On March 12, 2020, the university where I was then employed, Brown, announced it was moving classes online. The northeast was the early epicenter of the pandemic in America, and there was pressure on universities in the region to make the right decision—and, almost as important, craft a careful message. Institutions had to convey that they were fully considering the seriousness of Covid-19 and propose plans for their students to receive the high-caliber education that was already promised and paid for.
Soon thereafter, conversations emerged about how the decision to send students home—ostensibly about preventing campus outbreaks—contained many blind spots. First-generation and low-income students, for example, often relied on campus life for food or study sanctuary.
Personal exchanges with my academic colleagues were especially fiery, and I found myself disagreeing with individuals with whom I normally share politics and perspectives. Many thought we were too rapidly turning to remote education without thinking of our students’ well-being. Others contended that the pivot violated the contract between institutions of higher learning and its faculty.
Those points made sense. No, I hadn’t signed up to teach during a pandemic. And yes, pedantic grading rubrics and exams don’t provide the kind of warmth that traumatized young people need. Still, I believe that teachers teach, and difficult times provide an opportunity for us to create spaces for students who feel isolated. (Many students said that they preferred the sense of community that class offered, even virtually.)
But the larger debates that raged within my own mind and across the academy involved something greater. Covid-19 had implored us all—faculty and administrators alike—to ask about the basic function of a college education.
Now forced to reimagine how education should function, I soon learned that the answers to this question might be more unsavory than even the cynics and radicals among us could have estimated. And these answers underlie the sometimes dangerous, often unscientific, and mostly irresponsible behavior that has defined higher education’s fall reopening plans in the face of Covid-19.
At the start of September, college reopening plans remain so diverse across the country that no single strategy holds a majority. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 percent of schools have committed to primarily online teaching, 19 percent primarily in person, 16 percent hybrid, 6 percent exclusively online, with 24 percent undecided, as if colleges were voters waiting to see which candidate won the debates.
This distribution might be explained by different regional experiences with Covid-19. But that different places have different local disease dynamics should not explain such varied approaches. Pandemic plans are not natural disaster plans, where colleges in California have protocols on earthquakes and forest fires that are more detailed than their hurricane plans. Pandemics are problems specifically because of how they spread from place to place. That Covid-19 hasn’t been a recent problem in a given setting (either because it hasn’t reached there yet, or because the place currently has it under control) should have little to do with implementing best practices.
What then, would a responsible reopening plan look like? It would include two key characteristics: policies should be driven by (1) the latest understanding of Covid-19 science, and (2) a humane and responsible set of priorities.
The notion of a science-driven policy may not be as simple as it sounds. Even when we’ve moved past the quackery and acknowledge that Covid-19 is very dangerous and quite contagious, that asymptomatic individuals can infect others, and that college campuses could be a source of superspreading events—we’re still left with a scientific arena full of options that might inform differences in reopening plans. For example, while the evidence has mostly coalesced around the idea that SARS-CoV-2 is spread via aerosol transmission, different opinions remain about whether surface transmission should be a serious consideration in reopening plans.
Current differences in college reopening plans are not at this level of detail. Recommendations for in-person classes at many colleges and universities flagrantly underestimate the potential for spread on campuses and have already created local outbreaks that number in the thousands of new infections.
Even if a college or university has decided to use science to guide its policy, that doesn’t address the question of what exactly they should do, as rigorous decisionmaking requires a list of priorities.
For example, you can use all the science you want, but if you don’t actually care about the well-being of students and staff, your science-driven, presumptively safe policies won’t matter.
What, then, are the priorities of higher education in the face of this pandemic? The point of contention became clear early on: finances. Not having students come to campus, enroll in classes, and participate in collegiate life is a financial risk that many colleges and universities cannot afford. The risks differ in magnitude depending on the type of institution (e.g., public vs. private), but they break down into loss of revenue from tuition, private gifts, grants, investment, and many other revenue streams. These problems threaten to exacerbate inequalities between institutions, as some are better equipped to shoulder these losses. Make no mistake, however, this affects even wealthy institutions.
Given these dire circumstances, that finances are a part (perhaps a major point) of the reopening discussion is understandable, even appropriate. But being a member and chairperson of the board are two different jobs. And much like broader conversations (outside of the higher-education sphere) about the interaction between public health needs and the economy, the dichotomy is false: The best way to get back to business is to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 as soon as possible.
Instead, the decisionmaking and messaging has been a stream of ambiguous announcements that are variations of “Yeah, well, but see …” If nothing else is clear, we know that the policy decisions from higher education are not about preventing infections, local outbreaks, or super-spreading events. Instead, they’re focused on publicly defensible reasons for returning to business-as-usual as soon as possible.
As the campus outbreaks make clear, the approach has backfired. Several institutions that opened have had to backtrack, close, and alter their plans on the fly. The embarrassment resides in the fact that none of these institutions can point to a lack of data, or lack of understanding, as the culprit. We’ve known how bad this problem is for many months. Instead, institutions chose to engage in tunnel vision, to their doom. The analogy writes itself: Higher education has acted like a bunch of students who didn’t prepare for an exam, and it’s trying to squirm, lie, and make excuses to get out of it. Such behavior is worthy of a D, at best.
Tap Dancing Around Accountability
Like many single parents low on time and energy, my mother maximized the number of life lessons per encounter. One of her methods involved a type of single-person prisoner’s dilemma, where I’d be punished differently for my mistakes depending on whether I told the truth. If I was honest, I might be on dirty dishes duty for a week. If I made excuses, or lied, I might lose Sega Genesis privileges for two. It worked, and I internalized the lesson (even if I didn’t always act on it): When you make a mistake, admit it early and openly.
Higher education’s Covid-19 responses would fare poorly in my mother’s honesty stress test. Institutions have consistently tap danced (out of rhythm) around accountability. Specifically, they’ve chosen to mount the blame on the very people they rely on to keep lights on: the students. The messaging implies that the outbreaks result not from poor decisionmaking by the adults, but from irresponsible children doing irresponsible things. These false projections are stupid, incurious, and immoral. And they have set a poor example for a generation of students and, worse, betrayed the tenets of a good college education that almost every institution of every kind can agree on.
College has endured as a meaningful rite of passage for millions of young people for generations because of the grander lessons on life it instills, the ones that prepare us for being adults and professionals.
Yes, college is supposed to teach us how to deconstruct a piece of literature, think about our political reality, analyze genome data, and build robots. But more than that, it is supposed to teach young people how to think critically and make hard decisions. The reason that millions of talented young people stay in college, even when they have the skills to enter the workforce early, is that college teaches you that patience will pay off in the long run.
In college, we meet collaborators, life partners, and bandmates. In the process, we learn how to trust people, conceive of a plan and execute it, make mistakes, own up to them, and adapt. These trials are supposed to be training data for what life as an independent adult will be like. Whatever the specific lessons, the most primal function of college is to set a good example. And it is in this role that higher education’s lack of transparency resembles betrayal.
In March, just after students in my course (which was, fittingly, about microbial ecology) were faced with the possibility of having to leave campus, I held class (virtually) and let them discuss whatever they wanted.
Asian American students spoke of the discrimination they were already facing amid widespread racial scapegoating around Covid-19. Some students said that the ordeal had transformed what they wanted to do with their career, away from medicine or finance and towards big data or the study of epidemics. Others talked about the potential challenges of having to learn at home.
But it was the points raised by members of the senior class—two months away from their graduation—that surprised me. They reminded me that they are the class that had to endure the 2016 election in their first semester, and Covid-19 in their final semester.
There was no teaching workshop material that could have prepared me for this. Early in the American phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I witnessed what generational damage to hopes and dreams looked like. But as it was still March, I was optimistic that there was a solution on the way, if not for the pandemic, then for the eroding expectations of young people.
Six months later, my colleagues and I have done far worse than nothing: We’ve facilitated the spread of nihilism to future generations of college students, who have not only been robbed of the essential lessons of a college experience, but have learned far too early that they shouldn’t trust grown-ups, as we are often the ones who have the most to learn.
Photograph: Yiming Chen/Getty Images
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