Universities in a Mess Over Upcoming Year; Some Reopenings Meeting Fierce Resistance

US universities and colleges are already in serious financial trouble due to coronavirus, and the coming fall season won’t do much to improve matters. Schools were already all over the map about what they are doing for the coming school year. And some of them are changing course midstream as infections rise in their state.

It isn’t just that schools had to refund room and board fees for their aborted spring terms. Universities make about $50 billion from non-tuition charges, not just room and board but also renting out university space and tickets to sporting events. That has evaporated and is not coming back any time soon.

Even at the campuses that say they are reopening, things will not go back to the old normal. Foreign students only account for 5.5% of the student population, but over the years, Chinese students have become the most heavily represented nationality and they pay full fees and tuition. Between travel restrictions, China-bashing, and high Covid-19 risks, foreign enrollment is expected to plunge, and that will have a disproportionate impact on revenues.

It isn’t clear whether it is possible to reopen a university safely, at least in an America which has done plenty to get coronavirus wrong and still has far too few people wearing masks. One academic has told me the administrators he has spoken to at several universities have admitted they see no way to reopen dorms safely, yet many are doing just that. Lowering density of occupancy would reduce but not eliminate risk.

And that raises the question of safe for whom? The universities’ decisions appear to be driven by concerns about safety of their students and their faculty. The fate of support staff like cafeteria workers and dorm crews gets nary a mention. Nor does the safety of the communities in which they live, even when the school is tax exempt, appear to rate high, if at all.

The lack of criticism from locals seems odd until you factor in the dependence of many communities like Charlottesville, VA on their school. Imagine the hostility if you took what would be perceived as a position opposing the survival of the biggest employer in town. Nevertheless, these reopenings, even ones on a more limited scale, are all superspreader events in the making, particularly since it will be impossible to regulate student behavior in student housing and on their free time. And the whole point of an on-campus experience is to get to know classmates. Hard to do that at a six foot remove.

For US students, the question is whether to come back at all. Many schools that are less tuition dependent are looking to limit how many students return. Those in programs that require lab work are getting priority; some schools are favoring seniors. Consider Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, as described by CNN:

Harvard University plans to bring up to 40% of undergraduates back to campus for the fall semester, including all first-year students, the school announced on Monday. In addition to first-year students, Harvard will allow students who need to be on campus “to progress academically” to return as well.

Princeton University will welcome undergraduate students back to campus in the fall with a reduced capacity, the school announced on Monday. First-year students and juniors will be allowed to return to campus for the fall semester, while sophomores and seniors will be welcomed back in the spring semester…..

Both universities will emphasize online instructions. At Harvard, all course instruction will be delivered online, including for students living on campus. Princeton said that most academic instruction will remain online….

Last week, Yale University announced a similar plan to limit the number of people on campus. Yale will reopen in the fall without sophomores living on campus and then will be open in the spring without freshmen living on campus.

Princeton is at least lowering its tuition by 10%. Not Harvard. And that underscores how much higher education in the US has become about credentialing, as opposed to learning. Teachers have described how difficult it is to teach online, and that it’s impossible to teach, as opposed to merely lecture, with more than 20 students.

Some schools are basically admitting they are making it up as they go, which is not a great inducement to return either. For instance, read between the lines of the University of Maine’s reopening plans:

Chancellor Malloy, UMS University Presidents and Dean of Maine Law unveil unifying principles universities will be using to start on-campus instruction August 31 as scheduled.

Chancellor Dannel Malloy, Maine’s public university presidents, and the dean of Maine Law have adopted a set of unifying safe return and learning principles that will be used in campus-specific plans to bring students, faculty, and staff back to campus for face-to-face instruction starting on Aug. 31, the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. The release of Together for Maine: Principles for a Safe Return kicks off a cascade of student and community messaging at the universities to keep stakeholders informed of campus-specific plans and updates over the summer.

The key elements of the principles include screening strategies to identify and isolate infection at the start of the semester, and a commitment to stay safe and together during the semester with science-based practices aligned with guidance from public health authorities and the UMS Scientific Advisory Board, chaired by University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy….

The University of Maine System will continue to monitor the public health situation, following civil guidance and adjusting plans if necessary to protect student and community health….

“What we have done and learned in our response to the pandemic is helping us plan for the fall with a focus on student safety and success,” said President Ferrini-Mundy. “Faculty at all of our campuses are working to develop the flexible, innovative instruction students will need to be successful.”

This sort of thing does not inspire confidence, particularly in the face of some schools scaling back reopening plans in light of rising infection rates. From Inside Higher Education:

Two universities that were planning on in-person fall terms are now backing away from those plans due to the rise in coronavirus cases, and a third university is shifting its second summer session courses online….

The University of Southern California announced last week that undergraduate students will take all or most of their courses online, reversing course from earlier plans to invite undergraduates back to campus for an in-person fall semester…

Across the country, in Virginia, Hampton University also cited the rise in coronavirus cases in announcing it was changing its plans to reopen the campus in favor of a remote-only fall….

Texas State University said it would shift almost all of the classes for its second summer session online, with the only classes that will remain face-to-face being those “that require a face-to-face component for licensure or degree requirements.

And one school that is doggedly sticking to a reopening plan that does not require students to wear masks in class is facing a faculty rebellion. From Georgia Public Broadcasting:

The majority of Georgia Tech professors, including some the university’s most acclaimed faculty members, have launched a revolt over reopening this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying the current plan “threatens the health, well-being and education of students, staff, and faculty.”

More than 800 of Tech’s 1,100 faculty members outlined their concerns…

The letter…can be read in full here….

The faculty’s objections throw into question the mid-August plans of reopening at one of the nation’s premier public universities. It also comes at a time when the state of Georgia has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases. At Tech, nearly a dozen students living in Greek housing near campus have tested positive for coronavirus in recent weeks.

Faculty were already feeling anxious about the upcoming fall semester, GPB News was told, but a recent decision by the Board of Regents and state university system to not require students wear masks in classrooms sent faculty over the edge. Tech, like other public universities in the state, has to follow the rules mandated by the University System of Georgia.

As Lambert points out, universities started nearly 1000 years ago and survived plagues. But the neoliberal era has simultaneously bloated them well beyond their educational focus while also making them financially fragile. On CNN, a spokesman for the American Council for Education said that a 20% decline in enrollment would be devastating for US universities. Yet the clip ended with a student saying that based on what he knew now, he didn’t regard it as safe to return. And that’s before getting to the question of whether largely online, socially distant instruction is worth its hefty price tag.

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