COVID Won’t Change Higher Ed, but Anti-racism Might

Racial-justice movements in higher education offer a template for how to dislodge education’s focus on entrenching prestige.

Higher education is in trouble, again. Disconnected students, burned-out faculty, and a year of operating in a pandemic-induced emergency mode have further exposed the flaws of a system still strained by a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. This has led many academic leaders and public commentators to proclaim that the COVID pandemic is the breaking point at which decades-long dilemmas about affordability, economic inequality, and racism finally have begun to be addressed. But initial evidence shows that the opposite is happening. Coronavirus is entrenching inequalities rather than providing the motivation to abandon them.

If you believe that the problem with higher education is non–Ivy League schools selling students a “Hyundai for the price of a Mercedes,” then you might agree with Scott Galloway that coronavirus has provided the chance to save the university. Galloway, in Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, proposes numerous changes for higher education after coronavirus, including a federal “Marshall Plan” that expands admissions and reduces prices, a tax on large endowments for universities that don’t admit more undergraduates, and tech companies that create “tuition-free universities” to “leverage their brand.” (He imagines Apple linking up with art schools, Google collaborating with computer science faculty, and Amazon starting a supply-chain institute.) Even though Galloway has been portrayed as “higher ed’s prickliest pundit,” his proposals align with many of the demands of progressive reformers, including their insistence on a “New Deal” for higher education.

The problem is that Galloway and all the other optimistic commentators mistake prepandemic predictions for postpandemic realities. They see coronavirus as the catalyst to reimagine, reinvent, and rethink the university. In fact it’s an impediment. Responses to coronavirus are entrenching the worst trends of US higher education from before the pandemic, not disrupting them. On its current course, higher education’s post-COVID future is a more exaggerated version of its prepandemic self, stripped down to bare institutional survival that necessitates increased competition among institutions, attenuating an already stratified sector. Calls to transform the university after COVID are noble, but the political and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have made change harder, not easier.

For education’s future to be so strained reveals the real problem at the heart of today’s university, the one Galloway and others ignore: racism. The consequences of the university’s inability to address racism are revealed in Matthew Johnson’s Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality, Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, and Sekile M. Nzinga’s Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity. Together, these authors demonstrate why it has been so hard to reverse America’s growing economic and educational inequalities.

Higher education, as a system, is driven by preserving advantages for those who have access to it. This is higher education’s most intractable problem. After COVID, higher education won’t be different unless administrators and faculty use what we’ve learned about racial inequality to alter our emphasis on a highly stratified system that accustoms its participants, and wider American society, to precise differences in reputation and prestige.

Evidence for an even more unequal post-COVID university is ample, including rapid budget cuts, department closures, and undermining of faculty governance. Among higher-education employees, those with the least power, adjunct faculty and service staff, have experienced most of the economic cost. Permanent budget cuts are coming to publicly funded institutions, which will increase incentives for the system to stay the same as it was in 2019. Meanwhile, Yale faculty demanded its university use its wealth not just to hire new PhDs but to attract talent from other universities that cannot afford to pay them more. Yale sees COVID as an opportunity to reinforce its existing advantages, and from the perspective of intensifying, not fading, institutional competition it makes sense. This is the “K-shaped recovery” of higher education, in which the gap between rich and poor widens, the needy get creative about how to survive, and prognosticators predict (again) that the future has to be different.

Higher education was grappling with these issues even before the coronavirus pandemic. University leaders suggested that expanding access through digital technologies would improve affordability by increasing the size of universities and lowering the cost to students. In 2015, Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, and William Dabars, a senior research fellow at ASU, proposed a “New American University,” which was to achieve “broad accessibility” to higher education as a way to fight income inequality.1 Crow and Dabars complained that universities “waste millions” competing with each other in an attempt to imitate Harvard or the University of California, Berkeley (a process they named “Harvardization” and “Berkeley-envy”).2

Responses to coronavirus are entrenching the worst trends of U.S. higher education from before the pandemic, not disrupting them.

Similarly, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen brought his idea of “disruption” to the university. Christensen, together with Brigham Young University–Idaho administrator Henry J. Eyring, claimed that online learning offered the benefits of more convenience and reduced costs to students, which would help accessibility. Higher education hadn’t adopted these technologies earlier, they argued, because its prestige proved to be an “immunity” to change.3

Christensen famously predicted in 2011 that 50 percent of American universities would go bankrupt by 2021. This prediction was met with laughs and even led the president of Alfred University, in upstate New York, to bet Christensen $1 million that he was wrong. But after the coronavirus pandemic shut down most US universities in 2020, it looked like Christensen’s day of reckoning might suddenly have arrived.

The economist Noah Smith has named coronavirus the “college apocalypse,” and Tyler Cowen forecast the “crisis on campus is here to stay.” Richard Florida, who invented the idea of a “creative class” of knowledge workers, thought that the “biggest NEW disruption of the pandemic” would be in higher education, where the next generation of creatives was being trained.

Disruption is the overarching theme of Galloway’s Post Corona, the most recent book to sketch out how the pandemic will supposedly transform the university. But Galloway recycles the prepandemic forecasts of Crow, Dabars, and Christensen, while adopting the catastrophic attitudes of Smith, Cowen, and Florida to argue that COVID is the “accelerant” that will finally unsettle US higher education after years of stasis.

Galloway is a professor of business at NYU Stern School of Business who gained notoriety in 2020 after he attacked plans to reopen universities, which he called the “cruise ships” of terrestrial America, spreading the virus among its vulnerable populations. His critiques of inequality in higher education have been more colorful, and divisive, than most. He describes universities as “luxury brands” and the system as a “cartel” and an “ivy-covered caste system” of elite institutions that act like “hedge funds,” while less elite (and less financially endowed) institutions stock their overpriced classes with Ivy League rejects. He accuses administrators and full professors of being “drunk on exclusivity” and protected from public pressure by tenure, which he labels a “welfare program for the overeducated.” Student debt is the “heroin” that keeps the system high.

Despite what Galloway believes, however, the future won’t be different. That’s because plans to change the university like the ones Galloway outlines in Post Corona tend to ignore how unequal US universities were before coronavirus. Scholarship on racial equity has shattered the idea that a mythic age of easy, cheap access ever existed, and that meritocratic higher education might ever address economic inequality too.

Matthew Johnson’s study of the University of Michigan, Undermining Racial Justice, shows why there has never been a racial-justice revolution in higher education. This is not because of the implicit racism of administrative structures (or not just). Instead, Johnson argues from compelling evidence, racial inclusion preserved built-in institutional disparities based on ranking. Ideologies of inclusion and diversity normalized inequality, rather than diminished it, because they could be easily adapted to universities’ goals of being more selective about whom they admit.

Education’s meritocracy promoted inequality, especially racial inequality. If we accept that premise, then generalized calls for returning to a 20th-century moment of college affordability and social mobility, of universities as treasured public institutions safe from partisan attack, are insufficient.

In fact, higher education’s entire system is antithetical to fair distribution. Making it more accessible to students of color, or more affordable to first-generation students, won’t necessarily change the fundamental premise of US higher education. The true mission of higher education has always been to offer advantages to its occupants against those that it excludes.

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us provides a convincing argument that the “drained-pool politics” of racism hurt everyone. But she also shows that anti-racism is not always supported by those who would be helped by it. This reality is familiar to those who’ve worked hard to overcome centuries of racial injustice and decades of structural reforms to higher education that have resulted in dizzying status competition among its participants.

Higher education, as a system, is driven by preserving advantages for those who have access to it.

One way to reconfigure this system would be to answer Sekile Nzinga’s question from Lean Semesters, which asks: What would higher education look like if we put its most vulnerable—Black women—at the center of the institution? The answer, she argues, is that everyone benefits when we boost the most marginal in a society.

Putting marginalized people at the center of a system obsessed with status will not be easy, even for universities that profess to make social change their goal. But one way to accomplish this change would be for faculty and administrators to model for the next generation of higher-education professionals a more egalitarian academic structure that doesn’t reproduce our fixation with ranking.

Faculty will have limited control over the partisan political battles about higher education that are coming in the post-COVID future, but we are at the height of our power when we reconsider how we conduct ourselves within the system. Even modest changes would have positive effects, because faculty are among the biggest boosters of higher education’s status system. Professors reinforce hierarchies of rank with their own interactions: promotion, tenure, rigid perceptions of what qualifies as academic influence, and rewards for those with large scholarly reputations that are unavailable to those with smaller ones.

Professors like myself educate students about how to succeed in this status system by changing how they speak and write, by building their cultural capital, and by coaching them in how to exploit their access to prestige. Our admissions decisions follow institutional prejudices, and we teach our students to be skilled observers of institutional ranking as a way to advance their careers.

Racial-justice movements in American higher education, and around the world, offer a template for how to dislodge education’s focus on entrenching prestige in favor of a system in which more people benefit. All of us who work in higher education—whether or not we think of ourselves as exponents of anti-racism—might learn from it how to reduce our emphasis on status competition as the aim of educational achievement.

This would be only a small step toward a more equal higher-educational system. But it would be one change that faculty can deliver, even if the nation’s political system fails to address inequality in our post-COVID future.


This article was commissioned by Carolyn Devericon

  1. Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars, Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), p. 240.
  2. “Waste millions”: Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars, The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), p. 25; “Harvardization” and “Berkeley-envy”: Crow and Dabars, Designing the New American University, p. 118.
  3. Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (Jossey-Bass, 2011), pp. 8, 11.
Featured image: Woolsey Hall on Yale University Campus. Photograph by Marcus Balcher / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)