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From the President: Create a New Normal

By Irene Mulvey

I am the kind of person who makes a lot of lists. I like lists. I like to think ahead. I like to envision what’s possible or aspirational, and I like to make—and carry out—plans to achieve it. When I was around nine years old, I used to begin most Saturdays by making a schedule for the day. The first item on any Saturday schedule was always something like “9:00–9:15 a.m.: make schedule.” One of my older sisters found this hilarious, but my decision to start my lists this way was intentional. I set aside a small amount of time to create the list, and then it’s time to make things happen. These days, of course, my lists are all framed by the pandemic we’re living through.

Without a coherent national plan to contain or control it, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen, devastating communities and families. Everything has been made more difficult for so many. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis. We’re exhausted. Faculty work, and in particular teaching, has become much more labor-intensive and time-consuming, and we’re not all being given the resources we need to do this important work. Faculty are balancing childcare, elder care, and care for students with other responsibilities. We’re being asked by our institutions to do a lot more, and we’re concerned about the impact of all these demands on our career advancement—or career continuation. For faculty colleagues holding contingent appointments and for other campus workers, the pandemic has brought even greater hardships and uncertainties. We are seeing declines in higher education enrollments, steepest at two-year colleges, indicating that the students opting out could be the people for whom higher education might have the most positive impact. Declines in enrollment will have budgetary implications. Faculty will need to fight to ensure that budgetary decisions prioritize academics and the academic mission.

It’s hard not to become overwhelmed, since we still have a long, dark winter ahead. But the end of the pandemic is in sight, and we can begin to envision a postpandemic world. Let’s think creatively about how we want to live once the pandemic is under control and we can once again move about without restrictions. I know that when that happens, I will live with intentionality and appreciate the little things—meeting a friend for coffee, having dinner in a restaurant, holding in-person meetings, taking collective action. Be careful, though, because the biggest mistake we could make would be to go “back to normal.” Being locked down has brought into sharp focus some very real problems with our old normal. Let’s take some time to reflect on lessons learned during the crisis. Let’s find a way to use these lessons to make the postpandemic world a better place.

What is important? Taking care of each other. Listening. Being there for each other. What is essential work? Why are so many of those workers considered “essential” the least paid and least protected? How do we ensure that workers have the say they deserve in their working conditions? How do we, in higher education, make our postpandemic society more just and equitable? How do we create a society in which everyone is cared for and everyone’s basic needs are met? For higher education, in particular, there can be no return to normal. We need a new normal—one in which higher education is affordable and accessible to anyone willing to do the work to complete a degree, in which our colleges and universities provide a liberal education to meet the needs of a democracy, in which funding for public higher education reflects a belief in the common good, in which academic freedom thrives and all faculty members, irrespective of their rank or status, are valued and respected. With our allies and in solidarity, let’s envision what’s possible and start planning to bring these possibilities closer to reality.

Join the 2021 me in making lists and schedules. I propose that we replace my nine-year-old self’s scheduling of time for making schedules with a new plan: during this time when we are unable to gather in groups and while we await the changes a new presidential administration will bring, let’s figure out what kind of world we want to live in and get ready to make that world a reality. I’m not worried about my sister making fun of me this time. She’s too busy working as a nurse in a step-down unit (one step down from the intensive-care unit) at a Boston hospital to notice what I’m up to these days.

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