Campus Leaders Discuss Research Institutions’ Role in Combatting COVID-19, Structural Racism

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On Friday, June 25, the Aspen Institute hosted a webinar titled “The Future of Higher Education: How Research Universities Are Responding to COVID-19” as part of their Hurst Lecture Series. The webinar featured leaders from three preeminent research institutions, including Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, Kristina M. Johnson, PhD, chancellor of The State University of New York (SUNY), and Julio Frenk, MD, PhD, president of the University of Miami.

The Hurst Lecture Series was created through a grant from the Hurst Family Foundation as an opportunity for renowned leaders to present on noteworthy topics to the general public. This particular webinar focused on the impact of current events — including the COVID-19 pandemic and recent social unrest caused by the murder of George Floyd — on academic communities. Napolitano, Johnson, and Frenk each discussed the role that research institutions play in addressing those issues.

All three leaders acknowledged how deeply entrenched racism is in our society, including within their own institutions. To combat structural racism, they agreed that intentional and consistent internal reform is necessary to increase representation and ensure the needs of underrepresented students and faculty are being met. As Napolitano stated, “universities have a key responsibility for doing the research and helping to illuminate the causes, historical context, and social implications of structural racism.”

The leaders also discussed the difficulties that come with overseeing academic health centers in the midst of a pandemic — a feat they say has been possible thanks to the support of staff and volunteers both within and outside their university systems. Johnson highlighted that in New York City, “90,000 employees and 30,000 faculty from SUNY pulled together to help in the fight.”

Another point of discussion was the transition from the standard on-campus academic model to an online learning environment. Napolitano, Johnson, and Frenk each outlined how their institution has been working to design more robust virtual classes that are conducive to student success, along with their gradual plans for safely reopening their campuses to students and faculty. 

Although the leaders agreed that the COVID-19 crisis has caused huge shifts to the typical university experience, Frenk pointed to the fact that it has also provided an opportunity to innovate education for future generations. He also emphasized that much of the scientific data on COVID-19, including epidemiological models used by the White House, originated from universities — underlining just how essential research institutions are in finding solutions to major societal problems.