Visionary Futures and Making Change in the Academy With Data

The Visionary Futures Collective is mapping institutional COVID-19 responses throughout higher education

Amanda Henrichs


Today is August 26, and undergraduate and graduate students, staff, teachers, professors, working parents, and more face a series of impossible decisions.

The fall semester is either here or rapidly approaching for colleges and universities around the country, and every week brings new outbreaks of COVID-19. Many people in and around higher education are being asked to choose between their livelihoods and risking exposure to the coronavirus.

Institutions have adopted their own plans for in-person or remote learning, but most have not made all — or, in the worst cases, any—aspects of their plans or decision-making public. Staff at some universities are required to sign waivers absolving the institution of liability if they get sick. Others are required to download an app to track location and health data. Some are told to work in person or take unpaid leave. Graduate students are told to teach their classes as assigned or forfeit their funding (and thus their place in their programs). Some will be able to work remotely, but only if they disclose personal information about themselves or their families, i.e., if they are at-risk or care for an at-risk family member, or simply wish to make their own decisions about what is best for them and their health.

The Visionary Futures Collective began as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in particular to what it sees as a dangerous move by universities planning to reopen their campuses in person.

We are a group of people who work or have worked in higher education—most of our employment is precarious or contingent, and some of us have left academia, but all of us have dedicated at least a decade of our lives to institutions of higher education. In an effort to counter the crisis thinking endemic to academia — and which is particularly strong in the humanities — members Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Brian DeGrazia came up with our name to foreground the possible liberatory and visionary futures that could be created out of this moment of crisis. In other words, we in the VFC want to imagine what we can build when everything is falling apart.

For now, that means visualizing the landscape of higher education as both the pandemic and the fall semester march on. Our project is thus explicitly activist, in that we wish to use data to “examine power” and “challenge power,” which Lauren Klein and Catherine D’Ignazio identify as two of the pillars of data feminism. (Their book, Data Feminism, is now available open-access. You can read an excerpt chapter here on Nightingale.) Our project follows in the footsteps of projects like COVIDBlack, Bearing Witness, Torn Apart/Separados, and DataRefuge.

It is in this spirit that we began to collect information from various publicly available sources. The National Center for Education Statistics has data on all of the institutions of higher education in the country, including student demographics. Our group, led by Quinn Dombrowski, Hannah Alpert-Abrams, Alex Wermer-Colan, and Liz Grumbach, then georeferenced all data points in order to map those universities in Tableau, a freely-available tool.

A map of the continental United States with colleges and universities as data points according to institution size.
On this map from June 2020, stars show institutions with online-only instruction, and circles show institutions where online is optional. Size and color of symbols correspond to the size of institution and the surrounding urbanization, respectively.

The map directly above was an early effort (from mid-June 2020) to track reopening plans by community population; we hoped to assess risk to employees by the population of both the institution and the surrounding urban area. This visualization, however, was difficult to understand due to the multiple variables.

Additionally, since we were manually collecting the data from institutional websites, we ran head-on into several problems. One was the labor-intensive nature of this process; the sheer number of institutions in the United States meant that we spent hours, state by state, going to each institution’s webpage and reading individual reopening statements. The second major problem is related to the first: Universities sometimes simply did not include plans on their public-facing sites.

The difficulties we faced with our initial decisions led us to a binary choice: Were institutions going to hold classes in-person or would they be online-only?

This simple data point did two things: It threw our current higher-education landscape into sharp relief, and it pointed to the richness of human experience that lies behind the dots and circles on a map. Most schools in most states are incorporating at least some in-person classes, and are thus putting the most vulnerable members of their communities at risk.

The resulting map, based on data provided by the Chronicle of Higher Education (with additional cleaning and georeferencing by Quinn Dombrowski and Hannah Alpert-Abrams), shows the overwhelming prevalence, as of July 21, of institutions planning to reopen entirely in person. (The Chronicle has since made the data unavailable to the public.)

A map of US colleges and universities. Red circles show in-person instruction, blue is online-only, purple is hybrid.
This map is based on data from the Chronicle of Higher Education: red circles represent in-person teaching, blue circles are online-only, and purple circles are for hybrid. As written in this paywalled article, on August 21, the Chronicle ceased sharing the data publicly and partnered with Davidson College.

And while nearly every state except California looks like it’s broken out in hives, this is actually a dramatic reduction of in-person opening plans. When we began manually collecting links from institutions in late June 2020 (as shown in the map above), nearly every institution from New York to Oklahoma to Louisiana to Colorado to Washington to California planned to have in-person instruction in some capacity.

Size of institution does not seem to be the determining factor in whether or not institutions go remote: Institutions with similar sizes and demographic populations in different areas of the country are taking different approaches to opening. For example, Santa Monica College in California (28,800 students) is online, while University of Oklahoma-Norman (28,564 students) is in person.

Since similar institutions have radically different plans, we thought geographic location — factoring in possible connections to local politics — might determine in-person vs. remote instruction. While we had anticipated (and did find, to some extent) a possible correlation between the general political affiliation of institutional leadership and in-person vs. online instruction, that does not explain the difference between large state systems in, for example, New York and California. Both serve similar (historically underserved) populations and are of similar reach and size; and in June both the SUNY system and the UC system were planning on some degree of in-person instruction.

So what gives? Why did one large state system move to online and the other remains face-to-face? We can’t know for certain, since many institutions have not disclosed their rationale. Perhaps some made their plans, or changed them, in response to data, or pressure from students, alumni, or the public. Most likely, money is the driving force. Yet it is impossible to begin to answer these questions without data. In fact, the shifting nature of institutional policy has continued to be a major challenge to our group’s efforts to document and visualize the landscape of higher education during COVID. Every week brings new outbreaks, including in areas like New York and Massachusetts that had made more concerted efforts to control the spread of the virus. We hope to visualize data points that will allow people to make sense of these developments.

In addition to finding and recording evidence of changing policies — on a series of timelines based on student newspapers, for example — our group seeks to visualize this evidence in a way that will help employees across higher education advocate for their health and agency in a global pandemic. Our main data-collection spreadsheet has already been successfully deployed by its creator Dawn Kaczmar, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO). The University of Michigan originally refused to allow instructors a remote option without requiring the disclosure of personal health information. On behalf of the GEO, Kaczmar began collecting data showing peer institutions that did provide a no-questions-asked remote option to pressure U of M to change their policy. This strategy was successful: Kaczmar and her graduate colleagues were able to make institutional change through data.

Kaczmar’s early success challenging power with data is one example of how we hope our efforts will be deployed in the service of advocacy. Our Collective identity is also an activist stance because we are connecting to one another and building relationships. We are choosing to build solidarity in the face of siloed institutions designed to separate us, budget cuts designed to force competition amongst workers, and institutional decisions, made without our consent and sometimes even without our knowledge, that could have drastic and even fatal consequences for us and the people we care for.

There are many ongoing responses to the current pandemic, and we have collected a few on our Resources page. One that seemed to be missing, however, was a resource that clearly and simply demonstrated the impact on our particular community in higher education. This is why the Collective uses data visualization as one of a suite of tools to help us understand, engage with, and make use of the overwhelming and inconsistent information coming out of higher education. In addition to collecting campus reopening data, we are collecting student news reports in order to tell a story of student response and resistance to campus policies at institutions across the U.S. And we are launching a newsletter that we hope will help build community, solidarity, and collective action. You can join our Collective at our website, and sign up for our newsletter here.

Occult decision-making by employers is not unique to academia. But returning to the seeming simplicity of our initial choice of data: creating a binary and asking whether or not institutions would open in the fall opened the way to other complex questions around academic labor, individual agency, institutional exploitation, privacy, and the very ability to access higher education in this country. This data is messy, and it is changing, but when we can remediate the constant flow of news, of promises made and broken, and make them into stable data points, we can use that stability (as temporary as it is) to create solidarity between academic workers across the country.

In closing: join a union, if you can, and add your voice to national and international collective bargaining efforts. Add to our spreadsheet, if you are able, and act locally to create transparency in your community. Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring action items and tarot readings. Help us envision and build the future of a higher education that is more equitable and more just.

We are the Visionary Futures Collective, a group of scholars who believe in higher education and its potentials. We seek to use data and digital tools to enable activism and advocacy, and to empower vulnerable members of our communities. Most of us are contingent, precarious, and independent scholars; some of us are graduate students; some of us are university staff; some are librarians; some are full-time and securely employed faculty; some work for scholarly organizations. As we write on our website, “The VFC will be designing and publishing data visualizations with the goal of making visible the shifting discourse around campus closings and reopenings, and the ways that life, labor, and economics are manipulated in the name of access to higher education.”