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April 2, 2020

In a few short weeks, American universities have been required to make radical changes to their normal operating procedures. Dorms were quickly emptied while provisions were made for those who couldn’t exit, most students studying overseas were brought home, commencements were postponed, and a dramatic shift to online teaching and learning was put into place. Not all of these things happened perfectly (“Zoombombers” comes to mind), but for the most part all involved rallied and worked to adapt to the changes required by the coronavirus.

Let’s pause and recognize how impressive this is. Higher Ed is often criticized for its failure to be nimble, but what we observed in the colleges and universities we represent was a unified effort to protect their students, faculty and staff and stay focused on their overarching mission to educate. We witnessed leadership at every level and supported our clients as they made these dramatic and rapid changes.

Technology is playing a critical role in helping colleges and universities fulfill their educational objectives, thanks in part to earlier innovations that were conceived or enhanced in our institutions of higher education. A great example is the smartphone, which wouldn’t be “smart” without America’s research universities. A few years ago Finn Partners created this graphic for the Association of American Universities to highlight the contributions made by a number of universities – from the battery that powers it to the touch screen that allows for easy access. Even on the K-12 front, which initially didn’t embrace the use of smartphones in learning, there is the realization of how these ubiquitous tools can empower students and expand learning, from accessing the dictionary to watching relevant videos, from conducting research to reading the news.

Now, confronted with the pandemic, our country’s research universities are on overdrive, sharing expertise, seeking vaccines and other life-saving measures. From the early onset of COVID-19, Johns Hopkins University began tracking in real time its spread, sharing with the public the astonishing data it is compiling, which has become the primary source of this information globally. Among our clients, we have helped to elevate the work of Aaron Carroll, M.D., of Indiana University, who was early in warning us of how the spread of the virus would strain hospitals’ capacity and resources. Experts at Michigan State University have weighed in on avoiding unnecessary risks during this crisis, food safety and why social distancing is essential. Chapman University experts shared what we did and didn’t learn from China’s COVID-19 experience and insights on the first California case not connected with foreign travel. We are fortunate to work with a wide array of experts who are helping us understand this crisis and finding solutions to it.

Yes, there are issues around cost and access that American universities need to address, but let’s recognize the value of our institutions of higher education and the dedication and brainpower they have to offer, especially as we address issues as threatening as pandemics.

 

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