Dear Center for Academic Innovation Community,
Trucks departed the Pfizer plant in Portage, Michigan on Sunday – 101 miles west of our campus in Ann Arbor – carrying the first batches of the COVID-19 vaccine and hope for a better year ahead. Watching footage of the trucks departing western Michigan, my eight-year-old daughter shared her own thoughts on prioritizing the distribution of the vaccine to front-line workers while my son, who started his academic career this year in virtual kindergarten, asked if we would still have asynchronous time. While my children still spend a fair percentage of December talking about Santa, their attention this year is focused more on deliveries packed with dry-ice than those packaged for a sleigh.
Our household isn’t alone in discussing the healthcare workforce, supply-chains, and instructional methods at the breakfast table. A new shared vocabulary and the most dominant story arc for 2020 gives us a sense of shared experience in 2020. Of course, when we look closer we see how differently 2020 unfolded across America. As daily downloads of health disparity data visualizations replaced checking the sports box scores and highlights, we gained a new understanding of the social determinants of health. Observing political clashes around stimulus checks, we were reminded how many live far too close to, or beneath, the poverty line. Streaming broadcasts through interconnected mobile devices of citizen journalists, we viewed police brutality and protest with new perspectives.
Through these lenses, it is nearly impossible for one to see 2020 as a single shared experience but rather an amplification of what journalist Isabel Wilkerson refers to as a shared history and present that is shaped by a hidden caste system and a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. Her masterful book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, is essential reading as we close 2020 with a need for greater understanding and a call-to-action to close equity gaps that have always been a part of our history and shamefully widened during the pandemic.
This is not to say that we should not be hopeful for 2021. We should. There is reason to believe that the current year has helped many of us to understand the importance of community compassion and support in pursuit of equality, the significance of making human connections in a digital world, and the need for compromise and collaboration in shaping a shared future that is healthy and just.
But we also need to acknowledge and never forget that it didn’t have to be this way. The trucks are en route but the distribution of vaccines will be too late for too many. Empty chairs at thousands of holiday tables will serve as reminders that we were unable to come together when it mattered the most. We failed to trust science and we couldn’t bring ourselves to trust each other. As a result, we are too late for too many.
Just as we should never forget those we’ve loved and lost, neither should we look away from those who lost because the world we created failed to love them. As influencers shaping the future of higher education, we also need to acknowledge and never forget that our higher education system didn’t have to look the way it looks today. We are too late for too many who haven’t been privileged to access our institutions or positioned for success when they arrive. Given our heightened awareness of systemic problems in higher education, what will we take with us beyond 2020 in shaping the post-pandemic university? How will we facilitate system-level changes to improve learning innovation, transform access, and strengthen educational outcomes?
I hope we will begin to see with greater clarity the empty chairs that were never positioned at our tables and in our halls in the first place. Without such visible reminders, I hope we will come to fully acknowledge who isn’t present in our higher education community and understand how their absence limits our collective potential. I hope we will acknowledge that presence is progress but representation at all levels of contribution and leadership is most powerful. At the University of Michigan, I hope we use the pain and power of this moment to mobilize the expertise and passion of scholar-practitioners, learners, community partners, and decision-makers to view “an uncommon education for the common man” as an important starting point and “a world-class education for problem solvers representative of our world” as a destination.
In higher education, as with our broader world, it is too late for too many. This is the pain we should carry with us to ensure urgency and inspiration. But there is reason to be hopeful. 2020 provided the clarity needed to reveal a coherent vision that calls us to end educational privilege in order to develop sustainable solutions for our common humanity. I hope you find an opportunity for rest and rejuvenation this holiday season and rejoin us in the new year to design the post-pandemic university.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation
Founding Executive Director of the Center for Academic Innovation