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Joseph Martin Stevenson, Ph.D, says important solutions to problems existing before the COVID-19 crisis can emerge from the pandemic, including innovations in higher education and a real embrace of diversity and inclusion in academia. Photo from

COVID-19: A Time to Change Education, End Old Way of ‘Social Distancing’

It has been absolutely fascinating, encouraging, welcoming and uplifting to see what we are made of—yet dreadfully under the circumstances—and to observe so many different types of people across human diversity from varying stations in life coming together for a common good since the COVID-19 crisis hit us. When Margaret Mead said that a small group could change the world, I am sure she did not fathom the whole world going through this.

We probably haven’t seen this country’s need from the scientific community of higher education since the Sputnik launch inspired massive research to advance our competitiveness with the Soviet Union and other developing countries of that time. That was in the 1950s, and now we are in 2020 facing another phenomenon: coronavirus.

Now more than ever, we need academic research, practical scholarship and public policy that contribute to bodies of knowledge, narrow gaps in social policy and address voids in the literature. Research and policy must target uncharted territories and respond to unanswered questions. This information must contribute to both national and international conversations about not only this experience with coronavirus but about the likely aftermath and the preparation needed for it.

Put simply, now is the time to get more people enrolled in the higher-learning enterprise. We will simply need more educators, scientists, explorers, thought leaders, argonauts, entrepreneurs, innovators, techies and other untapped potential geniuses to face what is to come next. Like we did during the 1950s, we must now take the time to invest in the research aims and objectives of the higher-education enterprise.

A Futurist’s Approach to Education

Harvard, Tufts and Columbia universities and other prominent institutions of higher learning have expedited the degree awarding at their prestigious medical schools to meet growing societal needs and demands because of the coronavirus pandemic. For decades, I have looked for empirical and other evidenced-based research that suggest significant and substantiated differences between undergraduate students getting degrees in four years versus three or graduate students getting doctorates in six years.

More and more in the academic marketplace, the master’s degree is offered in less than two years. I suspect this is probably occurring because of demands for graduate-level study beyond the undergraduate degree.

Moreover, some futurists like myself suggest that we need to consider degrees for jobs and careers that don’t exist yet. We need higher education to do more of this type of responsible leadership and responsive reaction to the new world we live in. We need more compressed, accelerated, expedited and socially targeted higher-education options.

Enough ‘Distancing’ in Academia

You can Google “An Academic Innovation” and this author’s full name for one example. Another is my advocacy for preparing the next generation of chief diversity officers, or CDOs, in higher education to confront, take charge, and face the mounting institutional divisiveness, organizational divide, and other sector division on campus and off campus on our emerging and intensifying diverse society.

Indeed, this was the social distancing we had before coronavirus. Ironically, given the skill sets and knowledge base of CDOs, these leaders could also be helpful with areas related to bringing people together under the circumstances, conditions and consequences of coronavirus.

CDOs can learn and lead with a knowledge base that includes: assessing situations, leading change, fact finding, problem solving, conflict resolution, troubleshooting, leveraging resources, data-driven decision making, difficult collaboration, managing differences of opinion and bringing people together for a common good (sound familiar?). We need this knowledge and leadership now and after coronavirus begins to subside as social divides re-mount and maintain momentum among us on and off campus.

The world outside higher learning is undergoing unprecedented change. The world inside higher learning should mirror this massive movement and do the same.

Move Away from Brick-and-Mortar Teaching

This will mean that institutions of higher learning will have to consider what the above universities have done and also move from traditional brick-and-mortar and conventional ways of synchronous pedagogical teaching and learning on campus to asynchronous andragogical teaching and learning off-campus. While pedagogical instruction focuses on the method we use to teach children, the andragogical approach may have more relevance to teaching and learning for college student adults.

Increasingly, the average college student is wanting more asynchronous teaching delivered by online, cyber, and electronic mobility, means and methods. One recommendation we might consider in the higher-education enterprise is converting dormitories and residence halls into hotel-type lodging for students to complete perhaps one-week, once-a-month residencies, and leave other instruction for online or virtual delivery from their home or workplace. These lodging arrangements could also be used for visiting alumni; compressed, accelerated executive-type training by faculty; philanthropic partners and nonprofit funders, and others.

There are other possibilities for libraries, parking lots, social events, and other redirected space on campus to cut down on mounting costs from conventional brick-and-mortar investments. I highlight these recommendations in my forthcoming book, “Now More Than Ever.”

In any event, although the emergence of coronavirus has been imposing, disruptive, untimely, uncomfortable and inconvenient, it is now time to rethink higher learning as we currently conceptualize the enterprise in preparation of what is certain to come next. Time is of the essence.

Let’s use this unfortunate opportunity as an opening to return with new momentum for mitigating unhelpful, unproductive and disruptive social distancing. This, too, will pass, but we still need to plan ahead, be proactive, rethink why, what and how we think, and take charge of our future challenges in the not-so-far-away horizons in the modern higher-education enterprise.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,000 words and factcheck information to We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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