Transition to the New Academic Normal

It is now over two years since the COVID-19 pandemic first significantly affected the functions of higher education and the consequences of the impact cannot be under-estimated.  Many effects were budgetary, including negative enrollment growth, but probably most important to academic affairs in the long run was the changes implemented in the way we do our business as faculty and academic administration.  The pandemic resulted in rapid change, but as several authors have noted, primarily the pandemic was speeding up changes in education that were already in progress[1].  In 2020 we went from traditional “university speed” to Star Wars hyper-drive speed, but along the path we had already chosen.

The challenges we currently face getting back to a “normal” (thanks to vaccines and other immunity enhancers), are working with student impacts (including the challenges of new students whose instruction while in high school or community college was negatively impacted) and finding the technology mix that is appropriate.  We seem to be in a continuous transition state.  While in 2020, we were mainly responding without much time for reflection, we now need to perform assessments of the changes we made.  We need to assure that modifications that were improvements are not.  It is only through this assessment that our picture of the academy of the future will be realized.

Therefore, we will need to look at changes that were made in:

  • Program Delivery (face-to-face, online [synchronous and asynchronous], hybrid, High-Flex, and others). We need to know, for example, if post-pandemic students are gravitating to on-site classes or is there a preference for online, hybrid, etc.?
  • Student preparation.  Are incoming students more or less accomplished than their predecessors?  Is there a K-12 problem that is leading to a higher education problem?
  • Student outcomes.  Were academic grades, job opportunities, health [including mental health] demonstrably impacted or are we besieged with anecdotes?
  • Enrollment growth (positive or negative).  For example, do institutions that are primarily online have student growth that exceeds the growth of traditional universities?
  • Community relationships.  While some grew, others declined; how will they continue changing as we go to the new normal?)
  • Scholarly output by our faculty and our students.  We need to determine where there were increases and where there were decreases.  Factors such as external funding, changes in collaborations and research site availability need to be measured.  And we need to determine the impact on graduate programs.
  • Faculty demographic changes and the impact those changes have on remaining faculty.  This includes evaluations of new hiring processes, rates of retirements, and the impact of working with reduced available positions.
  • Budgetary impacts need to be evaluated, including:
    • Technology costs
    • Declining enrollment
    • Closed facilities, especially residence halls, impacting budget
    • Cost of non-faculty (e.g., issue in UC system with strike by post-docs, grad students, etc.[2])

 Complicating assessment will be the significant variation between institutions.  For example, in discussing enrollments, some universities and colleges saw no change while others had significant declines and a few saw increases.  It may be difficult to tease out factors that impact enrollment, e.g., proportion of established online courses, distribution of majors and student demographics, but that will be necessary for full assessment.  State budgets were initially predicted to decline, but in some cases, they have increased because of Federal dollar inputs and unexpected increases in state sales tax receipts.  There has been significant Federal fiscal input to universities, e.g., Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or HEERF.  In addition, at universities with medical schools, there was support of the research and clinical trials associated with vaccine development.  But there has also been significant new costs and funding associated with student support, community outreach, revamping building infrastructure (for example, filtration and HVAC upgrades), and greatly enhancing the technology needed for remote instruction.  Some of these changes have been expensive, but if student retention, for example, was significantly enhanced then the increased tuition dollars yielded may offset the cost of implementation of new methods for advising, tutoring, and online teaching.  As noted above, the assessment challenge is that what worked at a large state university may not have worked at a community college or private liberal arts institution.

Faculty needed to be very flexible during the pandemic.  They were required to change their teaching modality, which required significant time for planning yet very few classes were canceled to help with time management.  Faculty who never taught online conquered a totally new experience, in some cases without sufficient instructional design support or the home offices with sufficient technology for the task.  The technology, e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Facebook Live Stream, both increased faculty time demands, and decreased faculty time demands.  In some cases, meetings were shorter – and in others they were longer.  Advising sessions had changed dynamics and the faculty role was impacted.  Faculty and students learned the advantages/disadvantages of the technological solution.  Where there were advantages, we need to keep them and not just revert to the pre-pandemic state.

Higher education faculty have functions other than teaching and advising.  All the time for instructional/advising activities took away time for other normally required activities – such as the time spent on scholarship and the time for university service.  Universities have been asked for additional community outreach and it was our faculty, for the most part, that developed the outreach, such as running clinics to test for COVID or to distribute vaccine against the SARS2 virus or to enhance the social support in a neighborhood.  But faculty were still required to attend department meetings and participate in governance functions.  Commencements may have been delayed but grades still needed to be posted.  And salary increase, tenure, and promotion decisions still depend, at least in part, on those scholarly and administrative functions.

A critical question now for Chief Academic Officers is how are we going to administer to the impact of COVID on quality assessment for faculty (or staff)?  If the pandemic closed necessary facilities on campus or prohibited travel to a critical research site, will we postpone the tenure clock?  Will we accept a reduced research output even if it goes against the written criteria?  Can we make these changes within a union-contract environment?

But the most important question the CAO must ask is whether changes made in haste actually improved higher education.  Did the increased time and effort on teaching necessitated by circumstances improve student performance?  Did the technology investments result in classes, admissions processes, and student support work better than the traditional face-to-face processes?  Should we keep the new and discard the old?  Are our universities better because the faculty, staff and students are now engaged in their community solving problems?

An over-riding question for higher education is whether institutions will remain the same or evolve into something different.  As noted, before, in the minds of many changes that occurred were just a speeded up evolutionary process.  We are seeing that mergers discussed for many years seem to have gained new impetus[3].   Will declines in some graduate programs result in university reclassification as well as faculty unhappiness[4].  And there is always the upcoming enrollment cliff ( to consider.  These are exciting times to be part of the higher education community.

Michael A. Gealt is Professor Emeritus at Central Michigan University. He served as Executive Vice President and Provost at CMU for six years prior to his retirement in 2019.  He previously served as Dean of Engineering, Mathematics and Science (and briefly Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs) at Purdue University Calumet (now Northwest) and as Dean of the College of Science at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. 

[1] The Great Acceleration by Carlos Lazada, The Washington Post, Dec. 18, 2020 (


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