The Decision to Bring Students Back to Campus Includes an Inescapable Moral Component

As educational institutions plan to serve students in the fall, the decisions they make must be about more than enrollment and revenue—or even health and safety. Obviously, just about everyone wants things to be “back to normal” as soon as possible. Moreover, some institutions are so financially fragile that operating from a distance, with lower enrollments and decreased revenues from campus operations, creates genuine financial exigency, but even in those cases, the final decisions about where and how to serve students cannot be based solely on financial outcomes. At some meaningful level, the decisions must be based on what is right under the circumstances, even if what is right fails to meet the desires of some constituencies, exacerbates financial challenges, or even puts an institution’s survival at risk.

As Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas noted in an article in the Atlantic, “If a school’s cost-benefit analysis [about opening] leads to a conclusion that includes the term ‘acceptable number of casualties,’ it is time for a new model.” He goes on to say, “Because we do not yet have the ability to bring students and staff back to campus while keeping them safe and healthy, we simply cannot return to business as usual. To do so constitutes an abdication of our moral responsibility as leaders (emphasis mine).”

Dr. Sorrell’s commentary is one of the very few I have seen out of probably a hundred articles and essays that so straightforwardly addresses the moral imperative that should be at the core of any decision a college or university makes to bring students (and associated faculty and staff) back on campus. And, he wrote his thoughtful treatise back in May, before the recent, predictable, and explosive resurgence of the novel coronavirus. We have seen that even with small student populations on campus during the summer, hotspots have blown up in a matter of days at dozens of institutions across the country, most of which have been driven by students failing to engage in social distancing and mask wearing, particularly in off-campus venues–over 6,600 cases across the country. In other words, young students are behaving precisely the way they always have despite the myriad safety measures that have supposedly been put in place. Even in highly supervised and well-resourced situations such as sports practices, institutions such as Clemson University and LSU had to shut down football practices because the number of positive tests for COVID-19 was so high on those teams.

Due to my consulting work and my 30 plus year network of relationships with many folks across higher education, I have had a close view into the decision making process in many schools around how they intend to operate in the fall. First of all, people are working really, really hard to develop and implement their plans, whatever they are. On the other hand, many of these same folks are very much “head down,” buried in the tactical, and giving little attention to the strategic and the long-term. That is understandable in the context of the overwhelming challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic and crisis. What is less understandable is how many folks are still relying on “magical thinking” as part of their efforts to bring students, faculty, and staff back on campus for the fall term. In some cases, core strategies to keep people safe are simply nonsensical, such as expecting students to limit elevators to four people, while facing opposite corners, or expecting students to get their own COVID tests at their own expense before the term. Even if students did comply initially, which is highly unlikely, those tests will be meaningful for a very short point in time. Other examples I have seen included things such as asking students to volunteer as “safety monitors,” who will supposedly confront other students who are not following the rules and asking students to commit to social distancing, mask wearing, and avoiding interactions with groups while off campus. Good luck with those plans.

In a working paper from Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, which modeled different infection transmission scenarios at a typical large university, the authors found that even with nearly 100% compliance with the most effective strategies and essentially zero off-campus interactions (impossible), there would still be students and faculty who would contract COVID-19 and the study didn’t even model how faculty might spread the disease to other faculty or staff. And, shockingly, the study found that if no precautions were taken at all, COVID would spread to nearly 100% of the university population before the end of the semester. This is because the “normal” behavior on and off college campuses combined with how those institutions are structured to begin with, create an almost perfect environment for the spread of a corona virus. What we can assume with high confidence is that any institution that brings people back into a face to face scenario in the fall will end up somewhere between perfect execution of, and compliance with, preventative measures, and a total failure to do so. In other words, a typical institution is more likely to experience much less optimistic infection rates. Unfortunately, there is another profoundly important element of COVID-19 response required of colleges and universities which relates to how they support students and other members of a college community once they test positive and are quarantined. This is another place I’ve seen magical thinking, with institutions that have limited or no on-site healthcare resources thinking that they will effectively care for students who cannot leave a dorm room or apartment, on or off-campus, let alone the ability to determine, with any clinical expertise, whether someone is sick enough to require acute medical care.

The reality we are facing today, therefore, is that it is essentially impossible to bring people onto a college campus and ensure that no one will contract COVID-19. To be fair, we could say the same about influenza or mononucleosis or many other contagious diseases. However, addressing COVID-19 by itself, since it is impossible to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved, what is the number of illnesses or even deaths that a college is willing to accept in order to have people back on campus? No matter what other efforts are in place, it is impossible to get around this core question for any institution that intends to have students on campus. And, when you address that question, you have entered the realm of decisions that, as president Sorrell noted, fall under moral responsibility. To be clear, this does not mean that a decision to serve some number of students on campus is immoral. What it means is that such a decision cannot be made without addressing an inevitable moral component. For Dr. Sorrell and Paul Quinn College, their conclusion was that bringing folks back was not tenable.

I’ve been the president of several institutions of higher education and I have personally experienced very difficult dilemmas. As someone once said, being a CEO often requires you to choose between bad and catastrophic. Some days are just brutal. But, if a college president, executive team, or board of trustees cannot look each other in the eye and agree that there is some inevitable number of casualties, and that they are okay with that, then they cannot bring people back on campus for the fall term. If there is agreement on an acceptable number of casualties, then an institution’s leadership is also assuming moral responsibility for the outcomes, having decided that the ensuing benefit was greater than the risk to people’s health and safety. No amount of magical thinking will change that reality.

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