What are the changes that we found useful? What lessons should we take to heart?

Three Predictions
Pandemic-era changes that may last

The academic teleconference is here to stay. I see a lot of academic business meetings and small-scale academic events continuing online for the foreseeable future. Zoom meetings are convenient, inexpensive and flexible. One of the small silver linings to the pandemic has been the acceptance of teleconferences as a new standard for international conferencing — a huge savings of time, carbon emissions, and human wear and tear.

The use of campus space will change. For those of us who don’t need to be on campus to do research, many will continue working from home. Owner-occupied academic offices are dinosaurs of the predigital era. I see a rise in flexible work and gathering spaces, like the Brochstein Pavilion, where it seems like 90% of Rice’s business takes place anyway.

Not all the legacies of the pandemic will be positive. The one that disturbs me the most is how many academic administrations have used the financial stress of the pandemic to discontinue programs and tenure-track lines. Short-term crisis decisions can have long-term consequences. During the 2008 economic crisis, my field — anthropology — saw its job market shrink by roughly 25% without a postcrisis recovery. I worry very much that the return to normal will bring even greater structural precarity, especially in those fields that are not deemed strategic priorities. — Dominic Boyer, professor of anthropology


A Course Correction for Children’s Health

The pandemic worsened preexisting inequities in access to opportunities for children and their families. Yet, there is now a societal will and resources to address the systemic factors that perpetuate inequity. Our work pivoted during the pandemic to investigate the widening disparities in early childhood development and to offer evidence-based recommendations to local, state and national policymakers on solutions to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and their families. The pandemic highlighted many of the inequities in our country in a way that made it difficult to continue to ignore them, and I sense a momentum in this country to course-correct. — Quianta Moore, Huffington Fellow in Child Health Policy at the Baker Institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences


Highlighting Essential Workers

We’ve seen cities function very differently in the pandemic: People working from home and spending more time outdoors, the disappearance of rush hour as well as business travel and tourism, higher unemployment rates, and the shifting of many services online. Public health is suddenly in the forefront. It’s been a time of tremendous uncertainty about the future and one that showed us underlying truths. The pandemic highlighted the essential workers who have to go to work to keep our cities running — nurses, grocery store clerks, bus operators — those we’ve often ignored in planning our cities and those who’ve highlighted our inequities. I hope we all remember those lessons. — Christof Spieler ’97, senior lecturer, Rice Architecture


Learning Where Online Instruction Works … and Doesn’t

Compared to many U.S. universities, Rice faculty had not ventured too deeply into the pool of online education prior to the pandemic. We all were thrown into the deep end. I learned to appreciate some benefits of online instruction, in particular the ability for students to attend class if traveling or unable to make it to campus. For me, online classes with more than a dozen students are suboptimal, but online classes with fewer students work quite well. In the Master of Global Affairs program, we will be returning to fully in-person classes beginning in the fall but are looking into retaining the dual-delivery mode as an emergency option. — Mark Jones, Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies, faculty director of the Master of Global Studies


The Earth Breathes
Unexpectedly, the pandemic renewed climate activism.

The pandemic highlighted for every person the fact that we exist in a highly interconnected system and that denial of global problems like pandemics and the climate crisis is reckless. The rising global social movement for climate action has converged with a global technological revolution. We now have viable solutions for emissions reductions across most sectors of our economy, and we’re increasingly acting on them. For example, 90% of the generating capacity added to electricity grids across the entire planet in 2020 was from a renewable generating source. That’s stunning, and that’s what this revolution looks like. The last four months of 2020 were particularly breathtaking. Some of the largest companies and economies in the world made dramatic climate action pledges. We’re seeing bold steps, not incrementalism. The questions at the leading edge have fundamentally changed from “How do we reduce our impact?” to “How can we undo our historical negative impacts?” Further, the pandemic has more tightly connected environmental action with human health and justice. When we see that historically disenfranchised communities suffer environmental and public health impacts disproportionately, it highlights how combating racism and empowering the disenfranchised is critical to solving our climate crisis.

At the dawn of 2020, I dared not dream so much change could happen in such a short period of time. A year later, I was telling audiences in virtual talks that we are now in an era of profound change, and the change is getting faster and faster. The world is going to look very different in 2030. Students who graduate with a high level of environmental literacy will find opportunity in shaping this new world, like those with computer skills who graduated in the mid-1990s and were immediately swept into creating the digital economy. There’s before 2020, and there’s after 2020. Buckle up: there’s no going back. — Richard Johnson ’92, executive director for sustainability, Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management


Illustrations by Dan Page

Back to Pandemic’s Paradox.

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