Faculty Are Not Cannon Fodder
Administrators don’t really know who is vulnerable to the virus
It was still early in March but Santa Clara County, where I work, already had 71 confirmed Covid-19 cases. Down the road, Stanford University
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It was still early in March but Santa Clara County, where I work, already had 71 confirmed Covid-19 cases. Down the road, Stanford University had announced its transition to online instruction. The night before teaching what turned out to be my last in-person class, I shared my concerns with colleagues. They urged me to move my classes online, but I showed up the next day anyway. I was at the end of a one-year contract and couldn’t afford to attract any negative attention. After seven years of precarious employment, it’s not the first time I’ve had to put my job before my health.
“Will we return or won’t we?” That question has been on my mind every day of quarantine. Then, in mid-May, with all the suddenness of a power outage, my employer, Santa Clara University, announced plans to reopen its campuses in the fall. Many other colleges have also declared their intentions to resume in-person instruction. Universities are complex machines, and there are many factors to weigh in making these decisions. But by pushing for a return to campus in the midst of a pandemic, these institutions are sending a clear message to the chronically ill and disabled: Finances and prestige are more important than the safety of those who are most vulnerable.
Calls to reopen colleges started rolling in just a few weeks after many schools stopped in-person instruction. Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue, infamously wrote that his campus community is “made up of young people,” with 80 percent of Purdue’s population occupying the “35 and under” age bracket (thus echoing Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy’s controversial comments that “A lot of them can fight [the virus] off with their natural body”). But raw numbers never tell the whole story. Many people are diagnosed with a severe chronic illness before the age of 35. I was a 26-year-old graduate student when I found out I had lupus. Moreover, colleges are not closed ecosystems — no campus is an island. In coffee shops, grocery stores, on the street, students and employees interact with kids, the elderly, doctors, and essential workers.
Are finances and prestige more important than the safety of those who are most vulnerable?
Less than a week after Daniels’s statement, The New York Times published a pro-opening op-ed from Brown University’s president, Christina Paxson. Paxson said she put her trust in “evidence-based public health protocols” such as requiring students and employees to wear masks. But masks protect you only if you (1) have them and (2) know how to use them properly. More important, social distancing and masks don’t prevent infection if exposure, even in low doses, happens over a prolonged period of time. Even in a community with what ableist culture deems “favorable” demographics, a virus can spread with disastrous effects — but not all people will suffer the same. Those who happen to be immunocompromised are at greater risk for becoming ill and dying. That is, people like me.
There are many reasons to keep these diagnoses a secret . For one, people value their privacy and want to avoid the intrusive questions and microaggressions that often follow disclosure even in academic settings, where one is presumed to know better. People also worry about being discriminated against or simply underestimated. For years, I told only a few colleague friends about my health problems, and only when I was desperate for social or material support. The cult of productivity thrives in academia, and I worried about appearing to be “a burden” or a “bad investment.” Incurable diseases come with uncertain prognoses and uncertain futures; I didn’t want to appear to be what hiring committees refer to as a “flight risk.” My fear of being overlooked for a tenure-track position because of my illness overshadowed the need to speak openly about a central aspect of my identity and everyday life.
This is all to say that college administrators have no idea what percentage of their community is especially vulnerable, and that any estimate based on age or disclosure should be approached with skepticism.
One argument that consistently comes up in discussions of the future of teaching is that an online education is simply subpar. Paxson, for example, waxes nostalgic about “the fierce intellectual debates that just aren’t the same on Zoom.” Believe me, I miss the dynamism of the classroom, too. But is it worth risking my life over? Hell, no! In a global pandemic, fierce in-person intellectual debates cannot take priority over safety and health. What good is winning a debate if you’re ill, or dead?
These issues were crystallized for me when I struggled to get a refill of my prescription for hydroxychloroquine. The drug touted by President Trump as a silver bullet for Covid-19 is a necessary ingredient in my lupus management. The resulting shortage had me contacting endless doctors and pharmacies while worrying about lapsing into a lupus flare and becoming even more vulnerable to Covid-19. As I sat on hold with yet another pharmacy, I realized that I could live with whatever fierceness was lacking in my Zoom classes. .
At my university, one-third of the faculty members are over the age of 60 — but age is only part of the story. More than half of the faculty members are non-tenure track. Nationally, more than 70 percent of all college faculty members are contingently employed (i.e., not on the tenure track). With that precariousness comes fear. Will that fear be enough to prompt us to refuse to return to in-person teaching in the fall? As the reporter Colleen Flaherty writes, universities pushing for reopening are “making a big assumption: that faculty members will show up to teach.” Sadly, though, I think that is a grimly safe assumption — for the same reasons that I, an immunocompromised lecturer, still showed up to teach in March. Given the state of the academic job market, the austerity measures already taken by colleges, and the general state of the economy, what other options do we have?
I truly hope my university understands what it is asking us to do, what (and whom) it is asking to be put at risk. If it truly understands, then it won’t resume in-person classes in the fall.