The university administration closed campus immediately following the discovery of the first positive coronavirus case on March 11. That single case warranted spring break starting early, campus closing for the semester and the lives of thousands being thrown into uncertainty. That single case ushered in a totally new world for the university community.
Since that time, the debate over whether or not to rescind the various social distancing regulations which mitigated the spread of coronavirus has ravaged the country; the university must also take a stance regarding what it will do in its future. At the time of writing this editorial, university President Dennis Assanis says he does not plan to make a decision regarding what the Fall 2020 semester will look like until July.
During a faculty Zoom meeting last week, Assanis laid out the basic options he wants to consider for the fall semester. The first option would simply be to begin the semester on Aug. 28 with the current conditions still in place. Classes would still be online. To put it simply, Option One would be to continue “according to the new normal.” Option Two would be to delay the semester’s start date until later.
Oct. 1 is commonly cited as the favored delayed start date, but no official policy has been made to set an exact timeline. Should the semester start in October, it would take place in person and on campus. Assanis left the possibility open that, if there’s a resurgence of coronavirus, the university would revert to online learning or hybridize between face-to-face instruction for smaller classes and online for larger classes.
The American economy and the world economy have been devastated by this pandemic. It has put millions out of work. The death toll within the United States alone recently surpassed 90,200 people. Humanity has endured plagues from time immemorial, but the interconnectedness of the modern world and its globalized economy have made coronavirus uniquely terrible. The process of reopening and rebuilding our country is a conversation to be had by top experts at the highest echelons of government.
But let’s not kid ourselves here. Barring some miracle, coronavirus is not going to magically disappear this summer. Several states are already taking a serious gamble on reopening.
The plans being laid out by the university administration seem to operate on the assumption that there is a strong chance things will be back to “normal” this fall enough that any danger can be contained. If that happens, then the university wants to move on and pretend this whole coronavirus business was just a flash in the pan. But remember that just a few months ago, when a single person tested positive for the novel coronavirus, campus closed.
The administration formed the Campus Reopening and Fall Planning Task Force with the explicit purpose of preparing the campus for a potential full reopening this fall semester. They seem to be considering the possibility of a complete return to normalcy, and we at The Review are somewhat concerned.
The university is already targeting June 1 to begin re-activating campus operations on a phased-in basis, starting with research facilities. Assanis noted that the reopening of facilities will be contingent on sufficient testing, tracing and personal protective equipment to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff.
If the Fall Task Force is holding on to some epidemiological projections which show that Delaware will be safe from the coronavirus threat this fall, then we at The Review strongly encourage them to submit those projections to be considered for the Nobel Prize. We at The Review also strongly doubt such projections exist at all.
Assanis and others are highly intelligent people. They likely understand that the threat will still exist this fall, and they seem to think that the virus can be contained on campus with certain countermeasures. Nevertheless, the public has yet to see a decent explanation of whatever countermeasures the Task Force has in store to keep the communal bathrooms, dining halls and parties from incubating a resurgence of coronavirus on campus.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. We all know why the administration seems fairly keen to reopen campus: the university is hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars, which their stakeholders would very much like back.
The administration may be making admirable efforts to ensure that sufficient safeguards are put in place to make a potential reopened campus as safe as it can be. If they are, then no matter how you spin it: a reopened campus, in our opinion, would almost certainly be less safe than continued online classes.
If one positive case shut Delaware down in March, why would campus be safe to reopen in August? Remember that Delaware is just a hop, skip and a jump from New York City, one of the global epicenters of the pandemic.
Reopening the university would mean prioritizing profits over the health of others. It will mean forcing students to break quarantine even though they may not be comfortable with it. It will also put our professors, who are generally older and thus more susceptible to the virus, in harm’s way. The university does not need to reopen in order to function, unlike the general economy. No matter what, students will continue to pay for classes. It is merely a question of how they will be expected to pay much and whether or not they can graduate on time.
The key issue for the administration here is how they will justify the price of tuition this fall if classes are online-only. They got away with leaving tuition alone this semester because students spent some amount of time on campus before it closed. If fall comes around and the university is online-only, how do they justify asking students to keep paying tens of thousands of dollars for tuition?
The university’s tuition has been steadily increasing over the years, in accordance with the broader national trend of higher education becoming more and more expensive. Until now, the rising cost of education has been a problem for the poor and the middle class, who have to take on a demoralizing amount of debt in order to get an education that might get them a foothold in better-paying or more fulfilling industries. Coronavirus has thrown a monkey-wrench into that paradigm because the rising cost of education just became a big issue for the elites as well.
If the university goes online-only in the fall, what are students paying for? The classes are hosted on Zoom, so the university isn’t putting tuition costs toward servers. The money wouldn’t be going toward faculty either, since the administration just froze their salaries and fired a tremendous amount of adjunct professors. Additionally, no one has yet said with a straight face that the online classes are better than or even as good as in-person classes.
So, what would students be paying for? The administration cannot reasonably expect students to pay so many thousands of dollars for online classes hosted on an independent app and taught by professors with their pay frozen. They also cannot convince students to pay for building projects (which are continuing on schedule) and executive salaries that return no immediate benefit to them.
To show solidarity with those struggling through this crisis, the top administrators cut their massive salaries by 5 to 10%, which isn’t a whole heck of a lot. Let’s be honest about that.
They want students back on campus. They want them in the college campus bubble, paying through the nose for meal plans and housing. They do not want them going outside the cave and learning that an education need not cost such a tremendous pile of cash.
This is an opportunity for students everywhere to put their feet down and demand that tuition be brought down significantly. This is the opportunity to make coronavirus the straw which broke the back of inflated higher education costs.
A university isn’t an essential business, students don’t need a college education in the same way they need food and water. If tuition is no longer worth it in the coronavirus era, students can afford to sit out this coming semester entirely.
This is an extreme situation, and it will warrant extreme action from the administration.
The money everyone is losing is not the university’s fault, no one is alleging such a thing, but they are obligated to respond to the crisis.
Among its other vast assets, the university has a $1.64 billion endowment as of 2019. Of course, an endowment may not necessarily be sufficiently liquid to draw on for this current crisis. If that is the case, and the university cannot have a conversation with its investors on how to use this money, then surely the university can establish lines of credit. If they cannot do that, if they are already shouldering an excess of debt, then perhaps it is time for them to rethink their spending priorities. Externally, the university appears to prioritize a large amount of its spending on new building and expansion projects (like the STAR Campus and new football stadium) rather than on undergraduate education.
An examination of the university’s fiscal policies notwithstanding, why doesn’t it use the millions of dollars in liquid funds which it does have for those who do need the campus to stay open? The dining hall workers, the janitors and others legitimately need the income from their jobs on campus.
Why don’t the administrators, who can afford it, cut their salaries more generously instead of laying off the adjuncts who were often earning far less than they deserved? Assanis’s 10% salary cut looks increasingly suspect when one considers how many are losing 100% of their more meager salaries this year.
A university is a very complex machine, and we at The Review would be lying if we said we completely understood how it worked. If there are circumstances preventing the kind of radical steps we here propose, then that is perfectly understandable. However, those circumstances, if they exist, should be plainly and transparently communicated to the public. The plans for the fall semester should not be kept only for the eyes of the Fall Task Force behind closed doors.
Unless such circumstances that would convince any reasonable person that the university is justified in staying the present course with relatively minor changes are made known, there remains an ethical obligation for extreme action.
The Review’s weekly editorials are written to reflect the majority opinion of our staff. This week’s editorial was written by Mitchell Patterson, formerly The Review’s executive editor. He may be reached at JMPatter@udel.edu.