educational inequalities.

Higher education, as a system, is driven by preserving advantages for those who have access to it. This is higher education’s most intractable problem. After COVID, higher education won’t be different unless administrators and faculty use what we’ve learned about racial inequality to alter our emphasis on a highly stratified system that accustoms its participants, and wider American society, to precise differences in reputation and prestige.

Read entire article at Public Seminar

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