Michael Meranze is Professor of History and Chair of the Academic Senate at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in US intellectual and legal history; and a member of the American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
COVID-19 is striking countries around the world, but unequally. What do you see unfolding in the US?
In the United States, the absolute under-funding of public health and the refusal to prepare for pandemics adequately is now reaping havoc on the population and on the medical staff trying to heal them. Three decades of diverting resources to commercializing publicly funded research has only made this situation worse. As I watch my medical colleagues struggle with insufficient safety equipment, a lack of ICU beds, an inability to test on a mass scale, and the exhaustion of overwork, I often wish that I lived in a modern country.
In Canada, the pandemic is affecting different areas of society differently — striking very hard, for example, at the elderly in long-term care facilities. Do you also see this playing out?
It is striking us more widely as a society riven by increased inequality. Wage stagnation and the growth in corporate profits, along with its effect, the gig economy, have left more and more people without resources to ride out the crisis. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed to remarkable levels. Neoliberal policy and practice has displaced alternative forms of rationality; public goods and solidarity have been devalued in favor of individual capital; knowledge, both of nature — things such as climate change, epidemiology — and society are denied in the name of the populist wisdom espoused by President Trump.
How are American post-secondary institutions being affected?
Colleges and universities across the country have moved to remote learning; moving staff, students, and faculty off-campus, shutting down labs, and, where they have medical centers trying to move as many resources as possible to support them. While this was clearly the right thing to do, we should acknowledge the likely damage it will cause: in student learning, in financial resources, faculty and staff careers, scholarship disrupted if not derailed, and the damage to thinking together that is, or at least should be, the hallmark of the community of scholars.
What do you see in the future for higher learning in your country?
We face daunting challenges, but it is not too soon to think about what we want in the aftermath of the pandemic. There is an opportunity for new thinking, and we must resist the ed-tech gurus or administrators wishing to strip away from students their residential education, and from faculty their control over curriculum and its forms. If the forced separation demanded by COVID-19 has taught us anything it is that certain aspects of universities and colleges are essential and that they can only be saved by rethinking that which is not.
There has been a jump to emergency remote teaching for obvious reasons. Should we be staying online even after the pandemic?
First, rather than proof that the future is online, the present retreat into distance learning is revealing the exact opposite. Students have made clear exactly how much they value the residential experience just as faculty are remembering how important the shared classroom is for education. Second, universities will need to develop a new public contract; more people, not fewer, should be enabled to have the residential experience if they choose. This means increasing public resources to reduce price across the whole spectrum of costs. And universities especially need to more effectively defend the importance of research and graduate education across all disciplines. Although attention now is focused appropriately on the search for medical remedies and care, the pandemic shows once again how deeply important culture, history, and society is for responding to crises, indeed for the development of crises themselves.
What shift in thinking is required before universities can adopt such an aspirational vision?
Those institutions that recover from this crisis must think deeply about their purposes and not simply fall back into patterns formed over the last several decades. Managers must reject dependence on precarious faculty whose numbers expanded in the name of market flexibility. Faculty need to think through what is essential in their teaching and research organizations and the hyper-individualism and localism that they can fall prey to. Both faculty and administration will need to rethink authority so that decisions are made by those who actually are closest to practice and knowledge. Underlying all of these decisions and debates lies the most important one: are colleges and universities — and those who work in them — going to continue to see who can triumph in the struggle for private prestige or are they going to work to help produce a revitalized, and international, public good.