(August 26, 2020) As students move back to college this month, the usual excitement and bittersweet goodbyes are being seasoned with apprehension and whispered prayers.
None of us are naive, we know this is going to be challenging. We know we must take extra precautions. We know everything could turn on a dime at any moment, and we all know it’s not 2019 any longer!
Every one of our schools has developed contingency plans and scenarios ranging from the likely to the apocalyptic. We are well aware that as Theodore Roosevelt once remarked: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort.” Returning to college this fall is going to require effort because, at the end of the day, it is worth it.
And it is worth it for at least three reasons: students, colleges themselves, and the communities in which our colleges are located.
First, no one stands to lose more than students if our colleges do not return to campus activity.
While colleges learned how to serve their students in unfamiliar yet effective ways, and while faculty performed the Herculean task of transitioning to remote instruction, all this has taken a toll that is unsustainable and undesirable.
One third of students in Virginia attend an independent college like Ferrum College. Although many news articles focus on flagship public universities or elite private colleges, most independent colleges have modest resources and depend mightily on tuition dollars and philanthropy.
We enroll a greater percentage of minority students, first generation college students, and students from families with economic need than do the others. This is not a criticism, but it is a fact. Vulnerable women and men are left in the lurch when our campuses are shuttered. Additionally, rebuilding our economy after COVID-19 will require that students continue developing skills of resilience, critical and imaginative thinking, and civic engagement.
Second, the return must work for the sake of colleges themselves.
Colleges are businesses that have a fundamental social mission. During the pandemic, a few have written that any college unable to survive a couple semesters without students on campus should close. This is the most foolish and ill-informed statement anyone could make. No one would suggest that a grocery chain or a clothing manufacturer was irresponsible for needing to sell groceries or clothes to continue operating. That’s what they do. Likewise colleges and universities.
The economic havoc brought about by COVID-19 will destroy many small businesses, and some of these casualties will be colleges. Losing them will cause irreparable harm to freedom and opportunity. Thus, the return to college must work in order to preserve these champions of learning, support, research and culture.
When we reach the other side of this pandemic, we will need an educated and prepared workforce to help rebuild our country and position us for tomorrow. And to prepare these women and men, we need healthy colleges.
Third, the return must work for the communities where our colleges are located.
A college in any town is an economic boon. Many of our independent colleges are located in small towns where they are a major employer. Even a college the size of Ferrum has a $100 million impact in our region. The college helps to sustain business and livelihoods in this area, as do the others in their hometowns.
It is understandable that communities are apprehensive about the return. However, the long-term damage to our communities and to thousands of families will be extensive unless we find a way to make this work.
Let’s face it: unless we are willing to remain in absolute home lockdown–every one of us–for the next 12 months or longer, then we are acknowledging there are other social and economic concerns to be balanced in addition to caring for our health and slowing the virus. We have an obligation to sustain our communities and assure a stable economy.
So, while we know this will be a challenging semester requiring effort from everyone, it will be worth it on several fronts–for our students, our colleges and our communities. The only way for us not to be defeated by COVID-19 is to live, to thrive and to stay focused on things that matter. We must be cautious and conscientious, of course, but we cannot lock ourselves away cowering in fear. This pandemic will destroy us, but only if we permit it.
Hard does not mean impossible.
Hold That Thought is a column written by President David Johns which appears in The Roanoke Times and The Franklin News Post. President Johns may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.