US university presidents and chancellors, enough already.
It’s time to end the consensual hallucination between university leadership, parents, and students that in-person classes will resume in the fall. The bold statements from presidents and provosts are symptomatic of the viruses that also plague American leadership and business: exceptionalism that has morphed into arrogance and an idolatry of money that supplants regard for the commonwealth.
These statements strike a similar tone to a CEO in the midst of a disastrous earnings call who demonstrates near-delusional optimism so investors don’t sell shares. The declarations could be interpreted as: “Parents, please send in your deposits. Nothing wrong here, nope, all good!” A combination of self-aggrandizement and elitism has convinced American universities that our services are worth indebting generations of young people, and now risking becoming agents of spread.
The US COVID-19 narrative is: The virus abates in the summer, comes back in the fall (apex likely not as severe) as we begin administering a recently discovered vaccine, and we’re back to our lives before year end. However, it appears COVID-19 didn’t get the memo with our proposed timeline and is indifferent to our optimism.
While universities have a nobler mission than movie theaters, professional sports, restaurants, and choir practice, the virus thrives equally in a lecture on Aristotle as in a movie theater, bar, or basketball court. The leadership and administrations of universities are talented, creative, and empathetic. But their optimism here isn’t a superpower. It’s a liability.
The highest denominator
While the virus continues to rage, our classrooms are only as safe as our weakest links. Every university effectively falls to the highest common denominator of infection rates. Every university catalog brags that their student body represents all 50 states and 20/30/40+ countries. This means every large university will be welcoming thousands of people from regions that have some of the greatest infection rates globally. After 12 weeks together, those students will travel back to all 50 states, and international students to the four corners of the earth. What. Are. We. Thinking?
See below, my home home state of Florida:
“Distancing”… have you met young people?
On-campus protocols proposed by universities include testing, distancing, class shifts, regular disinfection of classrooms, reconfiguration of campus housing, and even quaranteams. Except our on-campus guidelines are only as effective as those adhered to off campus.
My fourth year at UCLA, I was Interfraternity Council President (not on my LinkedIn profile). As king of the jarheads, I was privy to the tragedy that unfurled each week from the collision of youth, alcohol, and newfound freedom. In the same year, a Lambda Chi passed out from drinking on the roof of his fraternity, rolled off into the driveway, and was found the next morning in a coma. Our IFC VP (a Phi Kap) got s—-y drunk at a party in Malibu, decided to take a Jet Ski out at 2 a.m., and washed up five days later. Our treasurer (Sigma Chi) hanged himself after his girlfriend rejected his marriage proposal. Yep, but today’s youth will definitely wear masks and keep six feet from each other off campus.
Gen Z is by far the age group most likely to be asymptomatic. They are also most likely to feel immortal and defy healthcare guidance. So, both physically and psychologically, young people are most inclined to be super-spreaders.
Letting students congregate in rooms permanently sealed for temperature control, regardless of masks and distancing protocols, plays like the opening scene of “Contagion 2.” We don’t have technology yet to sanitize sealed air, or air circulated through a building. Air purifiers aren’t up to the task.
I flew up from Florida to New York City on Wednesday. That day, Governor Cuomo ordered all travelers from Florida to self-isolate, and I’m complying. If this order had been issued just 8 weeks from now, I would have to miss the first class. Twenty-two million students enroll in college in the US annually. Hundreds of thousands of faculty and administrators would be interacting with them on campus. Do the math on the complexity and the risks: travel, exposure, sealed air, close proximity.
And what about the old people — faculty. The average age of a tenured professor is 55, meaning if you meet a 40-year-old tenured prof, there is someone at 70 teaching Ellingtonia, the Study of Duke Ellington (seriously, I took this class at UCLA). What happens when an iconic professor doesn’t show up week four and is dead by week seven? It’s likely, with any critical mass of in-person classes, that this would happen at several, if not dozens, of campuses. Stanford alone has 22 Nobel laureates, five Pulitzer Prize winners, and 27 MacArthur fellows. These are people we need to protect.
What I believe will happen
In the next six weeks, after receiving deposits/tuition, more universities will begin announcing they are moving to all online courses for fall. The scenario planning via Zoom among administrators rivals D-Day. But likely all scenarios will lead to one realization: the protocols mandated by the surge in US infections will diminish the in-class experience to the point where the delta between in-person and Zoom will be less than the delta between the risks of each approach.
Parents and students may still decide to send their kids back to campus, and make their own decisions concerning the risks they can tolerate with a hybrid experience — online learning while living on or near campus. They should/will enjoy the lawns at UVA and Royce Quad with friends — marked for distancing. But in-person classes should not take place.
Universities will face a financial crisis as parents and students recalibrate the value of the fall semester (spoiler alert: it’s a terrible deal). In addition, our cash cows (international students) may decide xenophobia, COVID-19, and H1-B visa limits aren’t worth $79,000 (estimated one-year cost of attending NYU). This has been a long time coming and, similar to many industries, we will be forced to make hard decisions. Most universities will survive, many will not. This reckoning is overdue and a reflection of how drunk universities have become on exclusivity and the Rolex-ification of campuses, forgetting we’re public servants not luxury brands.
Universities that, after siphoning $1.5 trillion in credit from young people, cannot endure a semester on reduced budgets do not deserve to survive.
A terrible thing to waste
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and there is a huge opportunity. Once university leadership has acknowledged the obvious, they can turn their formidable human and financial capital to reducing the delta between online and offline experiences. We have, in just the last several weeks, come a long way. Leaning in to the online experience will instill universities with a multichannel competence. Post Covid this competence could result in similar levels of student satisfaction and experience, and an effective doubling of campuses if 50% of classes, those best suited for remote learning, are held online. This also has the potential to break the wheel of the emerging caste system fueled by higher ed.
By leveraging technology, universities can unlock a massive increase in the ROI of public universities, which educate two-thirds of university students. The argument that additional seats erode the brand equity of the institutions is bulls–t. A doubling of the freshman seats at UCLA would return admission rates to what they were in the nineties — still more difficult to be admitted than when I applied.
Foster parents and citizens
We’d like to think every fall we, faculty and administrators, become parents (OK, maybe foster parents) to the 22 million students who return to campus each September. What parent would let their kid go to a movie theater 15 times a week? That’s what some universities are proposing with in-person classes.
Yet it’s not our parental concern that should lead to greater transparency and leadership, but our citizenship. American universities are a place where promising youth can find their greatness, and great minds find truths that make the world a better place through research. When it comes to infection rates, universities are the enemy of R0, not its agent.
We are all exhausted from this crisis, and the need for a return to normal is powerful. But we need to check our optimism, and reembrace our other superpower: empathy. We must ensure that healthy 19-year-olds don’t pass the virus to a more vulnerable population.
There isn’t a democracy, Central Bank, heart-lung transplant team, big-tech firm, or boy band that hasn’t been led by a US university alum. US universities have survived and prospered for centuries. We must play a key role, as we always have, in arresting, not enabling, the greatest health crisis of our era.