Re-opening the University

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As the spring semester fades and the fall semester looms on the horizon, a number of universities have announced their intention to bring the students back to the physical campus. Many others have simply declared their intention to teach remotely. These very confident declarations – whether “for” or “against” – cut across all sorts of institutional divides. Reading them, I can think of only a few good reasons to “re-open” any university, but I can think of many sobering reasons to keep it operating remotely.

You could, first of all, make a strong case that face-to-face instruction is pedagogically superior to distance or remote learning. We’ve had that argument before, and if I come down firmly on one side of it (that is, on the side of bricks-and-mortar campuses), I have enough respect for the other side to recognize that various approaches to teaching and learning have value, and that “meeting students where they are” is a wide-angled philosophy with a lot of different possibilities. There is a false dichotomy present in headlines that trumpet a “return to face-to-face instruction” when the reality is that we’re likely to dwell in the interstices between these two modes for some time. Even the cavalier Mitch Daniels, who proposed that COVID-19 offered almost “zero lethal threat” to returning students, admitted that Purdue would likely be teaching in a hybrid fashion.

Obviously, this adjustment to new modes of instruction will require a lot of the faculty, but I believe in it. That is, I know that I am a better teacher – and that students learn from me better (just as I learn from them) when we are face-to-face in the same room, saturated in the same affective context, holding the same books, watching the same clips, or sifting through the same documents. To get as close to “face-to-face” as I can, I’ll teach with a mask on, talking to ten people in a room that seats forty, or in some high-flex situation with a hundred students receiving a recorded lecture and ten sections of ten students meeting in rooms that seat forty. I’ll move some classroom content online, make a lot of it asynchronous, and change the way we work in very small groups. I’ll take a test every morning, if there is one. Such a complicated prospect is far superior to anything we can do “just” digitally.

Pulling on this thread a little more, you could certainly argue that the students in our classrooms come from radically different home-scapes, and that a campus can be a flatter, somewhat more equitable place because everyone is jumbled into the same dorms, sitting together in the same spaces, learning from the same faculty, in the same timezone, benefitting from the generosity and professionalism of staff in the real world. Obviously, no campus is perfectly flat, but many are, perhaps, a lot flatter than what lies outside of the gates. Anyone who has finished this semester by Zoom knows what I am talking about: when students turn on their cameras in their bedrooms, in their kitchens, and outside on porches and patios, we can see structures of difference more clearly. The classroom blurs those.

In all of this, I am a realist. I’m self-aware enough to realize that the last five weeks of this past semester were heavily improvised, a form of pedagogical triage. I can do better with more time and preparation. At the same time, I doubt additional resources are going to come along anytime soon, and I don’t think that this kind of extraordinary transition from one extreme of higher ed to the other can be done well with a handful of spit, bubble gum, and band-aids. Next fall will be a kind of triage, too – better, but perhaps not my best. I’m also cynical enough to know that many universities and colleges will use this “remote-learning” experiment – and whatever excellence we can muster in new formats – to justify changes that I don’t think are in any student’s best interest. Those of us who believe in the value of the old classroom should guard against the permanent reallocation of resources towards the the snazzy new thing that is inferior by any statistic. “Emergency measures end with the emergency,” as English professor Elizabeth Hansen put it in the Queen’s University Faculty Association newsletter.

For everyone without a big endowment – and that is most of higher ed – this is a tough, tough moment. In a perfect world, of course, there would be a dynamic federal response, awe-inspiring in its wisdom, that would shore up the foundations of one of the greatest drivers of equality in this (not terribly equal) country: the public university and state college. Looking at the White House, I see no hope of that. In the end, state and public universities will make the switch to remote learning, and students will take those classes because many of them aren’t necessarily in it just for the high-touch feel of campus life. They aren’t taking classes for the club sports and social clubs, and they won’t miss those things if they are gone. They simply need the degree, whether it comes through a laptop or a blackboard. The bloodletting on that front will come quickly, as the states begin to trim their budgets, now that the pandemic has eliminated entire segments of the economy with brutal efficiency, and now that tax revenues have vanished.

When public universities and state colleges close, it won’t be because students decided to defer admission or take a gap year; it will be because the last tiny measure of public trust – as indexed by financial support – has finally been erased. Thirty years of history led to this moment. Taxpayers will ask for their money back, and, cutting their nose to spite their face, will more aggressively push for an opening of restaurants and spas than for the preservation of the local community college. In the worst case dystopia, these institutions will vanish, leaving only the high sheen of elite universities, rebounding with the market, and a few battered big publics.

In contrast to all of these rationales for returning to the actual classroom, the public health reasons for keeping our universities and colleges “closed” (or, again, remote) are overwhelming: we face a virus we barely understand, that is transmitted during a long period in which a carrier is asymptomatic, that lingers on surfaces and thrives in social settings. Everyone in the community is at risk, and most especially the staff who’ll be doing enhanced testing, who’ll be serving food, providing front-line health care, cleaning dorm rooms and classrooms, and responding to emergencies. Most staff are much older than students, and many – here and elsewhere – come from marginalized communities of some kind or another. The same is true of the faculty, but teaching in a classroom for 50 minutes 3 times a week does not expose one to the virus in quite the same way as taking temperatures in the dorm, or cleaning desktops, or shelving library books. Health care workers. Service providers. Cleaning crews. First-responders. This, we know, is the one of the demographics that, in our larger communities, has been murderously cut down by COVID-19. And yet it is also true that this is the very same constituency whose livelihood depends on this same work, whose families rely on a paycheck.

I’d like to see universities lead their campus-wide discussions of re-opening by focusing on this most precariously positioned group. Human infrastructure is important to the short term and longer term future of these places. If there is flexibility to spend down on the endowment, this is the moment to do it. If there isn’t, retrain staff to do other things that we will need to do in the new normal. After all, universities have a fiduciary responsibility not merely to their history and to their brand, but also to their community. Additionally, they have a moral responsibility to craft plans for the fall semester that center those at the margins, which seems like especially good public health policy, given the way that hospitals, health care workers, and first responders have been instruments of both salvation and of contagion. This could be the story of staff in September.

The truth is, though, that I don’t know of any public health expert who claims we should be re-opening anything right now, when clearly don’t have enough testing, contact tracing, a verified treatment, a vaccine, or even a real sense of whether surviving the illness confirms immunity. On a national and international level, what is driving the decision to “re-open” are very serious (and not easily dismissed) concerns about recession and depression, as well as (in the US and elsewhere)  revanchist eugenic fantasies and partisan ideological fixations on “liberty.” And if I’m being honest, the second of these drivers seems to be the loudest in many states. Almost no state has met the half-hearted federal public health guidelines for re-opening, and yet just about every state is bustling to re-open in some fashion. Public health mandates have become drags on the economy because it was clear, back in early March, that you could have a healthy economy or a healthy citizenry, but not both. The pendulum swung one way, and now it swings in the other direction; the momentum here is political and economic, not epidemiological.

Right now, our conversations about the fall semester are echoing the national dialogue about re-opening the economy. Almost all of the advocates for re-opening our campuses speak about money, even when they try to speak about other things. By doing so, whether they realize it or not, they sound less like the public health folks and a lot more like those who are pushing on that pendulum, getting it to move back, to save the economy and not lives. I wish they would focus more on the importance of the classroom as singularly unique thing inward history, as a more equitable, fair, and just space in which to understand anything and everything. I wish, once more, that their focus would be on the precarity of staff, whose lives will hang in the balance if we bring the students back – and also if we don’t.

Let’s remember Mayor Larry Vaughn, the fictional mayor of Amity. Many have referenced the scene in Jaws where the Mayor of Amity, fearing the loss of tourist dollars, cajoles a town official – sitting on a beach with the rest of the locals, all of them afraid to go back in the water – to take one for the team. That scene ends badly for the townspeople, and especially for little Alex Kinter, tentatively playing in the surf and soon to be chomped to bits. No one wants to be the Kinter boy.

Better still, let’s remember 28 Weeks Later, where the hubris of scientists and government officials leads an American team to transplant British expats into a barren landscape once ravaged by zombies. The governing class at the heart of the film has good motivations, and is convinced that they can manage this reintroduction wisely and avoid the melodramas of the “rage virus.” They devise a system of checkpoints, of excessive sanitation, and of identifying bracelets. For a few days, it works beautifully. In the end, however, those repatriated Britons brought back to London are the victims of that terrible hubris, hunted down by “the infected” – as well as by the sharpshooters watching from above, whose first charge had been to keep them safe. Confidence born of science and management philosophies is the villain of 28 Weeks Later. 

At night, as a thousand scenarios run through my mind, it is that hubris – formed by the well-intentioned in support of the return of the vulnerable – that I worry about the most. Even if I, too, wish for the staff, the students, and the faculty to be back together again.