Confessions of a Community College Dean

One of my writerly heroes, Jane Jacobs, devoted her final book (Dark Age Ahead) to the dangers of forgetting. In her view, cultures start to fall apart when they forget the basics and lose a sense of the continuity of time. Without time for reflection, we can mistake urgency for importance and get lost in an accelerating series of short-term decisions.

I’ve been thinking about the dangers of forgetting as colleges and other institutions strive to consign the pandemic to the dustbin of history.

Working through the issues involved in dealing with the immediate crisis — when to shut down, what to keep open, how to distribute risk and the like — has been both urgent and important. It abruptly took top priority and forced a set of changes across every function on campus. As we slowly get a handle on it, there’s an understandable urge to rush back to “normal” as quickly as possible. Pre-pandemic “normal” wasn’t ideal, but we knew how to do it. And it certainly had its strengths.

But it would also be a waste of so much that we’ve been forced to learn over the last year and a half.

As Jacobs devoted her career to arguing, stasis is not a sign of strength. Healthy systems evolve. They adapt as circumstances change. The trick is in knowing what to keep and what to discard.

Pre-pandemic, for instance, there was a widespread myth — silly in retrospect, but almost unquestioned — that anyone who was working from home wasn’t really working. That’s hard to argue with a straight face anymore. But it’s also true that figuring out the right distribution of tasks between home and the office — or among different groups of workers — is fraught. It’s tempting just to revert to the status quo ante and forget the whole thing.

But that would be a mistake, and not only because COVID isn’t done yet.

Remote operations benefit students, and employees, with transportation challenges. They can work well for people with certain disabilities. And even for people whose jobs largely require in-person presence, there are times when it’s helpful to work at home. For example, a dean who has to catch up on writing reports or evaluations may be more productive taking a day at home, where they’re less likely to be repeatedly interrupted. In cases like those, it’s easy enough to determine whether the option is being abused; either the work gets done or it doesn’t.

There’s an obvious class system embedded in that, too; faculty have always had the option of doing much of their prep work and grading at home. As long as the work got done — and grading papers is absolutely work — it didn’t matter much where it got done, or at what time of day. I’ve graded papers on Sundays in Laundromats. Why the option of geographic flexibility should be unique to faculty is not clear to me.

The catch is that thoughtful evolution requires reflection. It requires enough time and space removed from the tyranny of the urgent to get some distance on it. And it requires a shared willingness to assume that questions that start with “what if …?” aren’t traps. A defensive crouch doesn’t lend itself to solutions. It’s more likely to cede power to the tyranny of the urgent.

The great irony, of course, is that colleges are supposed to be the spaces in which people can get some distance from the urgent. These are places where we’re supposed to be able to focus on what’s actually important, and to be able to try things to see if they work. But we’ve been so busy trying to keep up with rapid changes that we can easily forget the point of it all.

Jacobs didn’t trust masterminds. She advocated creating the background conditions against which people could be their fullest selves. I can’t think of a better description of higher ed administration than that. Get the background conditions right, including a climate welcoming to all, and innovations will flourish. We have a chance now, forced by circumstance, to make an overdue change in those background conditions so more people can flourish. I hope we don’t forget.

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