Covid-19 pandemic and the paradoxes of universities | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 23, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:33 AM, November 23, 2020

Covid-19 pandemic and the paradoxes of universities

We are almost at the tail-end of the year 2020. What a year this has been! We haven't lived it. We just have breathed through most of it. Beating the pandemic—whenever that happens, if it indeed happens—doesn't seem to steer us past the raptures and ruins it wreaked. Our lives are already radically different and comprehensively compromised. People worldwide desperately want back the peace and the pace of a normal life that used to define their pre-pandemic life. Arundhati Roy, quite surprisingly, claims in her essay, The Pandemic Is a Portal,  "Nothing could be worse than a return to normality", because that "normality" was ridiculously abnormal, abject, and paradoxical. These paradoxes are so insidious that most of them remained unnoticed until the pandemic exposed them. Universities have had their share of paradoxes, too.  

Universities, for example, have passionate advocates for sustainable development. Ironically, the pandemic exposes that the universities are not sustainable themselves. Economics and politics tilt and tank universities. During the pandemic, economies worldwide have nosedived. Politics has languished. Chaos has crept everywhere. Universities have shown no autonomy to guard themselves against the pandemic. Basing his observation on the US education system, Olivier Garret cites a survey in his article, "This Is the End of College As We Know It", in Forbes in June, 2020, which claims that 72 percent of university presidents plan to lay off staff. Garret also cites the prediction of the CEO of Chegg, an online education service provider: "about 20 percent to 25 percent of colleges are going to go bankrupt." If these plans and predictions sound dire and apocryphal, history reminds us that after the Black Death, the fourteenth-century epidemic of bubonic plague, of the roughly 30 universities that existed in Europe at the time, five were wiped out. The vulnerability of universities is a historical phenomenon across contexts. 

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Bangladesh represents a peculiar context concerning the history, economics, and politics of universities given its irreducible demarcation between the public and private ones. Public universities in Bangladesh are managed and financed by the government. Nothing—neither partisan politics, nor a devastating pandemic—can wipe them out, apparently. Until the 1990s, when the private universities began to emerge, there were no alternatives to public universities in Bangladesh. As the University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh catalogues, we now have in 2020, 46 public universities and 107 private ones, though several private universities are not yet functional. I couldn't locate any empirical evidence to outline the harrowing realities the private universities are enduring because of the pandemic. If, however, anecdotes and personal correspondence are any indicators, the pandemic is the death knell for them. Enrolment pinches. Tuition dwindles. Budgets shrink. Employment freezes. Faculty and staff perish. Salaries drop. In short, universities crumble. What, then, qualifies universities to exhort students and society about sustainability in Bangladesh and elsewhere? A sustainable university is an oxymoron!  

As the pandemic exposes, universities are not sites for honest conversation about the basics of institutional finances. Now that the universities worldwide are struck by an unprecedented budget crisis, knowing about the fundamentals of finances is critical for both faculty and staff. Universities worldwide, however, hardly make it a practice that their faculty and staff grasp the magic and mystery of finances that keep the universities afloat. Allison M Vaillancourt in her article, "What if Everyone on Campus Understood the Money?" in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past September claimed, "Most faculty and staff members—and a significant percentage of academic and administrative leaders—struggle to provide correct responses" to all or even most of the 10 questions she asks, while giving talks about the finances of higher education. This is so paradoxical that people—faculty members, in particular—who are responsible for informing and enlightening others, wallow in ignorance in their own professional orbit. And their ignorance is not a blessing. They are among the victims. They're fired, furloughed, and financially compromised. This pandemic should be calling out faculty and staff to step out of their comfort zone into the nitty-gritty of university finances to resist being the victims of administrative whims and follies. 

Unfortunately, resistance is a word being forced out of university discourse, for universities worldwide are being hurled into a culture of conformity and complicity. A university no longer means faculty; it, instead, means administration. University administration radicalises rational voices to run The Toxic University, as John Smyth claims, where faculty members are derided, denigrated, and defeated. When such an administration functions, it reverses the definition of a university. A university should be a guild of self-motivated scholars, who are brilliant, bold, and visionary. During the pandemic, we have hardly seen any of these scholars speaking out boldly and brilliantly against the phony vision of an administrative university. They are defensive. They remember that Ward Churchill was fired from the University of Colorado, Boulder, for his "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens" following and regarding 9/11; that David Graeber, the author of Bullshit Jobs, was denied tenure at Yale for his uncanny research; and that Lorgia García-Peña was denied tenure at Harvard recently for teaching the unpleasant history of racism. If you need a home-grown example along this line, think of the aftermath of the op-ed, "Ulto pothe ki shudhui bus?" by an Assistant professor of Economics at a public university in Bangladesh in 2017. Regardless of the contexts, an administrative university seems to send the same message to its faculty:  "Shut up, or bugger off." During the pandemic, this message of silence echos resoundingly through universities.

An administrative university, then, hardly benefits from the collective voice of vision and intelligence. This accounts for why universities worldwide during the pandemic have suffered from authority without leadership. Decisions and directives emerge from nowhere, and then evaporate just as suddenly and randomly. The gap between faculty and administration widens. Misunderstanding compounds. Universities run on a plethora of ad-hoc decisions in a bubble of rumours, rulings, and suspense. However devastating the pandemic is, it should not have been the rationale to swerve the vision, integrity, and grit of ethical, informed, and unflinching leadership that underpins universities. While the pandemic has altered the usual affairs of universities, ideal leadership would never reduce the effects of the pandemic to online vs on-sight teaching. The pandemic effected no pedagogical problem, per se. Teachers had been teaching enough before the pandemic, and they have been teaching enough during the pandemic. The problem is economic, the untenable business model universities are based on. University leadership hardly talks about this economic model. Administrators, instead, have tried to push a square peg into a round hole. Don't they know about the paradox that these gaudy, greedy universities are eternally poor?

Poverty is contagious as it trickles from the universities to societies. An ideal university cultivates compassion and connection to establish equity between humans. Universities are also a breeding ground for empathy, self-reflection, and ethics. These values are often shunted from the whole university to the humanities and the social sciences. Even before the pandemic, the humanities were being treated as a stepchild, as universities avowedly embarked on a mission of minting doctors, engineers, lawyers, and businessmen. These elitist professions are undoubtedly critical to helping society function smoothly, but the pandemic has shown that such professionals apparently lack the intellectual capital to appreciate and question the layers and degrees of inequality ravaging societies. They, thus, re-produce inequalities, inadvertently. Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard University claims in her book If Then that higher education has a Silicon Valley problem along with distorted effects of money. The pandemic has made education more technology-dependent and money-driven. The residual incentives from the humanities have shifted to sciences. During and following the pandemic, students are being steered toward higher education brutally for immediate financial dividends. For a Computer Science department, for example, the pandemic probably signals a boon. For an English department, the pandemic heralds a bust. Universities have already treated some of its constituents as more equal than others, and the pandemic reinforces that paradox.

Perhaps the biggest of all the pandemic paradoxes is that the pandemic has made the virtual real. A university is no longer physical. It's, instead, invisible and digital. It's compressed into a portable device. Nobody needs to go anywhere to go to a university. Everyone, with a device, attends a portable university from home or from anywhere. Already several semesters into the pandemic, the portable university is competing with its erstwhile counterpart for space and prestige. Should we concede further space and prestige to it, what would that mean for universities in the times ahead?

More paradoxes, guaranteed!


Mohammad Shamsuzzaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University, Bangladesh.


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