CEU Presidential Lecture: Universities in a Post-COVID World

On January 27, Central European University's (CEU) Presidential Lecture brought together the leaders of 4 of the world's most prestigious higher education institutions for a forward-looking discussion about how the university sector will change once the pandemic is over. Their exchange ranged from how universities have contributed to research and knowledge during the health crisis to what university leaders have learned from the pandemic, and how the events of the past year are likely to influence the future of higher education.

With welcome remarks and moderation by CEU Rector and President Michael Ignatieff, the panel included Professor and President of Bard CollegeLeon Botstein, Professor and Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Carol T. ChristProfessor and Rector of the Wirtschafts Universitat WienEdeltraud Hanappi-Egger and Professor and Vice-Chancellor of the University of OxfordLouise Richardson 

The guest speakers, also members of CEU's Board of Trustees, offered a range of international perspectives and learnings from their own institutions. President Ignatieff opened the discussion by inviting remarks from each speaker regarding the impact on their university, and inquiring how the speakers, as leaders, have responded.

"The pandemic has been a huge inequality amplifier," said Chancellor Christ. "Some students have all the conditions for successful remote learning, a comfortable and quiet place to study with good broadband connectivity; and others have siblings to care for, very poor connectivity, sometimes parents sick or out of work. So the inequities that are so much a part of our system seem to be amplified by the pandemic." Vice-Chancellor Richardson agreed, noting that aspects of inequality, particularly those among university staff, emphasized the challenges for workers who are homeschooling as well as those living alone and in isolation. The discussion evolved to highlight how adaptability, resilience and exhaustion have permeated the university experiences across campuses throughout the rounds of lockdowns.

President Botstein brought to the table his concerns regarding public life: "In our case the very severely hurt have been the arts, performing arts – dance, theater, music... when we come back, we don't go back to normal, but we do things better. Not in our political life, but in our artistic life, and in general for the social development and the character development of people as members of a university community." Rector Hanappi-Egger, whose university recently brought 1,700 courses online in response to the pandemic, additionally spoke about the different kinds of support needed at her institution: training to move online and rethink the concept of teaching, social support in terms of communication across the university, as well as psychological support.

Following on, President Ignatieff guided the conversation to focus on university contributions of knowledge related to the pandemic, providing an example from CEU. "The diffusion of the pandemic is a network effect. So we've been using our expertise in network science to make a contribution," he said, pointing to the work of Associate Professor Marton Karsai and Janos Kertesz on information dynamics in China. Their research looks at the ways in which information flows and what the timing of such flows reveals about how information spread during the pandemic. Karsai is also part of the MASZK data collection and epidemiological modeling operation, which has been providing the Hungarian government with analysis of the possible courses that the pandemic might take.

Vice-Chancellor Richardson reflected on the complexities of the vaccine development at Oxford, which included international collaborators drawing on years of research from locations in Africa, Cambodia and Thailand. She emphasized the significance of the university's role in shaping the uses of sciences to achieve social benefits, and discussed how when it was time to identify a pharmaceutical company to manufacture the vaccine, it was important to negotiate conditions that the vaccine be available at cost in the developing world and for the duration of the pandemic. Additional, knowledge contributions highlighted by speakers extended into the social sciences and humanities, such as effective methods for communications promoting mask-wearing and getting the vaccine. President Ignatieff then prompted predictions from the leaders regarding what the university will look like after the pandemic.

"I think that the pandemic has taught us a lot about the value of face-to-face instruction but there are things that are simply working better online, " noted Chancellor Christ. "Berkeley has lots of very big lecture courses more than 1000 students – those are working better online. Flipping the classroom and creating kinds of breakout experiences for students are working better online. In addition we'll be able to provide students a kind of elasticity of place." Leon Botstein remarked on the capacities of such elasticity of access, pointing to a potentially blended future of people meeting in person and online, intensely gathering and then dispersing.

Additionally, he anticipated evolving structures of disciplines, pointing to one area he predicted would change: "The definition of curricula, particularly on the undergraduate level and perhaps on the graduate level." President Botstein predicted some of the older inherited disciplines of the 19th century, having to shift focus as a result of the pandemic. "It seems to me that, particularly for the humanities, there is a sudden new role in trying to understand the human experience, its risks and its history."

Acknowledging that certain types of course formats, such as large lectures at Berkeley, are suited to online formats, Ignatieff also praised what he described as the "very artisanal" classroom teaching with student and professor, "one student at a time, one life at a time, and I think there's simply no substitute for it." For the CEU president, the core encounter of the pedagogical experience is a teacher and a student learning together. The importance of that has been re-emphasized by the COVID experience.

Speaking about how she saw the higher education landscape evolving, Rector Hanappi-Egger advocated for the importance of interaction, exchange, the development of empathy and social skills which happens in person, while also highlighting the aspect of changing mobility, not only as a result of the pandemic but in this time of environmental concern. "International experiences are part of academic life, taking also into consideration that we have the climate protection discussion and that unnecessary mobility should be limited." She also emphasized that not only has this generation been through a pandemic, but also a world of closed borders, raising the question of whether the post-pandemic world will be as conducive to international education as before.