panel of presidents of private universities

Presidential perspectives: University presidents learn from the pandemic and look to the future

April 12, 2022


University presidents from across the East Coast gathered Friday afternoon as part of the inauguration celebration of Kevin F. Hallock, to discuss the future of higher education in a post-pandemic world.

“As a new president, I count myself fortunate to be able to learn from this experienced and creative group,” Hallock said. “I know their thoughts will be significant for all of us who care about higher education.”

Will Dudley of Washington and Lee, Martha Pollack of Cornell, Tracy Fitzsimmons of Shenandoah, and David Harris of Union College shared their individual experiences coming out of the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shenandoah’s Fitzsimmons described lessons learned from faculty, staff, and students working together to host a campus vaccine clinic in January 2021. 

“Partnerships create more opportunity for experiential education,” Fitzsimmons said. “Nursing students were giving shots alongside the business school students who were organizing the event,” Fitzsimmons said. “When people were waiting for their shots, the conservatory students and faculty were performing. The whole community came together and taught us about reaching across their areas. It has led to an amazing conversation about what’s next.”

Washington and Lee’s Dudley said students were eager to return as soon as possible during the pandemic. 

“Our students wanted to come to campus … they wanted to be together,” he said. “I think this generation wants to be engaged and connected, to their credit. I think there’s a student hunger to be engaged.”

The college leaders also discussed the cost of higher education, the future of liberal arts institutions after the pandemic, and the need to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“It’s important to model respectful dialog,” said Cornell’s Pollack. “Get people in front of your students and model how you have respectful conversations across differences.” 

“The time to work on DEI issues is when nothing’s happening,” said Union’s Harris. “You have to do a belonging audit.” 

Fitzsimmons agreed. “Are you committed to diversity when nobody’s looking at you?” she asked. “We probably all need to continue working to help students stand up for each other and for themselves. We want to graduate students who stand up for each other.” 

The group also talked about philanthropy and how universities are dependent on large gifts from a small group of people.

“You have to be willing to say no if people are trying to do things that are in conflict with your mission,” Dudley said. 

Looking ahead to the biggest challenges over the next few years, the Cornell and Washington & Lee presidents focused on the issue of trust in a period of heightened division.

“The single biggest challenge for universities is to regain the trust of the public.” Pollack said. “All institutions are under attack, and so are we.” 

“Operating a university during highly polarized times is incredibly difficult,” Dudley said. “Our mission is educating young people. All the politics, I try to swat it away, so our students and faculty can do their thing." 

Union’s Harris offered a view of higher education that is ready to adapt to change.

“I’m preparing students to thrive across multiple tomorrows,” Harris said. “No matter what challenges come our way, we have to focus on that.”