Post-pandemic Urban Higher Education: The new meaning of place





Akron Roundtable
Post-pandemic Urban Higher Education: The new meaning of place

Remarks Prepared for Delivery

Gary L. Miller
The University of Akron

May 20, 2021

Thank you for that very kind introduction and for the invitation to be here today. It is indeed a great honor and a great opportunity for me to have this time to provide you with some thoughts about the future of American public higher education in general and The University of Akron in particular.

On March 4, 2020, I attended the Ohio birthday celebration in Washington, D.C., where a couple hundred of us crowded into a room in the Library of Congress. A few days later Sen. Sharrod Brown was the guest speaker at this event — the Akron Roundtable. Early the following week I suspended classes for two weeks and announced we would come back after spring break in a full on-line format with a vastly reduced campus footprint. We have been in that format since then — two and one-half semesters and a summer term.

Like every other college or university president in the country, nearly everything I thought about the future of American higher education came under question in March 2020 when, confronted with the rapid spread of a global disease, we were suddenly faced with an unprecedented pedagogical, financial and health crisis.

My leadership team, University faculty and staff, the Board of Trustees and the University Student Government leadership have worked together with uncommon courage and creativity since that time to stabilize the University and ensure we continued to deliver the quality programs for which we are known.

The urgency of our work was fueled primarily by the facts on the ground, which changed daily and sometimes several times each day. Much of our work focused on health and safety issues and providing support for students caught in the throes of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, we accomplished a great deal. Without cutting any degree programs, we reorganized the University from eleven academic colleges to five. We reduced the size of our faculty, administration and athletics program. We reshaped our strategic vision, changed our enrollment approach and, recently, made a number of moves to make The University of Akron experience more affordable for those in our region. We negotiated new labor agreements with our faculty and staff unions that recognize the financial realities of our time. We continue to revise our approach to nearly everything we do, sometimes with dizzying tempo.

Many of you listening today joined us in community briefings about this work. We deeply appreciate your support.

However, despite the urgency and intensity of our efforts, there has never been a time since March 2020 when we have not also thought about what comes next. What does the post-pandemic future of American higher education look like, and what is The University of Akron’s place in that future?

It is this future I want to talk about today.


As the title of my talk suggests, I believe the future of The University of Akron and perhaps all of public higher education in America will depend in large measure on how we re-imagine what it means to be a campus in a time of great change, particularly technological change.

It is important to understand, however, that the crisis of campus, if you will, is not the result solely of the COVID pandemic. Indeed, the enterprise of public higher education in America has struggled under strong forces of change for decades. We arrived at this pandemic already dealing with and in some ways weakened by vast changes in demography, continuing declines in state support, increasing demands for specific talent needs and, of course, the breathtaking pace of technological change, which I will come back to shortly.

The pandemic did not so much introduce a vast new set of difficulties for higher education as it added to a suite of existing existential threats. To understand what we face today, we need to appreciate what we faced the day before I closed the University.

The set of transitional forces is complex, but I think two are important for my discussion today.

The first of these is the change in the perception of the value of higher education.

The University of Akron is an excellent example of some features of this transition.

During the time The University of Akron was a municipal university and after that when it became a public university in Ohio, there was a very, very strong feeling among Akron’s citizens and, indeed, within America that it was a good thing to have a university in the city. That feeling exists in Akron today, which I will show is a great advantage for us.

This same attitude existed throughout America in the latter part of the 20th century, fueling the great expansion of higher education in America in the 1960s, the time when UA transitioned into a state public university.

During this great expansion, towns all across the country fought one another to obtain a university. You can see the results of this in many states like Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin, where universities are scattered throughout the state, often in small towns.

There were two drivers of all this enthusiasm for higher education. People were beginning to understand the value of the college degree to a person’s lifetime success. (Today, a college degree is worth about $1.5M lifetime income premium.)

But there was something else. People all over the country believed there was a strong commonwealth value of having a college in your town. There was an appreciation that institutions like The University of Akron contributed significantly to a more vibrant and prosperous community. Universities attracted smart people who usually demanded better schools and responsive government. During this time, there was a general feeling that there was a significant social, cultural and economic advantage to having a university in your town, even if you had no college degree.

One of the biggest and most insidious transitions in the higher education landscape since the 1960s is the loss of this commonwealth value.

Most people in the country today do not believe there is a commonwealth value to higher education. If they believe in higher education — and increasingly many don’t — they believe the value accrues primarily to the individual receiving the degree.

This helps explain the decades-long slide in state funding for higher education. The thinking goes, “If the college degree primarily benefits the individual getting the degree, why should the state fund the degree?”

Unfortunately, this thinking is most often paired with the views that tuition is a tax that should be regulated and that if higher education benefits mainly the individual and not society as a whole, universities should be primarily in the job-training business to help individuals get good jobs.

This change in our perception of the value of higher education sets up an important tension regarding what a public university like The University of Akron should be about. Increasingly, policymakers view regional universities as mainly talent generators rather than also economic, social and cultural assets to the community. I will return to this when I make my final argument.


The second existential force affecting higher education is the Gutenberg-scale changes in the dynamics of knowledge.

Until relatively recently, the reason someone went to a university is because knowledge resided there in the form of books and the people who write those books and teach about them. Universities now operate in a much, much different environment. Knowledge is ubiquitous and virtually universally accessible. The university professor no longer holds all the knowledge.

Each day between 3 and 5 billion Google searches are issued. Each one of these searches represents someone asking a question. Each of these searches accesses the virtually limitless universe of knowledge. This represents a massive, global learning environment in which no university professors are involved.

It is literally true in today’s world that the biggest impediment to gaining useful knowledge is not access to it; rather it is the lack of developmental maturity, the lack of the key skills at mining knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, the lack of an understanding of how to value various sources of knowledge.

What this means is universities now have to operate more as navigators and guides rather than teachers. Learning happens all the time. Our job is to shape that learning.

This new role raises two important questions: (1) How does the university shape knowledge for its students and (2) How do we place a monetary value on this new university role of guiding people through the digital knowledge world? The first question is the root of the tension between policymakers and universities about whether higher education has a progressive bias. The second question is the basis for the overheated public view that digital learning is the best learning, something I will address below.

So, prior to the pandemic, universities were struggling to operate in a global knowledge economy characterized by an increasingly individualistic view of higher education.

I believe to address these challenges and to emerge from COVID stronger for the future, we have to focus on one of the oldest concepts in the American Academy: the idea of campus. Let me turn to that now.

The concept of campus — the essential connection of time and space in the enterprise of learning and adolescent development — was a founding principle of the American Academy brought forward from university life of the Middle Ages.[i] Indeed, accounts of the medieval university’s challenge with student behavior bear a striking similarity to the difficulties of the contemporary university. Even during the Middle Ages, much of the enterprise was about managing unruly adolescent men. The rambunctious medieval undergraduate was perhaps only slightly more restrained than the intemperate young men of the early English universities, which were often described as penal institutions.

What arose in Colonial America and has continued in the American mind is the concept of the “Collegiate Way of Living,” a term coined in 1702 by the Massachusetts scholar and Puritan divine Cotton Mather. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison probably described this concept the best in a speech in 1936 commemorating the hundred-year anniversary of Harvard College. He said:

To the English mind, university learning apart from college life was not worth having… It was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, the priceless gift of character could be imparted to young men.

Thus, in establishing Harvard College in the English traditions, the New England government planted the seeds of the complex ecosystem of interacting community, academics, learning, teaching, student life, architectural design we call campus today. And while through the history of the American Academy we have accommodated emerging narratives of what campus means — think of trends in learning communities, residence hall architecture, recreation centers, athletics and the like — we generally do not question the underlying assumption of the need for physical connection and close personal interaction in the process of higher learning. We have always assumed that American universities are places.

The pandemic revealed how important the idea of campus is. As it became clear the pandemic would disrupt regular campus activities, students were advised to take a “gap year” until things return to normal. Many parents and advisors were so concerned their student would lose out on an important part of the college experience — campus life — they advised them to wait. Indeed, our enrollment data suggest prospective students are still waiting to see if their university of choice will continue in the digital format.

Striking evidence of the desire to be connected was demonstrated at a number of our highly residential sister institutions in Ohio. Like UA, those universities moved to a digital format. Nevertheless, students descended onto those campuses anyway, arriving well before the beginning of classes in order to gather with their friends — as the many virus superspreader parties demonstrated. 

This thirst for campus was not restricted to traditionally residential colleges and universities. The most common complaint we heard from students at UA about the digital format was lack of personal interaction with faculty and staff. Most of our students are commuter students.


In the spring of 2020 the whole of American higher education moved to a digital format, suddenly and nearly completely decoupling learning from campus. Suddenly, the “collegiate way of living,” so engrained in the American mind, was disrupted.

This created great excitement in two groups of higher education critics: (1) higher education futurists who for quite some time have predicted the demise of the traditional college and (2) public policymakers, particularly at the state level, who tend to be highly skeptical of the commonwealth value of their university systems.

The futurist Scott Galloway, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur now teaching at NYU and long-time critic of traditional higher education, suggested the post-pandemic future will give elite universities like MIT, Stanford and Harvard entrée into retail higher education. He predicted these universities will develop thousands of online and hybrid degrees at very affordable prices, eliminating many brick-and-mortar campuses. Galloway has long predicted the collapse of “second-tier” universities — he would include UA in that group — to be replaced by mega business-education conglomerates centered around current elite universities. Why, those of Galloway’s ilk argue, would one take an engineering degree from a regional research university like UA if they could get the same degree from Harvard-Microsoft for the same price (or, perhaps, less).

To be sure, we must be open to technological change and attuned to what we have discovered about how technology can be used to make learning more exciting and effective. Others outside higher education are certainly taking notice. For example, Coursera, an on-line learning company that partners with over 150 universities, offers over 4,000 certificates, courses, and entire degrees in the digital format. During the COVID pandemic (2020) the company initiated the Workforce Recovery Initiative, where it offered many of these courses free to those who lost their jobs. The company also provided college students free access to many of its courses during 2020.

For their part, as they watched major universities in their state move seemingly effortlessly to a digital format, many policymakers saw opportunities for public higher education, which represents the greatest portion of the discretionary budget in most states, to move to a more efficient talent development enterprise by expanding digital learning.  

The futurists’ dream of a do-it-yourself university and the policymakers’ drive toward efficiency in talent production seem to work strongly against the idea of university as a place, a campus.

But it is very important to note here that despite the resurgence of enthusiasm for a new dawn of digital higher education, the force of campus, of place, as an essential element of the enterprise is perhaps stronger than we think. Indeed, critics of the idea that a digital takeover of higher education is inevitable often ask why this has not already happened.

While technology has expanded and evolved (for example videotelephony transformed into contemporary videoconferencing, now used ubiquitously), there have been relatively few true disruptive events in the use of technology in learning. The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) of the early 2000s never morphed into the global network of free education once dreamed of by futurists.

I believe as we move out of this pandemic, those of us fortunate enough to work in an urban university with a supportive city are being presented with an historic opportunity, an opportunity to rebuild the lost commonwealth value of higher education. I believe our future can be more than an accommodation to efficiency. And this brings me back to my working thesis: that we will somehow have to reconceive what it means for The University of Akron to be a campus, a place, where learning and discovery take place.

There are many approaches we could take to meet this challenge. We have a great deal going for us in this important endeavor. We have one of the finest colleges of business in the country, one of the first undergraduate cybersecurity programs in America, world-class engineering with a particular international reputation in polymer science, a great law school, a range of excellent undergraduate and graduate programs in the arts and sciences and health professions, and important graduate programs at the master’s and doctoral level. As we have in the past, we will continue to leverage these programs for opportunity, community engagement and economic development.

But there is another set of assets we have at the University that I believe we can better organize and deploy in partnership with the city of Akron and other partners to develop a national model for how a a public urban research university and its legacy city work together to create a special place for education, work and entrepreneurship. This is a set of assets that, if deployed with imagination and in an organized way, offers us, in my view, the best way to directly elevate those community-university interactions that form the commonwealth value of an urban university: celebrating stories and differences, lifting up service and recognizing the power of learning in order to understand one another.  

These are our academic and outreach programs in the visual and performing arts, music and literature.

In February, I commissioned a group of faculty, under the direction of Dr. Joe Urgo, to consider how we might organize these academic programs, the related faculty research and scholarship and relevant physical facilities into a partnership model for city-university campus development. 

That group has worked with uncommon energy and commitment and just this week released a compelling plan to synergize and deploy these great university resources in a coordinated partnership with current initiatives in downtown to enliven downtown life; attract residents, visitors and businesses; increase enrollment; and, importantly, merge the future campus concept with the vision of downtown. Their report is titled: AkronArts: Re-imagining University Arts Programs for Community Revitalization. Later today it will be available on the president’s webpage on the University’s website.

This new vision of University engagement has several key features.

  1. It is designed to connect immediately to ongoing activities to revitalize downtown Akron.

    The city of Akron and its partners are well along with a deep community consideration of the future of place. For some time, the city, Summit County and their many partners have very purposefully and creatively executed a program of revitalization and renewal of the city as a place. The activities of the Downtown Akron Partnership, the Civic Commons initiative supported by the Knight Foundation, the GAR Foundation and a number of other major national foundations; major infrastructure improvements; the Akron Civic Theatre restoration; and an increase in activities designed to draw people to work, live and play in downtown have the potential to continue to make Akron a great place to live. An essential element to this is a focus on diversity and inclusion, which is key to any route to success in a diverse city like Akron.

    Many, many faculty and staff of the University participate in these initiatives. Their commitment to the city and their willingness to provide time and talent to it are impressive and very much appreciated.

    As an institution, however, the University has not, in my view, offered itself as a value-adding partner to these important activities. The AkronArts initiative is designed to place the University in a leading role as an institutional partner in this important community work.

  2. The AkronArts plan involves a re-visioning of how we use our spaces in the downtown area, especially the Polsky Building, which fronts the civic commons area around Lock 3. The goal here is to design ways to physically deploy portions of our art and music programs into spaces closer to downtown where community-faculty-student interactions can be nurtured and where community members can enjoy the arts while living in and visiting downtown.

  3. All studies of city revitalization show the importance of having a vigorous art and music scene in the downtown spaces. An important focus of the AkronArts initiative is to connect the University with business and government in Akron to attract new enterprises to the city, and to encourage people to live downtown and make the downtown spaces attractive for business, recreation and entertainment.

  4. The AkronArts program envisions a new role for E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall as a sustaining partner with the Akron Civic Theatre to provide a greater volume and variety of programs for the Akron community and provide more opportunities for UA faculty and students.

  5. Of course, our re-imagination of place must integrate what is going on in downtown Akron with what is happening on the campus. For us to thrive, campus must be indistinguishable from downtown. We will accomplish this by focusing on our faculty, our students and the key partnerships we have in place. The Myers School of Art Visiting Artist/Designer Residency and Lecture Series, made possible by a generous gift from Mary Schiller Myers, will bring nationally and internationally recognized artists and scholars to the campus and downtown. Our Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, a regional consortium with Kent State, Cleveland State and Youngstown State, will connect our campus with the city of Akron and other great legacy cities in the region. Integrating with that program will be the University of Akron Press, which is housed in Quaker Square. Our relationship with the National Center for Choreography at The University of Akron will be expanded to provide the community with even more exposure to dance through its extensive national and international connections. Important programs such as the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, and Synapse, the art + science series of the Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center, will connect art and music to the physical, biological and social science programs of the University to create community learning and entertainment opportunities on campus and downtown. And, of course, we will reach out to our many alumni who have achieved great recognition in the arts to partner with us to bring their special talents back to Akron.

To realize this vision will, of course, take time and lots of support. And, today I am asking for your questions and your expressions of interest in helping the University and the city move together out of this pandemic into a new vision of what it means for a great urban research university and its city to create their place together. The way to begin is to review the AkronArts report, which after this talk will be posted on the president’s webpage on the University’s website. It is a report now ready for community consideration and participation.

I want to end my talk today with a short passage from the AkronArts report. This main author of this report is our colleague at the University and long-time chronicler of the history of Ohio and its people, David Giffels. This piece beautifully reminds us of the special relationship of the University and the city and affirms my promise to you of our commitment to the future of this place. David writes:

Akron’s narrative is a long unspooling of invention and reinvention. The city and its university have known hard times and have always leaned on creativity in all its forms to meet and overcome our challenges. As we begin to reemerge from the long, dark hibernation of the pandemic, UA is eager to embrace its relationships across Akron, to lead, support, share, and elevate art as a celebration of life. 

I very much appreciate your invitation to share these thoughts. Georgia and I love this university and this city. We are very much looking forward to rising together.

Thank you.

Cobban, Alan. 1999. English University Life in the Middle Ages. The Ohio State University Press. 264 pp.
More about President Gary L. Miller