HIGHER EDUCATION, the lifeblood of the Boston area economy and identity, is being rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, but is poised to adapt and use the crisis as a bridge to new approaches to learning suited to the fast-changing world of the 21st century.
That was the mostly-rosy picture painted by five area college and university presidents in an online forum sponsored on Wednesday afternoon by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
“Higher education is much more flexible than anyone ever imagined,” said Boston University president Robert Brown. “In fact, much more flexible than we imagined.”
Lee Pelton, the president of Emerson College and moderator for the conversation, underscored that perception of intransigence by suggesting that “change at a college or university is like trying to move a cemetery: It’s a really very hard thing to do.”
The leaders all said they were planning for some on-campus classes this fall, but emphasized the difficulty of making definitive pronouncements at this point.
“It’s hard to be very precise,” said Brown. “There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty that we have.”
“Resilience is the name of the game,” said Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun.
Northeastern has “the goal of a full reopening in the fall,” Aoun said. “But in order to do that it will not be business as usual.” He pointed to planning now underway to bring reduced density to every aspect of university life from classrooms to dormitories.
While the leaders struggled to lay out exactly what the fall term would look like — the consensus was that it will involve some mix of online and on-campus learning — they were also asked by Pelton to sketch a longer-term picture of how the pandemic will reshape their institution.
Marty Meehan, president of the University of Massachusetts, said a much more robust online educational program must be part of the university’s future. He got animated in discussing the enormous growth of national online ventures launched by Penn State, the University of Maryland, and Arizona State University. He said the enterprises have all made big inroads in New England.
“They’ve been cleaning our clock, and I think Massachusetts can do better,” Meehan said, adding that UMass plans to develop a partnership with an online university.
Aoun said the development of online classes that students can access “synchronously” with classmates in real-time or later on their own is part of a broader move to greater personalization of education, something the coronavirus crisis is only accelerating.
“We have to take into account the needs and the journey of every student,” he said. In the past, Aoun said, universities thought “the temple was our temple, the calendar was our calendar.” As the COVID-19 crisis drives the move to more individualized learning, he said, “It is no longer going to be, I am giving the course today, I am the center of the world.”
The upheaval has been felt very differently at Bunker Hill Community College, whose predominantly low-income student body of 11,000 commutes to its main Charlestown campus and a satellite campus in Chelsea. “All the inequities that we know that were sort of bubbling beneath the surface have broken open,” said the school’s president, Pam Eddinger. She called the abrupt switch this spring to online learning “one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced.”
“They don’t have laptops, WiFi, a quiet place to study. They’re taking care of kids at home,” she said, describing all the ways many Bunker Hill students have been thrown off by the crisis. While middle-class students at four-year schools may take a year off because of the disruption, “the expectations of them will bring them back, albeit later,” said Eddinger. “I’m not sure I can say that of all of our students,” she said, pointing to Bunker Hill students who have drifted away amidst the campus shutdown.
For those who have stuck with it, Eddinger said, the challenges can go beyond just the logistics of technology and carving out time for classes and study while at home. “I have students who will not put their faces on Zoom because they’re studying in a closet and they do not want their poverty or their lack of resources to be exposed,” she said.
Aoun and Brown, whose campuses enroll thousands of international students, said the development of online courses will be particularly important for foreign students, many of whom may not obtain visas in time to return for the start of fall classes — if they are in fact being held on campus. Brown said offering the same classes simultaneously online and in campus classrooms means international students can begin courses online in September, if necessary, and “slip seamlessly” into on-campus learning when they arrive in Boston.
There was little discussion of the financial crisis the pandemic may be engendering in higher education or other dire consequences for campuses, but Brown said colleges and universities need to be very transparent about the issues they’re facing.
Higher education, with its pursuit of research knowledge, is supposed to serve society as “honest brokers of information,” he said. “I think this is really a gut check for us because I think we have to be honest brokers about the information about ourselves, at a time when that information may not be the best painless information.”
Meehan was the only one to point to the elephant in the higher ed room — the prospect of the pandemic pushing colleges and universities that have been struggling over the brink.
“I don’t think there’s any way demographically to support the same number of colleges and universities,” he said, referring to the decline in New England’s high school age population. “This crisis is going to accelerate the challenges of many tuition-dependent institutions that don’t have large endowments,” Meehan said. “Not all colleges and universities are going to be existing by the time this is over.”
Financial concerns notwithstanding, Meehan’s office announced on Wednesday that he will recommend a tuition freeze this fall for the university’s 50,000 in-state undergraduates because of the pandemic’s impact on family finances.
The big differences between the worlds of national private universities and public community colleges came into full view when the presidents addressed what it will take to restart on-campus learning. As a commuter college, Bunker Hill’s footprint extends to the farthest point from which students travel, “or about an 8-mile radius,” said Eddinger. “Our dynamics for the fall is going to be tied very much to the dynamics of the city and the transpiration spine that is the MBTA and the buses.”