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September 12, 2020

From: Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez

Subject: Weekly Briefing: Reopenings Get Political

When politics play a part in your reopening plans.

This is a tale of two states and their public colleges. In different parts of the country, the institutions are caught in the cross hairs of Covid-19 and state politics: Iowa and Georgia.

Recently, the cities that are home to the University of Iowa and Iowa State University became coronavirus hot spots when students returned to campus. Administrators at both institutions say they are doing what they can to limit the spread of the virus, but as always, there are obstacles. The leaders of the two institutions blame students' off-campus parties for the rise in cases.

Many students and faculty members say the virus-mitigation efforts are not enough and want the universities to cancel in-person classes. Still, some faculty members and students say they are comfortable with the reopening.

Ultimately, leaders' hands are tied. They must answer to Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, a Republican, and members of the Board of Regents, who are appointed by the governor and who also oversee the University of Northern Iowa. Reynolds has refused to make mask-wearing a state mandate. Instead, college leaders have relied on local governments to impose such a requirement. In Iowa City and Ames, home to Iowa and Iowa State, respectively, city leaders did so. Reynolds only ordered bars to close in six counties, including those where the universities are located.

The Board of Regents was clear about its preference. In June its president, Michael J. Richards, said it intended to reopen campuses in the fall, complete with all on-campus activities.

Also in June, our Michael Vasquez chronicled similar clashes in Georgia between public-college leaders and state politicians. The Board of Regents, whose members are appointed by the state's Republican governor, is especially involved in decisions that affect the 26 institutions in the University System of Georgia. The board has also gotten involved in smaller issues at specific colleges.

This summer, Georgia colleges were at odds with public-health experts over face masks. In June the 26 colleges said they would reopen for the fall semester without requiring face masks. When the University of West Georgia tried to make masks mandatory, that line in its reopening plan was deleted. About a month later, the system backed down, requiring face coverings at all 26 public institutions.

Why does this matter now? Critics fear that public colleges are losing their independence to state political leaders. During a pandemic, if college leaders can't make certain decisions for their own institutions, that could have life or death consequences.

Our Eric Kelderman reports on the situation in Iowa. Our Michael Vasquez reports on Georgia.


  • Learn. This week, instead of a new fun fact or life hack, I'm sharing this opinion column on why we should all care about the fires in the West.
  • Read. Welcome to the new phase of the Covid-19 pandemic: the death spiral.
  • Listen. If minimalist tunes recorded in the 1970s are your thing, listen to Arthur Russell's compilation First Thought Best Thought.
  • Watch. This week I watched the movie Atlantics on Netflix. It may have been one of the best movies I've seen all year.


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Fernanda is newsletter product manager at The Chronicle. She is the voice behind Chronicle newsletters like the Weekly Briefing, Five Weeks to a Better Semester, and more. She also writes about what Chronicle readers are thinking. Send her an email at