The balancing act of risk management and protecting long-term welfare of the institution


It must be so difficult to be in charge of a university right now. This is a critical moment for the future of every institution, and every college and university is facing their own unique uncertainties.

In the previous post, I was saying how it is known and obvious that in-person teaching in the Fall is a very bad idea. Considering how many people are actually planning to teach in the Fall, I imagine they perceive this assertion as myopic or simplistic. Because there’s more to be dealt with than the virus.

Taking steps to keep the campus community safe can be expensive. Some approaches are better and more feasible than others, though you can only really know in hindsight. Whenever we resolve this epidemic in the US, the surviving institutions will be in recovery mode, and everybody in charge all want to be positioned well. This kind of forward thinking is necessary for the folks in charge.

In my privilege as a tenured professor in a (California) state university backed by a strong union, I have the luxury of knowing that my own livelihood is relatively well protected. But this isn’t true for everybody I work with, and our students are at very high exposure and face extreme challenges because of this epidemic. Nonetheless, I have some level of dispassionate distance on this issue. Nobody is going to blame me personally if my university bungles the response to the pandemic in the Fall. (And, anyhow, it looks like they’re doing a great job, by the way.)

The people who are making the decisions have some major responsibilities, including:

  • education of the student body
  • fiscal health of the institution
  • institutional reputation and prestige
  • risk management (safety and health of the community)

In our particular moment, who the heck can attend to all of these responsibilities simultaneously and do a good job for all of them?

If we look at that list of four responsibilities above, what is the threshold for risk when there is a virus going around that kills some people, and causes chronic medical conditions for many more? It seems to me that some of us have much higher standards for the health and safety of our community members than others.

I cannot possibly imagine being willing to accept any level of death or injury to someone on campus that could have been avoided with prudent planning. How much of a financial hit must campuses take to keep everybody safe? Imagine a number in your head.

Now, let’s ask the question this way: How much would a university spend to make sure that members of the campus community and their families are not killed?

There’s a lot of wishful thinking about how this pandemic is going to resolve itself in the United States, but if you look at our government and the behavior of our citizenry, this is a very long haul in front of us. And if universities are trying to maintain their reputations and protect their finances, they should be able to chart a path that keeps members of the community safe while still providing an education. Right now, that’s not something that we can do in classrooms, and dorms, and large campus events. An attempt at a properly masked and distanced on-campus learning environment isn’t going to work well for anybody, and it won’t be good for the budget either.

I get that a lot of people go to college for the on-campus college experience. And it’s hard to keep the institution going when you literally cannot safely provide that experience. But this can’t be ameliorated with an unlimited supply of masks, sanitizer, and plexiglas.

Some students really don’t want to have to take classes in person during this pandemic. Some faculty are terrified of teaching classes in person during this pandemic. What kind of risk management scheme overrules these concerns to hold classes in person? Is this really good for the long term reputation of the institution, for the educational environment, and for the fiscal health? I think the answer is clear, but I do get how some folks get lost in the weeds.

The bottom line is that good leaders never put the health of their people at unnecessary risk. We could use some more good leaders at the top.

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