Our form of crony capitalism can be pretty heartless, forcing people back to work when doing so might endanger not only their own health, but the health of family members. Here’s Missouri’s governor, Mike Parson, making it clear back in May that the state of Missouri isn’t going to tolerate any Covid laggards when businesses call.
“When we open the state up, if you’ve got to go back to work, if your boss calls and says you have to go back to work, you have to go back to work.”
Parson just couldn’t wait to reopen businesses. Well, we know how this worked out for places that tried to reopen too soon. Of course, some people recognized that there were going to be deaths when places reopened, but, hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Here’s Chris Christie on the topic.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Monday that the country needs to reopen, despite separate key coronavirus models forecasting that thousands may die daily in the United States from Covid-19 and that more than 100,000 may die in total.
“Of course, everybody wants to save every life they can — but the question is, towards what end, ultimately?” Christie, a Republican tapped to lead President Donald Trump’s presidential transition team in 2016, told CNN’s Dana Bash on The Daily DC Podcast. “Are there ways that we can… thread the middle here to allow that there are going to be deaths, and there are going to be deaths no matter what?”
There is a problem here. If businesses know that their employees are at risk and could even die, they could get sued. Never fear. Politicians will have their backs.
In announcing that the Senate will return on May 4, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said on Monday there was an “urgent need” to enact legislation to shield businesses from pandemic-related legal liability if they reopen, citing the risk of “years of endless lawsuits” arising from “a massive tangle of federal and state laws.” “Businesses Seek Sweeping Shield From Pandemic Liability Before They Reopen,” New York Times, April 28.
Profits over people, no doubt. But universities—typically non-profit institutions committed to enlightened understanding and promoting the common good—would never dream of engaging in such behavior, right? Inside Higher Ed published a piece in May, “Colleges Worry They’ll Be Sued if They Reopen Campuses,” which offered a very different take:
Wednesday afternoon, 14 college presidents from around the country gathered in front of their computers. On their screens they saw their peers, along with Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who asked what they needed to reopen their campuses in the fall.
The presidents spoke about the need to be able to do more testing for the coronavirus, according to those who were either on the call or were knowledgeable about the conversation. But the presidents also said they needed to know their college wouldn’t get sued if anyone got sick, which is almost inevitable.
“They were mostly in listening mode, wanting to hear what the federal government could do to be helpful,” said University of Texas at El Paso president Heather Wilson, who was on the call. One way it can help, said Wilson, a former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico and secretary of the Air Force, “is to have some kind of liability protection.”
Colleges, in seeking that protection from Pence and from a Senate committee this week, aren’t alone. Manufacturers and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been pushing to be freed, at least temporarily during the pandemic, from being held liable if workers, customers and others get sick on their property — something a lawyer for Texas Christian University told senators is “foreseeable, perhaps inevitable.”
“Foreseeable, perhaps inevitable.” We are in Christ Christie territory here. But wait, there’s more. The fact is that colleges and universities have become increasingly accustomed to viewing themselves as businesses, with students being treated as customers, among other changes.* Once again, from “Colleges Worry They’ll Be Sued if They Reopen Campuses,”
“There is no playbook. There are no established best practices, and this uncertainty is impacting our decisions,” Larry Leroy Tyner Jr., Texas Christian University’s general counsel, told senators at the hearing. . . .
In addition, Tyner said, colleges and universities operate “utilities, buses, police. They’re landlords and they operate food service, retail shops, convenience stores, health clinics, gyms,” as well as sports stadiums and entertainment venues. “Unlike other businesses,” he said, “we have to operate many lines of business.”
“Unlike other businesses,” he said, “we have to operate many lines of business.” Let’s be clear, not only have colleges and universities come to see themselves as businesses, they are operate “many lines of business.”
Those of us in academia have known this for years. Covid-19 has just made it all the more transparent. Academia is now officially unmasked. So, perhaps we need to ask administrators a straightforward question about the cost of doing business: How many people are you willing to see become ill, and how many lives is your college or university willing to sacrifice, in order to open in-person this fall?
No doubt, a toughly worded question. But the problem here is not only the difficulty involved in answering the question. It’s the fact that administrators who are hell-bent on opening will not even address the issue. Because once you start, you can’t stop by declaring only a relatively small number of students might get sick and even die. There are faculty and staff. There are their partners and family members. And then there is the impact on the surrounding community, and perhaps the nation, which must be considered. If you are going to start cooking the virus in the university as a laboratory, you had better consider what happens when the virus escapes the lab.
And cook it you will. Take dormitories. Colleges depend on them as sources of revenue, which accounts in large measure for the parade of improvements in the facilities available to those who live on campus, which colleges love to advertise. Maintaining high occupancy rates is crucial, as it is for most landlords.
But dormitories are the landlubber equivalent of cruise ships: places in which large numbers of people congregate day after day, sleep and meet in small rooms, engage in recreational activities, and eat in dining halls. Like cruise ships they will be virus breeders, but potentially more dangerous than cruise ships. To start with, they aren’t surrounded by water. And lest we need any reminding, college students living in dormitories are typically 18-22 years old, and are known to take their sex, drugs, and rock & roll pretty seriously.
There will be parties, and they will occur not only on campus, but among friends and acquaintances in town, etc. The disease will spread among students, to faculty and staff, and out into the surrounding community. As non-profit institutions, operating for the benefit of society, we might expect that schools wouldn’t prioritize dollars over health and lives, even if it means financial challenges for the institution, but that’s exactly what they are doing. Colleges with dormitories are in the real estate business, and the goal of a business is to make money.
Currently (July 22), The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 51% of the 1240 colleges and universities it is tracking plan to hold in-person classes this fall. Another 33% are planning hybrid courses, which presumably will involve in-person teaching. Given the recent upsurge in cases in many states, and given that there is little doubt this surge is due to the fact that states reopened too soon, you would think that anyone concerned about their academic community, and surrounding ones, would say: Stop the Madness.
We can’t bring all of these students back to campus. There is no way we are going to get young people to follow all of the rules and guidelines set out in detailed plans (assuming there actually are detailed plans). Let’s stay online and do the best we can. Online classes can be done in reasonably sophisticated ways. One or two semesters online certainly won’t imperil the academic development of the vast majority college students, especially if we closely monitor student progress, support all of our students, and intervene when necessary.
The reasons given for opening—for example, students want to get back to campus, we must educate future generations—are simply ludicrous when weighed against the present dangers, and the fact that there is an online alternative. So what’s going here? We already know the answer. Follow the money. Many colleges and universities have backed themselves into a corner by trying to keep up with the Jones. Hey, we have to be state of the art, and that includes our athletic centers, because of the competition. And then there are those competitive six and seven figure salary and benefits packages for our CEO’s, uh, presidents, which just must be paid to have the best leadership (read: the best fund raisers). Staying in that race required schools to take on debt, which required chasing after every penny of tuition and dormitory fees to keep the ship afloat. Boards of Trustees appear to be increasingly dominated by money people, business types, who were appointed because they can help raise money (at least that’s how it seems to this old college prof). And the administrators who deal with the Board must make sure that the money keeps flowing into the college’s coffers. If the college starts losing money, good-bye six- and seven-figure administrative career.
Some schools will be in serious trouble with fewer tuition and dormitory dollars, although we don’t really know how this would play out if schools went online en masse. But recall the numbers from the Chronicle, 84% of the schools listed will have students on campus taking classes. So should we assume that 84% of the colleges and universities in this country will fold if they go online? Highly unlikely, to say the least. More likely, many will take a significant financial hit, which they clearly don’t want to do, especially in the competitive business-like environment that has become American academia. But they will survive, which is more than we can say for many victims of Covid-19. (Of course, if the government bailed out colleges the way it does Wall Street.…but that’s another story.)
When push came to shove, many administrators and college officials have lied about their motivations for reopening, if not explicitly then by omission, claiming that they wanted to reopen for the noble ends of education when, of course, it was ultimately about the bottom line.** How different is their position from Chris Christie’s?
Actually, there is one huge difference. Christie was being honest. The colleges and universities, making their impossibly elaborate plans, are trying to make us all feel better about going back to campus. Their position, unlike Tyler’s (in the quotation above), has been that with all of their precautions no one, or virtually no one, has to become seriously ill and perhaps die. Everything will be just fine if everyone does as they are told.
Nonsense. People will get sick, some will die, and some will be scarred for years or for life. And sadly, the fact is that every faculty member who sets foot back in a classroom will be an accomplice. Faculty here are victims, but even victims can be morally culpable. Faculty have a responsibility to stand up and say, not in our name, if administrators won’t.** Tenured faculty should collectively refuse to return to the classroom until the virus is under control.*** And then they should campaign to have colleges and universities abandon the corporate ethos that has been undermining higher education and leaving students buried in debt.
* From “The harsh truth: US colleges are businesses, and student loans pay the bills,” The Guardian, October, 2014:
Here’s the harsh truth: colleges are a business.
Andrew Rossi, best known for the journalism documentary Page One, has written, directed and produced a new documentary on the increasing prominence of capitalist management principles at US colleges and universities.
**Administrators should not be a position to make the call to reopen without serious discussions with faculty and other employees. Various financial scenarios should be addressed, and the community should weigh in on the options. For example, it’s possible that employees might be willing to support a graduated temporary salary decrease if it means no one has to teach or work in-person.
*** This would not apply to schools that are in isolated non-populous regions, where there is no virus to speak of, but the vast majority of students attend schools in urban and suburban areas, and in college towns.
Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Wikimedia Commons. (Slightly modified for this post.)