Ambition Is Called For, But I'm Not Optimistic

The House passed another gigantic coronavirus relief package that's probably dead in the Senate- whether they launch another go-round of aid, I don't know, but the thought did occur to me that even if the price-tag of some of these initiatives make you grimace, this a moment where ambition, if carefully thought through, could well be called for. 

First, policy makers and wonks will be arguing about the efficacy of the choice for decades, but like it or not, we don't have one national response to this. In some ways that's been a hinderance to our actions, but in other ways it's been helpful. After all, New York City is not Iowa- and it's not Montana either. States should have the flexibility to respond to this based on the level of outbreak they're each facing. Granted, I know this notion has launched a million, "it's like letting people pee in the pool" metaphors that are becoming increasingly annoying, but it is what it is. I think the only thing I'd want to the Federal Government to du right now is throw a metric fuckton of money and testing and tracing. Scrap the package the House just passed- push that July or August. Go hard for testing/tracing now and scale it up. Way up. Like Manhattan Project, Apollo Program type of scaling. See what effect that has on things and then revisit further aid pacakages. (This prediction was cheery and I devoutly hope it's correct.)

Second, you've got to look at how specific industries are impacted by this. You would hope that after this is done, we take a hard look at how we process meat around these parts- and decentralize it ones hopes. (I can't dig up the tweet now, but I want to say a ridiculous amount of meat processing is done by something like four companies?) If I have a wish list for a post-pandemic world it would be more ready access to locally sourced and processed meat which happily appears to be coming soon to the neighborhood. Another item for the wishlist? Decentralization as a policy concept. This Tweet made so much sense to me-- decentralization of government will lead to better, more responsive government. It would also, I daresay be a conception of 21st Century Governance- which is something we should endeavour to develop as well. (But seriously though: decentralized government represents a weird idea-- it could be most cost effective governance able to deliver more services- which represents a net gain for fiscal conservatives and progs that want the government to do more.)

I'm tucked away in a corner of higher ed and not hip deep in the middle of the industry, but obviously I've got some skin in this game and the headwinds confronting higher education are concerning to say the least. I think the next couple of years are going to be rough. If you're a small liberal arts college the existential struggle that was probably 5-10 years out has arrived right now. If you're a large public institution, this next couple of years probably won't be fun, but if you make some of the right moves you could come out on the other side of it in decent shape.

There is a large body of literature out there that has been predicting the implosion of higher education for as long as I've been working at the University. I've been hearing stories of 'the coming online revolution' for over a decade now and it still hasn't totally appeared. I think there's two things at work here: first is that the populat perception of college is skewed by the internet. A lot of people are disillusioned with college, true and it's in dire need of some reforms overall, but for a lot of people, a college degree is still a very aspirational thing. We don't hear from those people. We don't factor them into the equation.

Online learning also isn't for everyone. Some prospective students are going to take to it and absolutely run with it. Others will do better in a traditional brck and mortar environment. What I worry about is that higher ed is going to resist online expansion/online platforming to try and 'keep butts in seats' instead of leaning into the hybrid system that's there for the taking right now. There's a massive opportunity for 'credential/certificate/professional' programs that is absolutely perfect for professionals/working people who would probably love to pick up a credential or a certificate here or there without breaking the bank and getting a whole degree. 

This isn't a choice- viewing it as one would be a mistake. Go for both. Recognize that you can offer more than just a degree. Recognize that in a 21st century economy, you're going to have students that learn better in different environments: diversify those options as well.

The University as an institution has survived for centuries now. I feel confident in saying that brick and mortar campuses are going to be around for the long haul- they might not be as big, sprawling or shiny as some of htem are today, but they'll be here. Will they necessarily have the fanciest dorms or recreation facilities? No. I think the budgetary headwinds are probably going to make the amenities race a thing of the past. I think the proliferation of administrative bureaucracy is also going to be a lot harder to defend. Smart Universities are going to be ahead of that curve.

I'm really hoping that a couple of more therapeutic breakthroughs pop up over the summer. A vaccine would be amazing- but I don't want to pin my hopes on that. And for sure, the budgetary hurricane that's bearing down on everyone could be ugly indeed. I won't lie: it's not the pandemic that's necessarily keeping me up at night now. It's the economic anxiety. It's not going to be nothing. But it might not be a total economic collapse into the Great Depression either. It'll probably be somehwere in between. Where that in-between is, I don't yet know. I don't yet know what it's going to look like for my current position either which is the thing that really gets me breathing heavy into a paper bag if I think about it too much.

So, I'm going one day at a time. I'm trying to be realistic about the possibilities. I'm trying not to be consumed by the constant drumbeat of doom in the media. What I do know is this: in moments like these, ambition- real, national ambition, is called for. Will be we get it? I'm not optimistic.


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