When The UW Returns: Best To Bet Online


Image: Wikimedia

By Robert Roseth

The nation’s colleges and universities are split over how to cope with the Era of COVID-19. Some are in denial, planning to offer face-to-face classes this fall despite rising infection rates. This strategy is based on the false notion that somehow the pandemic will subside because the university has wished it to be so. Other colleges have already decided that it’s a fool’s errand to offer classes in person and have gone to all-online at least through the end of 2020.

The University of Washington, which was the first major university in the country to suspend in-person classes, has had ample time to consider its future. Its decisions are complicated by impending state budget cuts that are likely to exceed those of the Great Recession in their impact, mainly because it will be impossible to cushion the effects by jacking up tuition again.

The UW thus far has adopted a comparatively sane, humane, and fundamentally conservative approach. Opening in September will occur only if King County is at Phase III. UW President Ana Mari Cauce has said that the health of the community will be the primary consideration. So far, so good. Further details may be available at a UW town hall July 10. 

But the UW’s plan for reopening is built on the dreamy premise that Rational Man/Woman is a reliable construct. It posits a standard for behavior among students that is unlikely to be met. As a growing body of research has demonstrated, people in general often behave irrationally, much to the consternation of traditional economists and others.

When it comes to students, we know that the early adult age cohort is willing to take risks that older folks would shudder at. Just think back to yourself in your late teens and put your 19-year-old person in our current situation and tell me what you think is likely to happen. Expect some students and U.W. fraternity houses to party like it’s 2019, with consequences for everyone.

Any school that begins with a reopening plan based on individual responsibility as the linchpin for safe congregate living in and around a college campus is going to end up having to cancel in-person classes. 

Many plans implicitly assume that the vaccine is going to salvage the situation. I think that’s more a wish than a reasonable assumption. Planning as if a vaccine will be available for mass inoculation by spring of 2021 is like betting on Silky Sullivan to win the Derby. It would be thrilling if it happened, but my betting would be on the horse named Novax.

Also, imagining the vaccine as our savior is only possible if you forget how crazy our fellow citizens have become and how difficult it may be to achieve herd immunity. We have already seen anti-vax outbreaks, and those will grow if a promising drug is found. Many Americans regard the ability to infect themselves and their fellow citizens as a Constitutional right, if not an obligation.

I would argue that the real conservative plan is to expect online education to be providing the lion’s share of instruction for the near future — at least a year if not longer. That means it should be regarded as more than a stopgap.

What difference would that make? For starters, faculty and students should swallow several bottles of intellectual mouthwash to clear out the bad taste left from classes mounted online at breakneck speed this past spring. They represented the best effort of everyone at the time, but given the constraints they provide a poor test of what is possible in education when face-to-face instruction is curtailed. Taking a regular classroom and putting it on Zoom was an expedient but brain-dead approach to meeting learning objectives. So fuhgeddaboudit.  Pass out medals to everyone and move on.

The COVID-19 Era in higher ed is a moment when the prestige race among universities will show new groups of leaders and laggards. The Ivies and California schools are threatening to steal a march on the rest of the pack by gaining valuable experience, living completely in the online world. It may be a challenge to keep up with them but it’s worth the effort. 

Here are my ideas for operating in higher ed in the COVID-19 Era. First, the science of learning, and how it can be applied in a digital-intensive environment, should become the central focus of the academic enterprise. Things have been edging in this direction, according to some, for a while. But few institutions have given these efforts the resources and sustained emphasis that they will need moving forward. Instructional designers, people who are steeped in the science of learning and how to apply it, should become campus MVPs. The science of learning should be granted the same status as other scientific endeavors, with commensurate incentives and rewards. Universities have thrived on specialization within disciplines, so why not apply it systematically to the university’s most important mission?

This research is important for other more immediate reasons. It is common knowledge in academia that the leap to online education in spring created winners and losers. Some students thrived in the online environment but some were lost. There is a body of evidence suggesting that students from disadvantaged backgrounds faced greater challenges. It is one thing to flounder for a couple of months, but it’s a whole different thing to face a year of disappointment. 

There also is an emerging consensus that if online learning is to be effective, virtual classes must include a routine component of meaningful human contact with instructors. This may seem obvious, but unless it is an explicit part of the curriculum, it may not be budgeted into the schedules of overworked faculty. In addition, as part of this process the university needs to gather regular information from students on how the online process is working, or not. Again, it may be obvious but if it’s not written into procedures it probably won’t happen.

The Holy Grail in online learning always has been something called “customized learning.” The term has been bandied about since Kaypro was a computer brand. But now there are people who believe it might be achievable given the growth in computing muscle and greater understanding of how we acquire knowledge. But it will take a lot of time, innovation and elbow grease.

Additionally, universities should plan for more mental health counseling for students. Everyone has been touched by the pandemic. It is not an overstatement to call it a national trauma. Many university plans refer only to physical health, without acknowledging how our lives have been affected by COVID-19.

Next, universities should resist the urge to impose across the board hiring freezes, especially on faculty positions. As bad as things may be economically, the need for faculty renewal with a younger cohort is an important part of adaptation to the COVID-19 Era. Because there is no mandatory retirement, faculties are getting older. At the UW, for example, the average age of a full professor is about 60 and rising. Faculty renewal is an important component of making universities nimble in adapting to rapid change. 

Plainly, universities need to look at how they handle retirement. Some faculty avoid discussions of retirement far past the point at which those would have occurred in other occupations. This works to the detriment of the university — faculty and staffers and students. There are completely legal, non-discriminatory, respectful ways to encourage retirement planning, and current circumstances may add a sense of urgency to such ideas.

Finally, in this moment of financial stress, universities that have the resources should explore one-time use of endowment money. Of course lots of this money is earmarked for specific purposes and can’t be touched for operations. But not all of it. As a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review observed, “To prepare for future financial downturns, nonprofits should treat endowments as rainy day funds, not cut programs to preserve the endowment.”

Don’t hold your breath to see if Stanford follows the guidance highlighted in its own publication.

Robert Roseth
Robert Roseth
Robert Roseth worked for 35 years in the University of Washington's news information bureau, and is the author of the new novel about academic foibles, "Ivy Is A Weed," available at amazon.com, your independent book store, through indiebound.com, or you can obtain a signed copy directly from the author. Reviewed as "outstanding" by Publisher's Weekly.


  1. Here’s another idea for a new UW. Absorb the struggling The Evergreen State College and make it an innovation laboratory for distance learning as well as a source of data and search for state government. And keep the campus and real classes, too. Better to have a clear focus at a new place than to try to slog through the UW bureaucracy. Alternatively, have Bothell and/or Tacoma become bastions of on-line expertise. And tap the talent at Microsoft and Amazon for this transformation.

  2. Universities that get really good at online learning create huge opportunities for themselves. They can expand their student body while easing their need for real estate.

  3. And keep in mind, when trying to turn the aircraft carrier of a huge public university, that business interests still call the tune. Here’s an article making that case: https://www.chronicle.com/article/You-Can-t-Trust-the/249087?

    And here’s a key paragraph:

    “Thorstein Veblen was the first sociologist of academe to notice the enormous and pernicious power wielded by university trustees from the business world. Many criticize the inflated salaries and power of university administrators and presidents, but for the first time in recent history there is a growing recognition that universities should not be run by the corporate executives who sit on their boards of trustees. Many academics are perpetually shocked by the depredations of corporate boards — the defunding of university presses, the adjunctification of the faculty, and the evisceration of the liberal arts — but Veblen would not have been surprised. The thesis he defended in 1918 is still true today: Scientific and scholarly inquiry are incompatible with the business values of profit maximization, efficiency, and consumer satisfaction.”


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