Our Universities are Ships and We’re in a Raging Storm: COVID-19’s Impact on Colleges Told through an Analogy

On May 14, Steven Dubner shared the newest episode of his podcast, Freakonomics, titled, “418. What Will College Look Like in the Fall (and Beyond)?” In it, Dubner interviewed three university presidents, including Michael Crow, considered one of the top college presidents (Time), if not one of the greatest leaders in the world (#44 in Forbes).

In the episode, Crow describes the imagery he share with his board chair, Bob Zollars, to help him understand the current state of higher education. As Crow states, “I sent a picture of a battleship in heavy seas, 40-foot waves. The entire front end of this battleship is under the wave. And I said, ‘This is us today, 40-foot waves and we’re doing okay. We’re fully functional, delivering our services.’ And I said, ‘But there’s two worries I need to let you know about. One is there are now rogue 100-foot waves out there: A loss of international students, a loss of out-of-state student revenue, a decrease in the investment from the state legislature. There’s also a possible tsunami out there that none of us can understand or predict.’ If any other significant disruption was to occur in the middle of this disruption, then the outcomes are very, very unknown at that point.”

As I listened to this quote, the power of the imagery impressed me and led me to run with his analogy to organize the following pictures that might best describe the state of higher education in the past five months (and the next five months). We know that a picture is worth a thousand words. My hope is that the following pictures (and the brief description below each of them) express our feelings looking back and forward.

January – What’s Going On In China? 

(all fine in the US but virus hitting China hard)

February – Smooth Sailing on the College Cruise Ships

(The Chronicle’s top 5 trends in higher education on 2/20/20 – no mention of COVID-19)

March – Shift to Online Education

(taking a week off to shift classes online so the curve flattened)

 April – What Can Be Cut?  

(what can be removed from budget to allow for refunds and to go forward?)

May – Thanks for the Memories!

(celebrating graduates who made it through the semester)

June – Time for Furloughs or Layoffs?

(admission deposit deadlines reveal smaller incoming class and needed personnel cuts)

July – How To Open Semester Safely?

(wisely spend on safety improvements to protect students)

August Scenario 1 – The New Normal  

(challenging environment with everyone back but bumpy seas!) 

August Scenario 2 – Some Back, Some Online

(more challenging environment – different options, prices, etc.)

August Scenario 3 – Fully Remote

(most challenging environment – virus prevents return to campus)

Every College’s Dream Scenario

(all colleges fully enrolled and sailing safely to success)

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