Since the pandemic, I’ve not read or heard that colleges and universities and their students are thrilled about remote learning. Understandably, the majority want to be onsite enjoying the benefits a campus offers both in and outside of the classroom. But what if there were no pandemic that would require nearly universal remote learning? Would campus life be as it was in fall 2019? I have to think that if there were no pandemic and on-campus enrollment were up to full capacity this fall, there might be a different kind of challenge to address that would affect the safety of the academic community.
The academic community is not apolitical, and it is increasingly less of a haven for civil debate based on critical thinking and empirical facts. Students tend to be idealists and, in the past several months, we have witnessed more activism than we’ve seen in the past 50 years.
If there were no pandemic and students were onsite, rather than traditional campus protests to have college and university administrators address their demands, instead students might be protesting and counterprotesting one another based on their political party or favorite presidential candidate. Instead of safe spaces for civic engagement and civil conversations, campuses could be battlegrounds—even fomented by outside groups persuading students to stoke the flames of civil unrest.
With the current probability of disputes over presidential election results and ongoing rumors about the possibility of violence, the 2020 presidential election could have been the friction that sparked violent clashes among students if college and university campuses were at full onsite capacity.
Some may see this scenario as hyperbole, but it is no great leap to speculate that student-against-student campus unrest based on political choices could unravel the threads that create the ideal tapestry of higher education—learning to think, act, and live together.
If large numbers of students were on campuses this fall, those with larger responsibilities to keep students safe might have been caught between a rock and a hard place as they struggled to thread the needle between free expression and provocations that incite violence. Despite the hard place, administrators would dare not be caught flat-footed or blindsided to the possibility of violent clashes among students. In reality, it’s too horrible to imagine that students would resort to interpersonal physical violence in order to express their passion in support of a political ideology. But we’ve seen the unimaginable in so many ways in recent months, so nothing should be left to chance.
The upside of this dark scenario is that it appears that more campuses than not are making it possible for students to continue their studies remotely and, therefore, avoid the kinds of provocations that could actualize the unthinkable. Most importantly, we must have faith in those who choose higher education as part of their life plan.
Imagining this worst-case scenario may help some adapt more easily to the less-than-ideal circumstances and inconvenience of remote learning for a while longer. And remote learning could provide the kind of space for well-considered discussions on the election and what it means for the future of higher education. But this is only a microcosm of our larger society. If higher education ultimately teaches us how to better think, act, and live together, we must consider, too, the implications for the future of our nation and how we might be able to provide that same kind of space and well-considered discussion on a broader scale.