The University and the Global Pandemic: In the Eye of the Storm

This week marks the beginning of a new semester in many colleges and universities across the U.S. But unlike other semesters when the first week of classes evoked a sense of joyful anxiety and anticipation, this week has been filled with dread and a sense of a looming disaster. While some colleges and universities announced that they are moving online and some even offered tuition reduction, others moved straight ahead with their plans to reopen and bring students back to campus for in-person classes. With cases spiking in many parts of the country, with the total count of infections rising to 5.5 million and the official death toll exceedign 170 thousand, with more information emerging about the detrimental effects of this disease, many are returning to campuses amidst all the warning signs that poorly ventilated buildings and the system of shuffling bodies around campus is a sure road to worsening this epidemiological disaster.

Why would universities and colleges plunge straight ahead into the mess called “reopening” and “campus reentry?

No one is surprised by the answer – money. Students have to bring in tuition dollars and those tuition dollars have to keep the university business afloat.

But universities have done more than just move ahead with in-person classes to get the tuition dollars. A few schools around the country have asked students to sign COVID waivers and blocked students’ ability to register for classes or access healthcare if they refused to sign the waiver. Pause for a second. Institutions are asking students to sign waivers that they acknowledge that COVID is a deadly disease but they would not hold the university liable if they contract it.

Many institutions have also pushed faculty in high-risk categories or those caring for family members in high-risk categories to accept in-person instruction or run the risk being fired. In some cases, pleas for understanding that contracting this virus would result in an inevitable death of a child with a heart condition rose to the level of national attention and resulted in accommodations. In many cases, however, this violent refusal to provide accommodations in the context of a global disaster went on, leaving families struggling to figure out how to choose between financial and physical survival.

Universities have invested in “safe return” packets created by private firms, with fancy logos and clever decals directing traffic around hallways that in some cases are barely four feet wide. Faculty and staff received safety packets with face shields and a small bottle of sanitizer. They might as well a body bag to dispose of the corpse when the body in the classroom has run its course and succumbed to the disease. Faculty have been asked to identify suitable replacements who would take over their courses when they become sick or die. Some universities have created promotional videos that include images of large lecture theaters for over a hundred people but barely hold twenty students enthralled by their professor’s lecture. Websites are now full of pictures of people interacting with each other that would not have been considered safe for more than 15 minutes even in masks. But why? Why is it that we have not learned that at the time of crisis selling a fake dream is the worst kind of lie? That promising “a college experience” with a death waiver is basically criminal? That forcing faculty to make choices between an unsafe return to work or being force to take a leave of absence or be altogether fired is beyond the pale?

In some cases, university administrators are explicit that they want faculty to offer in-person instruction because “students want a real college experience.” This position reflects what has become common sense over the last two decades – students are customers and as the U.S. consumerist culture goes, the customer is always right.

Here is the clash. The conflict. The deadly collision if you will. What if the customer might not be right?

We live in the midst of a massive political crisis where disinformation about this pandemic has reached epic proportions. From the state level all the way to the national level, we have been observing efforts to suppress the data and misinform the public about the extent of the crisis, its drastic proportions, and its wildfire spread. Conspiracy theories and politicization of the pandemic have turned even basic safety precautions, such as masks, into matters of life or death.

In this situation, even a customer who may wish to be fully informed has no way of having all the information necessary to make an informed decision. The jury is still out whether customers make right choices even if they possess necessary facts. The crowds congregating on campuses in complete disregard of basic safety rules like wearing masks and staying six feet apart suggest that this might not be the case.

That is not all of the issue though.

What has been the most tragic for me to watch is how the university has completely betrayed its mission by following the decision to open its campuses.

Historically, the university has been the site of enlightenment, the site where expert knowledge was created, valued, and curated. The mission of the university has been to bring knowledge to the community and to serve the state in improving the wellbeing of its citizens. I admit that it has not always been benevolent – colonizing at times, devastating at others. But the major function of producing knowledge and valuing expertise has been at the core of what universities did. Opening campuses, bringing large groups of students together, giving freedom to socialize at fraternity or sorority parties, bars, or night clubs goes counter to all scientific evidence and guidance we have obtained so far.

There is also something else. Universities sought to model the character traits to be pursued – curiosity, integrity, and hard work. Higher education is not built on the ideals of those who wanted to make a quick buck. It was built on the ideals of becoming a better person through encounter with expert knowledge and through willingness to grapple with complex issues without looking for dishonest short-cuts. Promising a “real college experience” in the midst of a global pandemic, especially in states where cases have been rising since the beginning of summer at exponential rates, is at best dishonest, at worst morally reprehensible.

So, here we are – in the middle of a global pandemic, in midst of a grave political crisis, in the mire mess of disinformation on every imaginable level. And what choice do universities leaders or boards that govern them make? To sacrifice lives – of students, staff, and faculty – to protect the bottom line. To go counter to expert knowledge, to go counter to best available scientific evidence, and to go counter to basic ethical and moral imperatives of modeling integrity, serving communities, and saving lives. All for the sake of profit.

Humanities scholars have long raised concerns about the way universities have become businesses. Profit over people. Contingent faculty as disposable labor. Students as customers rather than learners. Dictatorial control over professors’ speech if they express unpopular opinions. There have been warning signs that this turn from the function of enlightenment towards the function of profit-making would lead to a disaster. This is neither a new crisis nor a new revelation. But like in every other area of American life, COVID19 opened these sores anew and revealed the rot inside. We knew or suspected it was there. We just have not really done much about it. 

What could have been done differently?

Universities have done a great job supporting researchers looking for biomedical solutions or engineering innovations that could address equipment shortages. But there could have been a more concerted effort to educate students and their families about the dangers of the disease and to take action towards elevating considerations of public good over individual desires. Instead of pandering to individual students’ fantasies of sorority rush parties, fraternity beer bashes, fall football tailgating, afternoon sun at the quad, and rock climbing at the university gym – because admit it, that’s what “true colleges experience” has become – universities could have cultivated spaces for the conversation about the common good, about what is best for the society at large, and about the course of action that would help us get through this crisis as a civilization. Our communities needed these conversations, not just our students.

Instead of finding elaborate ways to push faculty towards in-person instruction, universities could have engaged in a radical experiment of reimagining education. Why were we not using this time to create new possibilities of what university learning could entail? Why were we not asking ourselves questions about alternative ways of engaging with each other? Why were we not pursuing alternative spaces for learning collectively? We all knew face-to-face contact would facilitate the spread of the disease. We could have looked for new approaches and innovative teaching that would move towards destandardization, towards disrupting the consumerist culture, and towards redesigning our relationships with each other, with ideas, with expert knowledge. All of a sudden, the world constrained by the fear of infections became more interconnected than ever with art galleries, concert halls, and museums offering virtual tours, webinars, and lectures. So many opportunities that could have been harnessed in creative ways to produce something new were wasted. Instead universities wasted already limited resources on return packets that create only an illusion of safety.

Finally, this could have been the time for the professoriate to set aside individual differences and consider how we could stand in solidarity with suffering communities, with underappreciated educators in schools, and with workers who were losing their jobs as unemployment rates grew.  Academia’s culture of “divide and conquer” kept most folks focused on individual recognition, individual attainment, individual rewards, and individual promotion. In the end, very few have attempted to take on this crisis collectively. Historical crises have shown that when “I” reigns supreme, we all become sheep prepared for slaughter. Instead of a national strike – in solidarity and support for all those who are losing their jobs, who are facing the threat of becoming infected and dying, and who are terrified about their future – the professoriate went ahead focusing on individual little problems, courses, and papers. This is a dangerous path towards extinction.

We need change and action. In the long run, we need to strive for a more ethical and moral engagement with the world, with our students, and with each other. But in the short run, we need collective resistance. What’s ahead is not just the impending doom of inevitable outbreaks, but also the public outcry about university’s betrayal of its trust. We cannot be and should not be complicit in this self-destruction.

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