Like most people working in or near higher education, I have closely monitored institutions’ plans for the fall semester and waited with bated breath as details about my own university’s plans trickled in.
You might say that my interest has bordered on the obsessive. As a professor and scholar of higher education management, leadership and finance, I have read nearly everything about colleges and the pandemic that’s crossed my screen. I even went so far as to analyze the committees tasked with developing plans to see who is on them and—more importantly—who is missing. Given all of the talk of plans being “informed by” medical experts and “aligned with” public health guidelines, I was surprised to see how few people with public health and medical expertise are actually on these committees.
After sifting through all the announcements, committees and plans—and chuckling at how institutions can’t help but turn these efforts into marketing campaigns with catchy names like “Smart Restart” and “Forward to Fall”—I’m left with a nagging question.
During a global pandemic that has killed more than 120,000 people and counting in the United States alone, what is the responsibility of higher education institutions?
The answer I would like to see from college leaders is that we have a duty more profound than institutional budgets or student preferences.
The Why Question
So far, the vast majority of material I have read has focused on how colleges plan to resume in-person instruction. They have discussed enhanced cleaning protocol, large-scale testing and tracing aspirations, efforts to enforce physical distancing among students, no-touch doors and upgraded ventilation with ultraviolet lighting to kill bacteria, mandatory mask-wearing inside and outside the classroom, and—my personal favorite—the installation of plexiglass to separate professors and students. As time goes on, I can’t tell if I’m reading about higher education or hospitals.
What’s often missing is an explanation of why bringing people back to campus is the right approach. Answering this question gets at an institution’s rationale, not just procedures, for reopening. A rationale connects a college’s plan to its mission—the reasons it exists and the causes and communities it serves. It reveals how an institution understands its responsibility to society in a time of global crisis and tragedy.
So far, the why question seems harder for many institutions and their leaders to forthrightly answer, yet it is vitally important. Even when rationales are not missing altogether from colleges’ stated fall plans, I find many of them severely lacking.
For example, Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, unambiguously stated that his institution’s plan to bring people back on campus is “plainly the best option from both a scientific and stewardship standpoint.” His rationale was that students—and he seems to mean traditional-aged students—are less likely to die and “overwhelmingly” want to come back to campus.
According to Daniels, the university’s responsibility is to oblige. To not serve students if they are less likely to get seriously ill would be a breach of duty.
The University of Notre Dame’s president, John Jenkins, also focused on students and their future contributions. He suggested that failing to bring students back deprives future generations of leadership and science. Educating young people is the moral thing to do and worth the risk, he says, even while acknowledging the only way to truly prioritize health and safety is waiting until there is a vaccine before bringing people back on campus.
Presidents have also shared their views through anonymous surveys, highlighting worries about hitting enrollment targets or managing revenue losses. There is an unmistakable sense that they see their responsibility mainly in institutional terms: We must resume in-person instruction to ensure the financial viability of the college or university. Protecting institutions’ budgets is apparently also worth the risk.
Smoke and Mirrors
Rationales like these have gaping holes. Some problems are obvious, like being silent on the health and safety of faculty, staff, students and community members who aren’t aged 18 to 25. The disregard for people working on and near campuses recalls practices at an Amazon warehouse or meat-packing plant, where the expectation is that workers must show up in the interests of the organization and consumer.
The rationales I’ve seen are problematic for other reasons, too. First, they show little concern for slowing or stopping the spread of COVID-19. In fact, college leaders seem to assume the disease will spread and hope they can manage it through cell phone apps and residence hall quarantines.
Second, they demonstrate a disregard for serving the public good. I haven’t read a single announcement or plan that anchors an institution’s decisionmaking in shared community interests. Few presidents are willing to say that what the public needs right now is to live in a society free of a deadly virus, and that it is the responsibility of higher education to contribute to that effort by keeping people off campuses that were often specifically designed to foster physical proximity.
Third, the rationales I’ve seen don’t seriously contend with the differential effects of the pandemic by race and income. Racism means that people of color are more exposed and less protected when it comes to the virus. When a president says returning to campus is worth the risk, who is bearing the burden of that risk-taking?
Finally, the plans I’ve seen have a strained relationship with truth and science. In many states, new virus cases and hospitalizations are rising, with clusters in nursing homes and daycare centers. Yet presidents continue to announce that it is safe for students to return to residence halls.
Many plans rest on assumptions about student behavior that one researcher has called a “fantasy.” Plans don’t explain how institutions will source or afford testing programs. Plans don’t always require that people on campus wear a mask, and they don’t suggest institutions will provide masks. Plans rarely state the threshold for cases or hospitalizations after which the campus will close. In the words of Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, many institutions are “deluding themselves.”
A Path Forward
It’s true that institutions and leaders are in a tough spot. In some cases, they are fighting for survival after losing revenue, covering rising costs and facing possible enrollment declines. Deciding what to do in the fall would be enormously easier if institutions could expect help from the federal government. They should more vocally push for this assistance.
With or without federal support, what I propose is that presidents provide a forthright explanation for their plans. I want to know both the how and the why. I would rather hear a president give an honest, potentially damaging rationale (e.g., we need the money) than one that sugarcoats hard truths, or none at all.
Presidents shouldn’t center the preferences of traditional-aged students, but rather account for the many groups that make college happen, including older people, people with disabilities and higher health risks, and people who do not have adequate health insurance.
Presidents should show they are thinking about higher education’s responsibility to the public good. They should articulate how their plans contribute to the fight against the spread of COVID-19 and how they are responsive to the disproportionate toll the virus takes on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities.
Katherine Newman, president of the University of Massachusetts Boston, provided an example that other presidents could follow by announcing that the institution would continue to be primarily online in the fall. Explaining this decision, she noted that that Black and Latinx “populations have borne a disproportionate burden of morbidity and mortality in the pandemic, and many students live in multi-generational minority households where exposure to the virus would be particularly problematic.”
Colleges have a responsibility to pursue truth and encourage others to do the same. For presidents to sidestep the realities of student life and project confidence in the face of mounting evidence their plans won’t work represents an abdication of this duty.
It does a disservice to the credibility of higher education as a social institution to not face hard truths, prioritize expertise and science, and actively fight the spread of a deadly virus.
At the end of the day, I’m an advocate for higher education. I work in higher education, teach about higher education, study higher education and prepare future higher education leaders.
But my confidence in higher education erodes each day that passes without leaders telling us why it is necessary to return to campus when large numbers of people continue to get sick and die. We have a responsibility to pursue transparency, truth and equity for the public good. There is still time to fulfill this essential duty, but with just a few months until the start of fall semester on many campuses, the clock is ticking.