Spurred on by the national media, the public pressure to produce credible reopening plans was immense. The scenarios ranged from all-online (California State) to tents in parking lots with the improbable detail that students would bring their own chairs (Rice). Consultants offered run-downs of the scenarios, whose permutations sounded like football plays: “Late-start-split-curriculum-block-plan,
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Spurred on by the national media, the public pressure to produce credible reopening plans was immense. The scenarios ranged from all-online (California State) to tents in parking lots with the improbable detail that students would bring their own chairs (Rice). Consultants offered run-downs of the scenarios, whose permutations sounded like football plays: “Late-start-split-curriculum-block-plan, hike!” Terms like “HyFlex” came tripping off the tongue.
And all through the land, acres of plexiglass were procured, hygiene stations were installed, two-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer were stenciled with campus logos. Mascots were photographed masking up, safety pledges were rehearsed, and administrators convinced one another that their charges would remain chastely in single-occupancy dorm rooms seven nights a week.
Then, in the midst of everything, the Trump administration — which had all but abandoned any pretense of coping with an out-of-control pandemic in favor of what I have heard called “compulsory normalcy” — dropped the bomb that international students, crucial to the vitality of so many institutions, would be deported if the campuses couldn’t guarantee face-to-face instruction. (A week later that dictum would be abruptly reversed, but still: Another exhausting attention cycle had just been endured.)
Now, the summer is nearly gone. The virus continues to spread throughout much of the country. Even in some of the hardest-hit areas, many states and municipalities continue to resist mask ordinances and other basic tools for disease control. And the president and his circle continue their pattern of willful neglect: obfuscating, attacking public-health officials, and giving airtime to conspiracy theorists and cranks.
The safety pledges and tents may have been magical thinking, but it was a desperate magic forged from an impossible predicament.
The consequences of campus reopenings under such circumstances will be dire. Colleges are scrambling. And as some abruptly change course, a new narrative is emerging: Those dithering tweedy professors are reversing themselves yet again. The minivan sits half-loaded in the driveway, because campuses (still) can’t make up their minds.
But colleges were placed in an impossible position once the federal government walked away from the pandemic, as faculty members spent the summer reinventing their pedagogy and wondering about their livelihood.
There’s a lot of blame to go around, and colleges are not blameless. This is not a moment in which higher education’s leadership has much shined. Some administrators, like Mitch Daniels at Purdue, have been brazenly callous. Tales of conference calls with the vice president seeking indemnity against liability make the skin crawl. Gobsmacking internal emails and memos are shared daily on social media, revealing spectacular instances of misjudgment and tone deafness (and outright cruelty), from community colleges to the Ivy League.
But colleges should not be made to take the fall for this debacle.
Institutions, for their part, seemed to lack the willpower and confidence to fight back. Where is our leadership’s outrage at the fumbled federal, state, and local responses?
It’s disquieting how much both the early- and the late-summer narratives — mirror images in their portrayals of a woolly professoriate ill-equipped to deal with the real world — comport with a familiar canard about academia in general. But professors don’t run campuses. Academic administration is fully professionalized, a one-way track from which few return to the classroom. The failings of colleges are not the failings of their faculty members, whether tenured or (in the vast majority) untenured and contingent. Nearly all have spent months now rewriting and rewiring courses, slogging through webinars and workshops and checklists, and — it must be said — in some cases preparing last wills and testaments at the behest of their own institutions.
Anyone who doubts professors’ commitment to teaching should spend a week with some of them on the other side of their Zoom windows or room dividers. Likewise, doubters can shadow (socially distanced) cafeteria or housekeeping staff members or a librarian or IT specialist. They will find that none of those workers have been focusing on mascot campaigns. They have been trying to figure out how to do their jobs in the midst of a pandemic: how to serve students (who are already tired and scared and possibly sick or caring for someone who is sick), how to keep the lifeline of education alive, and how to stay alive themselves. Instead of pouring money into hygiene theater (much of it less and less reassuring amid an emerging scientific consensus that the virus is indeed transmittable through ordinary air currents in confined spaces), colleges should be doubling down on protecting jobs, academic and educational resources, and long-term infrastructure.
College leadership needs to find a new public message. Here’s one: It didn’t have to be this way. We’re angry, too, on behalf of our students, faculty, staff, and communities. And we’re not going to let our campuses take the fall for a governmental and societal failure.