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‘Universities must plan for post-pandemic community building’

Undoing damage to social bonds from Covid-19 identified as a priority by leading institutions

University heads from institutions on both sides of the Atlantic have stressed the need to rebuild their academic communities in the wake of damage from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“One of the effects of the pandemic has been fragmentation of faculty, staff and students,” said Central European University president Michael Ignatieff at a CEU-hosted event on 27 January. “How do we pull people together?”

He was one of several university heads to share concerns over the need to bring back social interactions to institutions.

“I think we have an enormous amount of work of community building when the distancing restrictions are relaxed and the pandemic comes under control,” said Carol Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley in the US.

Christ said her institution is “particularly worried” about first-year students, who have not yet had the opportunity to experience regular university life. But she also expressed concern over faculty who have withdrawn from the community.

“We’ve been worrying a lot at Berkeley about faculty who have enjoyed working from home," she said, raising the fear that “they just stay there”.

Isolation impact

Students and faculty have certainly been feeling the “impact of isolation”, said Leon Botstein, president of the US-based liberal arts institution Bard College.

He said that learning is a “significantly human experience” and underscored the importance of teaching “in real time and creating the relationships between and among students”.

Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, rector at the Vienna University of Economics, raised concern over future international mobility. She said that while digital technologies have expanded opportunities for some students to experience institutions they otherwise might not be able to afford to travel to, it has also forced some to justify physical mobility.

“The point I’m most concerned about is how are we going to keep an international approach” with the pandemic “questioning the need to meet onsite”, she said.

But university leaders also noted that the pandemic had resulted in positive changes to their institutions’ practice.

In Berkeley, a data science department is scrapping plans to construct large lecture halls in favour of smaller rooms after lecturers found larger lectures were more effective online.