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Speeches & Media

Lessons From the Pandemic

Innovative approaches to education will likely linger long after COVID-19 passes

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2021

Smith’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic is a still-unfolding story. As I write, the vaccine is slowly rolling out across the country, while campuses, including ours, are continuing to operate with extreme caution. At the same time, we are learning a number of lessons about how COVID-19 is accelerating change and the ways Smith and other liberal arts colleges might improve higher education moving forward.

Across higher education, the pressures of operating in pandemic conditions have forced important conversations about what is essential and core to a college’s mission. At Smith, it is clear that our students value a residential campus experience where they learn in person with faculty members who are present and accessible. Further, they learn best when classroom conversations are not limited to fixed schedules but spill over into hallways and house living rooms. Not surprisingly, our students miss and yearn to experience the beautiful Smith campus—a powerful teaching tool in itself—in the company of their professors and friends.

However, the compelling argument for face-to-face education does not exclude a continued role for technology. Our faculty, who pivoted so creatively to remote teaching last spring and are continuing to teach remotely now, will relish teaching in person again when conditions permit. At the same time, some of the innovative online course elements they developed out of necessity—virtual paleontology field trips, astronomy via our remotely controlled campus telescope, Zoom-enabled class visits from film producers and critics in film and media studies—have proven to be effective and are likely to persist in their pedagogical tool kits even when it is safe to hold in-person classes again. Our pandemic pivot has accelerated important conversations about the ways that technology can support collaborative student projects, reinforce course material and address learning differences. Simply recording lectures for later review or for the occasions when a student has to miss class makes great sense. Technology has a place in the liberal arts, and our faculty are asking smart questions about its potential to enhance learning.

We have also learned important lessons about building and sustaining our community virtually. While nothing can replace being in a room with a distinguished guest, or spending time face-to-face with classmates at a Reunion, our forced pivot to remote events has nonetheless proven to be a powerful form of community building. Our Presidential Colloquium Series, which this fall brought to Smith audiences activists Eric Ward and Gloria Steinem ’56 and New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens, reached thousands more alums, parents and friends than we could ever draw in person, thanks to Zoom. I am very eager to host events and traditions in person, but I have also learned the power of online platforms and how they can complement live events. If distance or circumstances keep you from being “in the room where it happens,” virtual participation is surely the next best thing.

While the pandemic has been accelerating change, Smith has been innovating. In recent years, we have taken a number of steps to prepare for a changing higher education landscape. Our board members, who have a range of professions and expertise, regularly reflect on “signals”—small changes in our environment that may have implications for Smith or higher education down the road. We have charted a multidecade path for responding to and mitigating climate change. We have reimagined Neilson Library as a learning, collaboration and innovation hub. We have made a public commitment and strategic plan for racial justice. We have raised millions in endowed scholarship funds to ensure that, in the face of deepening income inequality, the Smith experience remains accessible to the world’s best students, regardless of family circumstances.

Seven years ago, when I delivered my inauguration address to the Smith community, I never anticipated leading this college through a global pandemic. But I did anticipate joining a community with a strong desire for continuous innovation, even as it continued to embrace cherished traditions. As I shared in my address, I knew it would be important for Smith to be nimble in the face of the changing context in higher education and to view challenges as opportunities for growth. When the story of “college during COVID” is written, I believe Smith’s chapter will reflect the resilience for which Smith has long been known.