The COVID-19 crises poses incredible challenges for higher education and the University of Utah, as discussed in an article in today's New York Times.
We've never gone through anything like this. Although budgets were slashed during the great recession, we didn't deal with an instant transition from classroom to on-line instruction, the loss of students from dorms, and the potential for a prolonged period of online instruction that could extend beyond summer. This has some severe impacts. Although some teaching activities can be transferred reasonably to online instruction, many can't. How do you replicate large-group design projects and lab experiments online, or the programing of data loggers and the assembly of environmental observational systems?
Additionally, campus is essentially closed. Scientists and graduate students are unable to access their labs and do research. We are not even allowed at the moment to visit field sites. Research is happening, but not at the pace it did before. In addition to slowing graduate student education and the advancement of knowledge, this will have ripple effects on the innovation economy.
We don't know what state budget cuts the University of Utah is facing, but it is difficult to imagine they will not be extreme, perhaps as big or bigger than those during the Great Recession. There is also lost revenue from dorm refunds and the specter of lost revenue from endowments and tuition, the latter if enrollment decreases.
University of Utah administration is already preparing for the inevitable and summarizes what departments may do to deal with budget cuts at https://www.hr.utah.edu/coronavirus/. This includes leave donations, reassignments, early and phased retirements, furloughs, etc. I suspect all these tools will be used before we're out of this one.
I have no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis will cause more harm than good for higher ed, but let's not "waste a good crisis." That phrase sounds harsh, but we should look for opportunities and strive to transform what we do and invent a new future. We should plan to come out of this better equipped to educate students and move the world and our local communities forward during the 21st century.