Magical Thinking Crashes into Harsh Reality

I wrote an article several weeks ago about all the magical thinking that had been employed in colleges and universities that had decided to bring students back for the fall term. I noted that it wasn’t the lack of good ideas or plans that was the problem—although lack of resources was clear in many cases. The problem was (and is) that otherwise really smart people were deluding themselves into believing that they could actually get college students to comply with those plans. We’ve now seen these plans blow up from coast to coast with universities cancelling their plans just before or within days of students showing up. Big names such as Notre Dame, the University of North Carolina, and Michigan State have all reversed their plans before they could even achieve a single week of instruction on campus and public health experts have said they expect the same dynamic to repeat itself broadly across the country in the coming weeks. At a college in my hometown of Colorado Springs, an entire residence hall went into 14-day quarantine after the first day of students moving in. The fact that a student tested positive for COVID on the first day was not a surprise. That was inevitable as students bring the virus with them. The problem was that other students in the dorm could not manage to follow the physical distancing and mask protocols for even the first few hours they were on campus, so all 155 residents had to be quarantined! There will now be other individuals who must bring food and other necessities to students in a locked down residence hall for the next two weeks.

To be fair, many colleges made plans for fall instruction on campus from a place of good intentions. In fact, that’s what most traditional students want themselves. And to be clear, some number of schools will manage to operate something approximating an academic term with some students on campus this fall. However, many schools were simply deluding themselves about what was possible and/or overly influenced by desperation around enrollment and revenue (or, in the case of the North Carolina schools, political pressure). I had a front row seat to some of those conversations and the rationalizations and group think was palpable. What is really problematic about the failed effort to bring students back to campus, however, is that collectively, the schools attempting face to face instruction have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their plans to make face to face attendance possible, when in many cases, it was never going to work—and by definition, they were not planning to deliver the best possible remote instruction, which they now have to do anyway. The opportunity cost of wishful thinking for those who have reversed course and those who will do so soon is staggering. Just imagine if those same schools had spent all of that money and time on improving online instruction and services or on reductions in cost for students so they could attend at a distance in a more affordable way. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of students have traveled to campuses across the country, only to be told to pack up and go back home. That not only creates a significant financial and logistical strain for many, but a really bad idea relative to spreading the virus as well. It was bad enough that people converged on campus communities from all over the country, in many cases bringing the virus with them; they’re now going back or will go back to their home communities after possibly being exposed to the coronavirus on campus or during travel!

As the old country western song goes, “You got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” Folding now, as many institutions are doing is of course the right thing to do. Using good and courageous judgment a couple months ago (as some did) would have been much better.

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