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Reimagining Higher Education in the Shadows of COVID-19

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Using Cal State Fullerton as an example, President Fram Virjee described how the university went from “normal” to a “new normal” in the span of about a week. During a webinar hosted by the law firm of O’Melveny and Myers (Virjee was a partner in private practice for almost 30 years), he provided insight into how universities are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although we moved quickly to a virtual platform, we’d actually put together a committee in January when we first started hearing about this new virus,” he said. “We went from having about 10% of our classes being online to all of our classes being offered online.

“I like to kid that I think many of our faculty and staff thought Zoom referred to a popsicle,” he said. “But we all know what it is now.”

What makes this all the more impressive are the sheer numbers involved: 40,000 students, 4,000 faculty and staff members, all of them had to “turn on a dime” to start offering online education and services.  

“We had to move almost all of the students out of the dorms, our library services went virtual, we had to provide computers and hot spots to students who didn’t have access to technology and/or broadband. Our student clubs, recreation centers and programs began offering online classes and activities. I am so proud of the way this campus came together under very trying circumstances.”

 … the idea that the campus is closed is wrong.

We are open and we are serving our students.

One of the major concerns of a university that enrolls a significant population of underserved students is that students don’t only utilize the university as a source of education — they also use it to meet their basic needs — health care and mental health services, housing, food, access to technology and more.

Students requiring health services adapted to telehealth appointments, meals became “grab ‘n go” offerings instead of sitting down in a dining hall, and accommodations continued to be made as new situations arose.

“We had to shift the mindset,” Virjee said. “We knew with the density of our campus, it wouldn’t be safe for our students, faculty and staff to be there. There was no way we could safely limit the exposure to the virus if we continued with ‘business as usual.’

“However, the idea that the campus is closed is wrong,” he said. “We are open and we are serving our students. Attendance in online classes is high, as is participation. Our students are continuing to get a first-rate education.”

Equal Access to Education
So what are the short-term effects of COVID-19 on post-secondary education?

“The short-term effects have demonstrated what we already knew,” Virjee said. “There is definitely a digital divide. Many of our students used the campus computers and our broadband. If they didn’t use our broadband, they’d go to Starbucks or another coffee shop. Suddenly, everything closed and they didn’t have the access they needed to continue with their classes. That’s why we gave out 1,000 laptops and 1,000 Mifis. 

“We also discovered the emotional and mental bandwidth of many of our students,” he said. “Some had to take on additional responsibilities at home. One student, a senior, wrote to tell me he had to drop out because his part-time job at Albertsons went from 20 hours a week to 80. Both his parents had lost their jobs and he had three siblings. He was now the breadwinner in his family. We offered to help, but on top of all these stressors, he simply couldn’t concentrate on his education. Those stories break your heart because we know when students stop for a semester, they often don’t come back.”

Private institutions can often weather these storms because they tend to have more financial resources; Virjee believes that public universities are often more flexible with a better understanding of the needs of their students. 

A Duel Crisis in America: Racial Unrest During COVID-19
And, in the midst of the pandemic, the problems of systemic racism in our society became more apparent with the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the resulting protests. It caused many businesses, industries and schools to evaluate how they dealt with systemic racism.

Virjee released an “Open Letter to Legacy Leaders in White America,” addressing his feelings about systemic racism, and what needed to be done. In his letter, he stated, in part:

“While I do not pretend to fully grasp or understand the weight of this constant terror that people of color in our nation live with (and often die under), I can use my unearned privilege to call out a system that seems institutionally designed to have a human being imprisoned or murdered for doing just about anything — walking, jogging, driving, wearing a hoodie, and yes, birdwatching — while black.

“To those allies I say we need to not just be moved to tears, but to action. To not just wring our hands, but ring the alarm. To not just stand by, but stand up. To not just talk about an issue, but know when to shut up and listen to those whose lives are upended by it. To not just whisper in shaded corners, but shout out from whatever platform we have been given.

“It seems that we have been put here with purpose and, for some of us, with privilege. Can we recognize our purpose and use our privilege to effect change? Can we do so not just in our classrooms and boardrooms, but in our streets and parks? Not only among students, faculty and staff, but throughout our communities? Not only in our heads, but in our hearts?”

“We live in a country full of institutional racism and white privilege, and until we recognize that, we can’t change. We must be committed to change.

“There was a public and vibrant airing of ideas and ideals that white Americans need to hear,” he continued. “I wanted to reach out to leaders who are in a position to lead change. This is not a Black problem … it’s an American problem, and I wanted to present a call to action.

“I want CSUF to be a leader because I know that CSUF, with a campus filled with students of many different ethnicities, religions and cultures, represents the state of California. And California, in turn, represents the nation. Those in power need to change.”

The campus has taken several steps to address systemic racism, including workshops on equity and inclusion, an increased focus on hiring faculty and staff of color, establishing a common read program focusing on diversity, and holding multiple “critical conversation” dialogues across the university. But much more still needs to be done.

The New Normal: What Will the Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 be on Post-Secondary Education?
This fall, students at CSUF can expect to see most classes being held virtually.

“A return to campus has to have a ‘phased-in process,'” Virjee said. “It has to be versatile so that even if we do have some on-campus classes, they can move back to being virtual if we see a second or third wave of COVID-19.

By learning new technology and taking classes virtually, we are preparing students for the new environment they’ll be working in.

“During the past few months, the campus also has been working to make adjustments so that students, staff and faculty can maintain social distancing; and so that PPE is available. New methods of cleaning and disinfecting also will help reduce the incidence of transmission.

“The long-term effects will be interesting,” Virjee noted. “Education is one of the few systems that hasn’t changed much over 200 years. Look at any other industry — health care, housing, technology — and there have been massive changes. For those in education, classes are still taught much as they were hundreds of years ago. While none of us expected to be working for a virtual university, you have to realize that this is the future. Many employers are now telling their employees that they can continue to work from home.

“By learning new technology and taking classes virtually, we are preparing students for the new environment they’ll be working in.”

The entire webinar can be viewed here.

Contact: Valerie Orleans,