The Pandemic’s Assault on Public Universities, Female Academics, and Social Mobility

| Dr. Crystal Chang Cohen


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It has been a year since Covid-19 first upended our lives.

Understandably, the American media has been consumed with the last administration's botched handling of the pandemic, the heroic efforts of healthcare workers, and the virus's terrible impact on communities of color and nursing homes.

Comparatively speaking, the pandemic's toll on public universities, female academics, and college student mental health has received less coverage. Given the vital role that a college education plays in advancing social mobility, we should all pay closer attention to the pandemic's assault on higher ed.

Female Academic Careers

You have likely seen the statistics showing that more women than men have left the workforce this year. In September 2020, roughly 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce — four times more than men.

Less known is the pandemic's devastating toll on female academics. Several studies have shown that women are publishing less now than they were before the pandemic, in large part because of increased caregiving responsibilities.

According to one study published on the Social Science Research Network, "Our complete data on all Elsevier journals indicate that the exceptional lockdown and social distancing measures imposed by the pandemic have penalized women academics and benefited men.... Given the importance of publications and citations for academic career and prestige in the current hyper-competitive academic environment, these gender disparities could have important short- and longer-term effects, which need to be considered by academic institutions and funders."

Put bluntly, female academics are more likely than their male counterparts to take a long-term hit to their careers that will be difficult to overcome unless institutions quickly develop more family-friendly policies and pandemic exceptions during performance reviews.

Four times more women left the U.S. workforce than men since the start of the pandemic.

Female academics are publishing less now than before the pandemic, in part due to increased caregiving.

2,000 lecturers lost their teaching appointments at the University of California this year alone.

2020 was the hardest year of my professional life. I am a Lecturer — part-time, contingent faculty — at University of California, Berkeley. Last spring, my colleagues and I had two days to transition to online teaching with no Zoom training.

Every day, I struggled to simultaneously care for and educate my three young children and teach three courses to nearly 200 students. Like many working mothers, I suddenly found myself drowning under the demands of three full-time jobs: college instructor, elementary school teacher, and homemaker. I had a promising research project that has been sidelined because my collaborators and I simply don't have the bandwidth.

Sadly, it was often my children who suffered the most, binging Dino nuggets and continuous episodes of Wild Kratts. Although my family has developed a routine, my sense of guilt as a "bad mother" has not diminished. According to New York Times Op-Ed columnist Jennifer Senior, I am not alone.

Nonetheless, I count my blessings every day. No one in my family has contracted COVID-19. My children have resumed partial, in-person learning. My partner, a physician who cares for COVID-19 patients in the hospital, has been fully vaccinated. We have a home to live in and food on the table. Compared to so many people who are suffering across the country, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate.

I still have a job and health insurance, at least for now. Roughly two thousand lecturers with job titles similar to my own have lost their teaching appointments at the University of California this year alone, with more cuts likely to come in the next academic year.

Across the country, the pandemic is eroding the hard-fought gains made by a generation of female academics who worked tirelessly to close the wage gap and make headway into tenured positions. Because of lingering patriarchal norms at home and in the workplace, women are often the ones forced to choose between family and career.

The Pandemic's Impact on Public Higher Education Institutions

Last March, there were very few cases of COVID-19 at UC Berkeley where I teach. At first, my Chinese exchange students were feeling lucky to be in the U.S. when the coronavirus first made headings in Wuhan. Then, just as the Chinese government got the virus under control, the pandemic began to spiral out of control in the U.S.

Chinese students scrambled to return home, sometimes paying six times the regular price for a plane ticket. One of my students encountered a man at a Berkeley farmer's market who told her to go home before she infected locals with the Chinese virus. I was heartbroken to hear her retell this story.

Over the summer, the University of California (UC) announced we would stay remote for the fall 2020 term. That proved to be a wise decision given the outbreaks at many universities that returned to in-person instruction.

Campuses have grappled with the decision over when and how to allow students to return to campus because of the outsized importance of residential housing and sports programs to their bottom lines.

"The pandemic is forcing many universities to confront a number of long-standing structural challenges, including rising tuition costs, perceptions of elitism, decreasing federal and state financial support, and in some cases, declining enrollment."

Some administrators clearly prioritized finances over student and staff safety in the resumption of college sports programs. Was it worth the risk to student athlete health and the health of broader campus communities? We are learning more about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19 on young healthy people.

To be sure, the budget crisis facing public and private universities is real. According to Chancellor Carol Christ, UC Berkeley faces a projected $200 million budget deficit this coming year. The pandemic is forcing many universities to confront a number of long-standing structural challenges, including rising tuition costs, perceptions of elitism, decreasing federal and state financial support, and in some cases, declining enrollment.

Institutions that have come to rely on international student tuition to shore up their budgets have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. One survey found that international enrollments dropped by 43% this past fall.

While the federal government has provided some emergency aid to many universities over the past year, more financial support will be necessary to stem additional cuts to academic programs and faculty layoffs.

Academic Layoffs

Many universities have instituted hiring freezes, layoffs, and furloughs to mitigate their budget shortfalls. Part-time faculty are often the first to go. Winthrop University and Clemson University in South Carolina have announced furloughs.The Kansas Board of Regents voted to allow for emergency employee terminations and suspensions, without exception for tenured professors.

In some places, entire academic programs are being eliminated, with arts and humanities taking the biggest hit at places like University of Vermont, Illinois Wesleyan University, and the University of Alaska. These are only a few examples.

Students Continue to Get Sick and Face Challenges

Despite continued remote instruction, infections have skyrocketed on many college campuses this spring. During the week of January 24, there were 135 positive cases at UC Berkeley — a 400% increase from the prior week. Infections hit a high of 156 cases during the week of January 31, leading to an order for students living on campus to self-sequester. However, new infections seem to be tampering off for now. The New York Times has been tracking recent college outbreaks.

This semester, I have received several emails from students who have tested positive. On February 9th, I surveyed 108 students and was shocked to discover that 12 students — 11% of the class — had lost a loved one to COVID-19.

Students are facing multiple challenges. They are staring at their screens all day instead of chatting with one another between classes. They are glued to social media instead of making new friends and participating in social activities on campus. They are under financial pressure with parents losing jobs, with some having to find part-time work to help their families make ends meet.

Seniors will miss out on graduation — a time-honored right of passage to post-grad life. To top it all off, college graduates are heading into a tough job market.

The Uncertain Future of Higher Education After the Pandemic

UC Berkeley administrators have recently announced that we will return to in-person instruction in fall 2021, but for now they are not able to vaccinate all students, staff and faculty. I don't see how we can safely go back to campus unless the vast majority of faculty, students, and staff are fully vaccinated.

I am cautiously optimistic that the vaccine shortage will be over by the summer, but it's hard to know. What concerns me most are the pandemic's long-term consequences on public higher education.

Financial Impact on Programs and Teachers

The assault on public universities long predates the pandemic. California state funding for the UC system peaked in the 1950s when it accounted for 70% of the UC’s budget.

However, the relationship between the state and the UC system soured under the governorships of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to a precipitous decline of state support of the country’s premier public university system.

"Non-tenure-track positions of all types, including teaching assistants, now account for over 70% of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education."

According to a 2018 report by scholars at the Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, California state funding as a percentage of UC’s operating budget has fallen to 10% in 2014. State cuts have typically been sharpest during economic recessions.

Hiring freezes will end, but academic programs and faculty positions that have been cut are unlikely to return. The ratio of contingent faculty positions to tenure-track positions has been increasing for decades. Non-tenure-track positions of all types, including teaching assistants, now account for over 70% of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education.

High instructional turnover not only hurts the livelihoods and families of college instructors, but it is also detrimental for educational quality, mentorship, and student learning.

One of my colleagues has left academia altogether because of the job precarity and low pay. More will follow suit.

What Will Happen to Social Mobility?

Public higher education has been the primary vehicle of social mobility in this country. Studies show that those with bachelor's degrees earn hundreds of thousands more in median lifetime earnings compared to those without degrees.

Yet the number of high school graduates going straight to college decreased this past fall, driven mostly by losses of lower-income and urban high school students. Community college enrollments have witnessed big declines, which is concerning because these institutions often serve the largest share of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

"A frail economic recovery will likely exacerbate student loan defaults, hurting a generation of young people and their dreams."

What's more, student loan debt has surpassed $1.7 trillion. People of color take out more student loans and have sharply higher default rates. A frail economic recovery will likely exacerbate student loan defaults, hurting a generation of young people and their dreams. President Biden has said he is open to forgiving $10,000 of student loan debt, which would relieve some of the financial stress facing millions of Americans today.

Yet student loan forgiveness is at best a band-aid solution. Helping today's borrowers is important but does not at all address the high cost of a college education or the long-term budgetary challenges facing public higher ed institutions.

What America needs now is a long-term investment plan for higher education at the state and federal levels. Rather than cutting budget allocations to higher education in tough times, government officials should be doubling down on these investments to ensure that the vital gateway to social mobility remains open. Failure to take action now will only exacerbate the widening inequality in this county.

Cautious Optimism

The Year of Covid has taught me a lot about the fragility and resilience of my family, my students, UC Berkeley, and public higher ed more broadly. The pandemic presents us with an opportunity to reaffirm on our commitment to career advancement for female academics, an affordable college education for the next generation, and genuine social mobility for communities of color.

Let's not let this opportunity pass us by.

Dr. Crystal Chang Cohen is a lecturer at UC Berkeley, where she teaches courses on Asian politics and history and the political economy of development.

Header Image Credit: Yuichiro Chino, Sean Pavone | Getty Images

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