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From the President: Leadership during a Crisis

By Irene Mulvey

This column, which will appear in the forthcoming fall 2021 issue of Academe, has been published online along with other preview material.

As we enter the 2021–22 academic year, it’s impossible not to reflect on how difficult the last year and a half has been. Back in March 2020, with essentially no lead time, we learned how to teach remotely and completely revised our classes. As the pandemic raged on during the 2020–21 academic year, we continued to refine our teaching. We met the needs of our students and provided the best classes we could. Surely, by now, you’ve received a note of gratitude from your administration acknowledging your extra efforts. Well, in an ideal world, administrators would acknowledge our extra efforts with some compensation. If I ran our universities, I would give every faculty member a course release (or two or three) to take at any time during the next few years—and offer the monetary equivalent for non-tenure-track faculty—as an acknowledgment of the enormous additional effort required to teach during the pandemic and the resulting time lost from research and other work. 

Remember how grateful we were last winter to learn that COVID-19 vaccines had been developed—and with remarkable speed—thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the worldwide scientific community? I certainly looked forward with optimism to the end of lockdowns and of fearing for my life against a deadly virus. I expected that by this fall, we would have made substantial progress. We did the best we could last year, but everyone I know wants to get back into the classroom with students. We want to see them, get to know them, help them, and teach them in person. The vaccine made this look like a distinct possibility. And yet, here we are: cases rising everywhere as the Delta variant spreads, younger patients, hospitals at capacity, lives still at risk, thousands of lives cut short unnecessarily.

We are here as a result of an extraordinary failure of leadership. We know how to keep people safe and end the pandemic: by vaccinating as many people as possible and following science-based community guidelines on masking and physical distancing. Leaders at all levels of elected government and leaders of our institutions should be amplifying and sending this unequivocal message to all. It should not be difficult or controversial for anyone in a leadership position to promote trust in the best evidence-based advice from public-health experts. Why would anyone do otherwise? It seems that there are too many politicians who have no intention of leading, no interest in the public good, and seemingly no respect for facts and truth. Our statement In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education was published in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit, but it was prescient in predicting the reactions we have seen. Expert knowledge is viewed as just another “opinion,” making the view expressed by a Facebook friend as valid as a statement by Dr. Anthony Fauci. Politicians at the state level are exacerbating this phenomenon when they put guidelines into place that appear to be based on the belief that being out in public unmasked and unvaccinated is a personal freedom instead of calling it what it is: a danger to the community that sabotages public-health efforts.

Our institutions of higher education are uniquely situated to provide leadership on this issue on their campuses and in their surrounding communities. Administrations should stand up and take all actions that will provide the highest level of protection for public health and safety. To those in opposition, explain that this is how we save lives and end the pandemic. That’s our goal, and this is how we achieve it. Leaders must tell the evidence-based scientific truth and take the actions that will save lives and end the pandemic. Furthermore, it’s up to all of us to continue our work as educators teaching the kinds of critical thinking in all our subjects and at all levels that leads to an agreed-upon evidence-based reality.

As Jamelle Bouie wrote recently in the New York Times, Americans “refuse to treat the pandemic for what it is: a social problem to solve through collective action.” We are a society, and we depend on one another. Public health depends on all of us. We owe each other solidarity. 

As I write this column in August, there is still time for our institutions to take all appropriate actions to save lives and to help end the pandemic. With increasing urgency, faculty everywhere are calling on their administrations to do just that. By the time you read this column, I hope that evidence-based public-health guidelines and solidarity in promotion of the public good will have prevailed. 

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