was flipping channels on my television recently when I came across the 2000 movie The Perfect Storm. The movie centers on the Andrea Gail fishing boat, its captain – portrayed by George Clooney – and the choice to make one last fishing excursion late in the season. The crew ignores the weather forecast of multiple storms, and, after handling their own perfect storm of events, decides to risk heading back to port through the superstorm so they can save their catch from spoiling. Unfortunately, and spoiler alert, the boat capsizes, and all hands are lost.
I note the coincidence of seeing this movie because we are experiencing our own perfect storm in 2020. According to Harper-Collins, the definition of a perfect storm is “an unusual combination of events or things that produce an unusually bad or powerful result.” I was also reminded of when my pastor noted that, in the first six months of 2020, we shared the equivalent of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the 1929 Great Depression, the 1968 race riots, and the 1974 presidential impeachment. I would consider that to be a perfect storm by any definition.
As a result, higher education is at a crossroads. Colleges and universities are going to all virtual instruction or variations of a hybrid model (most strongly leaning toward virtual classes). Some campuses are not allowing all students to return, and many who do are doing so at a reduced capacity. The financial impact of these decisions is significant, particularly in light of the refunds they provided at the end of the last academic year. It is all but assured that the experience of the students living in the residence halls will not be the same as it was for those who have lived in the residence halls in previous years.
This pandemic has been much like the weather. It is unpredictable and appears differently in different parts of the world. However, let’s remember that storms always pass, and if we look we may find a rainbow out there.
When these students do return, they will be thrust headlong into racial unrest and a heightened awareness of the police presence on campus. They will also be voting in their first United States presidential election, which will come with the accompanying opinions, debate, and free speech issues. While we won’t likely see large groups gathering in most states, that doesn’t mean there won’t be contentious interactions along the way.
ACUHO-I has been active in working through this perfect storm. In recent months, the work of the Future of Housing Task Force provided guidance for campuses when deciding how to open for the next semester. The Anti-Racism Task Force: A Call to Action has begun work and will reconvene in September after pausing in August for residence hall opening. The task force, under the leadership of Luis Inoa and Steve Herndon, is charged with examining how campus housing and residence life professionals can contribute to the disruption, if not the dismantling, of the individual biases and systemic oppression that exist on college and university campuses and in the profession at large. The task force is one of many initiatives that ACUHO-I will develop in the face of racial injustice and oppression.
Other than the obvious similarities between myself and George Clooney (unfortunately, in age only), the perfect storm the Andrea Gail faced and the one we are now facing in higher education can have different endings. We can come through this battered, but intact. Each campus must have its plan ready, while also being prepared to pivot if we see another wave of positive cases. We must ensure that each student who lives in our residence halls feels a part of the community, and we must be proactive and responsive when racial injustice occurs on our campuses or anywhere in the world. We must let our residents know that we value the right to free speech and the value of civil discourse, but we do not tolerate hate speech or actions of intolerance. Finally, we must recognize that we have the need and ability to do things differently than we have in the past and that forcing us to look at things differently can have some long-term benefits.
This pandemic has been much like the weather. It is unpredictable and appears differently in different parts of the world. However, let’s remember that storms always pass, and if we look we may find a rainbow out there. No, there won’t be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but it can give us hope that better things lie ahead. The promise that things will get better may have to be enough for now.
Take care and stay healthy.
— Von Stange, ACUHO-I Presidentvonfirstname.lastname@example.org
Talking Stick magazine takes its name from the symbol of international friendship presented to ACUHO-I in 1973 by the Ohiat Band of the British Columbia Indian Nation. The talking stick, or speaker’s staff, is hand-carved, and the inscription explains, “It is a sign of authority carried when proclamations are to be made or a meeting of chiefs is in session. It is a token of common heritage both to Canadians and Americans.”