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From the Editor: The COVID-19 Crisis in Higher Education

By Michael Ferguson

The photograph that appears on this issue’s cover—a pair of feet at a line marking six feet of social distance—is a reminder of the strangeness we now inhabit. Like many images from 2020, it captures a reality that would have been hard to imagine a year ago.

This issue takes stock of the crisis that has so transformed our lives and the way we work. For faculty around the country, the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the spring brought a sudden shift to online teaching. The AAUP’s staff, too, has spent the past months working remotely and grappling with the events that have roiled our country. Those of us who work on this magazine had to decide how a quarterly publication planned months in advance could address a fast-evolving crisis. We decided that it was important, first, to document the experiences of faculty members and, second, to include articles that take a broad view and look ahead to the postpandemic future.

The centerpiece of the issue is “Reflections on Faculty Life in a Pandemic,” a series of short firsthand accounts of the pandemic spring and summer. Contributors to this series tell stories of the transition to online learning, of the struggles of contingent faculty whose livelihoods abruptly became even more precarious, of the exhausting work of medical faculty serving on the front lines, of the victories and losses of AAUP activists, and of the devastating toll the pandemic has exacted. These testimonials share a common emphasis on the necessity of human connection. Care, several of the authors suggest, is what will bring us through this crisis together—care as an element of pedagogical practice, care as a form of solidarity, and care as the wellspring of mutual aid.

Other features in this issue look to the months and years to come. In the near term, Benjamin Balthaser and Bill V. Mullen write, the rush to reopen campuses will have predictable consequences. The logic of neoliberalism, they contend, has given rise to a “necroliberalism” premised on the acceptance of death as another risk to be managed and mitigated. Michael Meranze envisions an alternative to the conventional view that austerity is the only answer to higher education’s financial problems, arguing that only a “reparative university” can meet the challenges our civilization now faces. A quartet of economists offer a similarly ambitious vision for large-scale government investment in “A Marshall Plan for Rebuilding Higher Education”: while acknowledging the serious obstacles their plan would face—not least the entrenched faith in supply-side economics—the authors make a compelling case for seizing this pandemic moment as an opportunity to remake public institutions. Mary A. Hermann and Cheryl Neale-McFall see another opportunity, observing that the pandemic has added urgency to efforts to address long-standing barriers to success for academic mothers and other faculty caregivers.

The print features conclude with Cathryn Bailey’s analysis of the other work that lies ahead as higher education rebuilds: confronting the systemic nature of racism and other inequities within our institutions. That work, also a major new initiative for our Association, is just beginning.

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