Over the past several months, higher education has been a theater of the pragmatic and the absurd. At this writing, most colleges and universities in the US are planning to return students to campus and hold classes in person, with some kind of fig leaf precautions. At least, that what they’re saying they’re going to do. Looking at the landscape of the COVID infection rate, this makes absolutely no sense.
In sizing up the pandemic plans of most universities, I have no idea how to identify the boundary between denial and deceit.
Bringing people together on campuses is a recipe for spreading the disease. It doesn’t have to do with the dorms, or frat parties, or any of that. It’s just that teaching in classrooms will circulate the virus. This is known.
And it results in administrative absurdities like this:
It doesn’t have to be this way. Back in May, the California State University system announced plans to teach (almost*) wholly online in the fall. This was a strong piece of leadership. While I think this is a hard time to be any kind of educator, I feel like being a professor in the CSU is about as reasonable as it can get during These Times. Since May, we’ve been prepping to teach fully online courses, and it looks like it’ll stay this way for the whole academic year and perhaps beyond. Looking at the facts of the pandemic, to me at least, the only reasonable course of action is to continue to teach virtually. (I get that CSU campuses are at lesser risk of financial collapse as a result of online teaching, particularly in comparison to low-endowment private institutions, which made this act of leadership less of a leap into the unknown.)
Fall is approaching and universities are playing a deadly game of chicken with their on-campus teaching plans. It took a few months, but other schools such as USC, Rutgers, Harvard, and Georgetown have finally blinked, and have followed suit with the lead set by the Cal State system. I imagine (and hope) the dam will break and most places will go principally online in the Fall, and I should note that I’m not alone in this prediction.
It’s a shame that it’s taking so long for institutions to wise up about the dangers of returning everybody to take classes on campus, because it’s not giving faculty much opportunity to prepare for teaching online. The emergency teaching in the Spring came off poorly because we were wholly unprepared for it. But this time, we have had several months and no university should be putting their faculty in a situation where they are asked, yet again, to switch an on-campus course to an online course on short notice.. (On my campus, there’s been ample professional development, and since we’re off contract in the summer, there are stipends associated with the training for online teaching).
Can you imagine being told, in mid-August, “Whoopsie, we said we were going to force you to teach in person, but now we’re going online, so be sure to get your classes ready for that. We start next week!” I suspect I’d be relieved at the reduction in harm, but also fuming at being placed in a situation where I’m not ready to teach in the online modality, again. It’s not fair to the students or to the faculty.
People who run universities aren’t stupid. They also get advice from other non-stupid people. Everybody was fully aware how and why the CSU chose to go online in the Fall. But, nonetheless, most universities steered in the other direction, fully aware of the circumstances. Even though it was abundantly clear that the virus would continue to be a problem throughout 2020. And even though they know that it transmits particularly well in classrooms.
So, then, why is it that so many universities chose a path that is clearly dangerous to the members the campus community? Were they in denial, or were they trying to deceive us? Are they dupes or are they duplicitous? I honestly don’t know.
I can understand how really smart people can be in denial about the duration of the pandemic in the United States. Many private universities are already on the financial brink, and we are facing a major drop in the number of college students in the next decade, and many places can barely weather a single bad year. If folks are paying a lot of money for the college experience, are they really paying just to take a class online? Why not take a year away from college, or take classes at the community college, or defer enrollment, or something else? Because a lot of the college experience isn’t about being enrolled in classes, it’s about being in the non-virtual college environment. So I understand how universities are terrified of a drop in enrollment, which could send them into an unrecoverable financial tailspin. I get this.
Here’s another thing I wonder about: Is the fear of institutional collapse for want of tuition dollars actually driving administrators to make false plans about teaching in person, that they never really intend to keep? Or are these institutions actually so hopeful that the pandemic might actually clear up enough to make college campuses safe for students, staff and faculty? Are they that naive? I’ve heard cynical folks quip that all of these institutions never really planned to teach in person, but they needed to pretend as much because that was the only way to get students and their families to commit to enrolling in the Fall. If that’s true, that would be an impressively grand feat of duplicity by the entire higher education community. Less cynical folks might surmise that universities are trapped in delusional thinking. Maybe they didn’t actually believe the lies coming from the White House, but they also were hoping that maybe, somehow, some way, with a bit of luck, things would work out?
Perhaps it’s an amalgam of self-delusion and deceit. They just didn’t know what to think, and it’s scary to show the leadership and pull the trigger on an online Fall semester, so they’re just following the flock of all the other universities that are equally afraid of scaring away enrollment.
Another thing I don’t understand why universities are more fearful of economic collapse because of low enrollment, when they might experience greater economic liability for deaths and chronic illnesses resulting from bringing everybody back to campus. No matter what kind of waiver you make people sign, you can bet that once a student, faculty member, or staff member ends up being hospitalized, that’s a huge institutional liability, not just in terms of exposure to lawsuits, but also repetitional harm. I imagine that lost revenue from going online (which is a complex issue) might be dwarfed by the costs incurred once employees die.
It looks like most of you are working somewhere that wants to put you and your family at risk in the Fall, not to mention the students and their families. My heart goes out to you. I hope you find a way to keep yourselves safe. You deserve better. I hope the Powers That Be in your institution wise up in time. As things exacerbate and more universities “pivot to online” for the Fall, I hope it goes more smoothly for you.
As you can see, this whole situation has me confused, because universities acted so quickly and responsibly — essentially spurring the entire country into action when this all began. And now, they’re slow-walking major decisions that can be putting so many of us at risk.
*On my campus, 96% of instruction will be online. There are a few things happening on campus. I don’t know if they measured that 4% in terms of FTEs, units, butts in seats, instructional hours, or whatever.