The Inequities of a Virtualized University Model Were Predicted Years Ago

Why Are We Acting Surprised that They Persist?

Inequities in virtualized higher education

Over the holiday weekend, I had an interesting conversation (read: debate) with a friend about what they described as the “baked-in inequities” within many institutions’ current hybrid working models. My friend shared that it is “unfair” that hybrid work privileges certain work by people who are often white and “diminishes” work done by custodians, security staff, teaching assistants, and library support staff, which is essential to all institutions. While I pushed back on some of the over-simplifications of their assertion, I generally agree that COVID-19 has produced new forms of inequality.

However, inequities within higher education are not new, although some people’s surprise about this situation is frankly surprising to me. So, I elected to pose a question to my friend that stumped them for several minutes:

Various inequities within a virtualized university model were predicted years ago. So why are we acting so surprised that these inequities persist now?

In the old days of 2012–13, Nathan Harden, author of Sex & God at Yale (2012), wrote a cover story for the now defunct magazine The American Interest entitled “Virtualized: The End of the University as We Know It.” With an accompanying dystopian-like cover image of a student staring into a laptop in a dark space, Harden outlined a future in which higher education follows the way of other industries in virtualizing its core offerings. This action will make higher education not dissimilar to the recording industry and financial services sector with online stock trading.

While Harden’s article’s primary focus is the rise of MOOCs (massive open online course) and the (then new) Harvard-MIT edX joint venture, the author was equally adamant about how higher education would encounter significant negative consequences because of an imminent virtualized future. He echoes a series of warnings throughout the article, including the following: “[R]ecent history shows us that the internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business.”

Several scholars have published research and thought pieces that contextualize the virtualized future of higher education and also envision a future that aligns with Harden’s vision. While some individuals lament the rise of the corporatized university in which productivity metrics would outrank pedagogy, others discuss how colleges and universities have failed to live up to their espoused DEIA values by allowing rankism to permeate all aspects of workplace engagement.

Fast forward to our current highly virtualized world due to the COVID-19 pandemic and we now realize how spot on these scholars’ predictions were. Moreover, those of us in higher education theoretically had at least eight years (and possibly ten or more) to address the embedded inequities within our sector.

This unique and difficult period gives higher education leadership yet another chance to positively guide and assist in reshaping the future of work. With 2022 less than four weeks away, we must no longer act as if inequality within higher education is shocking.

It exists and we are obligated to not simply lament it, but also strive to remedy it by transforming our research-driven insights into action (paywalled).

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.