The COVID-19 pandemic creates challenges for all, and certainly for higher education. Anyone speculating on things that appear likely to happen is treading on dangerous soil and must do so with appropriate tentativeness. I will point to some trends I currently see, prepared to look back a year or five years from now and be amused at my ignorance.
The most obvious challenges are issues of physical and financial health. The economic fallout from the shutdown of the worldwide economy is severe and will last for a long time, even though many of the protocols are being gradually eased.
The opportunity here is to accelerate things we’ve seen as necessary in higher education for many years. We have little choice now.
1. We will see even more growth in remote delivery.
Universities will have to figure out new models for delivering education. We’ve already done that by offering classes remotely, and it has been surprisingly successful for most. Both faculty and students who may have been reluctant to try online learning have now realized that this type of education need not be resisted as evil, nor should it be.
Universities will have to figure out new models for delivering education.
I expect to see a rising ratio of courses delivered via the internet. Not only can online classes be delivered more cheaply, but we have seen faculty develop new materials for online delivery that they believe will be beneficial when we return to the traditional classroom.
I fully expect to return to the traditional classroom experience—though even that, at least for a considerable time, will likely have to be changed to allow for greater spacing between students. But even when we have students engaging in a traditional college life on campus, I expect we will have more hybrid schedules for all students.
For example, I anticipate that the basic introductory classes could be done online while the upper-level classes, which clearly benefit from more personal interaction, would be done in smaller groups and in traditional spaces.
Research has shown that while learning can take place electronically and remotely, it is a different process from the kind of learning that takes place in face-to-face counseling, conversation, and human interaction. We will have to figure out how to replicate that kind of learning experience, to the greatest extent possible, with less human interface.
2. We can bring even more of the distinctive character of Christian education to online learning.
With more remotely delivered classes, the challenge for Christian higher education is to convey who we are. We offer a value-added education, focused on distinctive content, informed by a Christian worldview, and involving personal relationships to counsel, nurture, mentor, and be involved in the lives of the students.
We need to add as many personal dimensions as possible to the online experience. A great deal of progress has already been made along these lines, but it will have to be accelerated.
3. We must make universities more affordable and efficient.
The pressure for cost-cutting is going to accelerate what many have proposed for decades—that is, a streamlined bachelor’s degree that can be done in three years instead of the traditional four. Courses even within a traditional curriculum may now be offered on a shorter-term basis (e.g., a full semester course to an eight- or four-week course.). And we may also see more certificates developed as greater flexibility and new work credentials are required.
There will be a greater focus on teaching. Though research is still important and critical, it will increasingly be disseminated in different ways. That’s been a growing trend for a long time.
With more remotely delivered classes, the challenge for Christian higher education is to convey who we are.
There will be more collaboration between the university learning experience and the world of business, commerce, ministry, and nonprofit service. This growing trend will not only allow the shortening of necessary credit hours for a degree—which will in turn lessen the cost—but can also enable students to earn income as they do university work.
The dramatic circumstances of recent months have impressed on all of us the importance of being flexible. Universities typically are not flexible, but even slower to change are accreditation bodies. They will have to learn, under pressure from the universities, who are under pressure themselves to survive, to be more nimble.
Traditionally, geography and differing priorities cause silos of faculty and staff, administration and academics. But the need for quick and socially distanced group communication has (thankfully) forced us to do a better job of getting input from one another, to see how a new policy might affect another part of the university.
As a result, all of us have learned more of what goes on in other areas. We have taken on a more holistic view of the university’s operations, and that’s a good thing. It has helped us align our interests, save money, and realize we’re all in this together.
4. We have the opportunity to challenge some sacred cows in higher education, such as athletics and tenure.
There will be significant implications for university athletics as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. I don’t think university athletics will go away, especially for the so-called Power Five conferences, but it may have to take on a more modest role and be less of a secular god. I hope so.
There is not a single global tumult—neither disease, nor global economic disaster, nor social distress of any sort, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Other sacred cows may also be challenged—for example, tenure. It’s something most university leaders don’t want to discuss, because it’s so politically incorrect to challenge. But tenure doubtless adds to the cost of the college experience as well as diminishes a university’s ability to act in a nimble way.
Tenure may have had an important social function at one point in our history, but I think there are now enough laws to protect employees from unfair dismissal without perpetuating tenure in its current form. In any case, the practice will certainly be weakened by the gathering storm of changes in higher education.
5. We will need to defend religious liberty.
Christian universities have to be increasingly alert to questions of religious liberty. Already we have heard some rather outrageous pronouncements by misguided authorities regarding worship and the church, which gave off the implicit notion that worship is not essential.
Our worship services and religious freedoms are crucial for the moral and spiritual formation of our students. Our citizenship as members of God’s kingdom makes us better citizens of the communities of this world. The loss of religious-amendment freedoms would have huge implications for Christian universities and for the democratic functioning of American life.
6. We must protect and preserve our Christ-centered mission.
Finally, Christian universities must be even more attentive to our Christ-centered mission. Under the pressures of cost cutting, operational reorganization, and efficiencies that can push us unthinkingly toward expedience, we must intentionally hire, train, and encourage people of faith who take seriously the scriptural revelation of God’s mercies through Jesus Christ. There is no substitute for clarity with respect to our mission.
God will sustain his people, even through times of terrible trouble, because he is King over all the earth. This world is his through Jesus Christ the reigning Lord. One day Christ will return to restore heaven and earth, even as he raises the dead and subjugates his enemies. There is not a single global tumult—neither disease, nor global economic disaster, nor social distress of any sort, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.