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VideoPresident Bradley and Panel Examine Higher Education in the Era of Pandemic

What lessons have colleges and universities learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what does the future hold for higher education globally? These were the questions posed during the October 10 panel “Higher Education in the Era of Pandemic,” hosted by President Elizabeth Bradley.

Bradley was joined by three guests: Dr. Pramath Sinha, Founding Dean of the Indian School of Business and Founder and Trustee of Ashoka University; Dr. G. Gabrielle Starr, President of Pomona College; and Dr. Archie P. Cubarrubia, Deputy Director, Institutional Transformation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The panelists expressed significant concerns about the toll that the pandemic is taking—on individuals, institutions of higher learning, and society—but also voiced hopefulness for the future.

“I am extremely optimistic,” said Cubarrubia “because higher education—and U.S. higher education in particular—has a track record of incubating countless life-changing and, indeed, life-saving innovations.”

“The biggest concern that I have right now for higher education as a whole is that the pandemic is going to determine which institutions survive, and that’s not going to be on the basis of their efficacy with their students,” said Starr.

Sinha said that need not be the case, if institutions in different countries work together. “I don’t think any college anywhere in the United States should be shutting down if you actually think about global demand,” he said, noting that there were many more students in India than the educational infrastructure in that country could serve.

Both Starr and Bradley emphasized the mental health challenges of teaching online. 

“Ultimately, the human cost of being in these Zoom boxes is way too high,” said Starr. “It’s just driving up mental health difficulties with students—with everybody. This is not how human beings are supposed to interact.”

Bradley related a poignant moment when a student expressed relief at being allowed to “pod” with a handful of other students after weeks of isolation. “One woman told me the other day, ‘You know, the day you sent that email, we just hugged all night long,’” Bradley said. 

Yet all acknowledged that the future would not look the same as the pre-pandemic past, and that the field of higher education would have to continue to innovate—and cooperate. “We are not going back,” Bradley said. “One thing a pandemic does is it makes us so aware that we are not alone, that we are in fact mutually dependent.”