Chancellor Moloney: Now's the time to reimagine higher education

Even if they are never directly touched by COVID-19, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney is concerned about the pandemic’s toll on UMass Lowell students.

“This is the most traumatic thing that has happened to a generation since 9/11. It’s going to have a huge impact on this generation of students,” Moloney said during a recent virtual panel discussion on “The Future of Higher Education” hosted by the Boston Business Journal.

Endicott College President Steve DiSalvo and Wentworth Institute of Technology President Mark Thompson also participated in the hourlong discussion.

Moloney said colleges and universities need to “reimagine” the way they teach students to help them adapt and thrive in a post-COVID-19 world.

“How do we make them leaders who understand how to work in this new environment?” asked Moloney, who noted that higher education has always been the wellspring of such innovation.

Well before COVID-19, higher education faced declining enrollments and campus closures because of changing demographics, rising student debt and shifts in public funding. Moloney said the pandemic has magnified those challenges.

“This is an extraordinarily disruptive time, with changes in finance, the way we do business, the way we serve our students,” she said. However, she is optimistic that the disruption will lead to improvements in the long run. “It will help us to rethink who we are, to re-create and to take advantage of new and emerging technologies,” she said. 

Thompson agreed, adding that schools need to pay greater attention to the science of how students learn.

“I don’t think we can any longer be constrained by the traditions of the academy with regard to time and space,” he said. “This notion of three (class) meetings a week is probably going to be something that’s diminished over time as we turn more to a competency-based approach to education.”

The discussion touched on what college campuses can do in the fight against racism, a movement that has driven global protests in the wake of the recent killing of George Floyd while in police custody.

“We in higher education are the ones that can absolutely help drive a sea change in this area,” Moloney said. “We take this responsibility very, very seriously.”  

Although nearly 40 percent of UML undergraduates are people of color and the university has more than doubled its faculty and staff of color in the last decade, “We have a lot of work to do,” Moloney said.

Besides the ongoing work of faculty, staff and student groups to address diversity, equity and inclusion, Moloney says the university must have “very deep conversations among our communities to get at the root causes and experiences of social injustice, racism and sexism.”

Looking ahead to the fall, all three schools intend to welcome students back on campus for classes in September. Moloney said it’s a constantly evolving picture and that UML will follow the guidance of Gov. Charlie Baker’s task force for reopening.

“Our greatest hope right now is that we’ll have students living on campus, using extreme social distancing and hybrid learning to accommodate all of the teaching that has to go on,” she said, adding that the strength of UML’s online learning programs makes it easier to transition to courses that are a hybrid of in-person and virtual instruction.

UMass Lowell’s fall enrollment is “very strong” and housing deposits are up over last year, which tells Moloney that students want to be back on campus. “We’re going to accommodate that as much as possible,” she said.

At Endicott, DiSalvo said half the students who had planned to study abroad this fall have elected to stay on campus, which has created a housing crunch. Around 150 students will live in a school-owned seaside hotel on campus, which is normally used for revenue-generating events like weddings. 

“Students want to grow academically, socially, spiritually and athletically, and you can’t do all that online, so it’s important that we still have this experience of bringing students to campus,” he said.

The school leaders agreed that it will be more important than ever to build a sense of community on campus through the work of their student affairs teams and living-learning communities.

“I’d rather have students connected to each other here than leaving to go to downtown Beverly or Boston,” DiSalvo said.

How to adequately test students for the coronavirus once they’re on campus is “probably the most evolving part of the response to this pandemic,” Moloney noted. The university is exploring collaborations on testing with the Broad Institute, a lab run by MIT and Harvard, as well as with Lowell General Hospital.

The panelists agreed that students will have to do their part by adhering to social distancing guidelines and practicing proper hygiene.

“I believe they will do it — for the first two weeks,” DiSalvo said. “And then they get back into these old habits. The challenge is in changing the culture.”

At Wentworth, Thompson said there will be three modes of course delivery: lecture-based courses will be completely online; other courses will be hybrid; and hands-on lab and studio courses will be held in person.

Students will have to follow guidelines while off campus, such as when they are on an internship or co-op. The pandemic has made it more challenging for students to find those opportunities at the moment, but Moloney said a number of industry partners, including Kronos, have stepped up to provide funding for co-ops next year.

As a member of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Moloney is well aware of how the regional economy depends on schools like UMass Lowell to provide a diverse and highly skilled workforce. 

“Now more than ever, they need this kind of thinking that this next generation has grown up with, whether it’s social media, remote learning or conducting business online,” Moloney said. “I’m hopeful that business and industry will stand with us and help us prepare this next generation of employees.”

While the challenges facing higher education have multiplied in unforeseen ways over the past six months, the panelists all said the responses by their respective faculty, staff and students give them confidence going forward.   

“There are lots of surviving institutions, and then there are thriving institutions,” DiSalvo said. “I think today you heard from three thriving institutions.”