University Pandemic Policies as Business Ethics Case Studies

Earlier this week, the University of South Carolina noted on its COVID-19 “dashboard” that 27.7% of the students tested for the virus were infected with it. 

These figures were from testing conducted from August 28th through August 31st. In total, at the time, there were 1,192 active cases of COVID-19 (1,172 students and 20 employees). It’s not quite what a university wants to make the national news for.

The University of South Carolina invited students back to campus for the Fall 2020 term and is offering a mix of online, hybrid, and in-person courses. Should it have instead decided that all instruction should be online and not opened up the campus? That’s one question. Another is: What should the university do now? We could use some help! But perhaps more in line with the nature of this website is to observe that both of these questions would make for excellent topics in researching and teaching business ethics.

The university has, to its credit, been relatively transparent, publicizing a lot of relevant information and presenting it clearly. Here’s what the UofSC dashboard looks like:

In meetings with faculty and staff, UofSC President Bob Caslen has admitted that numbers like these are “unacceptable.” The question is what to do about them. Figuring that out means identifying what of importance is at stake, what our options are, what the short and long term effects of choosing different options would be, who within and outside of the university community is affected by those options, what those affected are entitled to, what if anything the university owes anyone for decisions that led to the current problems, moral and legal constraints on courses of action, and so on. There are so many factors here for ethicists to take into consideration, and in addition to its complexity, the problem is urgent. Simplistic solutions (send everyone home!), gripes about what should have been done (they should never have opened!), and wishes for a different type of political or economic system (damn capitalism!) are unlikely to be helpful.

How universities handle this crisis will certainly be among the central case studies of future business ethics courses and texts. Business ethicists, this is your moment.

Discussion—and suggestions—welcome.

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