As college students nationwide begin a fall semester like no other, it is tempting to label this an historic moment. This is much more than a moment in time, however. It is not merely a pause before we return to business as usual. It is a movement.
Many of the changes we are incorporating on our campuses throughout the United States – in the face of a global pandemic and other unyielding forces – represent a fundamental and necessary shift in higher education. Even as we reopen our campuses to the in-person experience, we recognize the pressing need to prepare students for the digital world they will enter after graduating, and our own pressing need to reflect that in how we operate.
At the University of Colorado, delivering our educational mission is paramount, as is the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and surrounding communities. Recognizing the importance of the in-person college experience, we committed to welcoming students back to our four campuses to the extent the virus would allow. Through close collaboration with health authorities, our campuses developed comprehensive plans that include frequent and widespread testing, contact tracing, enhanced sanitation practices, monitoring of campus and community health data, strict behavioral standards, and a hybrid of on-campus and online classes and course segments.
We greet each day with optimism and caution. We know we will continue to identify asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases given that our testing capabilities exceed those of the communities surrounding our campuses. We fully recognize COVID-19 is in the driver’s seat and it could drastically change our direction on a moment’s notice. We know we may have to pivot immediately to fully online classes and remote work environments should health conditions warrant. Given this uncertainty, we are fortunate to have begun expanding our online portfolio well before the pandemic hit. The virus simply accelerated our efforts to address an already urgent need for robust online education and technology, one that is growing at an astounding pace.
The ways in which students are consuming higher education have changed given the world’s rapid digitization. Increasingly, students want an in-person experience and online offerings, and we are primed to deliver both. In service to our students and our institutions, we must dispel the myth that online education is somehow subpar. When done well, it is neither lesser in quality nor cost than traditional in-person teaching as it, too, entails instruction, planning, expertise, engagement, time and care. There is a place for both methodologies at the table.
If recent months have given us a glimpse into our digital future, they have also exposed the still festering wounds of our past as a nation. As institutions of higher education, we have a special responsibility to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, and we are taking this responsibility seriously at CU. We begin this academic year with our work to address civil rights concerns at the forefront. The growing diversity of our state and nation mandates we broaden access to the opportunities for success that come with a college degree. We must be better at attracting and retaining students, faculty and staff from communities of color. While we have taken many positive steps already, this work is never done. And we are in this for the long haul.
As we enter the fall, it is easy to view this as a moment to endure before we can return to the familiar way of doing things. But the challenges we face now herald a movement toward complete transformation and higher education institutions must lead the way. The jobs rising in our digital society demand college degrees. We need an educated workforce representing diverse backgrounds, identities and perspectives to ensure our state and nation remain innovative, competitive and economically vibrant. At CU, we are embracing this opportunity for transformative change as we facilitate our students’ educational journeys and continue to extend our impact – through teaching, research, service and health care – far beyond state lines.
Mark Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado.
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