Coronavirus and higher education resources

coronavirus_National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases I currently maintain several resources concerning higher education and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.  I’ll keep this post about them on the top of my page as long as it can be useful during the pandemic.

I launched this post on March 9, 2020.

(image via National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Posted in coronavirus | 25 Comments

The 2021 Earth Day summit and higher education

Starting tomorrow, Earth Day, the president of the United States will host an international summit about climate change.  Joe Biden will announce new American greenhouse gas targets and there are opportunities for negotiations and deals, possibly brokered by the US.

What does this mean for higher education?

In my research into climate change’s impact on higher ed I’ve broken things down into three areas, just like Gaul. There are immediate and direct impacts on colleges and universities, including physical threats to campuses, changes to research and teaching, and altering relationships with local communities.

There are secondary effects as well, which may be more important than the primaries. Think of how disastrous weather can drive climate refugees across borders, for example, which offer campuses strategic choices about engaging or supporting those populations. Rising demand for direct air capture (DAC) could spur academic institutions to expand research in and teaching about those technologies, while offering the possibility of campuses hosting DAC on site.  Climate-driven stresses to economies, food systems, and politics can each press on higher education.

A third area is when academics take an activist role in the climate crisis. We’ve already seen early signs of this, such as student protests against carbon-heavy institutional investments and researchers caught up in off-campus political frays.  Some American university leaders publicly lobbied the White House for certain climate policies.

climate change protest Michael Coghlan

How might Thursday and Friday’s diplomatic event connect with these three academic domains?  We can start with what we know about the summit. According to the White House, “[k]ey themes of the Summit will include:

  • Galvanizing efforts by the world’s major economies to reduce emissions during this critical decade to keep a limit to warming of 1.5 degree Celsius within reach.
  • Mobilizing public and private sector finance to drive the net-zero transition and to help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts. 
  • The economic benefits of climate action, with a strong emphasis on job creation, and the importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy.
  • Spurring transformational technologies that can help reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, while also creating enormous new economic opportunities and building the industries of the future.
  • Showcasing subnational and non-state actors that are committed to green recovery and an equitable vision for limiting warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, and are working closely with national governments to advance ambition and resilience.
  • Discussing opportunities to strengthen capacity to protect lives and livelihoods from the impacts of climate change, address the global security challenges posed by climate change and the impact on readiness, and address the role of nature-based solutions in achieving net zero by 2050 goals.”

There are many points of potential connection here.  Starting with the first area, immediate and direct, we can imagine academic institutions taking steps to reduce their own carbon footprint.  As I’ve said before, that can include renovating old buildings or making new ones, blocking non-electric vehicles from campus grounds, reducing faculty and staff travel, changing up food service, pressuring endowments to divest from certain businesses, and more.  At an even more immediate level, some campus experts (in climate change, international relations, economics, etc..) can study and/or teach and/or explain the summit to their college or university.

In the secondary area, imagine how changes in the labor market impact higher ed. Will enrollment dip down if some would-be students see green jobs that don’t require bachelor’s or graduate degrees as alternatives to taking classes?  Conversely, will colleges and universities figure out how to place enrolled students in such jobs either as interns or graduates?  How will campuses adjust to the local decline of carbon-based or methane-generating-at-scale enterprises?

For the third area, the one concerning academics as activists on the off-campus stage, each White House bullet point has possibilities. “[A]ddress[ing] the global security challenges posed by climate change” is one where we could see faculty, students, or staff publicly supporting or criticizing various geopolitical actors through scholarship, public statements, demonstrations, or social media campaigns. “[T]he importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy” resonates strongly with the current wave of academic interest in racial justice.  “Showcasing subnational and non-state actors that are committed to green recovery” is something campus outreach and marketing might do to celebrate their own work, as well as a function scholarly communication can perform.

The point about “Spurring transformational technologies that can help reduce emissions and adapt to climate change…” could actually play out across all three fields.  In the first we can see academic researchers investigating and developing such tech, while also teaching about it.  In the second, we can imagine knock-on effects of changes to industry, such as a university benefitting from a local economic boom driven by a successful tech firm’s takeoff. In the third, we should anticipate members of campus communities agitating in favor of such R&D… as well as those who advocate for its control or shutdown, all depending on attitudes and politics.

There is much more to say here.  After all, there are tens of thousands of post-secondary institutions worldwide, each containing thoughtful, engaged, and innovative people.  I’d love to hear more ways academic connects with this summit in comments and elsewhere.

At the same time we should be cautious. This is a two-day event, after all, and it’s unclear what might actually emerge from the summit. It could play out as only one step in a longer process of negotiation and maneuver, or just misfire.  The question I’m focused on is: what does the April 2021 summit mean for academia worldwide?

(photo by Michael Coghlan)

Posted in climatechange | 1 Comment

Higher education and climate change: a snapshot of this month’s developments

How climate change may impact higher education: as I write more of Universities on Fire new developments and stories keep crossing my research radar.

Let me share several as a glimpse of the topic from the past few weeks.

ITEM: the United States National Weather Service decided to give up a research station in Chatham, Massachusetts, near Cape Cod.

On 31 March, the handful of workers who operated the National Weather Service station in Chatham were evacuated due to fears the property could fall into the Atlantic Ocean. A final weather balloon was released before they left, with a demolition crew set to raze the empty site this month.

Why take such a drastic step?

Until recently, the weather station had a buffer of about 100ft of land to a bluff that dropped into the ocean, only for a series of fierce storms in 2020 to accelerate local erosion. At times, 6ft of land was lost in a single day, forcing the National Weather Service to order a hasty retreat.

“We’d known for a long time there was erosion but the pace of it caught everyone by surprise,” said Andy Nash, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s Boston office. “We felt we had maybe another 10 years but then we started losing a foot of a bluff a week and realized we didn’t have years, we had just a few months. We were a couple of storms from a very big problem.”

To be fair, this is just one weather facility and was already perched on an exposed spot. And it’s a federal service, not a private nor state university. But it is certainly research of the kind that academics use, produce, and teach about. Our graduates conduct it.  And it is one datapoint for research capacity being threatened by climate change.

ITEM: 75 college and university presidents signed on to a letter to the Biden administration, “calling [on the government] to reduce [American] carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and get on a path to hit net-zero by 2050.”

University Business didn’t share the letter itself, either by link or embed, so we don’t have much to go on. But the UB article points to an unusual form of political activism from institutional leaders.  It explicitly links academic commitment to the global crisis:

“Climate change is one of the most pressing challenge[s] facing humankind, and I don’t believe it can be mitigated, let alone solved, without the collective action of our nation’s – and world’s – universities,” said Joseph E. Steinmetz, chancellor of the University of Arkansas, one of the signees of the letter.

Steinmetz goes further:

The scale and complexity of the challenges involved, and the range of solutions required, will depend on the things that universities excel at: research and discovery, teaching and learning, outreach and engagement. It will take interdisciplinary collaboration, ingenuity, hard work, and creative problem solving, as well as the ability to communicate, educate and persuade the public that climate change is real. The earlier we accept and prioritize this goal, the better it will be for future generations.

ITEM: TIME magazine published an article on climate change and higher education.  The piece begins by noting some new work being done in architecture programs, like this new entity.  Then it moves on to the truly interdisciplinary impact of the climate crisis, chiming in with chancellor Steinmetz:

[A]s the effects of climate change have become more visible in recent years, and the breadth of the transformation needed to fight it has become clear, law schools, med schools, literature programs, economics departments and more are incorporating climate into their undergraduate curriculums, grappling with how climate will transform their fields and attempting to prepare students to face those transformations in the labor market.


Economics students in Buenos Aires are studying the financial cost of environmental degradation. Philosophy students in London are debating individual responsibility and the debts owed to future generations around climate. Media-studies students in Boston are analyzing climate narratives. Law schools have introduced climate electives for undergraduates, and Bond University in Queensland, Australia, has gone even further, launching what it believes to be the country’s first undergraduate law degree entirely built around climate law—likely to be an increasingly important area.

Ciara Nugent then turns to several curricular standards bodies which are exploring new requirements.

What do these stories point to?  What do they exemplify? Climate change is starting making a palpable impression on practical research. Some campus leaders are connecting their mission to the global climate crisis. And there is curricular motion under way.

More as the stories come, and as I keep writing.

(thanks to Andrew Zubiri for one link!)

Posted in climatechange | 1 Comment

Queen sacrifice at Pacific Lutheran University

Another American campus launched a queen sacrifice this week.

(“Queen sacrifice” refers to when a college or university cuts tenure-track faculty members. The source of the phrase is chess, where queens are the most powerful piece, as tenure-track faculty are, in theory, the most powerful members of an academic community.  In the game giving up the queen is a desperate move, often an attempt to wrest victory from a very bad situation, and so it seems to be for colleges and universities axing people in those positions.  You can find many examples of this academic strategy being used here, alas.)

On the chopping block for Pacific Lutheran University are 36 positions.  Kris Olds observes that “[t]hat’s about 12% of the faculty base.”


Academic programs being cut include “majors in German and Nordic Studies, minors in Classical Studies, German and Norwegian, and the Master of Science in Finance degree.”  According to this statement,

the Division of Humanities saw the most cuts, followed by the Division of Social Sciences, the School of Arts and Communication and the Division of Natural Sciences. The schools of Nursing and Education & Kinesiology faced no recommended reductions, and the School of Business only one.

Why is Pacific Lutheran doing this?  The reasons are unsurprising: “the university was facing financial exigency stemming from declining enrollment, anticipated budget shortfalls and impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Cuts won’t hit for another year, which gives time to teach out some majors, and for faculty to start job hunting.

Pacific Lutheran University_Jeremy Yoder

Some quick observations:

Note that most of the cuts are in the humanities. This is typical for queen sacrifices.

Note, too, the huge pressure of declining enrollment.

Pacific Lutheran has some related recent history.  The AAUP censured them last year for firing a long-serving adjunct faculty member.

As I’ve been saying for years, watch for more queen sacrifices.

(thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe for the pointer; photo by Jeremy Yoder)

Posted in higher education | Tagged | 3 Comments

Americans using social media: a 2021 update from Pew Research

How do Americans use social media in 2021, during a pandemic and a massive wave of anti-Silicon Valley outrage?

Pew Research just published another one of their very useful surveys on how people engage with technology. Here I’ll summarize what I see as the highlights, then add some remarks about implications for higher education.

The two most popular social media platforms remain, by far, YouTube then Facebook.  Solid majorities use them. Instagram follows at a remove. Next is Pinterest and LinkedIn:

Note this, too: “YouTube and Reddit were the only two platforms measured that saw statistically significant growth since 2019…”  Many others are remaining in place in terms of user numbers, like LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

Facebook also leads the rest in terms of how often people use it: “Seven-in-ten Facebook users say they use the site daily, including 49% who say they use the site several times a day.”  For all of its horrendous publicity, Facebook is a triumph in everything except growth, and its size is already enormous.

Age differences are apparent, even stark:

Some 84% of adults ages 18 to 29 say they ever use any social media sites, which is similar to the share of those ages 30 to 49 who say this (81%). By comparison, a somewhat smaller share of those ages 50 to 64 (73%) say they use social media sites, while fewer than half of those 65 and older (45%) report doing this.

social-media_age gaps Pew 2021 April

In particular, “a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds say they use Instagram (71%) or Snapchat (65%), while roughly half say the same for TikTok…”

Those youth habits also appear in terms of how often they use certain tools:

71% of Snapchat users ages 18 to 29 say they use the app daily, including six-in-ten who say they do this multiple times a day. The pattern is similar for Instagram: 73% of 18- to 29-year-old Instagram users say they visit the site every day, with roughly half (53%) reporting they do so several times per day.

Other demographics are fascinating. Higher levels of wealth or education never correlate with lower levels of social media use; in fact, they often track each other.  In terms of race, black and especially Latinx populations lead white people in several platforms:

Instagram: About half of Hispanic (52%) and Black Americans (49%) say they use the platform, compared with smaller shares of White Americans (35%) who say the same.2

WhatsApp: Hispanic Americans (46%) are far more likely to say they use WhatsApp than Black (23%) or White Americans (16%). Hispanics also stood out for their WhatsApp use in the Center’s previous surveys on this topic.

Gender differences open up for several technologies, notably Pinterest, which remains female-dominated: “women continue to be far more likely than men to say they use Pinterest when compared with male counterparts, by a difference of 30 points (46% vs. 16%).”

So what does this mean for education?

If a given academic individual or institution wants to use social media to reach out to specific audiences, this Pew survey is a very helpful guide. Think, for example, of the platforms relied on by Latinx users, Instagram and Whatsapp. A would-be Hispanic-serving institution may rethink its communication strategy if it isn’t already working on those technologies.

Many academics will continue to weigh using the two giants, Facebook and YouTube, balancing their enormous audiences with their persistent ethical problems.

Twitter remains a niche. It barely cracks 20% of users, and fails badly with people over 50 years of age.  Black Twitter’s presence is visible, as 29% of black people use it, compared with 26% of Latinx and 22% of whites, but that’s still a low number.  42% of young people use Twitter, but more young folks still use Snapchat (65%) and TikTok (48%). Twitter’s representation in the media clearly exceeds its adoption by the population at large.

Reddit’s rapid growth is interesting.  Like Twitter, it remains a niche, but unlike Twitter Reddit is growing fast. Down the road it might be a platform higher education may consider engaging with more extensively.

I have some questions or criticisms of the survey. I wish they hadn’t cut Asians out of demographic identifications. I also wonder about unsurveyed technologies that plausibly count as social media, such as podcasts and blogs.  Is Mastodon unlisted because its user base is tiny, or because Pew hasn’t approached it yet? I would liked to have seen questions themed around the pandemic. Yet I think it is a useful snapshot of some ways Americans use the technology in COVID’s second year.


Posted in technology | 2 Comments

One plan for American higher ed this fall: how many campuses are requiring vaccines?


As spring term proceeds, colleges and universities are planning for this upcoming fall semester.

There is a lot going on in this complex process, especially as pandemic conditions change. I have posted about one scenario already, plus a glimpse of all of 2021 from way back in 2020, and there are more posts to come. Today I just wanted to focus on one particular detail, and I’ll phrase it as a question:

How many colleges and universities will require COVID-19 vaccinations for students, faculty, and staff to return to campus?

Such a requirement makes sense on the face of it.  The leading vaccines do a great job of blocking COVID spread. There are growing stocks of vaccines, multiple brands of the stuff, and also a burgeoning system of vaccination sites across the nation.  If a college or university wants to return to in-person education, mandating vaccines feels like an intuitive choice.

Some institutions are already doing so.  Here’s my current list of campuses requiring vaccinations:

  1. American University
  2. AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library
  3. Boston University
  4. Bowdoin College
  5. Brown University
  6. Clark Atlanta University
  7. Cleveland State University
  8. College of the Atlantic
  9. Cornell University
  10. Dartmouth College
  11. Duke University
  12. Emory University
  13. Fort Lewis College
  14. Georgetown University
  15. George Washington University
  16. Grinnell College
  17. Harvey Mudd College
  18. Ithaca College (“the college plans to require all students who are attending this fall to be vaccinated”)
  19. Lasell University
  20. Lehigh University
  21. Manhattanville College
  22. Morehouse College
  23. Morehouse School of Medicine
  24. New York University
  25. Northeastern University
  26. Nova Southeastern University
  27. Oakland University
  28. Paul Quinn College
  29. Princeton University
  30. Roger Williams University
  31. Rutgers University
  32. St. Edward’s University
  33. Seattle University
  34. Spelman College
  35. Syracuse University (starting in summer, not fall)
  36. University of Delaware
  37. University of Notre Dame
  38. Wesleyan University
  39. Yale University
coronavirus_Nova Southern_Razor-getting-Vaccinated

That’s Nova Southeastern University’s Razor being a big baby.

Why wouldn’t a campus require vaccines?  For example, a group of Idaho colleges and universities decided not to.  Others have also taken anti-requirement positions:

  1. Minnesota State University-Mankato
  2. St. Catherine University
  3. University of Tennessee system
  4. Virginia Tech
  5. Wichitaw State University

One reason is if leadership thinks it’s redundant. The SUNY system Chancellor Jim Malatras stated that those 64 institutions will not require vaccination, because people will do it on their own:

“The way we’re approaching this is it’s going to be voluntary. As we’ve been opening up and getting more folks eligible, we’ve been pushing very hard to get all of our faculty, our staff, and our students eligible vaccinated. People are getting vaccinated. They don’t need to be mandated. They’re doing it because they want to turn the page on COVID…”

Another reason is that states might prohibit this from taking place.  Texas just did this for any institution taking state money, like public universities:

A third reason to avoid mandating jabs is that it’s harder to require medicines that are only FDA approved for emergency purposes.

Meanwhile, many colleges and universities are apparently thinking about it.  Here’s a sample of “ask us later” institutions in the Boston area.  So is UNC-Charlotte, it seems.

I have some other questions, like: will these campuses enforce perimeter checks? What will they accept as proof of vaccination (the card, or a physical copy thereof, or a photo)?  How many people opposed to public health measures will claim a religious exception?  Will some campuses mandate vaccination for students, but not faculty or staff?

More to come. As ever, happy to hear your thoughts in comments below.

(thanks to Benjy Renton, Andy Thomason, Erik Simpson, Robert McGuire, Terry Bradley, Cristián Opazo, Linda Burns, my wife Ceredwyn, and Todd Bryant for some fine links)

Posted in coronavirus, higher education | 4 Comments

American church membership and religious affiliation continue to decline

The number of Americans who belong to a church continued a steady trends of decline, according to a new Gallup poll.  This has many implications for American culture, including higher education, as I’ve noted previously.

Let me summarize the poll’s highlights, then offer some thoughts about what they portend for the nation’s future.

First, there’s a drop in the proportion of Americans who report belonging to a church or related institution. “In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.”  Fewer than one half of us belong to a church etc., which is quite a change:

religion -church membership - Gallup 2021 April

That’s for all Americans.  Now, for the (albeit large) subset who explicitly claim a religious affiliation, their church membership has also declined significantly. “Between 1998 and 2000, an average of 73% of religious Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. Over the past three years, the average has fallen to 60%.”

religion -church memership for those with religious affiliation-Gallup 2021 April

Second, one might expect different patterns of religious behavior across different generations, and one would be right.  However, the decline in church membership occurred across all demographics, even among the oldest.

The two major trends driving the drop in church membership — more adults with no religious preference and falling rates of church membership among people who do have a religion — are apparent in each of the generations over time. Since the turn of the century, there has been a near doubling in the percentage of traditionalists (from 4% to 7%), baby boomers (from 7% to 13%) and Gen Xers (11% to 20%) with no religious affiliation.

religion -church membership by generation - Gallup 2021 April

Every age dropped, except for the population without long enough a track record to tell. And they dropped by significant amounts, 9 to 12 points.

Some generational differences are present, as I said, and you can see them in the very high disaffiliation rates for the youngest Americans:

Currently, 31% of millennials have no religious affiliation, which is up from 22% a decade ago. Similarly, 33% of the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood have no religious preference…

[C]hurch membership is lower in each younger generation of conservatives than in each older generation — 51% of conservative millennials, 64% of conservative Gen Xers, 70% of conservative baby boomers and 71% of conservative traditionalists in 2018-2020 belong to a church.

Third, the demographic differences are fascinating, not least because church membership declined across every single one measured:

religion -church membership by demographics - Gallup 2021 April

Gender, race, education, politics, geography, faith, marriage status – every single way Gallup slices it, Americans are stepping back from belonging to churches.  We can find some interesting differences between groups, yes, like the way a majority of men no longer belong to a church, or the steeper decline among Catholics compared to Protestants.

So what does this mean for American culture and higher education in the future?

As I’ve said before, the trend could point to the long-predicted secularization of the United States, way behind other peer nations. That can suggest a reduction in religious influence across the board, from politics to popular culture and mores.

At the same time the trend of new religious movements and practices – splinter sects, Eat/Prey/Love spiritual exploration, cults, etc. – shows an energetic interest in some form of spiritual behavior. This could eventually lead to a rebound in the form of a new great awakening, or the creation of new groups or entire religions.  Think of, for example, how spiritualism (as in contacting the dead, not spirituality) took off in the wake of the American Civil War.

One author suggests a challenge for civil society, if:

in the next 30 years, the United States will not have one dominant religion. “We have to start thinking about what the world looks like in terms of politics, policy, social service,” [Ryan] Burge said. “How do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked when Christians are half of what it was. Who picks up the slack, especially if the government isn’t going to?”

As I haven’t said before, I wonder about the impact of COVID in the short term and climate change in the long. The coronavirus hasn’t sparked a wave of religious fervor that I can detect. Perhaps it will have no net influence, or will speed the secularizing trend along.

Climate change, though… there are all kinds of possibilities here.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Ministry [ahem] for the Future floated the idea of creating an anti-carbon religious movement.  Deep Adaptation’s Jem Bendell asks us to think of a way of adapting to climate emergencies that focuses on love and support, which could easily describe a range of religious thought. Ibrahim Ozdemir argues that Islam has an environmentalism already present, as does, apparently, a forthcoming new book. Daniel DeLio calls on Catholicism to pick up the cause of climate mitigation. In contrast Tom Haymes pointed out that traditional faiths might appear pro-carbon, with their support of humans as masters of nature.

(I’m writing a little about this in Universities on Fire and would welcome any thoughts.)

And what does this trend say about the future of higher education?

To recap what I’ve said before: declining membership and affiliation threaten religious colleges and universities in their enrollment, staffing, alumni connections, and overall relevance.  Religious studies as a field of research and teaching may similarly be constrained, and we’ve seen evidence of that in plummeting majors.  Intergenerational tension might heighten along religious lines as a belief gap opens up between the youngest and older people belonging to a college or university.

I did float this other point:

Animosity towards education may take on a more deeply religious cast, as unbelief and higher ed remain linked.  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Republicans deeply critical of universities and fearful of Godlessness combining the two more closely.

I’m not sure that’ll pan out now.  Scroll back up to the demographics chart and look at the differences by education.  College graduates are now more likely to belong to a church than those without a BA/BS.  That flies in the face of the conventional wisdom holding that college drives faithful students into apostasy and atheism.

There’s more to be said, but I’m working on deadlines and am more interested in your thoughts and observations.  The comment box stands ready!


Posted in demographics, trends | 6 Comments

What our pandemic year tells us about how we might respond to the climate crisis

What does our experience with the COVID pandemic suggest about how humanity will deal with the far greater crisis of climate change?

As a futurist, I’ve been thinking about this for a while (see earlier posts 1 and 2) and wanted to return to the topic, now that we have the first glimpses of the pandemic’s possible end*.  This month represents one year since the coronavirus became a global pandemic – fifteen months since COVID appeared in China. This now presents to us one case study in how 21st-century human civilization confronts a global calamity.

In this post I’d like to identify some top-level macro features of the coronavirus story that seem to point to behaviors we might exhibit as the climate crisis deepens.

Caveats before proceeding: this is a big picture analysis.  For every point there will be exceptions and variations.  To repeat one caution from an earlier post: comparing pandemic and climate crisis involves two very large subject areas, especially for the latter.  Also, I won’t summarize the global response to COVID, but will touch on key points.

Deep divides on taking science seriously. Obviously the past year has seen political and cultural conflicts over different aspects of pandemic science.  Scientists have also become political, from supporting political causes (Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter) to maneuvering for political influence (cf the experts in and around CDC and the Trump administration).  Britain’s Boris Johnson cited science to push for herd immunity, then cited science again in reverse, to lead closures. China argued that it controlled the pandemic in Hubei province with utmost science, yet did not explain the initial delays and punishment of scientific critics.

We have also seen a raft of pseudoscience and junk science, pushed from people as diverse as religious leaders, Donald Trump, conspiracy fans, New Age influencers, and random folks online.  Most recently I’ve heard of people recommending heartworm drug ivermectin as a COVID treatment, a claim widespread enough that the FDA saw fit to denounce it.  Each adherent tends to claim the mantle of science, or at least of practical reason.

Imagining this constellation of science views applying to climate science is easy, since it’s already going on, obviously. This suggests we’ll see, unsurprisingly, political actors of all kinds seize on various pieces of climate science to justify various stances. Climate scientists will also leverage their expertise, and perhaps not just about the Anthropocene.  And we should expect crackpot science claims to ripple across society. In a sense we can forecast “more of the same.”

We remain national or local creatures and resist thinking globally. Time and against we’ve seen nations acting on their own, making decisions that break from their neighbors’ or against international plans. For example, most recently China has decided to restrict visitors to those who’ve been vaccinated… by the Chinese vaccine.  We’ve seen nations rush to stockpile vaccines but not share them. There’s little interest in making the proprietary vaccine information generic or otherwise shared with the developing world. International cooperation is, overall, slight. Instead, we seem to have chosen something like (forgive my poor Latin) cuius regio, eius morbus.

In the United States our pandemic strategy is a hash, a federal shambles, with different policies being pursued by states, counties, and even cities, often in isolation or, worse, competition.  Globally WHO seems to have done little, as it is mostly at the mercy of nation-states for financial support.

So for climate change… we’ll address in this national and local way, it seems.  As I noted much earlier, COVID shows us a human race wedded to the nation state, and suggests our climate change response will follow suit.

We can spend a lot of money if we deem it necessary. We’ve seen some sloshing of large amounts of money for certain purposes. Some governments and companies have, at times, for specific purposes, spent deeply. Several businesses invested heavily in vaccine production. Operation Warp Speed cost around $15 billion, which dwindles in comparison to the trillions spend by two American presidents on pandemic aid – just so far!

Allied to this point is our newfound capacity to anti-spend: to willingly shut down economic production for the pandemic. Combined, this suggests we may well have the reflex to spend on certain climate change items, such as storm relief, population relocation, or geotechnology.

There is, on average, some concern for some marginalized populations. Alongside Trumpian racism we’ve seen a kind of pandemic justice, a drive to rebalance imbalances by prioritizing support for the marginalized.  We’ve seen this with calls for, or policies that do, get vaccines into people of color especially.  In academia there have been a range of drives to pay special attention to marginalized students, faculty, and staff.  (There’s a LOT going on here, but I’m just summarizing right now.)

For climate change, this suggests we’ll allocate some resources to helping marginalized populations, such as people most at risk from sea level rising who also lack resources to respond. Yet alongside that climate justice movement, we should expect more racism.

Mental/spiritual responses The COVID experience has meant mass amounts of trauma, which our societies tend to meet with psychological or religious assistance. Already there are many calls for escalating mental health support for those who have experienced illness, deaths, and damage around them.

We could expect this to persist as climate change ratchets up. The experience of being impacted by extreme weather is a well established trauma mechanism. There is already work being done on this under various headers, including “climate grief” and “ecoanxiety.”  (cf my forthcoming Universities on Fire‘s chapter on academic research.)

We could expect echoes of this psychological service demand to grow as climate change ratchets up.

At the same time this concern for mental health may branch out into religious and/or spiritual levels. Historically plagues have prompted increases in belief, ever unpopular unbelief, and religious creativity with the emergence of visionaries and sects. Again, we could see waves of changed religious affiliation and behavior follow as climate change worsens.  To offer one example, recall how one leading character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future floated the idea of creating a religion to drive climate change mitigation, and possibly succeeded in doing so.  Or consider the wide range of religious ideation around the Earth.

Shame Elsewhere on the psych front, shaming has reemerged as a popular social tool during the pandemic. Some will shame people who don’t wear masks (I’ve done this just today). Others will shame antivaxxers; I suspect this might strengthen as the vaccinated population approaches some herd immunity threshold. On the reverse anti-mask and -vax activists also deploy shame, albeit not at such scale, and sometimes with guns.

Shame is obviously a deeply seated part of the human psyche and we should expect it deployed around climate change in multiple ways. “Your geoengineering project is evil!” “How dare you drive a gas-burning car?!”

Conservation We are also interested in conserving as much as we can, contra this post’s linked article. Despite the pandemic’s enormous stresses and the attending chaos, we are struggling mightily and often successfully to maintain the status quo.  In 2020 Adundhati Roy asked us to imagine a new world, but the world many have in mind looks a lot like 2019. Think of American president Biden’s “build back better” slogan and his general campaign tone of recovery, restoration. Or consider how America’s public health system has been shown to be a mess, while our medical system is grotesquely unequal, yet most of political discourse avoids talk of reforming either. Similarly, while some debate the causes of COVID (animal to human transmission? lab accident?), there are no serious drives to change anything that enabled the virus to leap into being a global menace. Some signs of disgust at Chinese wet markets have not translated into movements towards vegetarian or vegan diets.

Looking ahead, COVID tells us we’ll approach the emerging post-carbon world with a desire to maintain every bit of carbon-era life we can.

Growth More, the global consensus still settles around wanting more economic growth. Business shutdowns have revealed that we do have the power to consciously and at scale cease burning so much carbon. You’ve all seen those images of cities from last spring, where skies opened up to astonishing clarity.

Yet the consensus is that these moves were humanitarian disasters.  Necessary for the pandemic or otherwise, every nation I’ve seen has viewed these shutdowns as horrible.  Those who believe in voluntary simplicity, cutting back consumerism, adopting the circular economy, or degrowth have attained little to no purchase in public opinion.  Overall, we do not think smaller is better.  Bigger and more is what we want..

For climate change, this suggests we are a long way from actually reorganizing the global economy along new, less consumerist, less capitalist lines.

…yet remember these extrapolations will be flawed once they hit the world. It may be that the many COVID failures shock survivors into different behavior.  2,780,015 dead (as of today) and massive economic hits could stimulate a lot of rethinking.

Further, we may see a phase change occurring by generations.  People who didn’t grow up immersed in the Cold War’s deep training might be more amenable to new economic models, from various socialisms to donut economies.  Some younger people whose economic experience includes the 2008 Great Recession and 2020’s disasters might not see degrowth as that much of a change.

Moreover, as Bruno Latour notes, the root difference between COVID and climate change might let us think anew.

[I]n the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity!

Jeremy Stanton asks us to think beyond humans versus others, and for us to adopt a more holistic, ecological way of seeing the world.

The climate crisis won’t be “won” by “fighting” with the same old war-thinking, the top-down Leviathan approach, because we are the climate crisis, and fighting ourselves will perpetuate the same behaviors and outcomes that gave rise to the problem. So Latour is on to something when he says “the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms.”

We are part of the ecosystem, not separate from it. The more we hold the self-evidence of this truth in our civilizational (re)designs, the better chance we’ll have of mitigating the climate crisis.

I fear COVID did not empower that cause.  Trump’s declaration of war on an invisible enemy has proven to be a popular framing.

Perhaps we’ll adopt a different stance, viewing the climate crisis enemy as Pogo’s Us, since we made it happen. In that case we might reexamine ourselves more deeply. On the other hand, so many of our pandemic responses have been about trying to get people to behave in different ways, so that perhaps the difference won’t amount to much in practice.

spaceship Earth EPCOT_Zach Stern

I do wonder if the transnational nature of the pandemic will gradually nudge human consciousness towards a global framework. As a child I found Buckminster Fuller’s spaceship Earth model very appealing.  Perhaps the combination of thinking of viruses advancing over continents, economic supply chains breaking or moving between nations, vaccines fought over across national boundaries will add some Earth-level thinking to our minds. And as climate change advances, perhaps our mental frameworks will as well, and we could look back to the COVID planetary storm as a milestone along that path.

(thanks to my Patreon supporters for feedback; photo by Zach Stern)

*Note that I referred to the end of the pandemic. That means we still have COVID in our ecosystem. Nobody is talking about eradicating it. Instead, “end of pandemic” describes transmission rates and total infections dropping below pandemic levels. Think of it as comparable to the seasonal flu in scale, if not function.

Also, by “glimpse” I wanted to include the possibility that while we grow vaccinations, we also screw things up with “vaccine hesitancy” and bad public health behaviors.  A glimpse of the eventual end doesn’t mean everything is fine and dandy in the short run.

Posted in climatechange, coronavirus | 8 Comments

Curricular analytics: one project and many questions

What are curricular analytics and what can they add to higher education?

Yesterday the Future Trends Forum met with Gregory L. Heileman, associate vice provost for academic administration and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Arizona. He’s also project lead for the Curricular Analytics effort, and that’s what we explored for an hour.

CA analyzes the different routes undergraduate students can take through university curricula, measuring relative complexity in order to better shape advising, majors, and course catalogs. It generates visualizations of student pathways, including metrics, such as:

Forum_Heileman_instituition 2

Sample visualization on the right. That’s Dr. Heileman on bottom left.

You can find out more on the project site, including uploading your own curricular data for processing and visualization.  There is at least one scholarly paper breaking down the approach and data.  There is also a Github site with plenty of files to download.

Naturally we recorded the whole session:


I would like to say a few things about the session, which went differently than many Forum Thursdays. There was a good amount of presentation, as Greg needed to show people the various visualizations in order to explain what CA does. That’s a break from tradition, as the Future Trends Forum is normally focused entirely on face to face discussion, but it worked well here. Participants had plenty of perceptive questions and comments, which Dr. Heileman handled very well.  Maria Anderson, founding CEO of curricular analytics service Coursetune and excellent Forum guest, weighed in. Overall it felt like a rich workshop or tutorial, and might point the way towards more Forum events along these lines.

I mentioned plenty of questions and comments and meant it. Yesterday was one of those sessions where we ran out of time before getting to all of them, so I’ll follow my usual practice of copying them here, lightly edited for anonymity and typos, and in the chronological order they appeared during the hour-long session:

Students often fail to see the larger point to their educational efforts. How can we leverage your project to encourage them to contextualize their education? What about opportunities for interdisciplinarity?

I might be jumping the gun, but how does bringing these insights forward allow institutions to make substantive curricular or policy shifts.

Students who go to elite schools have already learned how to succeed in academia no matter what you do to them. It’s not really a fair comparison to say that elite schools give students more freedom.

Has your work unearthed common reasons for curricular complexity? Governance? Faulty culture? Etc.?

Forum Heileman quality vs complexity

Do you think the downward trend in high school graduates will push institutions to streamline curricula?

How might we move from a culture of “weeding out” students at the intro level & instead open the door for more opportunities for students more investment in completing a degree/getting an education?

Have career outcomes or paths of these graduates been mapped to the curricular complexity of their alma mater? And is there any relationship?

Did the restructuring and pathway of using an “Engineering 101” course also benefit students who might have had previous experience in math or engineering? Diversity and reinforcement sounds promising

How is Instructional Complexity calculated? How is it different than Structural Complexity?

I hope participants can use comments on this post, or comments elsewhere, to continue the discussion.

One more link to share: in response to questions about campuses running into restrictions imposed by disciplinary associations, professor Heileman referenced a paper he co-authored with the very perky title “ABET Won’t Let Us Do That!”

This is the first time the Forum has focused so clearly on data analytics.  It won’t be the last.

Happy to hear your reactions in comments below!

Posted in education and technology, Future Trends Forum | 5 Comments

Looking ahead to higher ed in fall 2021: struggling towards normalcy

Earlier this week my family took in a videoconference hosted by the University of Vermont, where Owain is a history major. The UVM team was very clear on one point: the return of a pre-COVID educational setting by fall 2021.  Students will be required to be on campus in Burlington.  There will be no remote classes, no online education.

This brought home to me on a personal level that at least some of American* higher education anticipates a return to normalcy this fall semester.  I’ve been looking into this, and wanted to share some forecasting notes today.

Campuses planning on an entirely in-person fall experience are apparently betting that COVID-19 vaccines will triumph over the summer in what I’ve called “the race between vaccines and variants.”  This lines up with the Biden administration’s campaign for enough people to have gotten shots that July 4th will be celebrated without masks.

The data point in that direction, so far. Vaccinations are getting into people, despite many logistical problems:

coronavirus vaccines by nation -US-2021 March 18_91-divOC

Partly as a result, infections are declining:

coronavirus infections by nation-US_2021 March 19-91-DIVOC

One caveat: while cases plummeted from mid-January, that curve took a hit in March and now seems to have either slowed down or hit a plateau. I hope the current slew of idiocy openings don’t breed a new spike.

At some point the infection situation will drop below pandemic levels.  I don’t see any move to eradicate COVID. Instead, we seem to be headed to living with it, much as we live with other infectious diseases (flu, AIDS, etc.), through a mix of public health strategies, a lack of media coverage, and acceptance of certain amounts of injury and death.

So if all goes according to plan, what might a post-pandemic fall semester look like on college and university campuses?

1: The more likely academic trends and developments

These are trends, topics, and problems whose outcomes seem relatively predetermined or constrained.  Relatively.

Post-traumatic communities: students, faculty, and staff setting foot on campus in August and September will have lived through one and one-half years of national trauma.  Some members of the academic world will have experienced illness, long-haul tissue damage, or economic hardship, or a mixture of these. Additionally, people will have seen others deal with all of these, plus witnessing deaths of family members, plus realizing that the pandemic slaughtered more than 600,000 people.

As a result campus communities will likely have to cope with trauma and its aftereffects.  Colleges and universities have the opportunity to help them recover by providing access to care. Administrations may be pressured to do more.

Depressed financials: while many institutions were badly hit financially over the past year, losses were not as great as I and others forecast, thanks mostly to several federal aid packages from both political parties.  Overall, state governments seem to be trying to spend a bit more on public institutions, albeit with exceptions, naturally. Yet hits did occur and enrollment did drop in 2020-2021, hence the loss off 650,000+ academic jobs.

Depending on their individual situations, a number of colleges and universities will struggle to balance the books and pay bills. This may drive more program cuts, campus mergers, and closures.

Online meetings: from office hours to committee meetings, presentations, and consultations, 2020 taught many academics that these could be done decently – or better, in many ways! – through video. We could see a quiet maintenance of these virtual habits even as people physically gather.

Loss of learning: to some very hard to quantify degree students may have fallen behind in learning during the pandemic. Traditional-age undergraduates starting their first post-secondary years this fall may have had a weaker senior high school year than most. Continuing students may have missed curricular items that campuses could not offer virtually, such as those requiring in-person, hands-on practice.  Some faculty may feel that their students didn’t learn at a pre-COVID level during the past year.

As a result campuses have several options. They may devote resources to enhancing learning in 2021-2022, such as through paracurricular centers (teaching and learning, writing, numeracy, etc). Faculty may lower expectations to a degree during fall classes.  Remedial classes might be offered as well.

COVID curriculum: I coined this term nearly a year ago to refer to an increase in student demand for pandemic-related classes and degrees, most notably the full range of health care topics.  NPR agrees, but prefers their “Fauci effect” nickname.  Either way, there are signs that this increased demand is occurring (one example).  The pandemic’s enormous catastrophe may push that enrollment forward in fall 2021.  The flipside of this forecast is that other fields will lose out, especially if total enrollment remains lower (but see below).

Athletics: clearly American higher ed will do absolutely anything to keep playing college sports, including spending huge amounts of money and/or risking COVID spread. If I’m right about this, then we should see a massive push for athletics to go full tilt in fall, especially the high profile and occasionally money-making sports of football and basketball.

2: Open questions

These are trends and topics whose expressions in fall term are harder to pin down and have a greater range of possibility.

Online and hybrid classes: how many students will demand online classes or hybrid access to in-person ones?  Depending on how successful the 2021 public health campaign is, there may be a number of students who prefer online learning because of convenience (balancing study with work and family) or not being convinced of a campus’ safety measures.

Which campuses will insist on entirely in-person education, and which offer online and/or hybrid and/or HyFlex options?  How open will departments and other units be to remote work?

Toggle terms: depending on how the virus plays out this fall, some campuses may decide to throw the switch and order students to shelter in place if infections spike.  Other campuses may be ordered or pressured to do so by local or state health authorities.  It’s hard to anticipate numbers on this score, given so many viral variables: mutations, different local conditions, students partaking in superspreader events, etc.

Enrollment: will it continue ticking down as it has done every semester since 2012? If the Biden administration’s Department of Education follows the Obama team’s anti-for-profit strategy, we could see that sector lose students – and those are then lost to the rest of higher ed, typically. Some would-be students might not feel they can risk in-person education. Or will there be some bounceback after fall 2020 and spring 2021’s steeper drops, as people sign up for classes without fear of infection?

Openings coverCommitment to improving teaching: one of the Georgetown Opening‘s findings was that much of higher education determined to improve teaching during the pandemic semesters.  This was partly to address complaints of low-quality online teaching and partly to make in-person education work despite anti-COVID measures.

Will this commitment extend to fall 2021? It might not. Faculty switching from online to in-person teaching may feel more confident and ask for less support. The absence of plexiglas and masks may similarly restore instructors’ sense of their quality, and perhaps senior administration will share that sentiment.  Additionally, campuses might have a hard time allocating funds to instructional designers, faculty professional development, and paracurricular centers given so many other crying needs from 2020-2021.

On the other hand, how many instructors returning to physical classrooms will find themselves exploring new techniques and approaches? Lessons learned from online teaching can often inform face-to-face instruction. A desire for equity may also drive some to change their pedagogy or decolonize their curricula. We could, in other words, see a persistent drive to improve education once the pandemic situation eases.

Efforts to address racial inequalities: as with improving educational quality, academia rededicated itself in 2020 to grappling with racism.  How might that play out in fall 2021?  Again, our Openings research found many scholars unsure of momentum here. Will the Biden administration encourage more racial justice work, or will the absence of the antipathetic Trump take away some energy for such efforts? Will structural changes get under weigh and support continued work, or will 2020 become a flash in the historical pan, a brief moment of racial rethinking that faded too quickly?

Women and research: non-COVID-related research suffered during the pandemic as scarce resources were prioritized and as coping with the disaster meant losing research time in favor of caring and recovery.  Female scholars suffered this more strongly than did males, since to the former fell the lion’s share of family and home-based care work.  If we experience a return to normalcy in fall 2020, will colleges and universities not only devote resources to recovering research progress, but also target women for more support?

Socialization: a popular thought is that students socializing online lose the opportunity to learn how to interact with people in person.  To the extent that this is true, the pandemic semesters represent a loss in social learning, especially for traditional-age undergraduates. How will campuses respond?  They could host expanded residential life programs aimed at catching up for lost time. Campus mental health capacity could add “learning how to interact better with humans offline” to their already crowded service agenda. Faculty may decide to increase small group and team work exercises.

Campus design: how will a college or university’s built environment change by fall 2021?    Months ago I imagined transformed architectural spaces under the assumption that the pandemic lasted three years or more:

Architecture, cities, and the overall human-built environment have changed somewhat by 2023.   Insofar as renovations and new construction occurs, buildings have bigger openings to the outside through wider windows and doors, more galleries and porches, all aimed at facilitating social distancing or externally circulating air.  Inside buildings there are larger hallways and fewer, yet larger, rooms.  Rooftops are more widely used.  Fast food restaurants have more drive-throughs and fewer dining rooms – they are, in effect, for pickup only.

Yet fall term 2021 proceeds with just one and one-half COVID years.  That’s not a lot of time for major alterations to buildings and the construction of new ones. If the pandemic ceases by autumn, to what extent will a campus look different? Will we see those wider doors and windows, those enlarged rooms, or will the 2019 physical plant simply continue?

Job placement: will academia’s methods for pointing students towards employment change in fall 2021? How will changes to the labor market (higher unemployment, certain industrial sectors sapped, others booming) elicit academic responses? Groups like The Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity represent some innovation in career support. I am not sure how widespread such rethinking and transformation will be.

The Greek system: fraternities and sororities played a prominent role in spreading COVID in academic communities and surrounding areas (for example) (another example) (another example) (example) (example) (example) (example) (example) (example).  Will campuses that allow Greek systems to function rethink that stance or come up with new policies?

I posed this question in August, and that post has a more substantial argument than what I’m making here. Events haven’t invalidated it. On the one hand, we can see that some fraternities and sororities took steps that clearly worsened the pandemic. On the other, the Greek system is buttressed by hefty amounts of money, not to mention serious support across and adjacent to academia.  Additionally, I suspect many academics who might dislike those houses have resigned themselves to their continuation. Will COVID alter that picture?

Assessing and administering students: Wesson Radomsky (a splendid Georgetown LDT student) asks us to think about some aspects of instruction:

Will faculty members decide to grade like it’s 2019, or maintain pandemic modes of assessment and administration?  What will departments and chief academic officers prefer?

Policing the campus perimeter: Robert McGuire wonders how campuses will police who’s allows on site:

If campuses insist on proof of vaccination, what will they require?  Many vaccination services issue stamped or stickered cards; is that the badge of entry?  Or will the United States stand up a vaccination passport scheme in time for fall residence hall move-in? Some could maintain the not-very-useful temperature check instead.  And what should campuses do about students – and staff, and faculty – who are not vaccinated yet see themselves as having a rightful place on the grounds?

Study abroad: how might these programs change?  For example, will certain destination countries block or otherwise make entrance difficult for American students, given how badly this nation bungled COVID?) and length of stay.  Or campuses could select hosting areas depending on how they are at present handling the virus.

Stepping back a bit from this more detailed themes and issues, will colleges and universities continue to push hard on innovation overall as they did in 2020, or will they fall back?  How many academics will greet an in-person fall term with a sigh of nostalgic relief and dust off fall 2019’s playbook?  How many will see fall 2021 as an opening to new possibilities?

*I’m focusing on American higher ed in this post for reasons of time.  I need to pry loose more time to cover other nations on this topic.

(thanks to Owain Alexander, Phil Long for ideas)

Posted in coronavirus, future of education | 10 Comments

How might American academia respond to rising tensions with China?

What does the growing struggle between the United States and China mean for higher education?

Here I’d like to continue my exploration of the question. This post is a direct follow up on my last one. For more on the issue, check previous blog entries (here, hereherehere) as well as our book club’s reading of Ministry for the Future.

To recap: so far most indicators point to the Biden and Xi administrations alike pursuing policies of maintaining or increasing great power rivalry. This has implications for the world in general, and for higher education in particular.

Today I’ll use an important Bloomberg News item to anchor some thoughts, then will extrapolate further using other sources.

In this post I do not attempt to assess the validity or morality of the policies and strategies involved. Instead I want to identify their details, then explore their implications and choices for academia.

Nick Wadhams reports on key details of America’s China strategy, starting with the role of technology:

The Biden administration is moving to put semiconductors, artificial intelligence and next-generation networks at the heart of U.S. strategy toward Asia, attempting to rally what officials are calling “techno-democracies” to stand up to China and other “techno-autocracies.”

There’s a lot going on here. First, this foreign policy move directly involves a group of academic departments, starting with computer science and possibly including business and communication. It places them right in the path of geopolitics.  To those disciplines we might add biology and the life sciences, given this US Air Force wargame emphasizing a Chinese biological attack.

Second, note the opposition of “techno-democracies” and “techno-autocracies.”  That’s a major claim on global policy and political ideology, calling for the creation or understanding of two international blocs aligned on their use of technology. Academically, this is obviously a matter for political science, not to mention area studies and modern history.

Wadhams expands on this technology-based global alliance idea:

“There’s a newfound realization about the importance that semiconductors are playing in this geopolitical struggle because chips underlie every tech in the modern era,” said Lindsay Gorman, a fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “It’s an effort to double down on the technological comparative advantage that the U.S. and its democratic partners.”

It’s an approach partly based on denying China access to certain technology for as long as possible, looking to quash Chinese juggernauts like Huawei Technologies Co. and even taking a page from the Communist Party’s playbook by boosting government involvement in key industries when needed.

Think very carefully about what denying China access to technologies means for higher education.  A key function of academia is sharing access to knowledge, both from the accumulated corpus of human scholarship and newly derived findings.  We share through research and teaching, albeit unevenly and in opposition to countervailing forces like paywalls and the ivory tower tradition.  So how should sharing-inclined colleges and universities respond when the federal government asks us to not behave this way on particular topics and for a specific audience?

This could play out in different ways. Universities could step back from open access in scholarly communication as a first step to hoard knowledge, but that’s easily circumvented by a credit card. Should universities provide faculty members with tools for keeping their discoveries offline? Should the relevant scholarly societies host dark archives of papers and monographs, with materials accessible only to certain interested parties? On the pedagogical side, should academic deans and department heads ensure that professors don’t teach certain content, especially to Chinese students? In fact, how does a department teach cutting edge topics in technology and at the same time keep them away from Beijing?

Thinking through the latter necessitates a strategic level choice about student recruiting. Will the Biden team encourage campuses to cut back on enrolling Chinese students? Could the feds offer a serious amount of financial support to colleges and universities, as might be in a new bill, then tie that help to campuses pursuing appropriate anti-China practices? Recall that Chinese students are the leading population of foreign students studying in America, counting for roughly one third of them. If we do cut back, how do campuses handle the financial hit?  At the same time, how do we manage to fully staff our research teams without those bright grad students?  Each college and university could face difficult choices on this point.

Such recruiting and research choices might play out differently for public and private institutions.  Public universities are, by their nature, subjected to state oversight. States don’t conduct foreign policy, but are sometimes a way for the federal government (which does) to convey policy preferences.  We could imagine, hypothetically, public universities in clearly Democratic states, such as SUNY or University of California campuses, responding favorably to a Biden administration imperative along these lines.  In contrast, that way of influencing private colleges and universities is lacking.  There are other ways for the government to influence them, of course: public pressure, reaching out to key donors and alumni, personal connections to presidents or trustees, national funding, etc.

Popular pressure might play a role as well. Pew reports that anti-Chinese feeling is rising within the United States.  Note in particular this finding about American attitudes towards Chinese students:

Pew_us-views-chinese students_0-27-1

That’s a majority of Americans – across the three most numerous racial demographics – backing restrictions on Chinese students.  Also, throughout that Pew report we read of American anxieties about Chinese research, especially in technology and digital fields. This kind of public attitude can be expressed against higher ed in order to cause campuses to change policies.

Some academics may also support such measures.  In that above Pew research college graduates are almost perfectly split on restricting Chinese students.  How many alumni and current students will urge faculty and administrators to cut enrollment back, or limit Chinese students to taking certain majors? For example, this report from an American university identifies six Chinese universities where faculty conduct digital research that that country’s military can use. Will we see similar American academic research calling on fellow academics to shun Chinese partnerships?

2034 novelAlong those lines, there has been a steady drumbeat of popular culture stories imagining a Chinese military success over the United States, decisively enabled by successful cyberwar (for example). How many people within the military-industrial complex, within foreign policy, within the Biden administration, share this particular fear? Will there be enough political will to encourage or compel academia to play a role in blocking such a disaster from occurring? For example, in screening Chinese students from studying certain aspects of computer science?

More, how many academics will share this specific fear?  Imagine, for example, political science faculty lobbying a dean to get computer science to not publish certain findings.

How many academics could afford to resist such calls, coming from inside or beyond the academic house? Recall that the preponderance of American faculty are not afforded tenure’s protections, and might in fact see following the anti-China lead as a way to maintain current employment or to win new contracts.  Remember, too, how many non-elite institutions have been suffering from multiple pressures: those from macroeconomics, demographics, failing business models, enrollment shifts, cuts to state support, etc.  How much room will they have to maneuver? Indeed, how many will readily see following federal direction as a shot at improving the odds of their survival?

Back to that Bloomberg article and the intersection of national alliances with academia:

Several people familiar with the administration’s planning, and especially that of Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Asia coordinator, say he foresees a broad approach that puts greater emphasis on a few key partners such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, while offering incentives to bring chip fabrication back to the U.S.

Chips figure in plans to bolster the Quad — a once-sputtering alliance of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India that got a boost of support during the Trump era — including by eventually bringing more technology production to South Asia…

Biden’s supporters say his strategy will include working more closely with other countries. And it’s looking to strengthen existing partnerships that were rarely utilized. Chief among them is the Quad and the belief that India may be newly willing to set itself against China given recent tensions between the world’s two most populous nations.

This offers a different set of choices from what we discussed above.  If the Biden administration wants to shift American energies away from China and towards these other nations – Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – should the academy follow suit? That is, do we double down on recruiting students from those nations, perhaps to balance losses from China? Should chief academic officers encourage their faculty to seek research partners from the Quad et al?  Should provosts also expand academic study of those nations, including area studies and language programs, in order to contribute in our way to the strategy of assembling a global “techno-democracies” alliance?  Establishing a university partnership with India, expanding Japanese language teaching, hosting Australian writers and so on may appear as patriotic moves.

Speaking of the Quad, here’s a tweet from this morning:

Back on the domestic front, some in Congress are aligning with the president. Wadhams doesn’t specify party dynamics, but we might guess Democratic senators and representatives are following the lead, perhaps joined by Republicans who see anti-China as a bipartisan foreign policy issue.  To wit:

The [anti-China, technology-grounded] approach is already getting a positive response from Congress, where lawmakers are proposing a number of bills aimed at bolstering U.S. technology, such as the Chips Act, which would offer incentives to bring chip manufacturing back home, and the Endless Frontier Act to invest more broadly in technological advancement.

For academia, such Congressional activity could play out in several ways.  First, imagine senators and/or representatives writing higher education incentives and disincentives into various bills, including whatever happens to the Higher Education Act reauthorization. Second, as each Congressional senator and representative is a state politician, they can exert some form of influence on their state’s government, which can them impact higher ed in multiple policy and legal ways.  We could imagine, for example, a China hawk urging her state government to not support academics who are “soft on China” and to punish individual professors deemed to have assisted Beijing.

Back to the technology question, Wadhams introduces an economic theme:

China has essentially forced the U.S. to start breaking off elements of business and technology relations in a pattern known as decoupling. China has essentially erected its own Internet infrastructure, barring many U.S. media outlets and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and has shown a willingness to use the size of its market and its economic might as a weapon to make other nations fall into line.

Such a business and technology divide hits higher ed in several ways.  Decoupling at scale will likely injure the American economy, as Tom Lairson and others observe, which will add more financial stress to a higher education sector already massively strained.  On a practical level, as long as Chinese students study in the United States and Americans work with Chinese colleagues such a technological divide will make learning and research materially more difficult, including duplicating tools and dealing with divergent standards.  (I’ve already experienced this with some of my Chinese students who, having returned home, were blocked from accessing some class-related sites and software.)

Now, all of the preceding discussion is based on a single, rickety assumption: that American higher education will follow the Biden China policy. Obviously this is unlikely at a national level. American colleges and universities have various levels of autonomy, as do their members, depending on their private or public nature, tenure status of faculty, financial clout, political resources, and so on.  These institutions are famously hard to corral.

Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine dissent.  Progressives may criticize an increasingly strong anti-China policy as racist. Researchers and instructors can object to externally imposed restrictions on their practices, and cite academic freedom.  Faculty, staff, and students opposed to war and military enterprises may object to such a new Cold War as dangerous. Financially minded campus leaders may dread economic impacts on their institutions.  On geopolitical grounds some academics might see an anti-Beijing policy as just wrongheaded, perhaps preferring one aimed at another threat (Russia, Islamicists).

The preceding discussion also rests on the assumption that this is an accurate read on the Biden and Xi administrations’ actions for the near and medium term future. I could easily be wrong. Biden might be opening hard in order to set up negotiations, or he could die and a president Harris take policy in a different direction. The Chinese government’s grasp on power might slide.  Climate change could loom so large as a thread that Beijing and Washington decide to partner, rather than feud, in order to address that pressing crisis.

But if these assumptions play out, what then? What becomes of the academy?

(Thanks to many friends for conversation. I will follow up with more on this theme.)

Posted in future of education, politics | 3 Comments