The Hard Truth About the Fall
Reopening too soon is not just foolish, it’s reckless.
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I am not naïve. As the president of a small college with neither a large endowment nor significant state appropriations, I understand the economic pressures that administrators face. Each year, we are expected to make financial miracles happen for everyone from the faculty and students to the alumni and community stakeholders. The moment we cease to do so, questions arise as to whether we are still the right people for our jobs.
The pressure is unrelenting, and at times forces us to choose between our professional ambitions and our moral code. The pandemic is one of those moments.
The inconvenient reality is that colleges, no matter what we do, are ideal settings for accelerating the spread of Covid-19. A recently published paper by Kim Weeden and Benjamin Cornwell from Cornell University focused on mapping the network that connects students through course enrollments. The paper’s conclusion is simple: There is no way that colleges can offer instruction in person and not increase the likelihood of spreading the disease. Put another way, because Covid-19 is transmitted mainly through close contact, it would be unwise to bring students and staff back to campuses until we have a vaccine and can do widespread testing. To do so without either constitutes unsafe and potentially deadly behavior.
Acknowledging that reality is terrifying. Far too many colleges and universities are ill-equipped to weather any prolonged financial storm, especially after this spring. It is therefore tempting to cling to the hope, however fleeting, that “normal” will return before fall and save us from near-certain financial ruin. This hope (or is it fear?) has caused a number of college leaders to convince themselves, at least publicly, that they can find a way to control a virus that we can’t cure and don’t yet fully understand.
When viewed in this light, it is easy to see why large segments of the American public have lost faith in higher education. In a moment where people need hope, the paralyzing fear of financial ruin has caused too many of us to shrink from the greatest challenge of our era. This fear, and it is legitimate, is no excuse for risking the lives of students and staff. This is not what America needs from us. What they need is to see that we can balance both financial and health concerns without sacrificing either.
We’ve met big challenges before. Colleges have served as anchor institutions for cities and nurtured the dreams of everyone from the immigrant to the entitled. But we have also behaved poorly by ignoring the economic realities of our students and saddling multiple generations with loan debt. Such actions have not only damaged our credibility, but also alienated much of the public. But all is not lost. This is the perfect moment for higher education to regain the country’s trust. That will require us to change our behavior and philosophies. Among the changes that must be made:
Slow down. While we face great financial pressure to resume classes in person, doing so without a better understanding of the risks associated with Covid-19 is a mistake that will lead to unnecessary death and suffering. Returning to campus safely, not just quickly, must be the No. 1 priority.
Embrace remote learning. Stop framing remote learning as substandard and problematic. Until we have more facts about how to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 or we have a reliable vaccine, remote learning is our best option for instruction. Instead of poisoning the public’s opinion about online learning, let’s focus on improving it.
Covid-19 is a tragedy. But it has also provided a chance for the industry to display leadership that extends far beyond the boundaries of our classrooms and campuses. My hope is that we seize this moment and act not out of self-interest but out of moral concern. If we fail to do so, we may never have another chance.