Higher Ed’s Next Greek Chapter… Er… Tragedy | #education | #technology | #training | #education | #technology | #infosec

As 2021 draws to a close, along with nearly two years in the grips of the global COVID pandemic (and its many variants), we look ahead to a new year facing a new variant – Omicron – with its promise of being more infectious, faster spreading, and having as-yet unknown response to existing vaccine/booster regimens. The nation is exhausted. The world is exhausted. And a combination of the mysteries of viruses and the political undercurrents that appear to be driving both the vaccine uptake and (thus) the virus permutations has us stuck in what appears to be a never-ending cycle of virus emergence, vaccine development, and global immunization strategy. Every nation, every community, and every industry has been impacted and higher education is no exception. Nowhere has this been more complicated and perhaps less coherent than in the US.

Colleges and universities responded to COVID in early 2020 quickly, responsibly, at considerable expense, and in the face of great uncertainty about what lay ahead. Higher education coined new terms such as ‘pivot and ‘hyflex,’ and in their success appeared to break through (self-imposed) barriers around remote teaching and learning, office hours, and even the essential need for in-person meetings. Those who eschewed technology came to embrace it. Those who thought they could not adapt as our students had (so effortlessly, it seemed) found themselves accommodating new modalities surprisingly swiftly. And nearly all came to have a new appreciation for access, a long-heralded commitment of the academy. None of this would have been possible without the Herculean (the Roman equivalent of the Greek divine hero Heracles) efforts by colleges and universities to ensure technology was available or added, training and support was available 24/7, and equipment was both sanitized daily (often after every class) and maintained. Few faculty members complained about inadequate or faulty technology during the Great Pivot of 2020 or the months/years that followed. Indeed, these quiet warriors in IT and elsewhere across the university were not given sufficient praise. For it was they who enabled the pivot, transition, and the continuity in teaching and learning colleges and universities were able to ensure for their faculty and students.

Pivots to fully online instruction happened first, accompanied by decisions to ban Greek house parties and other large on-campus and near-campus gatherings, close athletics events to spectators, and in some cases even send all students home. This was followed by decisions to “return partially” to normal campus operations, often accompanied by hybrid models of instruction, and finally, in the last year, to “normal” models of operation with select protective measures such as required face masks, regular COVID testing, and most recently (in some cases) proof of vaccination. This sequence played out over the 20+ months since the pandemic started. And just as immunization rates were starting to improve, numbers of hospitalizations and deaths were falling, and masks were becoming normalized (even if not mandated) in many public settings, this newest and apparently more swiftly spreading Omicron variant emerges and makes its way across the US and around the globe.

Exhausted, not just fatigued, and financially depleted, not just strained, colleges and universities – being institutions that welcome and gather large numbers of people together to live and learn – once again began planning for a pivot. Two years later, two years wiser, and with far fewer available resources (despite generous relief funds provided by the federal government, which of course had largely been used/committed) and in far more dire circumstances with regard to enrollments and associated revenues (tuition, fees, room and board, athletics events and auxiliary enterprises). Nationwide, enrollments are down but for a few select institutions and those in geographic regions seeing significant population growth. Colleges had already scrambled to overhaul their enrollment management strategies following the pandemic’s first wave.

With lessons learned, and with hopes for quickly containing if not bringing to an end the Omicron wave, the strategy thus far appears to be “short term pivots” to online to start the Spring 2022 semester. A combination of giving hope to students for more normal classroom experience in a matter of weeks rather than months, and trying to convince admitted and enrolled students to put down their deposits and show up in January, this is nonetheless probably a scientifically and medically sound strategy. There is far greater understanding about how COVID is transmitted. There is far better understanding of the cycle of the emergence and transmissibility of variants. And there is far better understanding about vaccine efficacy, including against new strains. There is reason for optimism and there is evidence that vaccination rates continue to tick upward, especially on college campuses and in their communities. This time, it seems, we are easing comfortably into the new normal rather than entering clumsily with fits and starts.

Colleges and universities have new tools in their arsenal, new arrows in their quiver. Teaching may (and should) forever be a continuum of flex models, adapting with pedagogy, technology, and availability of students, faculty, and resources. One hopes this is the dawn of a new age that may even see new credentials, new definitions of credit hours and semesters, and even new degree programs that more nimbly and deftly combine on-campus, online, and guided experiential and service learning. As we start 2022 and steel ourselves for what’s next, colleges and universities are without question more agile, more comfortable with change, and even more accessible and inclusive. But the disruptions, uncertainty, and financial challenges continue. Colleges and universities are less vulnerable, but they likely are more fragile than they were at the start of the pandemic.

For now, we can expect to see more and more schools announcing their plans for partial and fixed-term pivots in January. And we can hope that vaccination rates continue to increase, hospitalizations and deaths continue to decrease, and colleges and universities continue to be able to adapt responsibly and successfully. We are not in the COVID era, after all. We are in the pandemic era. And this is not a Greek tragedy. This is reality.


Greek tragedies depicted tragic plots and ancient rites based upon myths from the oral traditions of archaic epics. Sophocles and Euripides were among the most acclaimed Greek tragedians who explored enduring themes around human nature. Greek tragedy narratives, typically performed in an open-air theater, were presented in such a way to not only connect with the audience by to bring them into the play. Moral right and wrong was often the subject of the play. No violence was permitted on the stage and the death of a character had to be heard from offstage and not seen. And unlike in the later Greek comedy genre, the Greek tragedy poet-actor could not offer political commentary or make political statements in the performance.

The theme of human nature is certainly on display as we watch and witness our individual and collective response to the ongoing pandemic. And much like the Greek tragedy, all of us (as audience members) have been brought into the play (as participants), though perhaps the open-air theater of the original Greek tragedies would have spared some from the airborne virus of the day. Moral right and wrong seem today to be obscured or perhaps supplanted by politically driven convictions and ideologies. And while we do not obscure the death of a character as they did in the Greek tragedy, we certainly (and tragically) dehumanize each death by reporting large numbers on a daily basis. However, we deviate from Greek tragedy in that we not only make political statements throughout the play, we are driven by political positions in how we hear the play, how we engage with the performers, and how we learn the lessons. In this way, and in this day, poets are replaced with politicians.

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