Eduvation Blog

Asymmetrical Impacts

Good morning!

I’m looking forward to presenting (virtually) to the SAIT Board of Governors this afternoon, about the landscape of postsecondary post-COVID. (It’s probably the topic of discussion at more leadership tables than anything else these days.)

But yesterday I delivered a slightly more focused keynote (just 20 minutes, which is shocking if you know me at all!) looking specifically at the positive, lasting “upsides” of the pandemic for higher education. (OK, admittedly, perhaps there’s less content there.) I thought I would take the next couple of issues to share some of those ideas with you, so we round out the week on a positive note!

But first, a few updates…



COVID on Campus

Two US developments are worth noting…


St Bonaventure U (NY) president Dennis DePerro died Monday of complications from COVID19, after testing positive on Christmas Eve and being admitted to hospital 5 days later. 3 other US college presidents have died of COVID19 since the pandemic began.  Inside Higher Ed


uMichigan has deactivated 375 student cards for failure to comply with mandatory weekly COVID19 testing – locking students out of all buildings but residences. Other “accountability measures” may include probation, eviction, and “formal student conduct processes” (presumably suspension or expulsion). Last month, ~3,000 students were locked out by uToledo (OH) for failing to sign a COVID19 safety form.  Newsweek



Since Wednesday, there have been several more cases of COVID19 reported by CdnPSEs. (See my master spreadsheet for a running tally of >1500 cases in CdnPSE since Sept 2020.)


Fleming College president Maureen Adamson wrote yesterday she is “deeply concerned” about the outbreak of COVID19 at the privately-owned Severn Court student residence in Peterborough, which has involved 29 Fleming students to date. (Up 1 from yesterday. Now 10 cases are “variants of concern.”) She says the College is investigating and will impose “the harshest possible sanctions” on students proven to have been involved in the social gatherings that sparked the outbreak, “up to and including suspension or expulsion.”  Global


uVictoria reported last night that “a number” of students have been impacted by an off-campus exposure to COVID19. All have “voluntarily” entered self-isolation.  Vic News



Postscript: Laurentian

Yesterday’s announcement from LU sets the record straight on reports I shared previously about payments to students and researchers…


Laurentian U president Robert Haché published a letter to students yesterday to reassure them that refunds and payments to students, student associations, graduate researchers and TAs “in the ordinary course” during CCAA proceedings. The student emergency fund also remains available.  Laurentian



Pandemic Downsides

While I want to focus on the positive lasting outcomes of the pandemic for higher education (tomorrow), it’s important not to ignore or minimize the very real pain and suffering the past year has caused…


Loss of Life and Livelihoods

We’ve all seen plenty of tragedy over the past 12 months of pandemic – too much loss of life and of livelihood. Worldwide, there have been >2.5M COVID19 deaths, and the second wave since Nov 2020 has been far worse than the first. In the US, 9.9M people lost their jobs due to the pandemic, 650,000 in the PSE sector alone. Globally, some 225M jobs were lost in 2020, 8.8% of global working hours. “This has been the most severe crisis for the world of work since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” says the chief of UN’s International Labour Organization. Global labour income shrank by $3.7 trillion, a burden borne disproportionately by women, young people, and those less educated.


Travel & Tourism Halved

Some sectors have been hit far harder than others. Worldwide, travel and tourism GDP dropped between $3.5 and $5.5 trillion. In Canada, tourism employment fell 60% within months. THRC reports 466,000 displacedCanadian tourism workers, who accounted for 75% of all year-over-year job losses in the country by Nov 2020. (Likewise, international education has been hit hardest of all PSE sectors.)


Behemoths vs Boutiques

Boutique and department store retailers alike have suffered through extensive lockdowns, with thousands – including some large chains – going bankrupt. It’s been called a retail “apocalypse” – but e-commerce, on the other hand, has been booming, with Amazon hiring 100,000 more workers and building 2 new distribution warehouses in Canada. Multinationals with sophisticated online platforms and distribution hubs have a growing advantage in cost and convenience. (And we’re likewise seeing students gravitate away from smaller institutions and towards the biggest brands and most experienced at online delivery.)


“COVID-19 is accelerating the pace of an ecosystem-wide postsecondary reckoning.” Joshua Kim, Director of Strategy, Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning



Psychological Impacts

A year of pandemic has certainly had a substantive impact on our collective psyches, and it remains to be seen how long-lasting the effects will be. A cohort of teens has missed out on rites of passage like senior prom, graduation, and convocation and more. People of all ages have suffered unprecedented social isolation, and many have developed a subconscious aversion to crowds and even a suspicion of strangers. Many have spent a year in anxiety and depression, helpless in the face of relentless uncertainty and ambiguity – which neuroscientist Henning Beck points out is the one thing that “really drives us up the wall.” (Our brains are hard-wired to seek certainty instead of ambiguity, whether that means leaping to prejudice or conspiracy theories to provide a false sense of control.) Rather than embracing innovations and technologies with enthusiasm, sadly many people have simply surrendered in frustration to the changes imposed by the new normal.




Midway between upsides and down, plenty of the pandemic’s effects have been unevenly distributed, paradoxical or seemingly contradictory. If nothing else, it has made obvious and inescapable the diversity of our students and staff, and the necessity to engage with them more flexibly and personally…


Asymmetrical Impacts

The pandemic has pressure-tested our society, and exposed far too many cracks and gaps. It has shone a light on social injustice and racial inequity, on the risks assumed by essential front-line workers, and on the precarity far too many others. An astounding 58% of US students were experiencing food insecurity, housing insecurity, or both. We’ve seen all too clearly the digital divide, that dramatically demonstrates how many students cannot access reliable internet to study at home. (The poster child is 21-year-old Alexei Dudoladov, a college student in Siberia who has to climb a 26-foot tree to get a cellular signal in order to attend his classes.) Online learning has always been an extra challenge for disadvantaged students: a 2014 study of 1M California community college students found that online courses disadvantaged minority students by 16% or even more. Remote work also has an asymmetrical impact on faculty and staff based on their life circumstances: those in crowded apartments or with young children at home experience WFH quite differently from those with a spacious home office, plentiful broadband, and lots of peace and quiet. (WFH also benefits introverts far more than extroverts, and those who work independently more than those who work in teams.)


“In the most painful way, pandemics show us what we need to fix in our world. The stress they cause reveals all those parts that most need repair… Festering economic, health and social disparities… are the fissures through which pandemics, climate change and other threats to our health course through.”Aaron Bernstein, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health



Pandemic Paradoxes

Likewise, there has been asymmetry in how the pandemic has impacted people’s intellectual lives. Those laid off and living on emergency support (like CERB) have found all sorts of spare time to bake sourdough bread, take up hobbies, learn a language or read some classic novels. But the vast majority, judging by subscription sales, have signed up for Netflix or Disney+ and binge-watched Tiger King or The Queen’s Gambit. And those juggling family responsibilities with work, or working several precarious part-time jobs, have had time for neither, of course.


Conspiracy Theories vs Science

Early in the pandemic, it looked like the high public profile of epidemiologists and  virologists might just enhance public respect for science and scientists – and apparently it did for some, like the students who are increasingly applying for nursing and public health degree programs. Yet paradoxically, we’ve seen a surge of fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories dominating social media and far too much public discourse.


Consumption vs Savings

In 2020 the world saw an abrupt decrease in pollution caused by air travel, commuting, and busy manufacturing plants – although perhaps a smaller and shorter-lived decrease than environmentalists would like to see. Many consumers decreased their spending on everything from Starbucks’ lattes and restaurant meals to fast fashion, gasoline and cosmetics. As those sectors struggled, consumer savings rose substantially – which is arguably a good thing. Interest in electric vehicles may or may not be accelerating as we reconsider our relationship with geography and office commutes. (Certainly I’m getting by without a vehicle at all this year, as I travel the world virtually.)


Selfishness vs Altruism

Under stay-at-home orders or quarantines, as most of us stayed away from family for their own safety, our society has had an unprecedented opportunity for contemplation, to turn inward and ponder what really matters to us. For many, the imminent threat of an invisible killer prompts thoughts about the meaning of life. It has been observed (and even quantified) that in times of crisis, people must recognize their interdependenceand the importance of social safety nets and cooperation – but perhaps that is only true of Canadians, and left-leaning ones at that! Paradoxically, it also seems to be true that a pandemic and recession has prompted preppers and survivalists to adopt a far less altruistic mindset, one rooted in scarcity and selfishness. (You can see that in wealthy folks jetting up to remote villages to “jump the queue” and get their vaccinations.)


“Catastrophe compassion is widespread and consistent; it follows earthquakes, war, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and tsunamis, and — now — a pandemic.”Jamil Zaki, Psychologist, Stanford U



So, without a doubt the pandemic of 2020-21 has had plenty of negative effects, and perhaps even more asymmetric or paradoxical ones. It has certainly ensured that more people than ever before are aware of the systemic inequities that we need to address, during a pandemic but also beyond.


But the point of this essay is to look at the “upside of down” (to paraphrase Thomas Homer-Dixon) – which I will do, for our Friday issue tomorrow! Stay tuned…




Since I picked on uMichigan a bit today (well, Newsweek started it!) here’s a notable video they released back in December, which I rather liked…



Definition of a Wolverine

In early Dec 2020, uMichigan-Flint released a 2-min spot with beautiful cinematography and what seems like excellent sound mixing, in which alumna and spoken-word artist Kirei answers the question: what does it mean to be a Wolverine? “It’s the tenacity in our stride, the victor in our spirit. Every day we walk the path to discover our truth, with the soles of our feet plant ourselves firmly as leaders… We are committed to the craft of inventing the future – our future.”  YouTube



As always, thanks for reading! And please do let me know if you spot something cool, thought-provoking or innovative out there, at your institution or any other.

Be safe and stay well,


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