Six philosophers discuss various issues related to the operation of institutions of higher education this fall, in this edition of Philosophers On, guest edited by Lisa Fuller.
Lisa Fuller, Guest Editor
Over the next several weeks, the Fall 2020 semester will begin at colleges and universities across the US. While the number of new COVID-19 cases varies widely across states, there is no place in which the pandemic is adequately contained, and no state in which masks and social distancing are not considered necessary for safety in some contexts.
Despite some state efforts at lockdown and some support from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, institutions of higher education have been largely left to navigate the financial, logistical and moral difficulties of the continuing pandemic on their own. Some institutions face the real possibility of closure, and many have already introduced layoffs, furloughs and other budget cuts. The result of governmental failure at the national level is that staff, students and faculty are now in a situation in which no single response will be satisfactory to everyone. Accordingly, there have been a wide variety of institutional responses, and quite a few last-minute policy reversals. Some schools chose to go fully online early, and some made the same choice quite late. Some schools chose face-to-face classes and gave their faculty complete freedom to choose to teach online if they wished. Other schools permitted only those faculty willing to ask for and/or document medical vulnerabilities to teach remotely. Still others have used shaming, intimidation and administrative obstacles to actively discourage faculty from teaching online.
In this installment of “Philosophers On” I have encouraged contributors to reflect on the troubling moral and political situation in which we find ourselves. While they employ distinct approaches, together their comments demonstrate both the weight and complexity of the decisions our communities are being asked to make. The contributions address the assessment and undertaking of risk, issues of social justice and the distribution of sacrifices, the responsibilities of faculty, the administrative emphasis on student preferences and the implications of the corporate model of higher education. As always, the idea is not to provide a comprehensive discussion of these problems, but rather to stimulate further conversation and showcase the insights philosophers can bring to bear on current events.
The contributors are: Mitchell Aboulafia (Manhattan College), Ben Hale (University of Colorado-Boulder), Keisha Ray (University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston), Daniel Star (Boston University), Yolonda Wilson (National Humanities Center & Encore Public Voices Fellow), and myself (Merrimack College). I extend my sincere thanks to them all.
Scroll down to view their contributions or click on the titles in the following list:
- “The Cost of Doing Business” by Mitchell Aboulafia
- “COVID-19 and the Demands of Conscience in Higher Education” by Lisa Fuller
- “Colleges Can’t Dance: Choose Precaution Over Risk” by Ben Hale
- “Going Back to School During a Global Pandemic: A Case Study” by Keisha Ray
- “The Students Will Be Disappointed: On Truth, Marketing and the Hybrid Model” by Daniel Star
- “Whose Lives Matter?” by Yolonda Wilson
Please join the discussion in the comments (see the comments policy) and feel free to share this post.
The Cost of Doing Business
by Mitchell Aboulafia
The American form of crony capitalism can be pretty heartless, forcing people back to work when doing so might endanger not only their own health, but also that 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-19 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. Of course, some people recognized that there were going to be more deaths if places reopened, Chris Christie, for instance. (See, “Chris Christie pushes to reopen country despite dire Covid-19 projections: ‘There are going to be deaths’.”) But, hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
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. Mitch McConnell is insisting on liability protection for employers. It’s a red line for him.
Profits over people, no doubt. But universities—typically non-profit institutions committed to enlightened understanding and promoting the common good—would never dream of insisting on liability protection, 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.”
None of this should surprise us. Colleges and universities have increasingly seen themselves as businesses, with students as customers. We in academia have known this for years. COVID-19 has just made it 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 get sick, and how many lives is your institution willing to sacrifice, in order to open for business this Fall?
No doubt, a tough question. The problem here is not only the difficulties involved in answering the question. It’s that administrators, who are hell-bent on reopening, refuse to address the issue. Because once you do, you can’t stop by supposing that only a very small number of students might get sick and even die. There are faculty and staff. There are their partners and family members. There is the impact on the surrounding community and the nation. If you start cooking the virus in the university as a laboratory, you have to consider what happens when the virus escapes.
But cook it you will. Take dormitories, necessary for the business plans of many colleges. They are the landlubber equivalent of cruise ships: places in which large numbers of people congregate day after day, sleep and meet in small rooms, and engage in recreational activities. Like cruise ships they will be virus breeders, but potentially more dangerous than cruise ships. First, 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.
Administrators have made impossibly elaborate plans, which are supposed to make us all feel better about going back to campus. They claim that with all of their precautions everything will be just fine if everyone follows the rules.
Nonsense. People will get sick, some will die, and some will be scarred for years or for life. Sadly, every faculty member who sets foot back in a classroom will be an accomplice. Faculty are indeed 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, especially since we have a viable, although not ideal, alternative in online courses. 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.
COVID-19 and the Demands of Conscience in Higher Education
by Lisa Fuller
Most colleges and universities planning to offer in-person classes claim to have based this decision on what students and parents want. Despite considerable debate about the actual desires of students, (as contrasted with how these desires have been interpreted by administrators) there has been virtually no discussion of what anyone involved ought to do. The preferences of the student body have been treated as paramount, since these determine the financial situation of the institution. I propose to re-orient this discussion towards the moral obligations of everyone involved.
In ordinary circumstances, we insist that people be given autonomous control over decisions about their health and well-being. Each person has a unique set of goals, values and obligations that they must consider in combination with their personal level of tolerance for risk and suffering. Whether or not I will choose a risky surgery over a more conservative approach to a health problem might well depend on a variety of factors, including how old I am, whether I have a family to support, and the impact a bad outcome would have on my life goals. We leave it to people to make final judgments about how best to conduct themselves in light of their responsibilities and plans. We allow people to follow their consciences.
The uncontrolled pandemic requires us to make hard decisions about our well-being almost constantly. What activities are too risky? Which relationships should I prioritize? What sacrifices am I willing to make and to what ends? Unlike ordinary health-related decisions, in a pandemic we must also consider our obligations to refrain from harming others. We all have a moral obligation not to impose harm or risk of harm on other people needlessly. Normally straightforward, the pandemic makes fulfilling this obligation more difficult. How much will any particular action expose others to risk of infection, given that I might be an asymptomatic carrier? How much will my actions contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the community, and so to the suffering involved in increased illness, self-isolation and economic hardship? How much personal freedom must I sacrifice in order to be confident I haven’t infringed on the rights of others to be safe from harm?
There is no one right answer to these questions. While faculty, staff and students cannot control what happens at the national level, at least with regard to our campus communities, we can act on the basis of our duties to others, rather than on the basis of our mere desires. To the fullest extent possible, we should give each other the options necessary for each person to negotiate their obligations to spouses, children, friends, fellow students, and the larger community in ways that are compatible with the demands of each person’s individual conscience. We must each decide what balance of risks, sacrifices and obligations left unmet we can live with over the long term.
Most students have been given this opportunity. Generally, they can choose remote learning or a leave of absence if they decide against in-person classes. The most vulnerable students often have the fewest choices, since they may be on scholarships or part of work-study programs that require them to be on campus. Institutions should not require students in these situations to fulfill the normal requirements of these programs. No young person should have to live with the personal consequences of behaving in a way they judge is wrong because they would otherwise have to forgo an education altogether. These consequences could be devastating. For instance, if someone feels responsible for infecting another person, and that person is permanently disabled, or even dies, what psychological impact will that have on them over their lifetime? Further, since many young people are susceptible to persuasion by trusted authority figures, faculty and administrators should not use their positions to minimize the risk to students or to signal by their actions that student concerns are overblown. Our responsibility as trusted mentors is to be direct about our own conscientious assessment of the situation. (See the open letter to undergraduates from tenured faculty at UNC Chapel Hill for an example.)
By contrast, in many cases faculty and staff have not been given the same freedom to honor the requirements of their consciences while keeping their jobs. Many schools have not given faculty and staff the flexibility to work from home, or to work in conditions they find acceptable from a moral or safety perspective. In almost all cases these requirements could be met by the institutions if they were willing to make further financial sacrifices, and/or to communicate to students that their preferences are not necessarily the most important consideration in determining policy in an emergency. The refusal of institutions to do this creates an intractable moral conflict for their faculty and staff, who both need to make a living and to be able to live with themselves.
Exceptions made for individuals who are medically at-risk or have immediate family members at-risk are not sufficient to alleviate this conflict. Many faculty and staff have children at home who will not be in school full time, or have aging parents or others that they have a responsibility to care for and protect from harm. It might not be morally acceptable to them, all things considered, to abandon these responsibilities or to live with the consequences of potentially infecting these people. Other staff and faculty may fundamentally object to welcoming thousands of newcomers to small communities where colleges are located and so putting their neighbors at increased risk. Still others may feel compromised by standing in front of classes pretending that gathering in groups is a risk they think is acceptable when they fundamentally disagree.
Giving people the unfettered choice to act on the basis of their best moral judgment in this extraordinary situation is the right policy. It allows members of the college and university communities to endure the pandemic in ways that maintain their integrity while at the same time adequately fulfilling their roles as employees and students. It is important to be a good employee and to have a good college experience, but these values do not universally outweigh the other social and individual goods at stake here.
Colleges Can’t Dance: Choose Precaution Over Risk
by Ben Hale
One natural and straightforward approach to reopening colleges involves looking at the overall prevalence of disease and making a risk assessment based on the likelihood of any given student getting sick. Deans and school administrators often name some threshold level of infections that will justify opening, suggesting that once the prevalence is low enough, then the risk to the university is low enough to be tolerable. Sometimes they even do this rhetorically, to push back on objections to opening: “Well, how many cases of disease in the community would you recommend?”
I recently recorded a short video explaining why I think a risk analysis model of this sort is the wrong model for K-12 school districts to use when determining whether to go back to school. The upshot is that frequentist risk analysis dramatically underdetermines the nature of an emergent phenomenon (in this case, COVID-19 infections), since the emergence of the phenomenon churns up the base rate. (In other words, the prevalence of disease and the probability of being infected changes with the “attack” of the virus into different communities; and it changes because it has not attacked the population completely.) Because frequentism can’t be relied upon to make assessments about the risks associated with emergent phenomena, we can’t and ought not to depend on prevalence data to make our decisions about schools. I suggested instead that realistic and successful testing and tracing protocols ought to have lexical priority over risk.
The same analysis applies to colleges and universities, but maybe even more so, since students are coming in from parts of the country with wildly divergent numbers of cases. Opening colleges and universities up for face-to-face (F2F) instruction increases pathways for transmission, exposing students, faculty, families, and the broader community to increased spread. With a novel virus and a widely susceptible population, no matter what the current prevalence in any given location, we’re always just somewhere on the curve. Maybe lower. Maybe higher. By opening up schools and increasing channels for transmission, we almost invariably push this curve northwards.
There’s another point that I think is relevant to philosophical reflection on risk models. That is, we also can’t adequately understand this problem using simple risk models because the social systems driving this pandemic – namely, a bunch of people with varying needs and beliefs – are, to borrow a term from Russell Hardin, indeterminate. What I mean here is that as people are affected both by the pandemic and the laws and decisions aimed to mitigate damage from the pandemic, they will take actions strategically and in response to events around them. Social systems such as these are complex, strategic, and open.
We see evidence of this indeterminacy in the various public responses to policy interventions: opening states for business doesn’t drive customers back to the restaurants or stores as politicians and business owners expected because people stay away on their own, independently of the law. Alternatively, as the infection numbers in a given area go down, even if there are legal orders in place, people naturally start expanding their social circles, driving the infections back up again. It’s a delicate, weird, wicked problem.
The same kind of indeterminacy complicates the opening of our colleges and universities. No matter what decisions we make about the safety of opening schools or bringing students in for education, people will respond to those decisions by modifying and adapting their behavior, and very likely undercutting the outcomes that we idealize. Students who do return to campus, thinking the risk low enough to tolerate, will likely hang out with one another, even if social distancing. Parents who hear that campus is opening may be thrust into a new set of challenges in which they’re forced to make the decision to prevent their children from returning on their own. Whatever decisions we make at the University level will always be tempered by the range of options available to the people we’re trying to manage, and those options themselves only become “live” options once the universities announce what they’re going to do.
I think the safe bet is to go with the simplest strategy that promotes the least likelihood for trouble: we should take a precautionary approach, not a risk approach. Why tempt fate? Why not keep things stable through the semester while the rest of the country sorts things out? Opening for in-person classes just increases the likelihood that there will be substantial setbacks and upheaval throughout the semester.
Having said this, I do believe that colleges can eventually open safely, and maybe even soon. Early in the pandemic, Tomas Pueyo wrote a piece on Medium called The Hammer and the Dance. This piece got a lot of early attention, but as calls to flatten the curve grew louder, it faded into obscurity. I think it’s probably worth revisiting. Long story short: first we need to beat the pandemic back, then slowly and methodically keep it from resurging. If the numbers are low enough, we can prevent resurgence using an aggressive, realistic test-and-trace regime. Much as we may want to get everything back to normal — to keep our colleges and businesses afloat, to get our lives back on track — I don’t think it’s realistic to get back to normal until our colleges learn to dance.
Going Back to School During a Global Pandemic: A Case Study
by Keisha Ray
Bioethicists often rely on the four principles of biomedical ethics—autonomy, justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence—as a method of inquiry, deliberation, and evaluation. Here, I treat returning to in-person classes as a bioethics case study and apply the four principles to evaluate the ethical defensibility of sending students, faculty, and staff back to campus for in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 is a very contagious virus threatening the lives of people around the world. In the United States over 4.5 million people have been infected with the virus and over 150,000 people have already died. There is no vaccination for COVID-19. We know that some people are asymptomatic carriers of the virus and we know that it is spread through respiratory droplets, but we still have still a lot to learn about the virus. Although many universities and colleges are taking a variety of precautions, such as having fewer students in classrooms, many schools are planning to conduct in-person classes.
Autonomy. If students want to remain in school and their school is not providing the option of online classes, then they do not have a choice but to return to campus for in-person classes. Students in programs such as medicine, dentistry, or nursing may not have many online options. Additionally, many schools made their decision to conduct in-person classes very close to the start of the Fall 2020 semester, making it impossible for students to enroll in other universities that may have offered online classes. Even if colleges had given students enough time, changing universities is not an option for many students, especially students who are close to graduating or for students whose funding is tied to their current school.
Similarly, for faculty, if they want to remain employed, they also do not have a choice but to return to campus. The significant difficulty of finding employment at other universities is well known. In addition, because of the economic hardships imposed by COVID-19, many schools are under hiring freezes making it even more difficult for faculty to find other employment at other universities. The only real autonomous decision for students and faculty who do not want to risk their health is to not go back to campus, jeopardizing their education, career, health insurance, and other benefits.
Justice. One way to think about justice in this case is to think about what sacrifices we can reasonably ask people to take. For instance, is it acceptable to ask faculty to enforce mask policies in their class? If the answer is yes, then we are asking faculty to act as public health officials, and if they teach in a state where people are required to wear masks by law then we are asking faculty to add to police officer to their list of roles. Alternatively, if faculty don’t enforce mask policies then they are jeopardizing their health and their students’ health.
Most importantly, justice requires us to ask whether it is acceptable to ask students and faculty to risk their health and their lives for the sake of returning to campus and whether the loss of lives is an acceptable sacrifice. And if so, how many lives are acceptable?
Beneficence/Non-maleficence. In bioethics, these two principles are often thought of as two sides to a coin. In clinical ethics, for instance, the idea of beneficence when applied to patients is to commit those actions that benefit them. Non-maleficence, on the other hand, means we are not to commit those actions that harm patients. When applying these concepts to whether we should be holding in-person classes during a global pandemic, however, the “patient” becomes the “global community.” We must consider whether holding in-person classes benefits individuals as well as everyone in the world, given the public health crisis COVID-19 presents to us all. When considering the principle of non-maleficence, however, what is ethically permissible is slightly less clear. Non-maleficence asks us to establish what “harm” to people looks like given differences of culture, values, wants, and needs. Businesses that rely on revenue produced by students and faculty, students who have difficulty learning in an alternative online format, or faculty who have difficulty teaching online may see forgoing in-person classes as a harm. But for the sake of our global community, we have to extend our considerations of harm beyond Americans and our desires.
Discussion. The four principles of biomedical ethics challenge the ethical permissibility of in-person classes during a pandemic on the grounds that universities have left students and faculty with no real autonomous choice about their education and working conditions. Universities have unjustly asked students and faculty to jeopardize their lives, while substantially raising the risk of suffering and death for people across the world. Holding in-person classes during a pandemic is ethically impermissible, especially given that we have a viable alternative in on-line classes. Online classes may not be ideal for many people, but online classes do pose a lower risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 than in-person classes and they increase students’ access to higher education. In bioethics the four principles are used to uphold human dignity, and in this case, their application exposes a gross disregard for the value of student and faculty lives.
The Students Will Be Disappointed: On Truth, Marketing and the Hybrid Model*
by Daniel Star
When making decisions about their plans for the Fall, some universities followed a poorly calibrated consumer-knows-best approach that led them to make a serious mistake. I base my comments here on observations concerning my own university, and while the lessons I draw from these observations may not be fully generalizable, they are also not peculiar to Boston University. My university is a private university that is presently following a “hybrid” model for classes, locally known as Learn from Anywhere. The mistake I wish to highlight consists in promising an experience to students that cannot be delivered in a way that meets their expectations. The consumerist approach that is being followed is poorly calibrated because it is based on a static view of student preferences. It is also an approach that reveals a crisis at the heart of higher education in the US, both in terms of the way the apparent preferences of students were given so much more weight than concerns about faculty wellbeing when plans for the Fall were drawn up, and insofar as our universities turned their back on the ideal of faculty governance when it came to the process of arriving at those plans. This mistake might not have been made in the first place if university administrators had listened to genuine experts concerning pedagogy, namely their own teachers and researchers. But it was not a surprise that they didn’t do this, given that their commitment to the ideal of faculty governance had already been severely eroded, as education has more and more come to be all about consumer “deliverables,” rather than understanding and insight.
We have been told that students overwhelmingly want classes to be in person, rather than online. Let us assume, since university administrators are saying this, that most students presently want the option to be able to take classes in person. The crucial question is: why should we think such preferences will not shift substantially once students experience socially distanced, mask-to-mask classes (or stay at home watching a bad video feed of an instructor whose attention is divided, speaking through a mask)? Bear in mind that it will soon become apparent to students that if everyone opts to stay away from the classroom, instructors will be able to remove their masks and the online alternative will then be more straightforward and relaxed. Indeed, instructors can and probably should begin the semester by pointing this out to students. It is important not to confuse the in-person classroom experience prior to COVID-19, to which we all wish to return, with what the as yet unexperienced, in-person classroom experience will be like during this pandemic. Of course, one thing students are desiring, in particular, is interactions with their fellow students, but this desire might be satisfied by living on campus, rather than by being in closely monitored, socially distanced classrooms (as Harvard has recognized). Furthermore, the probability that students will be able to stay on campus, rather than be sent home, will be higher if they stay away from physical classrooms altogether.
University leaders have indicated that not following a hybrid model involves accepting very significant financial risks, since students disapprove of universities moving their classes fully online, and it might be that not enough students would then be willing to pay fees and board. We do well to consider, however, that amongst the financial risks that many universities are taking is the risk to the reputation and good standing of those universities if major outbreaks of COVID-19 occur because of the mistaken policy choices of the universities themselves (including the choice to force all instructors not covered by health risk accommodations to work on campus, increasing the population density there). There will be long-term costs. In addition, we can ask what a sudden transition to online classes, and students possibly needing to leave campus, might mean for fees and board in the Spring.
Universities should not be behaving like used car salespeople. Students need to be holding universities to account, not by refusing to be their customers, but by insisting that they are not merely customers, hence should not be treated as such. Instead, they should be treated as people who are capable of reasoning and considering reasons (as I and a coauthor have said before), who might be encouraged to come to accept that this must be a year where the educational experience they receive won’t offer everything that they hoped it would, as classes are likely to end up being online only, at least for much of the year. University teachers can help bridge the gap between university leaders and students by promoting critical thinking, being innovative in their teaching, and doing their very best when teaching remotely. Teachers should aspire to be role models with respect to demonstrating honesty and a commitment to truth, both when teaching and in their communications with administrators and students. These communications may, in part, contain critical reflections on the policies of their own institutions. Faculty owe it to students to guard against being recruited into the business of offering PR spin, or worse.
* A version of this essay previously appeared at Inside Higher Ed.
Whose Lives Matter?
by Yolonda Y. Wilson
College and university administrators have been eerily optimistic in their messaging with regard to plans for Fall instruction, “We’re a family!” “We’re a community!” “We’re [insert mascot] strong!” I often wonder when I hear these pronouncements who is included in the “we.” I was in particular struck by the op-ed that Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, published in The New York Times. The title boldly proclaims, “We’re Reopening Notre Dame. It’s Worth the Risk.” So, while Jenkins says that “we” (there goes that word again) “strive to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff, and their loved ones,” he also claims that not only is reopening worth the risk, but that reopening is a risk that “we” should be willing to bear in the name of educating the society’s “young.”
Not to pick on Father Jenkins (I’m sure he’s a lovely man), and to be sure he concedes that there will be deep disagreements about what the nature and limits of such risk-taking, but plenty of the young are themselves concerned about the possibility of being on campus and how their safety will be ensured. This brings me back to who administrators mean by “we.” Because some of the young are taking on greater risks than others. Across the country, dozens of (primarily black) student-athletes have been on campus for weeks, and the results have been… disastrous. LSU, Clemson, UT Austin, Kansas State, and others have all reported that several members of their respective football teams have tested positive for COVID-19. In spite of all of this, there is still discussion about whether to cancel the football season. Where do those students fit in campus reopening plans?
Football is big money, and colleges and universities are revealing that they are willing to throw their student-athletes into the COVID-19 maw in the name of preserving it. However, two NCAA conferences stand out in thinking about the health of their players. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (CIAA) took the decisive step in early July of cancelling the Fall 2020 sport season. In a joint statement they proclaimed, “the welfare of our student-athletes is sacrosanct.” I don’t think it is any coincidence that two NCAA conferences comprised primarily of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) would be the conferences that step up and show that they aren’t willing to sacrifice their athletes and staff. The numbers have revealed that black people are disproportionately suffering and dying from COVID-19, so perhaps HBCU leaders have a different incentive to think about their student-athletes given the larger demographics of their campuses. However, due to continuing antiblack racism, there is, in general, a fundamentally different value placed on black lives. PWI treatment of their (mostly black) student athletes bears this out.
In the midst of a global pandemic and a summer of protests for racial justice, and despite their careful acknowledgements of systemic racism (likely crafted in campus PR departments), colleges and universities throughout the country are showing through their actions whose black lives don’t matter.
Black student-athletes are not alone in their vulnerability. The housekeeping staff at UNC Chapel Hill have petitioned for more protective equipment and safer working conditions, after athletes living in the dorms they’ve been tasked to clean tested positive for COVID-19. In fact, the housekeeping staff are among the most vulnerable members of the campus “family.” They are the lowest paid, the most likely (as a function of their jobs) to risk infection, and as a result of the status hierarchies on campuses, least well positioned to vociferously advocate for themselves. So, while administrators craft and revise their reopening plans (sometimes with faculty and staff input), it is important for tenured faculty in particular to advocate for student-athletes, housekeeping employees and cafeteria workers who are at greater risk for COVID-19 but who have the most to lose by speaking out.
While some faculty have a justifiably healthy skepticism with regard to the actions and promises of administrators, too often that skepticism starts and stops with what is best for faculty while ignoring the relatively privileged position those of us who are tenured or tenure-track occupy within the university. If faculty are serious that black lives do, in fact, matter, then faculty have an obligation to think about the spaces that black and brown people disproportionately occupy on campuses. (HBCUs are an interesting case because although the overall demographics of HBCU campuses skew predominately black, the white and Asian people on campus are not generally working in housekeeping or the cafeteria. They are much more likely to be found in the professoriate or in other high-status positions, which is the opposite of how black employees tend to be positioned at PWIs. So, yes, the racial dynamics of where white people exist in the campus hierarchy and the racial hierarchy is still replicated at HBCUs.)
Campus reopening plans aren’t merely practical documents. They are also moral documents, reflecting who and what “we” value, or more precisely, who and what “is” valued. As importantly, campus reopening documents implicitly show and tell who is included in the “we” when administrators proclaim that we are a community.