Why Returning to University Campuses Now is a Bad Idea

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I write as someone who has worked around universities all my adult life. In the last week some high profile campuses like the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame have suspended in-person classes after welcoming students back to campus. Last spring and early summer, administrations on these and other campuses made plans to open up. Many spent the summer creating elaborate testing, social distancing, living, dining, and classroom protocols to lessen the risk of infections. It seemed to me then, and now, that these were plans with holes in them.

  1. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control infections in the towns students were living in over summer, or the behavior of students in those places. This is different from primary and secondary schools, where everyone is local and decisions can be shaped by local infection rates. Some students from areas with high rates of infections, or who engaged in higher risk behaviors may bring infection to campus. These students come from all over. Some campuses test students before they move in, but all tests are a “moment in time” measure.
  2. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control infection rates and policies in the city, town, or state where they are located. The city where our flagship state university is located currently has a high, though falling, infection rate. Students have returned amid this. They are in bars, restaurants, coffee shops, businesses all over our city.
  3. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control student behavior off campus. Students are just like the rest of us in this pandemic. What have adults been doing all summer? Having large, non-socially distanced, non-masked parties. And students are already following suit as reports from many campuses are bearing out. Just like the general population, most students are trying follow safety protocols. But enough are putting themselves at risk of infection, and in turn risk infecting others.
  4. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, not all students live on campus. In fact, more students may be living off-campus because of reduced density resident housing. The number of students in apartments, the ventilation of buildings, what steps are taken in social distancing, masking, and in gatherings likely will be left to students. And these students will be mixing with students living on campus.
  5. Finally, I question the premise that campus protocols will minimize infection risk making in-person classes feasible. At this time rapid-tests have higher false-negative and false positive rates. The better tests often take two days to a week. Students without symptoms could spread infection to others throughout that time. Even with reduced class sizes and masking, I wonder if these will be sufficient to prevent infections when people share this space for an hour or longer. Will residence halls be safe when senior facilities, which are basically dorms for seniors, have had significant outbreaks?

Students are at an age where many may be asymptomatic, though contagious, or contract mild illnesses and recover (although we are continuing to learn about long-term effects on even some healthy young adults. And some will get very sick. What is more concerning are other university personnel, some with more significant risk factors. Where these are known, some have been able to work out remote work arrangements. But those who provide food, sanitation, and maintenance services and many support staff cannot work remotely.

What drove these decisions as in so many of our “open-up” decisions were two things: economic realities and the difficulty all of us have had sheltering in home. The former raises questions about our economics. The latter raises questions about the health of our souls. Yet I cannot help but wonder if this decision will result in greater losses with all the extra costs of starting up only to suspend classes and send students home. What will this do to student morale? It will be interesting to see how campuses that planned for remote learning in the fall from the start do in comparison to those who tried to open up.

The situation on universities is dependent on what is happening in our larger society. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, says that if we do not get the virus under control now, colder weather will likely make things worse, with up to 150,000 new cases daily nationally. We cannot reasonably hope either to bring back the national economy, nor students to our campuses without rigorous control measures. Given our apparent lack of will, consensus, and leadership, I think universities need to start planning now to extend remote instruction through the spring. Either that, or plan for a lot of sick students and campus personnel.

Privileged, Persecuted, or Participating?

As I wrote in yesterday’s blog, I was part of an online symposium on the theme of “The ‘End’ of the University”. Each of the groups (representing faculty and others meeting on eight different campuses across the Midwest) were encouraged to write responses. This is not one of those but a personal reflection on one aspect of Dr. Santa Ono’s presentation. One of the aspects of the changing university landscape he addressed was the increasing diversity represented in the student enrollment as well as faculty and staff of any public university in this country. By 2040 or sooner, Caucasians will be in the minority, and already are in some parts of the country. Universities are incredibly diverse places ethnically, in terms of social class, in terms of gender and sexual orientation, in terms of political persuasions, in terms of countries of origin–and in terms of religious and worldview beliefs. As part of a group of Christians considering our response to these changes, it seems to me that we could (and do) make one of three responses.


The first is to try to hold onto being the privileged majority. Indeed, as I’ve been involved in multi-faith discussions on the campus where I work, I’ve found that others still regard Christians, and particularly Caucasian Christians in those terms. At one time this was most definitely so, particularly before the Civil War, and even in many respects up until the upheavals on campuses in the mid-1960s. Much of the perception of this ‘privilege’ I think comes out of our political scene up through the Bush II years and the close alliance between some segments of the Christian community and the party in power. Vestiges of this sense of privilege may be reflected in our expectation that Christian holidays be recognized on public calendars, that prayers be a part of public events and in the “Christian nation” rhetoric we use. What is most troubling to me is that privilege seems to be utterly antithetical to those who follow the Jesus “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant….and became obedient unto death.”

The second is to take the stance of the persecuted minority. This is not to say that persecution is not a real option for Christians. In many parts of the world today Christians are in prison, tortured and killed for their faith. They deserve our prayers and our advocacy. But we should not confuse our present situation in the US with theirs because in so doing we demean their suffering and faithfulness. Certainly, people speak pejoratively of Christian belief and particular groups of Christians. But I’m not certain that this is any worse than some of the speech I hear inside the Christian community about others. In some cases groups have been denied access on campus because of their faith stance. Faced with this, I’ve advocated against such decisions as inimical to the freedoms of all students, not just Christians. But again, I think it is demeaning to call this persecution. Many Christian student movements around the world don’t have “access” and yet have great impact. Furthermore, I think this stance leads us to an attack/defense mentality that turns others into adversaries to be defeated rather than those who differ with us to be engaged who even have the possibility of changing their beliefs.

I would advocate for a third stance, that of participating members in the university community, who seek its welfare and consider themselves co-participants in the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty, ideals to which every university aspires. One of the things that this means is that I treat others who are in this same community by virtue of their student, faculty or staff status as equal co-participants in that endeavor. I think this means that we co-labor to make the university good and safe places for everyone present, not just for us. As Christians, we should care deeply that internationals on our campuses are not exploited, that adjuncts receive a just wage for their training and contribution to student learning, that no one should be bullied because of their orientation. We should be among those advocating that the children of all our citizens be represented proportionately in our student bodies, not just the children who enjoyed the advantages of the best schools, and college prep tutoring.

Many of our student and faculty groups actually receive substantial benefit from the university community and we should consider how we are “paying it forward” (in good Woody Hayes terms!). I would hope that we are known among administrators as people who make the university a better place, not as headaches or as isolated groups meeting off in a corner of campus. I would also advocate that we be people who not only forthrightly speak of our own faith and desire that others embrace it but eagerly listen to the dissenting views of others and engage in respectful conversation that promotes understanding and enriches everyone in the dialogue.

Above all, I think this means loving the places where we work. I am neither a graduate of nor an employee of The Ohio State University but people who know me swear I bleed scarlet and grey. It’s not just about sports! I believe when God calls us to a place, he calls us to love the place and its people as mattering deeply to Him. I don’t know how we can possibly give ourselves to the pursuit of goodness, truth and beauty without that love.

[As with all my posts, the views expressed here are my own and reflect neither those expressed in the Symposium nor held by the sponsoring organization or any other entities.]


The ‘End’ of the University

This morning I’m writing from The Ohio State University where I will be participating in an online symposium on the theme of “The ‘End’ of the University.” We will be interacting with Dr. Santa J Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati who will be doing two presentations.


Why the dire sounding title you may ask? One reason is that this is a season of great change in the world of higher education. Online courses, some available for free, cost pressures, shrinking research funding, rapidly advancing institutions in many other countries, an emphasis of technology fields over the more traditional humanities are some of the reasons some are speaking so bleakly about this world. In many fields, far more graduate students are working toward Ph.Ds than the job markets can accommodate. Many times 300 candidates will apply for a single position. Many Ph.Ds are consigned to cobbling together a collection of adjunct positions or one year contracts and in many cases their annual earnings qualify them for some form of federal assistance.

But the title also plays on the word ‘end’, which can also speak of the purpose, the telos of university education. Why higher education? Is it just about getting the credentials for a good job? Is it just to provide post-adolescents a four year party experience before they enter the “real” world of work? Or is it to “educate” someone in the sense of introducing a person to the ideas that have got us to this place?

One of the reasons we put this together was to explore the contribution that people of faith can make to shaping the character of the university. What does the love of God have to do with the love of learning and fostering a spirit of inquiry? How does our understanding of the nature of human beings influence our thinking about how they learn and grow and change, ad even what is most important to learn? What are the principles that govern our uses of technology–is it simply that we will do what we can do? And this work thing–are we educating people just so they can build the economy of our state, which seems to treat them as cogs in a machine? Or is their something about the nature of human beings that is addressed through the opportunity for meaningful work?

These are just some of the kinds of questions that we might be exploring. Not my usual way of spending a Saturday morning but hopefully one that will advance an important conversation!