American Universities and COVID: Its All about Money
The diversity of approaches to the fall semester taken by myriad Universities across the country is surprising and sometimes shocking to many, especially in light of the worsening state of the pandemic across the US. There are a lot of reasons given, all "true", but none really justifying the risk. (We'll ignore the truly inane reasons like "students will miss the college experience! Oh no!" and "Sports! We need sports! Because SPORTS!".)
Yes, teaching and learning will be better in person (at least for some professors and material). Some classes require access to unique equipment. But it's also true that teaching and learning are better when the student and/or instructor aren't sick (or worse). And if this is the reason, why then aren't we focusing on figuring out who has to be there, the classes that really can't succeed otherwise, and only having those folks on campus. Less people, less risk.
Yes, there are students who have nowhere else to go, either foreign students stranded in the country, or students without a home. And there are students who don't have internet at home. But again, why aren't these folks the focus, why aren't we figuring out how to bring folks like these back? Why is everyone going back at so many places?
An article in today's Chronicle of Higher Ed ("Its Plan Is Risky, Its Community Is Vulnerable, and Cases Are Surging. Why Is This University Reopening?") lays out the reasons pretty clearly: money and fear.
In mid-June, Robin G. Cummings held a virtual town hall to fill faculty members in on the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s latest plans to return students to campus in the fall.
Then Cummings made an unusually frank admission: He feared if Pembroke opened all online, some students would take a gap year.
“We’re facing a potential 10-percent cut in our budget” from state appropriations, he said. [...] “We get significant funding from our students, from them paying tuition, and there’s a significant difference between that tuition and online,” Cummings said. “Now you might say, ‘Oh my gosh, are you making a financial decision?’ To some degree, yes.”
“We live and die on our students coming to this campus,” he said later that afternoon, in a town hall for staff members.
Cummings says publicly what most Universities won't: this is (almost) all about a fear of financial disaster, which is a very real fear for Universities outside the top-150 or so. (Others could weather the storm, but are still driven by fear).
The US has corporatized Universities over the past few decades (as a result of funding cuts driven by a one-two punch of the US obsession with tax cuts and rampant anti-intellectualism), and as with the rest of our society, there are no real provisions for extraordinary circumstances. Much more than any other major economy, America's structure (from low taxes through private health care through market-based retirement structures) depends on the economy being healthy, on people being able to work.
There are no safety nets. Not for people, not for companies, not for Universities.