Will There Be a COVID-19 Reckoning for College Administrations and Boards?

Many colleges and universities in the US have defied their faculty, staff, and students in bringing students back to campus during a pandemic, and they can’t explain why. Could this be the straw that finally breaks the back of neoliberal education anti-management?

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from CDC-MMWR study of COVID-19 infection rates among college-age students, which increased 55% nationally during August 2020

When the COVID-19 crisis started, many of us in US higher education worried about university administrations using the crisis as an opportunity to push through policies they would otherwise be unable to enact. As the American Association of University Professors put it, “the COVID-19 pandemic must not become the occasion for administrations or governing boards to jettison normative principles of academic governance.”

There are far too many worrying signs of just that happening, all over the country.

Yet few of us suspected that the opposite might also happen: that the pandemic might become the occasion for university communities to see just how far from education the mission of higher education presidents and other administrators has strayed, and how much, no matter their talk about honoring shared governance, administrators have given up on it entirely.

It is beginning to seem like the pandemic might provide a moment of reckoning for US higher education that most of us thought would never come.

COVID-19 has exposed a fundamental truth of university life in a way it never has been exposed before. At many schools, administrations run the university however they choose, without regard for what faculty, staff, and students want. They give lip service to listening to what we want, because that may be technically required by governance rules, contracts, and even laws; but at the end of the day, they do not care. Not only that: they gaslight us by telling us that they are doing what we want, even as we are directly telling them that they aren’t. It’s hard not to note that this is one way of understanding the longstanding call from the political right to “run universities like businesses”: businesses are authoritarian structures, with boards and CEOs who are paid to do precisely what they think will achieve the business goals (usually, maximize profit) regardless of what employees say or think.

Some Presidents sound positively Trumpian. They speak out of both sides of their mouths; they acknowledge the seriousness of COVID-19 but then insist on pressing ahead. They say that “the virus isn’t going away” and so we need to reopen in-person right now, despite that reasoning making no sense to epidemiologists or public health professionals. They insist they are prepared to deal with the virus, but then rely on unproven measures to address it — or even measures that have repeatedly failed. They use words like “trust” and “responsibility” when talking about student behavior, while being profoundly irresponsible and untrustworthy themselves.

It is no surprise that some administrators have now started to blame the students for doing what everyone knows students will do — and, as with everything else about this debacle, exactly as critics predicted well before it started to happen. That responsibility rests squarely on administrators’ shoulders, not those of students. Presidents are the ones we pay to act responsibly, not college students. It is remarkable hypocrisy for presidents and other university administrators to publicly act with profound irresponsibility while then attacking those they are supposed to care for when they act just as we know they will. In one of the strangest ironies of this situation, students at Notre Dame used a system designed for them to report each other’s failures to follow health guidelines to report Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins for publicly failing to follow his own rules and contracting COVID-19, and to demand his resignation. He should resign. But will the Notre Dame Board find a new President who does actually put the university first?

Some administrators openly disrespect science, use double talk, blame and refuse to listen to their own communities, in some of the most serious decisions they will make in their lives. Some even seem to have hidden their own internal reports, or reports from local public health authorities, when they didn’t support in-person reopening plans.

For many of us who work at colleges and universities and attend them as students, the demand that we reopen campuses for in-person classes has been met with a widespread and obvious question: why?

If university faculty, students, parents, and staff do not think it is wise or safe to open in person, why are the universities doing it?

You would think that the decision to take such risks with the lives not just of everyone who is formally part of a university, but also everyone in the communities that surround them, would be easily explained.

You would think that the decision to dismiss the trust, the expertise, and the consent of the communities they care for would only be taken for reasons that are clear.

Yet they aren’t. Even after reading these plans for months and listening to our administrators, we can’t even come up with a reasonable explanation for why so many universities have chosen to demand in-person education. We can say that it is contrary to common sense; to what many if not most in our communities want; and that it puts everyone at risk for their lives. Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation, but if there is one, universities are refusing to provide it.

The fact that presidents can’t present a clear, compelling, and simple explanation for their reopening plans, and yet pursue them with dogged force, often against serious opposition from across their communities, tells us something very important and unpleasant. It tells us that whatever their reason is, they know that saying it out loud would be worse than dealing with the current opposition; worse than dealing with the likely fallout from deaths and illness caused by their own responsibility.

It can’t just be money, because we already know money is part of it, and to some extent the administrations have come clean about that. At least it can’t be money in an ordinary sense — a 10%, 20%, or 30% reduction in annual revenue. It has to be something deeper and more serious. Speculation and good detective work at several universities has produced some possible explanations, but that’s all they are. Most of them focus on things that are not primarily about education: athletics, room and board fees, “extras” that many academic activists have long felt were levers being applied by the “run the university like a business” crowd whose goal is really to bankrupt the university through the backdoor.

It’s interesting to reflect that it isn’t really in-person education that administrators seem concerned about, at the end of the day: it’s students living in on-campus and off-campus housing. That’s what we as faculty advocates are concerned about too. It may well be true that classrooms can be changed (although at great expense) so as to make teaching relatively safe from viral transmission, which is one reason why even the CDC, although under political pressure, has said that under some circumstances it is acceptable to hold in-person classes for K-12 education. They haven’t said the same thing about colleges and universities, and the differences between the two are instructive: the students are slightly older, of course, and therefore slightly more vulnerable to COVID-19 itself; but the students live together, in large groups, and that is the major site of transmission we should be concerned about. It’s remarkable how much of the in-person education plans focus on classroom mitigation, when dorms and apartments, along with shared social spaces — not classrooms — are what we really need to worry about. College-age young adults are understood as an especially important vector for viral transmission to themselves and to others.

Some of our universities have made vague — and in some ways insulting — suggestions that the “most vulnerable” students demand it, ones that, given the particularly heavy toll of COVID-19 on minority communities, strike many of us as especially offensive. But to the extent the surveys that underlie this reasoning have been made public, they don’t show anything of the sort. They show that some vulnerable students have real problems with online-only education. That’s a given. But they don’t show that even those students were presented with the clear and obvious question we all face: which would you choose between online-only education, and putting yourself and your families at risk of death?

There is also the galling fact that here again, administrators seem to be gathering community input exactly and only so that it serves the decisions they’ve already made. After all, of all the many constituencies who should play a role in university life, students, while important, are not typically accorded governance powers denied to faculty and staff; and when matters of life and death emerge, we typically do not defer to students. Imagine if Presidents had done a survey of undergraduate students that asked whether or not the university should try to prevent underage drinking, and then claimed that their preferences meant we just had to let them drink.

It’s been a longstanding joke in higher education that universities are hedge funds, or real estate holding companies, with classrooms attached. Here is where we are seeing, perhaps for the first time, the dire results of the transformation that has made that true. The evidence continually suggests that in one way or another, universities now rely on room and board and other amenity costs for fundamental parts of their operations, and cannot afford to give up the income that comes from them. But because the relationship of that income to the core educational mission is so opaque and troubling, this is one thing administrations don’t want to say out loud. They need room and board to support their investments in property. Or to pay off the loans they owe on that property. Or to pay the salaries of administrators that far exceed those of instructional staff, and that are not providing direct educational services.

One of the striking things about the arguments universities make in favor of in-person reopening is that abundant counter-arguments exist to them that the pro-opening universities make no effort to rebut. Those are of course the practices of the many universities that have chosen to go entirely online. These are not outliers, exceptions, or special cases: approximately 1/3 of all colleges and universities have chosen this modality. They span all the spectrums: from Harvard to small HBCUs, from small rural schools to major ones in large cities. Even if they serve the “most vulnerable” populations some claim need in-person education, they have found a way. Even if it causes financial difficulties, they have found ways to address them.

The one thing you don’t see among these universities is sustained and obvious pressure from their communities to change course — which is exactly what we do see at many of the schools that have forced in-person reopening.

There are some interesting speculations about the distinctions between the schools that have forced reopening and those that early on made the decision not to. It certainly appears that many of the all-online schools are in solidly blue states and have Democratic governors. Many are in states where faculty and staff have unions. And many display an active interest in soliciting the assent of the entire communities they serve — exactly what we don’t see happening at the others.

All of this has to remind us of some other stories of university Presidents in the recent past. The campuses of both Michigan State University and Penn State University have been rocked by the revelations of ongoing sexual abuse by people associated with their athletic programs. In both cases, university Presidents played important roles. At Michigan State, former President Lou Anna Simon ran the school for 12 years while Larry Nassar abused upwards of 150 young women and girls. Simon resigned only under serious pressure, and that only because Nassar’s conduct was made public not by the university, but by the brave victims of his abuse. Simon’s legalistic defense of her actions made clear that she saw her job not as caring for the MSU community, but as protecting the MSU brand when the truth might somehow tarnish it.

At Penn State, former President Graham Spanier presided over the university while Jerry Sandusky served his final years as an assistant football coach and sexually abused dozens of young boys. Rather than taking decisive action against this abhorrent abuse, Spanier ran interference for the football program, eventually causing him to resign in disgrace, and to be among the Penn State administrators who “concealed Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities,” in the words of the report of Louis Freeh, former FBI Director who was hired by the Board of Trustees to investigate the matter. What even Freeh did not investigate was how and why the Board can have allowed a university climate in which a President thought this was the best thing for the university.

Under any ordinary understanding of the job of Presidents of universities, whether or not they could have prevented Nassar’s and Sandusky’s conduct, they clearly should have known about and stopped it. They should have created environments in which anyone who knew about or suspected such conduct would have been encouraged to report it, and any credible claims of conduct so dangerous would be thoroughly investigated. Caring for their communities has to be foremost in what anyone understands the job of President to be.

But in too many cases, it isn’t. Something else is. Protecting “the university,” which seems to mean something like a public image and a brand, is. Satisfying the needs of powerful donors, alumni, and Board members whose actual participation in the everyday educational mission of the university may be quite minimal, is. Lying to the public and the community is par for the course. Telling community members that the university is actually run by them, when nothing could be further from the truth, is par for the course.

To Simon and Spanier we can add the many university Presidents who are refusing to follow science, to listen to their communities, and to act with callous disregard for all of us, in pursuit of a goal they can’t articulate.

All around the world and around the US, places that experienced some relief from the pandemic are now having serious resurgences. The only places that have been able to resist these second waves are those that have continued to have massive stay-at-home orders with massive test-and-trace programs. To be clear, a few universities that have reopened have developed and appear to be following such plans, and it is hard to find fault with that — except that the massive programs at many of these universities appear to be exposing that many cases of COVID-19 were created by bringing students back toc campus.

But many more, including in my home state of Virginia (where the state government, uniquely led by a Democratic governor with an MD, has somehow managed to obscure the question of responsibility for managing the crisis in institutions of higher education in particular), and to be very frank, including the university I work at, are doing the bare minimum, based on what I will politely call “parsimonious” readings of public health advice and CDC guidelines that we all know have been distorted by the anti-science politics of the current administration. They brought thousands or tens of thousands of people into densely crowded urban areas, for reasons they cannot articulate, and then played fast and loose with science, with facts, and with the governance of their own institutions.

These Presidents do not work for the university, if we understand “the university” to mean the faculty, students, and staff who make it up. They work for something and someone else. That they earn enormous amounts of money above and beyond what those of us who really do work at universities do is not just an insult. It is not because “you can only get the best people.” These salaries are better understood as bribes: as heavy incentives to violate the safety and wishes of their communities and the educational mission of their institutions and to simultaneously tell us that they are here for us. They aren’t here for us. They are in too many ways here against us.

The COVID-19 pandemic is making it alarmingly clear: many university administrations don’t actually put education, care, or research at the top of their list of values. And yet these are the only things they are supposed to value. Every university President who insisted on bringing students back to campus, over the objections of their own communities, deserves the vote of no-confidence that University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel recently faced. Further, the Boards that appointed and supported them, the Presidents themselves, and the senior administrators they hired, all are in need of serious reexamination by their communities and the public that trusts them to do a job they appear to care about very little. It is time to clean house.

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