Stevens President Nariman Farvardin sat down with the editors of The Stevens Indicator alumni magazine late last year to reflect on changes in higher education — during and after the coronavirus pandemic — how Stevens is addressing these changes and what the future student experience at the university may look like.
Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much about our everyday lives. Of these changes, which do you see as having the greatest impact on the future of higher education?
A: This pandemic is elevating society’s respect for science and technology — from vaccine development to technology-enabled continuity of business and much more. This means that there will be a greater demand by students to study science and technology disciplines and by employers for science- and technology-savvy graduates. I also believe that our country will realize that we need to increase our research and development investment in science and technology because doing so will have a direct impact on citizens’ lives.
Another important effect of the pandemic has been its disproportionately negative impact on underserved communities. If you look at infection and mortality demographics, the numbers are disproportionately higher among underrepresented minority groups. As a result, I think there will be increased recognition of the wealth and income disparity in our country. These disparities are evident in higher education as well.
COVID-19 also pushed us to realize that there are a lot of things we can do virtually which we may have been reluctant to do before, from virtual doctor visits to socializing online to virtual college visits. Post-pandemic college students will likely not only embrace online and technology-enhanced learning, but they will expect technology to be a core component of their learning experience — whether they are sitting in a traditional classroom or learning completely online.
Q: How is Stevens preparing to address these changes?
A: The increased demand for science- and technology-based education and graduates combined with increased acceptance of online learning portend profound changes for higher education.
Institutions that survive and thrive in the next decade and beyond will be those that are agile and take full advantage of the power of emerging technology to create high-touch, high-quality and personalized learning experiences for their students. Over the next decade, I predict that we will see some staggering advances in AI-enabled learning tools. Just as the internet changed our lives and our learning, AI will be no less disruptive. And Stevens is building capacity in this area through the Stevens Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI).
Another challenge will be for higher education to address persistent issues of wealth and income disparity, particularly in relation to access to a high-quality education such as Stevens. Talent is distributed uniformly in society, but opportunity is not. Stevens has been working very hard to create opportunities for those students who have the talent, work ethic and passion, but who do not have the financial resources to access a Stevens education. We created a program called ACES, Accessing Careers in Engineering and Science, and it has been very successful in attracting talented, underserved students to Stevens. What’s more, these students are thriving — with an average GPA above 3.4 and a 97 percent average two-year retention rate. I hope to be able to greatly expand ACES after the pandemic, because I think the need is going to be even more acute.
Q: What programs or fields of study do you see as future areas of investment for Stevens?
A: We will soon be in the pre-planning stages for our next 10-year strategic plan, but if I were to predict, I would expect that Stevens will increase our footprint in the broad area of biological and life sciences. I believe there are tremendous opportunities to integrate technology and informatics into biological sciences. Another field where I think there will be significant opportunity is virtual reality (VR). When it becomes available on a large scale, VR will have a profound impact on many sectors of industry, especially in education and entertainment. And, of course, the role of AI will also be much more important going forward. I think AI and machine learning will be the basis for the next technological revolution, and Stevens is already placing big bets in this area.
Q: With online learning growing in popularity, will there still be a need for brick-and-mortar colleges and universities in the future?
A: Yes. As the pandemic has taught us, we are social human beings and we crave community and interactions that only an in-person experience can fully provide. Many students — particularly undergraduates — will choose a residential college experience not only for what they can learn in the classroom, but also for what they learn and experience outside of class.