Higher Education Emerging
It’s hardly a secret that educators at all levels have faced challenges because of pandemic-related closures and lockdowns. As a now-retired professor of organic chemistry and a lifelong research scientist, I am devastated when I think how hard the last two years must have been on teaching and research in the physical sciences.
Studying organic chemistry, for example, is a hands-on experience. You can’t take a ‘virtual’ pill, or get a shot of penicillin via zoom, and the same is even truer when it comes to developing new medicines. By the way, did you know salicylic acid, the ingredient that makes aspirin work, comes from spirea bushes that grow near streams in the Cotswolds in England?
Aspirin is made by taking salicylic acid from a bottle and treating it with an excess of acetic anhydride taken from another bottle. After heating the mixture for ten minutes, acetylsalicylic acid -- better known as aspirin -- should form as a solid, if you’ve done the experiment right. There’s no way pills can be emailed or faxed from a pharmacy to a patient.
Beyond the difficulty the pandemic has caused researchers and hands-on learning, my still-active colleagues in higher education tell me that enrollments are way down, students have less sense of direction, and the basic community psychology of higher education has been disturbed. There’s a community component to the collegiate study, after all, that was missing during the necessary, but devastating, pandemic-instigated lockdowns.
My sense is that this means less research will be forthcoming, and fewer new inventions and discoveries are on the immediate horizon. After all, those come out of research laboratories where experiments are being carried out, often by teams of researchers.
Looking back on my own career, I know that 3-D printing came about because of a unique combination of factors: An engineer who saw a need; a prototype that he put together that suggested his machines could address that need; and research labs where materials were being made, or new lasers designed, that could enable the formation of 3-D prints if the machines were state of the art. Some of the most significant new steps in this technology happened because partners with unique histories and interests were gathered together to talk about the technology and its applications. Laser experts talked to chemists; both talked to design specialists, and physicians, surgeons and radiologists as well. The work involved a lot of travel from one side of the United States to the other, and to Europe too. Though some of this might have been accomplished remotely, these breakthroughs also required face-to-face give-and-take among different experts. That was largely stifled for two years.
But I get a strong sense that revivals of normal academic life are now happening. Sport plays a sometimes overlooked but important part in building a shared culture. Victories on the battlefront, especially when it comes to championships won, have had an important effect.
My graduate alma mater, the University of Kansas, won the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament. The entire Jayhawk nation went bonkers, and this probably means more good students will enroll at KU. My undergraduate alma mater, Hope College, saw its women’s basketball team win the NCAA Division 3 championship. That campus went even more bonkers, as did a nationwide network of alumni who follow the women’s team.
Both championships coalesced campus communities around something good. At Bowling Green State University, where I taught and directed programs for 35 years, the college of music came together around a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. Women fell in love with Elijah the prophet -- if only for a few minutes on a hot April afternoon.
But hundreds of people from the university and the community were involved in the performance. After a difficult stretch for an institution that was in the news largely for out-of-control fraternity parties, failures and hazing deaths, not to mention a losing football team, Elijah the Prophet, a piece written by a German composer who died well before our the Civil War, brought life on campus back to what it had been before Covid hit.
For a few hours, all that should have been well was well at BGSU.
So gradually, from disparate parts of the community of scholars and students, for better or for worse, a sense of normalcy is returning. Jayhawks do their Rock Chalk chant, Hope College’s women bring on cries for the Dutch, and Elijah the prophet unites an entire community around an Old Testament hero.
But now for the hard part. There’s no question that completely regenerating the comradeships and research partnerships that made a community of scholars a lot more than its individual members will take time. But after two grim years, I get a sense that it may be possible.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.