Insights — 2020: Hope Was Just in Retrograde

2020: Hope Was Just in Retrograde

Thought leadership , COVID-19 / December 22, 2020
Matt McFadden
Matt McFadden

Things don't move backward, but sometimes you have to look back to see they've been moving forward the whole time. 

My keyboard stopped working. This would eventually lead to me presenting on Zoom next to a Belk and Auntie Annie's, but that's a story for another day. When I mentioned my MacBook troubles to a teammate, she said, "well, Mercury is in Retrograde." I had no idea why that had anything to do with my keyboard because, and this will shock nobody, I know nothing about astronomy. But she informed me of the definition, and I soon understood why everyone on Twitter was blaming the entirety of 2020 on said phenomenon. I also learned an important lesson — that things only appear to move backward, and in time it becomes evident that they are moving forward again and have been the whole time. 

This has been a hard year to find hope. Like many of you, I've had family members contract the virus, and, thankfully, they've all recovered. We held a masked Thanksgiving, which was a little sad, and the mask made it a little harder to take sneak a pull off the bottle of chardonnay in the refrigerator, but in the end, a good time was had by all. Our girls are learning virtually, and while we manage occasional meltdowns, we're learning 6th-grade math again and watching teachers do the impossible day after day. Some of us found an unexpected source of hope in a fictional character named Ted Lasso. I relate a little too closely with the character in that I spend Saturday mornings watching Premier League football confused by offsides calls and operating too often on blind hope. Lately, that sense of hope is getting stronger and stronger. Maybe it's the arrival of a vaccine. Maybe it's the departure of Betsy DeVos. Or maybe, like Mercury, hope spent a good bit of time in retrograde this year, and I needed to move backward to see it more clearly. 

Let's start with the present. Today feels completely different yet eerily similar to where we were in late spring and early fall. COVID is spiking to all-time highs, causing colleges and universities to shift or justify their spring plans, although not at the scale of the spring and fall, given many schools opted for a virtual spring long ago. Similarly, early returns on the class of 2021 are not good, especially for first-generation students or minority and other underserved populations. We knew the virus would hit those groups harder, and it's showing. That said, many schools are feeling much more optimistic about a more normal Fall 2021, and that's certainly something to be hopeful for. The same can be said for the experiences gained from last spring, as that level of innovation in marketing and enrollment management will be put to good use this spring. 

Just before Thanksgiving, news of vaccine efficacy began to break. Of course, higher education was at the forefront, with Johns Hopkins and Emory playing significant roles in the development or clinical trials of different vaccines. It always seems strange to me that higher ed doesn't get more credit. But if you think back historically, institutions have always been vital to society while simultaneously being devalued by that same society. The situation is just as polarizing today, but I'm hopeful because I know our colleges and universities are not going anywhere and will always contribute to the public good. 

Fall and summer 2020 seemingly blended together this year. There was no natural break. Institutions created and recreated opening plans while at the same time making crucial decisions about policies regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion as the largest civil rights movement in a generation unfolded. While a study in crisis communications continued, silos across campuses began to break down as collaboration between groups like marketing & enrollment and marketing & student affairs really paid off on a lot of campuses. There's certainly hope that the work produced in this period is among the best and most strategic we've seen in higher ed communications. 

April and May can only be summed up with unbelievable uncertainty. Everyone and everything was virtual, and millions of people lost their jobs, including many across higher ed. On a hopeful note, we saw an industry oft described as slow to innovate turn more like a drift racer than a cruise ship captain. The product took on a new form, and while research showed that virtual learning remained unpopular, it offered a glimpse of what higher education could become as universities were forced to confront the combination of product delivery, cost, and value. I'm hopeful that this conversation continues, as I think innovation in how the product is delivered and how much it costs not only helps to educate more people but also boosts the public perception of the sector. 

March 11th. A date where seven weeks of information happened in a 3-hour period. The Utah Jazz walked off the court, the NBA postponed the season, Tom Hanks announced he had COVID, and Sarah Palin was revealed as the masked singer. If there ever was a harbinger for the remainder of 2020, this day was it. This was also a day after my last trip. I went to our HQ in Alexandria to meet Sara Wallace, who we had just hired to lead our paid media offering. On my trip back home, I received a voicemail saying we had potential exposure to the virus in our office. I felt like Patient Zero in the Charlotte airport and would later say goodnight to my wife and daughters from the bottom of the basement stairs as I self-quarantined for a day until we received an all-clear. It's incredible to think about how little we knew about the virus back then. As I look back now, it's amazing to see how far our work — and yours — has come this year. And all while doing it virtually, which gives me so much hope for how much better the work will be when we all get back to campus. 

Ah, January. Full of hope you were. Big plans we had. So much so a couple of us scheduled our most ambitious campus visit trip ever. We'd hit six campuses across two universities in five days and conduct more than 35 in-person interviews from Seattle to San Francisco. We saw higher education the way I wish our country could see higher education: Experiencing a top-ranked public flagship with more impactful reach and scale than I've ever seen and a private institution committed so deeply across its three campuses to the arts, sciences, and the diversity of its own community. This trip was perfect. Almost too perfect in that it ended in San Francisco (a city to which I had never been and where I spent a lot of time looking at Alcatraz wondering why we haven't gotten a prequel to The Rock) with a beer with a former co-worker who is one of the really good people in this world. 

Which brings us back to today, moving forward again. 2021 will have its challenges and its pain, no doubt. But looking back, it's evident we are closer to January 2020 than we are far from it. This much closer to being on campus again. To applying the lessons we learned this year. To experiencing one another. And that gives me hope. 

Much love to you and yours this season.  

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