“Colleges and universities are up to the challenge,” wrote Christina Paxson, Brown University’s president in The New York Times. Purdue’s Mitch Daniels Jr. agrees, arguing that “even a phenomenon as menacing as Covid-19 is one of the inevitable risks of life.” Among college leaders, their view seems widely held. Of the more than 1,000 colleges whose fall plans The Chronicle is tracking, the vast majority plan to open in person.
Yet vociferous resistance has emerged. Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University,
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“Colleges and universities are up to the challenge,” wrote Christina Paxson, Brown University’s president in The New York Times. Purdue’s Mitch Daniels Jr. agrees, arguing that “even a phenomenon as menacing as Covid-19 is one of the inevitable risks of life.” Among college leaders, their view seems widely held. Of the more than 1,000 colleges whose fall plans The Chronicle is tracking, the vast majority plan to open in person.
Yet vociferous resistance has emerged. Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University, has argued that college leaders are guilty of political posturing and unrealistic optimism. Stan Yoshinobu, a mathematician at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, wrote: “I have a hard time imagining a more efficient way to ruin a community than by forcing it to reopen in the middle of a global pandemic.”
We asked a broad swath of respondents, including professors, presidents, administrators, graduate students, and a rising freshman: Should colleges open in-person in the fall? Here’s what they told us.
Both Options Are Bad
It is impossible to predict the rate of infection at the end of the summer.
Should colleges open in person in the fall? For several weeks this question has left me somewhat paralyzed. Not because the two available options seemed equally attractive, but because they both struck me as equally bad. Still, as a general rule, I believe the morally prudent course of action would be to go online.
Three distinct lines of crisis are converging here — a public-health crisis, an economic crisis, and the looming crisis of higher education — and there is simply no generic, one-size-fits-all response that can respond to the complexity of each institution’s particular circumstances. What we need is careful examination on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a multiplicity of factors: the location of the college; the rate of infection in that location; the college’s capacity to test all incoming students and, subsequently, of running recurrent survey tests; the college’s capacity to isolate infected people and provide them with a safe place to quarantine; its ability to put social-distancing measures in place, to sanitize facilities, to enforce use of face masks and other PPE. All of these measures will be costly, and carrying them out will deeply transform the campus experience — and no college can responsibly reopen without doing so. Anything short of this could only be “justified” if one explicitly endorses the logic of expendability by which some lives are considered worth sacrificing in the name of either “the economy” or “the noble mission of higher education.”
Yet, irresponsible political decisions have made this course of action mostly unattainable. Federal mismanagement and haphazard, contradictory state lockdown policies, rushed reopenings of states where the rates of infection are still skyrocketing, the grave inadequacy of the U.S. health-care system, the continuing ambiguity about the actual availability of testing: All of this makes it virtually impossible to predict today, with any degree of accuracy, what the rate of infection and mortality will be at the end of the summer.
According to The Chronicle’s survey of more than 800 colleges, most are planning to open in person in the fall. On what basis have they reached this decision? In a situation that’s been overdetermined by poor political choices making it very hard to predict the pattern of the pandemic, where are administrators getting their certainty from? The only responsible stance would be to move all or most courses online. But going online will have serious consequences for higher education, too: A number of small colleges will go bankrupt, thousands of jobs will be lost, and the quality of education will suffer. It is even possible that a kind of shock therapy will permanently restructure the higher-education sector.
This is the corner we’ve been forced into; these are the bad options we’ve been left with. But it didn’t have to be this way, and that should enrage us. When circumstances make good decisions impossible, we must question the circumstances themselves, how they came about as a result of the not-inevitable sicknesses in our political, higher-ed, and health-care systems. And we must ensure that we never end up in a situation like this again. If a disease like Covid-19 could push higher education to the brink of collapse, perhaps something is rotten in the system. This is what we should be addressing.
Cinzia Arruzza is an associate professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research.
A Modest Proposal
Getting an education is a dangerous thing.
Residential colleges, justified by the dubious proposition that the experience they offer is a profoundly meaningful passage to adulthood, cannot financially or philosophically withstand an entirely remote academic year. Instead of students missing them, students will probably feel liberated from the presumptions of the residential-college model. That model, some will argue, is expensive, inefficient, and hypocritical in wanting the largess of the market while being exempted from it. It also caters largely to the whims of the wealthy and the social aspirations of insecure middle-class parvenus.
Students will learn that there are other ways to obtain certain sorts of credentials and, more importantly, more emotionally fulfilling ways to enter adulthood. If residential colleges do not wish to be entirely upended, or to have students and their parents see through the flimsiness of colleges’ clichéd claims, they would be well-advised to open in the fall.
Another point: Every African American is struck by the need of whites to be safe. Their quest for safety is both an obsession and an entitlement. African Americans understand that the criminalization and exotification they have endured is predicated upon whites’ need for safety and social distance. The racial disparities in the Covid-19 rates of infection and death have only made this social and psychological arrangement starker.
Black people have created a community and humane ethos built on the proposition that no one is safe: the tough optimism that life comes with costs. Colleges should reopen in the fall so that many wealthy white students might learn to appreciate their unsafety in the same way. Through that, they might learn a small measure of how many people in this world are forced to live — without refuge. The safety that colleges are so preoccupied with flies in the face of what an old Black barber told me when I was a kid: “Getting an education is a dangerous thing,” as enslaved people knew. I do not modestly propose such a return as a trial of retribution, but as an exercise in empathy.
Gerald Early is the chair of the department of African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
When College Is the Safest Space
For our students, there are fewer risks on campus than off.
Roslyn Clark Artis
Benedict College will open in the fall. We are a private HBCU with an 82-percent Pell-dependent student body. Seventy-four percent of our students are first generation. Twelve percent do not have access to broadband in their homes. They must walk to local libraries and other public facilities and sit in parking lots for hours to access a Wi-Fi network. A significant proportion of students experience homelessness, food insecurity, and other threats to their physical and emotional well-being.
Simply stated, the students we serve are “at risk.” Covid-19 has exacerbated these risks and forced us to consider the best interests of our students through the lens of their physical, mental, and emotional safety. These students face substantial risks if they do not return to campus.
Given the well-documented disparate impact of Covid-19 on Black communities, we study data on underlying health conditions and the extent to which they may exacerbate the impact of Covid-19. We also track positive cases among current students and their immediate family members. Many of the communities our students reside in are “hot spots” for transmission. Many live in families where the primary earner is an “essential” front-line employee who risks exposure daily. Some students are applying for emergency aid to deal with hunger; others are dealing with emotional disorders that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Some will withdraw if on-campus learning and housing opportunities are unavailable. That would come with its own dangers: College dropouts have few opportunities for gainful employment in an economy decimated by the pandemic.
Our students are safer on Benedict’s campus, even with the risk of Covid-19, than they are out jogging in their own neighborhoods; walking down the streets wearing a hoodie; sitting in a car; or eating a bowl of ice cream in their own homes. George Floyd and countless others are evidence of this reality.
I am not blind to the risks of Covid-19. Our decision to reopen is made with a full appreciation of the inherent risks — the risks of opening, as well as the risks of not opening. Our choice was clear: Benedict College is a safe space, and it will be open.
Roslyn Clark Artis is president of Benedict College.
We are frail and mortal. Life rarely offers happy choices.
This pandemic is forcing to the surface some truths that we mostly prefer to suppress. One is that we are less in control of what happens in our lives than we like to think. Another is that modern social systems are vulnerable to breakdown and collapse under certain circumstances. This century is unlikely to see the growing prosperity, stability, and freedom that we have come to expect since the 1950s.
Another truth: Science can contribute vital facts to moral decision-making but can never settle such decisions without the directives of shared values and substantive ethical commitments, which we lack. Another truth we tenaciously deny: We are frail and mortal.
We are all going to die relatively soon of one thing or another. Finally, life rarely offers us happy choices between clear good and bad, but usually instead between varieties of incommensurate, relatively bad alternatives.
In short, this nasty virus confronts us with realities we are loath to accept, and that modern culture is badly equipped to help us handle. The sacred values of modernity are human control and freedom. The spirit of modernity is humanity taking its destiny into its own hands. Covid-19 mocks this modern project. No wonder we are tied in knots about opening our campuses. This is not ultimately a technical or scientific or risk-management problem, but one that forces a host of disturbing questions on us moderns.
Prudence counsels opening with caution. I am impressed by the careful and thorough consideration of the problem by leaders at the University of Notre Dame. We plan to open campus in the fall but are fully aware of our limited control and well prepared with contingency plans. If I fall ill or even die in the course of teaching my fantastic students, it will have been for something I most love and value in life.
Let’s all be smart and careful. But let’s also learn to accept life’s hard truths, and ready ourselves to embrace their consequences with as much dignity and joy as we can muster.
Christian Smith is a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.
Beyond Enlightened Prudence and Reckless Abandon
A few questions before we cede the moral high ground to those in favor of an online-only fall.
It is tempting to cast the argument between campus closers and reopeners as one between enlightened prudence and reckless abandon — between those who properly value human life and those who rush to sacrifice it on the altar of the almighty dollar. But before we cede the moral high ground to the closers, let’s ask them to clarify five points.
First, reveal the source of your implied prescience. How can you be so sure that there will be life after Covid, and not just with Covid, anytime soon, or indeed ever? That all it takes is to muddle through one more semester, one more academic year, before every campus will be safe again? Because if you aren’t, what exactly are you waiting for?
Second, tell us how you know that students — judged mature enough to drive, vote, and go to war (not to mention hold down several jobs to pay their way through college) — will blithely flout campus safety protocols. Do you really hold them in such low esteem? If you are ready to extrapolate from spring-break beach parties to the conduct of 16 million undergraduates, this might be a good time to review your prejudices.
Third, come clean to those you expect to fork over tuition payments — parents remortgaging their homes and students racking up crushing debt — about who it is that campus closures and online instruction will primarily benefit. (Is it the students or the aging faculty and administrators who pocket most of their tuition?) I estimate that only about 0.05 percent of all Covid-19 deaths recorded by the CDC occurred among people ages 18 to 22 (who make up the majority of full-time undergraduates). Yet close to 40 percent of tenure-track faculty are over 55, and the fatality risk from Covid-19 for 55- to 74-year-olds appears to be roughly 160 times that for the average 20-year-old undergraduate.
Fourth, help your clients understand why the switch to online or hybrid forms of teaching has generally failed to trigger refunds (beyond room and board) and will most likely fail to result in substantial discounts for the coming academic year. Is there no substantive difference between face-to-face and remote instruction? If there is, prices ought to be adjusted accordingly, and if there isn’t, what are campuses for?
Finally, explain why the maximization of personal safety overrules any and all competing concerns and justifies upholding the trade-offs — and the campus closures — this crisis has already imposed on society. Look at what has been accomplished so far. Remote instruction has widened the gap between the digitally well-connected and those struggling to keep up; between the affluent and the precarious, the suburban and the rural; and between young (put on a diet of undiscounted Zoom classes) and old (those of us teaching from the safe distance of home).
Maybe such trade-offs really do pale in comparison to the risks of reopening campuses this fall. If you think so, tell us why, and make sure that those who foot the bill have their say.
Walter Scheidel is a professor of classics and history at Stanford University.
Universities Are Dangerous During a Pandemic
The illness will spread from gown to town.
Dorms are like cruise ships on land or prisons without bars: people living in proximity, in frequent contact, over extended periods of time. For many infectious pathogens, such settings are a boon for disease transmission. As leaders in higher education start to make decisions about reopening their campuses this fall, they start with this working against them.
In reopening campuses to residential life, we may very well be seeding new outbreaks across the nation. Colleges are perfect incubators for viral spread and propagation. And while the prospect of a CNN chyron proclaiming an outbreak of SARS-CoV2 on their campus, and the reaction of parents and donors, may make university administrators break out in a cold sweat, the potential for spread to the surrounding community is far more worrisome. This is because unlike ships out at sea, college campuses are not isolated. They will very likely become institutional amplifiers of local epidemics. Presidents and trustees are making epidemiological decisions not just for their students and staff but for the cities and towns they call home.
I’ve been spending a lot of my time during this pandemic writing affidavits arguing for the release of those incarcerated in jails, prisons, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities. Why? Because it’s very difficult to do infection control and social-distancing in congregate facilities, and once a virus takes hold, the potential for rapid spread is high. This is why prisons, meat-packing plants, and nursing homes have become sites of superspreading events.
Perhaps institutions with deep pockets like Yale, where I work, can test all students, faculty, and staff week after week to detect outbreaks early on, and contain them by isolating all affected individuals. But Yale has over 13,000 students, over 4,800 faculty, and over 10,000 staff. The logistical challenge is acute even for a place with a $30-billion endowment. Now imagine colleges and universities struggling to do this on a more meager budget. Universities are dangerous places to be during a pandemic.
Gregg Gonsalves is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale and co-director of the university’s Global Health Justice Partnership.
Your Livelihood, or Your Life
I’m being asked to choose between dying from the virus or losing my health insurance and home.
I’m a secretary at a prestigious research institution in the Midwest with a $1-billion line of credit and a $12 billion+ endowment. We have a large student body from all over the world. As of May 27, we haven’t announced whether we’ll have a hybrid fall term or be 100 percent online.
Secretaries have a lot of face-to-face contact with students, faculty, parents, the public, and each other, often in cramped cubicle farms. Most of us cannot sit at our desks, use the kitchen or copier, or walk to the parking structure while practicing social-distancing. We make your coffee, set up your lunches, hand you your copies, and lock and unlock your offices. We have no contracts, unions, or job security. We have to ask permission to take a sick day from someone who can easily fire and replace us — we don’t take a lot of sick days.
I have the great privilege right now of working from home. Many of us were offered voluntary, paid furloughs of two to four months’ duration, a better option than layoffs, for which I’m grateful. But no one I know feels safe accepting one, given the lack of legal protections from job loss. Some administrative assistants may be able to continue working remotely in fall, but many others will not have that option.
I can’t imagine a world where higher ed weathers this crisis safely and we’re allowed to keep our jobs. I also can’t imagine an in-person fall term unless the virus mutates into something much safer very soon.
Weighing the financial risks against the health risks is a false choice. Covid-19’s disproportionate impact should have taught everyone by now that financial risks are health risks and health risks are financial risks.
I feel like I’m being asked to choose between dying from the virus or dying from losing my health insurance and my home.
“Your livelihood, or your life” is the option that employers like Amazon, Uber, and Kroger are offering. Can’t our universities do better? My institution has more money and capital than many small countries. What if we lived up to our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion? What if we invited everyone, including the staff, into the decision-making process for fall term? What if we spent down some of our vast savings? It would be difficult to dip into the endowment, but it was also difficult to move our entire academic enterprise online with four days’ notice, and we managed that. What if we announced we would make the preservation of lives and livelihoods our highest priorities?
Anonymous is a secretary at a large research university in the Midwest. Given the professional repercussions she could face for speaking out, the Chronicle has elected to protect her identity.
Why Return to Campus?
The ethical case for resuming in-person classes.
Whether to reopen in the fall is a career-defining decision for academic leaders. In “The Case Against Reopening,” Stan Yoshinobu suggests their decision should be obvious. Opening online-only “is the moral choice,” he argues. Yet most institutions plan on students returning to campus this fall. Are higher-ed leaders behaving immorally? I think not. They are acting rationally and ethically based on their assessment of the benefits, costs, and risks.
- Higher-education leaders are committed to safely carrying out their institution’s mission. The mission of universities is to educate future leaders and perform research that improves the human condition. Many leaders believe returning to campus is crucial to executing that mission.
- Parents and students expect in-person experiences. While faculty worked hard to move online in the spring, many students and parents were unsatisfied with the result. Students desire the on-campus experience while parents do not want to pay full tuition to have their offspring at home taking courses online.
- Institutions cannot provide a good online experience this fall. Online courses must be designed with deliberation and care. Faculty members do not have time to redesign courses over the summer to provide a great online experience.
- For most students, the risk is low. While a small minority in the 18- to 22-year-old undergrad age group are at risk, for the vast majority of students who are not immunocompromised, this disease is not high risk. However, the mental-health risk of staying home is high.
- Steps can be taken to mitigate risk. Colleges are using CDC guidance to mitigate the risk of contagion. Steps include testing, masking, hand-washing, decontamination, social-distancing, contact-tracing, quarantining, mixed in-person/online teaching, putting large classes online, and ending the semester early to avoid infection from returning students. Also, several universities have medical centers on campus, which can assist in dealing with the virus.
- There is risk if students stay home in the fall. Students staying home does not mean no risk. Many will make choices other than staying isolated in their home, and may contract and pass the virus on to others.
- Those at risk will have options. Faculty and students who are at risk will be allowed to do their work online and without penalty.
- Waiting until 2021 to return may not find the situation improved. While we hope a vaccine is discovered soon, there is no certainty that it will be. Waiting in hopes of a vaccine may find institutions in no better position than they are now.
- The option to go online remains. Institutions have proved capable of shifting quickly to solely online learning. Should the virus make a comeback, the online route can be executed if required.
There are difficult and important factors to consider and trade-offs to be made. I do not envy the leaders making the decisions, but I believe they have a rational and ethical case for returning to campus.
Mark McNeilly is a professor in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Statements of purpose are there for a reason.
I’ll get to should in a minute. First, a prediction about what will happen.
A person or a small group will determine whether the college opens, often on idiosyncratic grounds. Typically, the board chair or a subset of trustees holds that power. In other places, it’s the president. In some, particular faculty have enough clout, whether by virtue of election, connection, or being top grant-getters. At some institutions, the decision will be the state governor’s.
These decision makers will be guided in part by questions of safety and feasibility, but their fears and self-interest will play a role as well. Presidents want to keep their job or leave a legacy. Faculty want to keep their labs open or ensure that teaching loads don’t increase.
Those in power may or may not take seriously what emergency task forces on campus recommend, but they’ll listen closely to people they depend on. Governors will pay heed to aides and pollsters, board chairs and presidents to big donors, faculty to prominent colleagues.
Personal experiences over the last few months will influence them as well. Someone who has been quarantined with a prickly adolescent may be particularly amenable to getting students back on campus.
How should these decisions be made? I suggest they be based on two documents. The first, Anthony Fauci’s interview with The Chronicle, provides general parameters to follow regardless of campus sentiment or political pressures. For some colleges, those guidelines alone can resolve the question. Financially strapped universities that lack resources to open safely need to stay closed. So do wealthier colleges located in communities with high infection rates.
Everywhere else requires additional guidelines.
As luck would have it, not only do those guidelines exist, no constituency can rightfully object to them, and they’re conveniently located in a document posted on the college website: the mission statement.
I sampled several dozen from disparate institutions across the country. Most included at least a couple of these directives: Ensure student success; enroll students from all backgrounds; engage beyond the classroom; innovate; provide knowledge to meet societal needs; and enable students to lead principled lives.
How great it would be if decision makers relied on their mission statements for direction. A college committed to enrolling students from diverse backgrounds might canvass first-generation students and delay reopening if many can’t return for financial or family reasons.
Conversely, a college might open if its mission emphasizes student engagement beyond the classroom in activities the institution can’t effectively move online.
A college whose mission statement stresses innovation would ask whether it’s better prepared to come up with groundbreaking ways to operate that allow it to open, or with pioneering approaches to online education.
If ever there’s a time to be mission driven, it is amid fear and uncertainty.
Barry Glassner is a former president of Lewis & Clark College and the author of The Culture of Fear.
The Bias Against Online Teaching
It’s nothing to be afraid of — and it’s the moral choice.
Shalon van Tine
Since colleges are places where thousands of people work in close proximity to one another, and since our aim should be to deter preventable death and illness, universities should remain closed in the fall.
A major concern, however, is how classes will continue. The answer is that most of them can — and should — be moved online. Among my colleagues who had to move their courses online in the spring, I have seen emotions ranging from pure panic to smug disdain. As someone who has taught online for seven years, I can attest to the fact that it’s nothing to be afraid of — but it does require approaching teaching in a different way.
Despite the fact that most Americans (over 90 percent) use the internet for work and play, there is still a stigma about using it for education. Online education is often considered to be of lower quality. A lot of this bias stems from the early 2000s, when for-profit colleges sold their programs to working adults who needed flexibility and online accessibility to make postsecondary education a possibility. Unfortunately — even though it enabled working-class people, parents without day care, military personnel overseas, and people with disabilities to access higher education in a way that was rarely available to them in the past — the stigma of online education endures. While there is no doubt that for-profit colleges are exploitative, we cannot conflate their practices with the value of the technology of online education.
I have taken good in-person classes and bad in-person classes, and I have taken good online classes and bad online classes. What determines their quality has little to do with the format itself and everything to do with the teacher’s pedagogy, their grasp of the technology, and their ability to design a course around that. That is to say, those who teach good classes in person harness the affordances of their teaching environment and make concerted efforts to construct an engaging pedagogical atmosphere for their students; those who teach good online courses do the same.
Much of the apprehension seems to stem from instructors’ unfamiliarity with these tools. But the current crisis offers as immediate an opportunity as any for professors to not only learn how to use these new educational tools to complement their existing pedagogical practices, but to integrate them from the start into a more flexible and accessible pedagogy. When used properly, an instructor can effectively re-create a live class with all the discussions and interactions that make learning such a rewarding experience. Some may even be surprised at how the online environment allows introverted students to shine. Add to this the fact that we are dealing with a life-or-death situation, and the only conclusion one can come to is that it would be absurd for universities to insist on returning to campus in the fall when they have technology that will allow classes to continue at a safe distance.
Shalon van Tine is an adjunct instructor who teaches history and humanities courses online with University of Maryland Global Campus. She also teaches at Thomas Nelson Community College.
Widening the Gap
Rich kids will do fine online. The rest will suffer.
Learning is a social experience. The social experience will be weakened even if students return to campus in the fall. But if they never meet their professors or their classmates, never engage in conversations inside and outside the classroom, they will simply not emerge with anything like the education they would otherwise have had.
Colleges and their students are much better off because they were able to finish the academic year virtually after campuses had to close. It seems unlikely that even the students now suing their institutions for tuition refunds would prefer to have lost out on their coursework and postponed graduation for a semester or a year.
The hasty transition surely did not bring out the best in online coursework, and there is reason for optimism that if the fall term does have to be remote, quality will be better. But the potential costs of keeping campuses closed are high, not just in the short-term but in terms of educational opportunity far into the future.
It is very difficult to replicate in-person learning experiences online, particularly for students who are not already accomplished learners. Outcomes in fully online courses are particularly weak for students with low levels of academic preparation, those unfamiliar with technology, low-income students, and those from underrepresented groups. Despite the dream that online learning might narrow opportunity gaps by providing education on a large scale at low cost, there is considerable evidence that purely online coursework actually widens gaps in outcomes across socioeconomic groups. These differences will be exacerbated by differences in resources available to institutions.
It’s not that all colleges should bring all students back to campus at any cost. But we should do as much as possible to support colleges trying to provide a safe environment where students can engage personally and intellectually with faculty and other students, and where technology is not relied on for more than it can offer.
Sandy Baum is a senior fellow at the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute.
You Can’t Get to Know Students on Zoom
But to reopen in person, students must follow the rules.
Universities should try to reopen, for two main reasons.
First, virtual learning inevitably introduces a host of inequities. Students vary drastically in their access to the internet and in their home situations. A student who has her own room in a comfortable house, with a new laptop and high-speed Wi-Fi, occupies a wholly different educational environment than a student trying to Zoom into her classes at a kitchen table, surrounded by siblings and fighting a stuttering internet connection.
Second, I cannot develop in a purely online environment the knowledge of my students the way I can in the classroom. There, I read their body language, observe what distracts them, see when they’re puzzled and when they’re excited — all of that is easy and natural in the classroom, but nearly impossible when I see only little rectangles on my computer screen with low-definition, half-darkened images of their faces. If I could have a connection with my students in person, even for a few weeks, it would make the transition to online learning, should that become necessary, much more effective. My online experiences last semester would have been radically different if I had not had half a term to get to know people.
So yes, colleges should try to meet in person this fall. But only if the following conditions are met: social-distancing in classrooms, dorms, and dining halls; mask-wearing as a default behavior; regular and widespread, if not absolutely universal, testing; a system of contact-tracing; and detailed plans for defaulting to online learning.
And one more requirement: A genuine willingness to discipline those who refuse to follow the above guidelines, and to pull the plug and send everyone home, even in the absence of an outbreak, if failure to follow those guidelines becomes widespread. I’ve taught college students for nearly 40 years, and one of the key lessons I have learned is: You may tell students to do something, but if there are no enforced consequences for failing to do it, they won’t believe you mean it.
Alan Jacobs is a professor of the humanities at Baylor University.
A Local Matter
Conditions vary widely — colleges must respond accordingly.
Like so many issues arising from the pandemic, whether colleges should open this fall with in-person classes requires decisions to be made in the face of uncertainty in an ecosystem where one size-fits-all solutions are impossible.
Consider geography. Colleges in rural areas with low Covid-19 prevalence might be seen as relatively “safe havens” from a second wave, increasing their attractiveness. Exposure to students arriving from high-prevalence areas necessitates testing on arrival and isolating those infected. Cocooning the community to prevent further exposure might, however, make the more remote experience less attractive. In contrast, large urban colleges in areas of high prevalence face challenges from continuing infection, for which we have no easy answers.
Decisions on reopening will also be influenced by a college’s pre-Covid financial and reputational strengths. Those in a strong position might opt for remote learning in the fall, awaiting improved conditions within six to 12 months through vaccines, therapeutics, or development of herd immunity. These colleges can afford to signal concern for safety, knowing their survival is assured.
Those in more challenging situations might see the impact of balancing costs and benefits of in-person education as existential. Will they be able to enroll enough students for a virtual education that might be obtained less expensively elsewhere? If they do choose to open in person, can they deliver education safely?
As university leaders prepare to address the health consequences of in-person reopening, the only certainty is that local factors will interact with the evolving pandemic to determine the outcomes. At present, these are very difficult to predict.
Jeffrey Flier is a former dean of Harvard Medical School.
Testing, Testing, Testing
It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.
Carl T. Bergstrom and Theodore C. Bergstrom
The pandemic is not going to go away over the summer, and a second wave in the autumn is all too likely. A vaccine will not be available for the 2020-21 academic year. Covid-19 is hard to control because most infected people can transmit the virus for a couple of days before showing symptoms, and some remain asymptomatic for the entire course of the disease.
Fortunately, testing can be used to detect presymptomatic and asymptomatic cases. This could be a highly effective means of disease control — if carried out with sufficient frequency and coupled with contact-tracing.
The benefits of testing depend on the time-course of the disease and the accuracy of the tests that are used. Current consensus suggests that an infected person is contagious for a week, and infected people test negative 30 percent of the time. Testing once a month is next to useless: It reduces exposure-days by only 10 percent. Once a week reduces exposure-days by 30 percent, twice a week by 50 percent, every second day by 70 percent, and daily by 80 percent. In the absence of other control measures, we would probably need to test nearly every student every second day.
This sounds like a prohibitively large number of tests, but it may be feasible with intelligent planning. An approach known as batch testing allows us to stretch our testing capacity by tenfold or more. The idea is simple: Combine a group of samples — students from one floor of a dormitory, say — and test the pooled sample. If anyone in the group is positive, the test will come back positive. Then you go back and test each individual in the group. But unless disease prevalence is very high, most pools will test negative. More sophisticated mechanisms can provide even greater returns to scale.
The process of collecting samples also contributes to the cost of testing, but self-administered nasal swabs appear to work well, and saliva-based tests will very likely be commercially available by autumn.
In addition to frequent testing, universities can work to reduce transmission by restricting class sizes, discouraging large social gatherings and faculty meetings, encouraging use of face masks, and pleading with everyone to wash their hands. But these steps will not be enough on their own. If a university is to reopen safely, it needs a workable plan for frequent testing — every few days, not every few weeks.
Carl T. Bergstrom is a professor of biology at the University of Washington. Theodore C. Bergstrom is a professor of economics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
A Broader Range of Voices
What about service staff? What about the most vulnerable students?
I am not convinced that there is a correct return-to-campus decision. There are too many unknowns. As a parent of a college junior, I want remote learning to be the norm until Covid-19 testing is routine and an effective vaccine or treatment has been developed. But as an academic who cares deeply about educational inequality, I also need to think about other people’s children.
As unequal as the residential-campus experience is for students with different financial resources, remote learning creates disparities and exacerbates inequalities that make it impossible to hold all students to the same standards. How can I possibly expect the same quality of work from a student with a shared computer, unreliable internet that keeps dropping the connection to the Zoom class, and overcrowded housing, that I do from a student with high-speed internet, a dedicated computer, and a comfortable home environment?
Many institutions are toying with the idea of having a subset of students return for on-campus learning and the remainder continuing with another semester, possibly another year, of remote learning. If that decision is made, the most economically vulnerable students should be prioritized for on-campus learning. Otherwise, this coming academic year will only widen educational inequality.
And what about service staff? Like many universities, mine is an anchor institution surrounded by mostly Black, mostly low-income neighborhoods, and it provides low-wage jobs that many residents depend on. These are the jobs that won’t return until students return to campus. These are also the members of our campus community who can least afford to contract Covid-19. They have the least access to medical care and are less likely to live in spacious homes that allow for quarantining from family members if they get sick.
Presidents, provosts, and deans should look around at who has been sitting at the discussion table. Have you invited and listened only to the privileged members of your campus community? Who else will be impacted by your decisions? Do they get a say?
Learn from the chaos that was created when administrators made the decision that all students should return home, assuming that home looked the same for everyone. At my university, it was students who first organized among themselves to support their peers who were panicked because returning home was not safe, or required much more than a text to Mom and Dad to make it happen.
The decisions that economically vulnerable families have to make about sending their children off to college were already difficult; that difficulty is now compounded by questions about who will move them back if campus is closed, who will pay the medical bills if they get sick, and whether room and board will be refunded if they have to find someplace off campus to live.
Unless administrators prioritize reaching out to students from economically vulnerable families to communicate that their educational interests will be protected, they will increasingly push them toward deferring or not returning at all.
Micere Keels is an associate professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago.
As a business owner, I need students to return. As a caretaker, I need them to stay home.
I admire Indiana University for forming a Restart Committee complete with experts who could help determine the best path forward to reopening in the fall. But the committee was missing at least one thing: A community expert, someone who’s lived here long enough to know quite a lot about the migratory and behavioral patterns of 48,000 young people. As a local business owner who’s been part of this community for over twenty years, I am horrified at the prospect of students returning. On campus, the university will plan and prepare for physical-distancing, testing, and tracing. Off campus, there’s no way to control for these things — the bars may stay closed, but the parties will continue.
I am the owner of the Bloomington Bagel Company. Many of our customers are university students moving about, traveling in packs, greeting each other with bro hugs, and not nearly enough of them are wearing masks. And it is not just the students. Many of their parents helping them move have not worn masks or practiced physical-distancing, and seem to frown on those of us who do.
When it comes to navigating a deadly pandemic, there is no “town” and “gown” divide: The university must protect the whole community — and the community must protect the university. We need expert academic advice on how to hire students, serve students, house students, and protect the safety of everyone. I hope universities invite local business owners to participate in testing, contact-tracing, and education. We will only survive and thrive together. As our fight song reminds all Hoosiers, we are “never daunted.”
As the owner of four retail bagel stores, a catering business, and a commissary, I need the students to return to campus for my business to survive. As a wife, mother, and caretaker of a 90-year-old, I need the students not to return for us to survive. I am afraid to bring home a virus that kills my mother-in-law.
Importing students from all over the world is going to require our best thinkers and our best organizers on and off campus to minimize potential health risks and deaths. Not importing the students would require an equally concerted effort to minimize economic damage. If I could choose, I would choose the economic disaster. But it is not my choice. Consider me daunted.
Suzanne Aquila is the owner of the Bloomington Bagel Company.
With a Little Luck
We’ll reopen — but it won’t be business as usual.
Prosperous times on college campuses, like happy families for Tolstoy, all seem alike. It is the challenging ones that differ in their own way.
I was a college president in 2001, when 9/11 fundamentally changed our campuses and our nation, and in 2008-9, when the Great Recession tested our faith in the future.
Now we face a global pandemic, throwing all of our carefully laid plans into disarray.
Not a day goes by when I don’t hear some version of these two questions: What are the chances Northwestern will be open for in-person classes in the fall? When will you let us know for sure?
The answers depend not just on government directives, but also on our ability to test, to social-distance, to contact-trace and to quarantine. We are planning to repopulate our dorms, our classrooms, our laboratories, and our playing fields as originally scheduled. Will it be business as usual? Highly unlikely. Double rooms might become singles, campus traditions and events might be reimagined, and football fans might be spread out, but our best guess is that we will be back in person come fall.
Why take the chance given all of the medical uncertainties? Skeptics might think it is about the money. Sure, our revenues plummeted by $90 million this year, as we rebated room and board, saw popular executive-education programs disappear, lost the money we would have received from March Madness, etc. We have already announced hiring and salary freezes, furloughs, and a suspension of university contributions to retirement accounts. Tough actions, but unavoidable, and we hope temporary.
It is tempting to decide on an in-person reopening in person based on financial reasons, but the safety of our community is our No. 1 consideration. Though we must always live with some level of risk, we are working tirelessly to put the necessary conditions in place to reduce it to what we believe is a manageable threshold. And only when we can do that will it be time to restore the transformative in-person teaching and research that make us justifiably proud.
As of now, most fall classes will begin on September 16 (six days earlier than originally planned), and face-to-face, on-campus classes will end on November 24. We are relying on the best medical advice available, while remaining as nimble as possible.
No one is ever fully prepared to deal with catastrophe, regardless of how many years you have been on the job, but with sage advice, good instincts and a little bit of luck, you and your community should prosper.
Morton Schapiro has been a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University since 2009. He previously served as professor and president of Williams College.
We Have Always Been Open
We’re biding our time as the university ceases to be a public good.
Carlos M. Amador
I can see one reason — and one reason only — to consider reimplementing face-to-face learning at universities in the fall: Well-equipped and reasonably run universities are roughly analogous to small cities with the localized capacity to administer testing, to enforce (with some degree of rigor) contact-tracing and isolation, and to disseminate information coherently and accurately. Given our government’s deadly parody of national pandemic preparedness, campuses could potentially be among the few places with the opportunity, community, and infrastructure to attend to our essential needs in the emergent, grinding reality of the Covid-19 hell-world. But that’s pretty cold comfort for those of us who actually work at universities.
No amount of health-risk-mitigating acrobatics can eliminate — or justify — the moral hazard of reopening campuses. In a way, we should probably be grateful to the grim cheerleaders of reopening, like President Mitch Daniels of Purdue, for making it clear that this “debate” is not about morals at all, let alone protecting the high-minded mission of higher education. This is about money, plain and simple.
Covid-19, Daniels has repeatedly argued, “poses a near-zero risk to young people.” (What he means is that student-age people almost certainly won’t die from the virus, even if they can still contract, suffer from, and pass it on to others.) Thus, universities have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that students, their main cash cows, return to their rightful place as paying consumers of education. In true capitalist fashion, then, the risks are shifted squarely onto the backs of the workers who produce that education product, the staff (teaching, administrative, dining hall, maintenance, etc.) who will be at risk daily of contracting Covid-19 and who — fun fact — are generally not as young and immuno-invincible as the students Daniels is talking about. But, hey, with soaring unemployment and millions desperate for jobs, including many faculty around the country, we’re the definition of replaceable.
“Should campuses reopen?” is a meaningless question, I’m afraid, if university workers lack the strong representation needed to make and enforce protective decisions at the highest levels in times like these. And the problem goes beyond the university itself: No worker in our nation is safe from Covid-19-related immiseration, and decisions about what to do about it are only ever being made over our heads. Open or close, it makes little difference without an inclusive, multigenerational, multiracial, and multigendered workers’ movement that can challenge the basic makeup of an economy that will always be willing to sacrifice lives to the bottom line.
Carlos Amador is an associate professor of Spanish and culture studies at Michigan Technological University.
Opening Intellectual Life
‘Never make predictions, especially about the future.’
Like any good politician, I’m going to answer the question I want to answer, not the one I was asked. This is in no small part because the one I was asked is way above my pay grade. I’m nowhere near competent to judge what kind of testing or contact tracing will be feasible, or what kind of on-campus density is manageable, let alone what is likely to happen in the fall, which is galloping toward us. As for expectations or prophecies, I’m with Sam Goldwyn, Casey Stengel, Niels Bohr, or Yogi Berra: “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”
But alongside all the terrible tidings, realistic worst-case scenarios, and practical problems, I’d like to propose a kind of education that might — might — become both more necessary and more possible now. What I’m proposing is not a substitute for the main curriculum, whether in person or online, but a supplement, or, if you like, an enrichment designed to focus on fundamentals. I’m thinking about discussions guided by the faculty (call them classes, if you like) in which students wrestle with the enormous moral, historical, epidemiological, economic, and political questions opened up by the Covid-19 devastation. I’m thinking of such questions as these:
- How does the pandemic challenge, or alter, our sense of fundamental values?
- Why do we see discrepancies in infection, illness, and mortality, across lines of wealth, age, race, and location, not just in the U. S. but abroad?
- How should we interpret the culture wars being fought over whether masking and social-distancing are imperative?
- If a friend came to you and asked, “How has the pandemic changed you?” and “How do you think it should change you?” what would you say?
Some of this kind of education can be done online, though best in small groups, which permit students to interact directly, in real time, with a teacher as well as with one another. Zoom, in my experience this semester, works well for this when the teacher and students have already met offline. I doubt it would work as well when they have never met nonvirtually.
In 2001-2, in the wake of the al Qaeda massacre on 9/11, New York University, where I taught then, set up an array of short-term seminars on questions the faculty found apropos. I taught one on political violence. For four weeks, we read and discussed a book a week, including, as I remember, Hannah Arendt’s On Violence and Amin Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. I thought it was a useful way to approach both personal anxieties (the World Trade Center was a bare mile away) and to think together.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University.
What Happens When Unions Are Excluded
University leaders have avoided consulting their workers. That’s alarming.
There’s an old saying: If you want to know where a stranger is going, ask her where she has been. Contained within this proverb is a lesson for how universities should proceed with crafting risk-mitigation plans for the fall. The way forward must be informed by our experience this spring. One clear lesson is the importance of shared governance and democratic decision-making. Students, faculty, and staff, along with the unions that represent them, must have a place at the table to ensure health and safety for all.
Two months ago, there was a protracted struggle between President Robert Barchi of Rutgers University and the institution’s faculty union, AAUP-AFT, which provides a real-life parable about the public-health stakes of the decisions universities make, and about the danger of top-down, corporate governance. The sprawling State University of New Jersey system consists of over 50,000 undergraduate students, 20,000 graduate students, and 20,000 unionized workers across three urban campuses (Newark, New Brunswick, and Camden). Significantly, all three campuses are located in dense metropolitan areas with large numbers of residents of color who are disproportionately vulnerable to the worst outcomes from Covid-19.
Remarkably, given these realities, Rutgers’s upper-level administration excluded all of the unions from its Covid-19 planning committee, relying instead on a unilateral process. On Thursday, March 12, Rutgers suspended all in-person classes and arranged for online instruction after spring break. Despite protests from librarians that their workplaces should also be made remote, Barchi insisted on keeping the libraries open because they provided students with essential computer and book access, but speculation soon arose that the leadership’s real concern was that closing the libraries would buttress claims against the university for tuition refunds.
AAUP-AFT President Todd Wolfson and Vice President Rebecca Givan argued that keeping the libraries open posed “an imminent danger to the health and safety” of workers, students, and the surrounding communities. They demanded that Barchi immediately shut down the libraries on all three Rutgers campuses. When he refused, Wolfson and Givan reached out to national union leadership, and together they approached the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy. On March 20, the state ordered the mandatory closure of all of New Jersey’s libraries.
It is crucial that Covid-19 planning committees include union, student, and community representation to make sure that this sort of crisis mismanagement doesn’t happen again. Sadly, it seems that precisely the opposite is happening. Many universities, including Rutgers, have actually doubled down on their unilateral, corporate vision of governance by not only excluding organized labor from Covid-19 planning but using the pandemic as a pretext to bust unions. One of the most egregious examples can be observed at St. Xavier University, Chicago’s oldest higher-ed institution, where the Board of Trustees declared on May 28 that it would no longer recognize the school’s faculty union. In a similarly worrisome vein, Rutgers has retained the notorious union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis, spending $1.6 million on their services between 2018 and March 2020. Responsible crisis management is not only a matter of protecting financial interests, but of protecting life itself — all of us have a stake in this, and all of us should have a say.
Donna Murch is associate professor of history at Rutgers University.
Stuck Between Scylla and Charybdis
Our society has rarely placed public health above money.
As readers of The Chronicle are aware, higher education has long been in crisis. Years of declining public support, increasing price tags, and neoliberal corporatization have engendered a triple crisis of legitimacy, debt, and employment. For years, government officials, students, faculty, and staff have all openly questioned the very purpose of a college education. And then Covid-19 hit, highlighting and most likely accelerating the problems that plague the American university system.
University administrators are now deciding whether to open up in the fall. If they don’t, they risk losing millions of dollars in tuition support — which would cause some colleges to close and many others to triple down on austerity measures. If they do reopen, and students, faculty, or staff come down with Covid-19 (as seems inevitable), they’re liable to be sued, to say nothing of contributing to the further spread of the pandemic. Administrators are truly stuck between Scylla and Charybdis.
From my perspective, it seems clear that for public-health reasons universities should remain online for at least the autumn 2020 semester and probably longer. But our capitalist society has rarely placed public-health concerns above economic ones, and I imagine that the latter will triumph in the next academic year. This is doubly true now that the quarantine likely helped engender the widespread protests decrying the murder of George Floyd.
The best one can hope for is that the heightened conditions of the current crisis will encourage solidarity among all those who labor in universities. As numerous scholars of the “gig academy” have demonstrated (especially Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott in their essential book The Gig Academy), a large number of people who work on campus — contingent faculty, part-time staff, subcontracted workers — have for years shared a common experience of precarity. Now, we all — including, crucially, tenure-track faculty and university administrators — will be forced to share a common experience of health vulnerability.
Serious organization could help underline these shared experiences and engender the cross-campus solidarity that has been lacking. From such a base, it will perhaps be possible for everyone who dedicates their life to education and research to come together to highlight to government officials and the American public the dire state, and central importance, of American universities. Only then might we seize the opportunity to transcend the current crisis and establish a just, equal, and robust system of higher education.
Daniel Bessner is an associate professor in American foreign policy at the University of Washington.
This Decision Must Be Collective
If universities want to reopen, they need to ask us what we need.
The question of whether or not universities should reopen in the fall has not sparked productive conversation. If you answer “yes,” you either support the upper-administrative goal of revenue over people, or you want to save the university system. If you answer “no,” you either endorse the ed-tech imperative to pivot to MOOCs, or you want to save lives. These are wires crossed on a ticking time bomb: a three-month countdown to a potentially immense public-health disaster.
This question is so polarizing because very few people are asked to participate in coming up with an answer. In fact, this forum is the first time anyone has asked me for my opinion on reopening, even though the president of my university was the first to push for it and has testified before the U.S. Senate. By being forced into “conjuring continuity in a pandemic,” as Anna Kornbluh puts it, “we find ourselves at a precipice that clarifies how much we have overworked to weather the structural adjustment of higher ed” without any say in how to navigate the storm. There is an imbalance between leaders and labor in the university decision makers about reopening. If this decision is not collectively made, any choice will be the wrong one.
If universities want to reopen, they should be asking all of us — faculty, graduate students, and staff — what we would need to make it happen. Convening collectively could produce imaginative plans. Lab workers know best what kind of personal protective equipment they require; English professors know best how to choose a seminar size optimal for both learning and social-distancing; epidemiologists know best how to engineer testing and tracing for a college community. Instead, boards of trustees and upper-level administration everywhere are advancing austerity budgets based on projected financial strain while ignoring pleas for investment in the very resources and infrastructure they will need. This top-down strategy will not do.
Reopening would require resisting spending cuts and instating their opposite: more hires, smaller classes, increased benefits, and better wages. It would mean altering university governance so that democratic decision-making persists beyond the pandemic. It would require universities to provide childcare solutions to academic workers and to reject police enforcement of campus safety. Some have already called for these progressive measures, and others are organizing toward them. The only way we can navigate the moral, financial, and logistical complications of opening college campuses is if we draw upon the collective efforts and expertise of the entire community that makes a university work. Academic labor already needed things to change for the better before the crisis hit. Now is the time to demand it — or else, to refuse to return.
Rithika Ramamurthy is a graduate student in the English department at Brown University.
I worked my whole life to get into college. I can’t not go.
I believe that I speak on behalf of many incoming college freshmen when I say that pride is chief among our many emotions in this confusing time. How can we not be proud of ourselves? For myself, as a first-generation student, getting into college is not just my achievement, but my parents’ as well.
Now, our achievement has been frustrated not by some despot or warring nation but by an invisible disease that does not care about our opinions. But if there is one thing this pandemic has granted us, it is the gift of reflection. After two months at home, we have been given more than ample time to think back on the before-times, with our friends, jobs, dreams, and ambitions ... before everything changed. We’ve been given the cruel gift of time to meditate on what is most important.
In my household, there have been heated discussions about whether or not colleges reopening in the fall is a good idea. At the center of all of these discussions, of course, is personal safety. But it’s also more ... complicated. I hail from an African household, and my Ghanaian parents never left any doubt in our minds that education was the No. 1 priority for achieving the lives they wanted for us. To even bring up the topic of deferring admission for a year will be met with much criticism. There has been one dissenting voice, however: my older brother, an undergrad at Johns Hopkins. As he put it, “What sense does it make to pay tens of thousands of dollars when classes are being held online and the facilities of colleges are not being fully used?”
“Your generation has no patience,” a wise old mentor once told me. “You want things instantly, without waiting for them in their time.” Over all, I disagree with the substance of his claim, but in this instance I think it applies. Despite all of the risks (and there are a lot of them), many rising college freshmen have no compunction about attending college next year. I include myself in that category.
I will say, however, that universities’ decisions to reopen campuses in the fall reeks of our society’s hasty and unrealistic desire to return to normalcy. And there will be consequences. When students return to their respective campuses, crowds will gather: move-ins, orientations, watching parties for football games. All of these will expose people to the virus. For that reason, I think that students having the option to stay home and have online classes will not only help those who are tight on money as a result of limited employment opportunities because of the pandemic, but will also save lives. And saving lives should be the foremost concern for those we are entrusting to make these decisions, the ramifications of which will be felt for years to come.
Collins Agyeman lives in Houston and is a rising freshman at Vanderbilt.