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4 lessons learned from COVID-19

U President Ruth Watkins shares her insights on constructing a vibrant, equitable and affordable future for higher education.

The following editorial by University of Utah President Ruth Watkins appeared in the Deseret News on July 26, 2020.

In spring 2020, the coronavirus pandemic prompted a significant, accelerated transition in higher education. Residential colleges and universities around the globe shifted to remote learning to safeguard student, faculty and staff well-being.

This abrupt change was remarkable. For decades, the majority of residential universities have followed the dialogue of disruptive technologies without truly embracing the potential for transformation in educational delivery or achieving much of the potential for smarter institutional operations. And yet, within the span of a few days, faculty, staff and students enacted drastic conversions in order to continue the core mission of teaching and learning through the pandemic.

This hasty transition was neither straightforward nor seamless. During this challenging time, four key lessons have emerged as we strive to construct a vibrant, equitable and affordable future for higher education.

First, like our peer institutions, we at the University of Utah have learned to make better use of technology to enhance learning, increase access and promote college completion, without fear that such investments can or will fully take the place of experiential and residential education. But to fully realize the promise of technology in education, we must address the digital divide, which is real and deep.

When we shifted to remote learning in the spring, we swiftly discovered that many of our students did not have laptop computers, reliable access to the internet or the technical tools they needed to continue their studies. Without a significant intervention, turning to technology in the pandemic will perpetuate and exacerbate disparities in educational access and quality.

With the help of many university units and donors, the U. created hotspots and laptop loaner programs and facilitated students’ access to the learning resources they needed. Despite these efforts, we know not all students were able to continue their studies. The investment in technology by the Legislature and the governor, through funding from the coronavirus relief bill and via the Utah Education Network, is a timely initiative that will accelerate our capacity to support and serve all Utahns’ educational aspirations.

A second lesson from the pandemic is that universities have a vital role to play in restoring economic vibrancy through reskilling and upskilling displaced workers and adapting to changing workforce needs. What’s needed now are more nimble, dynamic links between university programs and curricula—short-term certificates, one-year graduate programs and even baccalaureate programs—and the emerging needs of our industries. Listening and adapting to employers’ needs does not compromise broader aims of preparing educated citizens who can think, write, solve problems, innovate and be entrepreneurial; these voices can guide us in designing high-quality, short-term programs as well as more traditional degree offerings.

A third lesson is that we can operate smarter at a number of levels. We’ve learned that some of the university’s work can be done remotely with few if any negative consequences. I anticipate that remote work for back-office functions will continue post-pandemic, with associated opportunities to reduce administrative space and parking needs. Health care rapidly accelerated delivery of telehealth visits for some routine patient needs, with insurance plans now supporting the cost of such appointments—again, limiting the need for parking and space and increasing efficiency for patients and providers.

I anticipate that we will continue to refine what we’ve learned about what needs to be done on campus to support a smarter, more efficient university in the post-pandemic world. Perhaps the most powerful opportunity for a smarter university, though, could come through partnerships across institutions. There are significant duplication and redundancy across higher education institutions, with competition for students, funding and prestige serving as a barrier to collaboration.

A fourth lesson of the pandemic is the crucial importance of communication. Sharing information, listening to questions and insights and adapting plans based on input and data have been essential as we continue the work of a research university. We’ve hosted campus webinars, dialogue sessions and alumni and donor meetings, written many messages, created informational videos, developed new training materials and built a Return to Campus information website. Still, communication remains a challenge. We all miss the many events and incidental listening and learning opportunities that previously happened scores of times every day. As we navigate the pandemic, we must remember to seek new strategies for giving and getting information to and from stakeholders.

What good fortune it is to be in a state that has a comprehensive flagship university with a full academic medical center—now identified as one of America’s leading research universities as a member of the Association of American Universities. Our academic medical experts and ARUP testing capabilities have supported all our state’s higher ed institutions and our communities—especially our most vulnerable populations—in navigating the pandemic. Their input has been invaluable as we plan for the future. U researchers, from a wide range of fields, are working to understand, treat and solve the issues created by coronavirus, and care providers are aiding patients and families through very challenging circumstances.

A final insight from the pandemic is how instrumental a comprehensive research university is to successfully navigate through uncertainty. Thank you for the investments you have made in your University for Utah.