Opinion: Tale of 2 eclipses part of bigger story

For the second time in seven years, Kansas has experienced a near-total eclipse. Both times, I headed outside to view it through my eye-protecting eclipse glasses, here at Emporia State. Each time was a fun opportunity to join with others on our campus and watch a rare, natural phenomenon. This time, it was also a chance to reflect on just how much has changed.

The 2017 eclipse occurred more than two years before the COVID pandemic of 2020-2021, and five years before deep cuts were made to ESU’s workforce and programs in 2022. Back then, the watch party was a busy campus event. Union Square between Plumb Hall and Memorial Union was standing-only, packed with students, faculty and staff anticipating the event. People shared their eclipse glasses and chatted while waiting for the moon to cross the sun. Some classes let out early and people rushed outside to see it. Academic departments disseminated information about eclipses, reminded people of the proper safety protocols and encouraged visits to the ESU Planetarium. Campus buildings emptied, then filled back up again after the event’s climax. Watching all those people wearing funny glasses and looking in the same direction, I couldn’t help but think of those 1950s photos showing people wearing 3-D glasses in movie theaters. That was us, crowded together, murmuring excitedly, pointing and watching the sun and moon in all their glory — and ours.

What a difference six and a half years makes. We still watched the eclipse at ESU, and it was still fun, but the feel was completely different. Instead of a standing-only crowd, there was just a handful of us, so few that we could each find a comfortable chair in the newly renovated Union Square. Most who did come were students. I could count only a small number of faculty besides myself. We sat and chatted, taking turns looking through the glasses. I was not aware of any campus sponsored eclipse watching events, except for a small performance by some music students on another part of campus. I later learned that the School of Science and Mathematics did indeed host such events but I was not aware of them at the time.

These changes reflect the way our campus, campuses more generally, and work life have all changed since 2017. The cuts of 2022 reduced our faculty, and student enrollments are down as well. Those who remain now work more from home. Courses are a mix of online and face to face. The whole feel of our campus reminds me of a campus during the summer — just a handful of us, quiet, peaceful, plenty of time to get work done.

This tale of two eclipses is part of a bigger story. College enrollments are down nationally, and some other campuses have also experienced deep cuts. Post-pandemic, white-collar workers have continued working from home at least part of the time, in no small part due to the high cost and shortage of child care.

I miss the bustling excitement of 2017. If I’m being honest, though, I can also get used to the new climate. I like the relaxed, chill vibe — just students and a handful of faculty chatting and enjoying the eclipse safely, a comfortable front-row seat for everyone, an endless summer on campus. It’s a good thing, too, because as universities face lower enrollments and working from home gets institutionalized, quieter workplaces are here to stay.

— Michael Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.


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