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Covid on Campus: How the pandemic is reshaping higher education.

Category: Museum Magazine
The Georgia Museum of Art has offered its parking garage as an open-air classroom for studio art classes at the University of Georgia. Shown here: Professor Libby Hatmaker teaches a drawing class. Courtesy of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia

“The Internet will save higher education, but it may kill your alma mater.”

— John Katzman, education entrepreneur

This article which appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership, is adapted from the 2021 edition of the Alliance’s annual forecasting report. Download your free copy of TrendsWatch: Navigating the Disrupted Future for extended content, including a framework for museum action on this important issue.

Higher education has been struggling with disruptions for the past decade: declining enrollment, rising tuition and student debt, increasing dependence on low-paid adjunct faculty and graduate student labor, rising competition from online degree-granting institutions, and erosion of the perceived value of a college education, to name a few. One result has been a wave of mergers and closures, with more expected to come.

On top of these trends, we now add the profound disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic: colleges and universities grapple with whether and when to allow students to return to campus, how to transition to online instruction, how to reconfigure campus to support distancing and quarantine, and how to confront lost income and unexpected costs.

These challenges to higher education impact museums at several levels. Academic museums are struggling to adapt to the conditions on their campuses, navigating closures, reopenings, and restrictions on access. Local economies dependent on institutions of higher education are hurting, and the non-academic museums in these communities will suffer as well. Every museum in the country serves populations that include students who, their college plans disrupted, are navigating an unexpected gap year or attending virtual classes from home. And long-term shifts in higher education could transform the pipeline for training and recruiting the next generation of museum professionals.

The Challenge

Economic Damage to Higher Education

Cumulatively, the economic impact of the pandemic on colleges, universities, and their surrounding communities has been enormous. Institutions that have modest endowments or are heavily dependent on revenue from housing, athletics, and medical campuses have been particularly hard hit. In April 2020, the American Council on Education predicted that college and university enrollment in 2020–21 could drop by 15 percent, creating a revenue loss of $23 billion, with the cancellation of fall sports projected to lead to another billion in losses. Government support of state universities had already been gradually declining for decades, and the pandemic has accelerated that trend. State budget shortfalls in 2020 resulted in funding cuts for public colleges and universities, presaging deeper cuts to come. Projections suggest that some states could experience revenue declines of 20 percent or more in 2021. Moody’s Analytics estimates that these shortfalls through 2022 could amount to $434 billion, with 46 states unable to cover the deficits with accumulated savings.

Impact on Academic Museums

Clearly, higher education will be battered by the time the pandemic recedes, and it would be hard to overestimate the collateral damage this will inflict, both on society as a whole and on museums in particular. More than 2,700 academic museums and galleries are distributed throughout America’s 4,000 colleges and universities, ranging from institutions with hundreds of staff and multimillion-dollar endowments to galleries with one full-time curator and minimal budgets.

So far, many of these museums have been insulated from the initial financial impact of the pandemic for several reasons. Academic museums typically receive about half their support from their academic parent organizations, most of which did not make immediate deep cuts to their budgets, and many have independent financial resources as well. About three-quarters have their own (typically small) endowments, and a quarter have separately incorporated support organizations.

In the long term, however, academic museums are vulnerable. They are rarely seen as central to the college or university’s core mission, and while they devote considerable resources to supporting teaching and learning, they do not generate enrollment and tuition dollars. For this reason, college and university museums and galleries are often seen by administrators as expenses rather than as assets.

If the pandemic persists through 2021 or beyond, eventually all academic museums, whatever their financial model, will be deeply affected by the decisions their parent organizations make in order to survive.

Looking Ahead

The forces shaping higher education are acting so rapidly, and with such impact, that the outcomes are highly uncertain. These uncertainties, in turn, suggest many ways in which the current crisis could profoundly reshape academia and academic museums. This being so, it is worth considering potential long-term implications of pandemic disruptions to higher education:

  • If the pandemic accelerates the adoption of virtual instruction in traditional academia, will that also decrease the emphasis on face-to-face, on-campus learning? Given the reluctance of many students to pay full tuition for less than the traditional college experience, will some choose to enroll in more affordable, born-digital degree programs instead? Both trends could accelerate the demise of institutions that were already in precarious condition, thus closing, or orphaning, any associated museums.
  • Conversely, will campus amenities (including museums) be more important than ever to distinguish face-to-face from online universities, adding value that helps justify the high cost of a place-based degree?
  • If the pandemic accelerates the growth of affordable online degree programs, including museum studies, will that increase the diversity of the pool of potential museum professionals? The cost of attending college and graduate school, at present, is a primary reason why people of color are underrepresented among professional museum staff in the US.
  • Conversely, if the pandemic leads colleges and students to emphasize fields such as public health, political science, and economics in preference to arts and humanities, as some have speculated, will museums that continue to hire for traditional academic credentials have a smaller pool of potential applicants from which to choose? A smaller labor pool might drive up salaries, making an entry-level wage more practical for recent graduates with modest financial means.

How Museums Are Responding

Early in the pandemic, as campuses began to close, many academic museums and galleries deployed staff and resources to support the transition to online teaching—providing digital resources for classes that would normally use the galleries or collections for instruction, mounting virtual exhibitions, and developing remote internships and educational opportunities for students. On campuses that resumed in-person instruction in the fall, museums adapted to COVID restrictions by limiting entry to designated faculty and students for coursework or research, issuing timed ticketing to limit crowding, and creating or emphasizing outdoor installations.

With the financial support of their parent organizations, many academic museums have been able to avoid layoffs and continue to offer paid work-study and internship positions. Many museums already offer college students taking “gap years” opportunities for work experience, job shadowing, community outreach, and training. During the pandemic, these opportunities have expanded to encompass virtual experiences as well.

Anticipating the potential for increased pressure on colleges to raise operating funds through selling museum collections, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries has stepped up the work of the Task Force for the Protection of University Collections, which was created in 2009 in response to the proposed closure of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. The primary charge of the task force is to serve as an advocate of, and resource for, college and university museums whose collections are under threat.

Many colleges that welcomed students back in the fall quickly reversed course after outbreaks of COVID-19, transitioning to entirely online classes and, in some cases, sending students home. Futurist Bryan Alexander has forecast more such “toggle terms” as colleges cope with local resurgences of COVID-19. Some colleges have already made deep cuts to tenured and nontenured faculty, laid off or furloughed staff, frozen or decreased wages, cut benefits, instituted hiring freezes, and halted construction projects. Such actions are likely to accelerate in 2021 as the full impact of the pandemic on academic budgets, and academic museums, becomes clear.

Find Out More

This year’s TrendsWatch ( contains an in-depth exploration of the challenges facing higher education, additional resources, and a framework academic museums can use to support students, faculty, and members of the broader community during the pandemic, thus setting the stage for their own success.

Why Deaccessioning Is a Threat to Campus art museums

By Jill Deupi, J.D., Ph.D., Beaux Arts Director & Chief Curator of the Lowe Art Museum (University of Miami), Trustee of AAMD, and Co-chair of the Task Force for the Protection of University Collections

Deaccessioning, which has engendered tremendous debate among museum professionals for decades, became something of a household word in 2020. In April of that year, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) promulgated a temporary resolution that suspended the threat of censure against any member institution using deaccessioning proceeds for direct care of collections rather than just the acquisition of additional works of art (as had theretofore been the case).

Motivating AAMD was a recognition of the financial exigencies caused by the COVID-19 global health emergency and the related financial precarity of many of its member museums. The resolution unleashed a wave of concerns, including fears that it might inadvertently encourage, or appear to be licensing, inappropriate deaccessions on college and university campuses across the country.

Indeed, the specter of the Rose Art Museum, and its near closure in 2009 by its parent organization Brandeis University, loomed large in the minds of many academic art museum professionals upon learning of the resolution. In the case of the Rose, standards of best professional practice, ethical principles, and public outrage proved far more important and impactful than any matter of law. This is no surprise given the paucity of relevant legislation in nearly every state, a situation that has condemned deaccessioning to a no-man’s land of murkiness. And while this gray area is challenging for all museums, it is particularly problematic for college and university art museums for the following reasons:

Autonomy. The majority of campus art museums are subsidiaries of their parent organizations, not independent legal entities. This means that fiduciary obligations and the related duties of care, obedience, and loyalty under nonprofit law are owed to the college or university under whose aegis such entities operate rather than to the museum itself.

Advocacy. As embedded institutions, academic art museums are frequently guided and supported by advisory councils that, though important advocates, are rarely trustees of their parent organizations. In a related vein, campus art museum directors often have little to no access to trustees, making meaningful, nuanced discussions about deaccessioning and disposal with key stakeholders particularly challenging if not impossible.

Academy. College and university art museums typically do not generate tuition-related revenue, and their staffs (even those with terminal degrees) are generally not accorded faculty rank. For these and other reasons, campus art museums are sometimes viewed as auxiliary service units rather than true parts of the academy. In the face of mounting financial pressures, then, their collections may be considered ancillary to their parent organizations’ institutional missions and therefore “disposable.”

Accountability. The threatened loss of AAM accreditation or censure from AAMD (or other professional museum organizations) may have a limited impact on colleges and universities, whose core operations will continue unhindered. It bears noting that many of the smallest campus art museums are neither accredited nor members of AAMD, rendering them that much more vulnerable to predatory deaccessions and disposals.

Cautionary tales abound about how these and other pressures leave academic art museums uniquely vulnerable in times of operational distress. Beyond the Rose, one need only think about high-profile, highly contentious deaccessions undertaken at Randolph College, Fisk University, and, more recently, LaSalle University to understand how convergent internal vectors can force the hand of academic art museums. To better protect such institutions, the field must unite and continue to assert the importance of academic art museums as integral parts of the academy: we are vital sites of cross-curricular experimentation and interdisciplinary teaching and learning as well as campus and community assets.

In a similar vein, museum leaders must be steadfast in their acknowledgement of the obstacles we face and proactive in our efforts to help senior administrators understand that inappropriate deaccessions have been proven, time and again, to produce more harm than good in the long run. After all, a Band-Aid can never stop a hemorrhage.

The author would like to thank Dr. Christina Olsen (University of Michigan Museum of Art), Dr. John Wetenhall (The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum), and Dr. Stephanie Wiles (Yale University Art Gallery) for their invaluable contributions to this piece.


COVID-19 Resources, Association of Academic Museums and Galleries. See especially a link to a Google spreadsheet where academic museums are sharing information on their status and COVID-19 response.

Bryan Alexander, “Imagining the Pandemic Continues into 2023: Parts 1-3,” 2020

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