Like many in higher education, Western Michigan University moved fast to shift thousands of classes online when the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring. Some of the changes made during the crisis will stick, according to President Edward Montgomery, who joined WMU in 2017. Montgomery served as chief economist and deputy labor secretary in President Bill Clinton’s administration and was also on President Barack Obama’s auto task force. Prior to joining WMU, he was the founding dean and professor of economics at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.
What’s been the biggest challenge for Western during this crisis?
Uncertainty. If we just think about it from the very beginning when we went home in March, many people thought it would be a two-week order and then we’d return. Then another two weeks, and another two weeks, and another two weeks. This was an environment nobody planned for ahead of time. It was an environment that was continually shifting. We’re all captive to the disease.
Planning around that shifting environment that we didn’t control was the primary challenge. It tested our adaptability and flexibility as an institution. In many ways, I’m remarkably proud of us and higher education at large. If you would have asked people ahead of time if they think of higher education as flexible, most people would say, ‘no.’ They’d say we’d crack before we figured out a new way to do it, but we did.
What are some lessons learned in 2020 that will carry over into 2021?
We asked different questions about how we operate and about what is essential and what is non-essential. We developed five different modalities for teaching classes, from the standard 100 percent in-person to 100 percent online and various combinations in between. That’s a way of teaching and learning that some of the faculty, I would expect, will retain.
Many people have long predicted that (in-person) higher education was going to be replaced by online education. Based on student experiences, they want the in-person experience. They want the convenience the technology can offer, but they like that in-person interaction, and so our challenge is how to keep those two things going simultaneously.
What becomes more important for universities in 2021?
There’s been a steady trend toward increasing the importance of mental health. When we think about what the pandemic has done and the strains that it has imposed on students, faculty, staff, and the population of our country, there are growing challenges on how we preserve and maintain mental health. How do we make sure we take care of ourselves, both physically and mentally? That’s going to be an increasing part of what we do on campus.
Putting on your economist hat, what do you expect for the U.S. economy in 2021?
If we don’t take some action (for a new federal stimulus package), I think there is a non-trivial risk of a double-dip recession and going back into recession. That’s what Chairman (Jerome) Powell of the Federal Reserve is worried about. If we have intervention, then I would expect that the recovery could weather both the constraints that are likely to come this winter with additional restrictions on activity, as well as begin to bounce back over the course of 2021. I expect we would get 3 to 3.5 percent growth in GDP under the assumption that we get some kind of federal intervention and stimulus.
What advice would you offer to the new president and Congress as the best thing they could do for the economy?
We need to do something to support those who are unemployed and for those small businesses in particular that are forced to shut down. Another round of PPP and extended unemployment insurance benefits are the two biggest things we need so that we can continue to fight the spread of the virus and hold people over to the time when we can start reopening the economy in a more aggressive fashion and have help from the vaccine. We need something to get us over what I call a four- or five-month bridge.
What should they avoid?
There is often in times of divided government a tendency to get into gridlock. The single worst thing we can do for the economy and the country is to get into gridlock. We have to find a way to accept half a loaf, compromise, move forward, make interventions and make investments that are targeted and prudent.
What worries you for 2021?
I worry that we don’t get over our divisions or we don’t find a way around our divisions to keep moving.
What gives you hope for the new year?
This country is remarkably strong. I think this country has found a way in the past to rally around together and to make progress. So, I guess I never lose my optimism about that. If we can get the pandemic in check and manageable, I think there are pent-up strengths and demands that can take us to new heights. Fundamentally, this is a strong country. We have to get out of our own way and we have to manage the pandemic. If we can do those things, I’m optimistic about the future.