Philosophers On Reopening Colleges and Universities in a Pandemic


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. 

Introduction
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:

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.

*A longer version of this contribution, American Universities Unmasked,” appears on Aboulafia’s blog, [email protected] 

 


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.

Case Study

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.


Discussion welcome.

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Nick
Nick
1 year ago

Wow, six contributions defending roughly the same position.

Here’s John Hasnas’s (Georgetown business ethics) piece in the Wall Street Journal explaining why he’d be on campus, if it were up to him, despite being older than most professors: https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-ill-be-on-campus-this-fall-11594661493

Since it’s behind a paywall, here’s just one little snippet: “Covid-19 is a fact of life. There is no alternative to learning to live with the risk of infection as generations before us lived with similar dangers. My father used to describe what it was like living with the risk of disease when he was a boy before antibiotics. My older relatives told me what it was like living with the risk of polio before the Salk vaccine. Covid-19 is part of our environment. The only options we have are to take reasonable precautions and get on with life or to hide from it.”

Hasnas is not condemning others who are not on campus–just explaining why he thinks he should be there. Of course, you’re free to disagree with Hasnas, but there are philosophers out there willing to offer considerations on behalf of being on campus. Dan Kaufman (Missouri State) is another who has at least offered important considerations on behalf of being on campus (on Spencer Case’s podcast). Why did we need six different pieces saying “Omg, can you believe some colleges are going back in-person?”?Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  Nick
1 year ago

I would just like to point out that it’s not in all countries that professors have excellent health care or decent pensions (the one I live in doesn’t offer either)Report

Nick
Nick
1 year ago

Other considerations never mentioned in the six contributions:

– It will be working class people at local businesses (e.g., hotels, restaurants, auto repair shops, grocery stores, fast food joints) who suffer when college kids don’t show up and universities aren’t running their normal businesses. They will be laid off, or have significantly reduced hours. They matter, too.
– When universities bleed cash, they can’t offer financial aid to future students–especially vulnerable students. This matters, too.
– When universities are in bad shape, they have to lean even more heavily on adjuncts.
– When universities go under, whole communities are shaken as a result. Colleges and universities are the center-pieces of small college towns.
– University professors are among the most financially stable and well-insured people on the planet. They are in a better position than anyone to deal with a Covid infection.
– College athletes are among the healthiest people on the planet, and their sport is a center-piece of their life. Taking away a season of sports is crushing for them. If they contract Covid, they will almost certainly be fine, in part because of their youth and excellent health, but also because their care will be covered by their sports programs rather than their personal insurance or their family’s insurance (or personal savings). The suggestion that the right conclusion to draw about colleges that do not cancel their sports is that they are racist and are “willing to sacrifice their athletes and staff” is…not credible.

Again, the fact that none of these considerations were even raised—let alone adequately anticipated and responded to—is a shame. I don’t know what the correct way to respond to Covid is, but I was looking forward to a serious discussion about it among philosophers.

This post reminded of me of the “discussions” or “conversations” that so many on university campuses claim they want to have. “Let’s have a conversation/discussion about race, sexual assault, etc.” What that really means is “Sit down and I will lecture you about my position.” That’s what this post feels like. “Sit down and I will lecture you about how morally righteous philosophy professors are and how morally bankrupt college administrators are.”Report

Mitchell Aboulafia
Reply to  Nick
1 year ago

Nick, You don’t believe that the considerations you mentioned were addressed. Let me take this opportunity to make sure they are.

Your last point about college athletes is the most telling one, in my view. The focus is on how athletes are being denied an opportunity to play when they are “among the healthiest people on the planet….If they contract Covid, they will almost certainly be fine…” First, it’s not at all clear that they will be fine, hence the concern about so many POC in athletic programs. Covid-19 seems to cause other problems in the young than death, for example. But more to the point at hand, you see the harm here in terms of the athletes and not to the communities around them. What we have seen thus far from Covid’s spread among college athletes hasn’t been good, and athletes don’t live in isolation chambers. There is a clear and present danger that the virus will spread from athletes, who exercise and train in close quarters, to the wider community. We are dealing with a public health issue here, with the emphasis on “public.” A personal desire to play doesn’t trump this concern. (This was in fact one of the central points in my piece, that is, the danger to surrounding communities in bringing students, faculty, and staff back to campus.)

Interestingly, while you didn’t point out the issue of the surrounding communities when it came to athletes and their health, you did raise it regarding businesses and their workers. Yes, there is a good chance that there will be economic hardship if many colleges don’t open their campuses. Two points here: 1) if they open there will surely be hardship due to the spread of the virus, especially in poorer communities, because of illness and death, and 2) the financial hardship may even be worse if the schools open and then have to close again, which is likely to happen in many cases, or if a significant number of people in the surrounding communities become ill or too frightened of the virus to continue engaging in business as usual. Many/most schools simply are not prepared for what would be needed to limit the spread of the virus, including closing dormitories. And it’s not merely a problem of how unprepared colleges may be. We don’t have enough tests available in the country to make opening advisable for most schools in urban/suburban locations and college towns. (See, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/08/how-to-test-every-american-for-covid-19-every-day/615217/ ) This is a disaster waiting to happen for the surrounding communities, which will potentially not only affect health. There is a good chance that there will be downside financial implications.

[On a personal note: my dad died of Covid-19 in the spring, having lived through the times with the heath challenges Hasnas mentions. Before they retired, my parents owned a ma and pa retail shop. I know something about how challenging the situation is for small businesses, but as upsetting as it is, I don’t think you can put a price on human life and health, although our form of capitalism keeps trying. The government should be pressed to help these people and businesses. The solution is not to put more people—college employees, workers, and residents in the surrounding communities—in more danger.]

Ok, this is getting too long. Quickly, your other points: Of course when universities suffer financially it’s going to affect aid, retention, and hiring, etc. How much will vary a great deal from college to college, especially since there are colleges and universities that have already overextended themselves to compete with other schools. (Imagine for a moment if all of the college and universities in the country had said early on: we are going online. The competition factor would have lessened, and there may have been more political pressure from businesses to have the government do something, as opposed to the fantasy that we are going to be able to open and everything will be fine. It’s the latter mindset that has put the United States in such a terrible hole.) There is no simple answer regarding the financing of higher ed—before, during, or after the virus—but a top down, here is how we are going to deal with financial issues during the pandemic, was not the right course. College and university administrators should have provided various financial scenarios, and then discussed possible solutions with faculty and other members of the staff, including temporary salary cuts, etc. Instead, they have often chosen to force faculty and staff members to interact in person, not considering the impact on the employees’ families and the surrounding communities. Colleges are in fact behaving like many businesses, whose goal is to make money. (On colleges as businesses see, for example, “The harsh truth: US colleges are businesses, and student loans pay the bills”) https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/oct/07/colleges-ceos-cooper-union-ivory-tower-tuition-student-loan-debt)

Note: People act for mixed motives. No doubt many administrators are personally well-intentioned , but it has become exceedingly difficult to escape the corporatization of colleges and universities. This has led administrators to think increasingly like business people. Their careers often depend on how successful they are on the financial front.

Regarding your comment about the privilege of university professors: yes, we often have good health insurance (although not typically true for adjuncts), but we bleed red too, and so do our families, friends, and neighbors. Having decent insurance is not a guarantee against Covid-19.

Last but not least, going back to your first comment which quoted Hasnas: the idea that because our ancestors had to live with X, we should also, when we have ways of preventing or mitigating something like X, is just bizarre. He says that, “the only options we have are to take reasonable precautions and get on with life or to hide from it.” Really? And what are reasonable precautions? Isn’t closing a dormitory a reasonable precaution? Who defines them? The people with power and money? It is Hasnases of this world who have put us in such a bad position in the United States. There were clearly other options, successfully employed by other countries. Prudence, good planning, and patience are not hiding.Report

Danielle
Danielle
1 year ago

I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed the lack of range of thought represented in this collection (if only I could ‘like’ Nick’s comment!). I’ve found it increasingly impossible to have thoughtful conversations about this topic without being characterized as actively wishing death upon my students and colleagues. This disappointing set of pieces just adds to my pessimism about the possibility of thinking and talking through these hard questions rationally, when the only positions that are deemed worthy of inclusion in a collection like this are positions in roughly the same ideological grouping.

I am by no means a COVID skeptic, and I think the federal (mis)handling of this situation has been downright deplorable. I’m also not of the view that faculty should be forced to teach in person. My own institution allows for total faculty autonomy in the decision about whether to teach in person, and is implementing rigorous testing protocols, a phased re-entry, etc. (Not to mention other relevant factors, like where we’re located, our student population, etc, all of which make us low risk.) And even so, I cannot have a conversation with some of my colleagues here who are convinced that anything short of a decision to mandate online-only evinces a callous disregard for human life.

Of course, the financial hit we will take and the deleterious effects that will have on many people’s lives is never seriously discussed. These same people will scream bloody murder when the college announces a 25% pay cut to faculty salaries, permanent reductions in faculty lines, slashed travel and research budgets, no necessary infrastructure upgrades, etc. — all very likely outcomes if we go fully remote. And the effects will be worse for staff who do not enjoy the same protections as faculty — staff are already getting laid off in droves and looking out onto a decimated landscape with few job prospects. And let’s not even talk about entire towns that depend on the presence of higher-ed institutions. I just wish that these factors were also a part of the conversation.Report

Joe
Joe
1 year ago

To add to these critical comments, I would like to thank Justin for providing us with a publicly accessible illustration of how ideological conformity actually works. I’m not being sarcastic or covertly critical there, it really is useful. Justin didn’t select these commenters because he knew in advance they would all have the roughly same position. Rather, he cast around for names that seemed salient to him, on the basis of criteria that only he can tell us about, and I doubt that he is any way to blame for the result. This teaches us an important lesson: the one-sided “conversations” we are increasingly asked to have in academia are not usually born out of any explicit desire to create and enforce conformity. Rather, prestige networks and seemingly unrelated selection criteria do most of that work all on their own. The next time I teach on speech and heterodoxy I will definitely direct my students to this post, because it shows how good and thoughtful people with sound moral compasses can nonetheless collectively conspire to exclude vital considerations from moral and political discussion.Report

A Philosopher
A Philosopher
1 year ago

At risk of piling on, if the aim of these series is to “stimulate further conversation”, then is it too much to ask for a single dissenter? This isn’t the first time this has happened in this series. How about instead of commissioning guest editors to invite people they know (which another commenter notes serves to reify prestige networks), Justin or a guest editor instead posted open calls for submissions instead?Report

Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

Even though I am very much on the side of saying that many universities have been foolish to make so many plans based on in-person teaching (or a bait-and-switch based on students thinking “in-person teaching” means what we had a year ago, rather than someone in a mask dividing attention between a screen and a room full of scattered people), I do agree with the other commentators that this post really would have benefited from someone investigating considerations on other sides. I think there are good responses to many of the concerns Nick raised in the second comment, but it would have been helpful to have someone writing at length about those concerns so that they could be addressed.

(But briefly, I think small businesses will likely do better with a certainty of no in-person students than with a plan for things to be just as they were last year that is likely to be disrupted; similarly, many institutions are likely to be in better financial shape for the future if they took a certain loss this year and took out loans to upgrade empty dorms and classrooms, rather than the uncertainty and expense of planning for a hybrid model that is likely to change in unknown ways over the course of the semester; with an honest campus discussion about the issues, high-paid faculty might have been persuaded to take a pay cut to help out staff people bearing the brunt of any option, and student athletes might be able to participate in their sport with empty stadiums to prevent the spread among fans).Report

Richard Y Chappell
1 year ago

It’s too bad that early calls for research into variolation/inoculation (low-dose voluntary infection) weren’t picked up on, since College campuses are a context in which it seems like it could’ve been really beneficial.

Most students face minimal risk from COVID. But they could easily spread the virus to others who are more vulnerable. The obvious solution is that low-risk students should have been invited back to campus two weeks early on the condition that they consent to be deliberately exposed to the virus and collectively quarantine (socializing with each other, if they’re feeling up to it) until no longer infectious. Localized herd immunity would then protect the broader campus community.

I know a lot of people think the idea is crazy, but isn’t the status quo very obviously worse?Report

Lisa Fuller
Lisa Fuller
1 year ago

I appreciate that commenters would have liked to hear from what they see as the “dissenting” side of the debate. However, I would point out that I did not know (as editor) what people would say in advance, and in fact many of the comments concede the central points made in several of the peices (that “no one should be forced to teach in person” for instance, is my own position). I would also note that many of the contributors work at institutions where the overwhelming message is that one has a duty to return to in-person teaching, so this position is, in fact, the dominant one in many of our immediate environments. Finally, while there can be no doubt that economic damage is being done to everyone by the pandemic, this is hardly the fault of University employees. I would welcome a fully fleshed out argument for why higher education employees (or other teachers, for that matter) should take on more risk to save the economy than people in other professions, given that many people (although of course not all) can work from home.Report

Matt
Matt
1 year ago

If the above (and soon-to-be-below) commenters want to dissent, then by all means, dissent. But for those of us in countries* who took immediate decisive actions to combat the spread of COVID-19 and whose universities made early decisions to go completely online for the next school year because a determination was made early in the face of an unknown to make the safest possible decision, please understand how absolutely batshit insane the idea of “dissenting views” looks in this case. 5.22 million cases and 166,000 people dead as of today because it wasn’t taken seriously.

Is that not high enough?

*Canada, if it matters to anyone.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

what Matt said.
In British Columbia (pop 5M) the guiding principles with regard to our post-secondary institutions as well as with regards to opening the economy have been maintaining public health and the public health care system. We are concerned right now because our case count has jumped in 6 weeks from <10 to, yesterday, 85. We are still able to contact trace quickly and so contain the spread of the disease, in part because he disease is being transmitted primarily by people in the 20s and early 30s through parties. (Hmm…I wonder whether that every happens at universities.) As I type, I am listening to the daily update from the Provincial Health Minister and the Public Health officer who are sharing the latest modelling, making it very clear that interactions needs to be limited to very small gatherings (so that tracing can happen quickly), that everyone needs to be working together to continue to keep things open, and that the work that public health workers are doing is critically important.
And if you really want to compare yourself to other jurisdictions taking things very seriously, just look to Australia. They have not opened up travel between states.
Of course there are costs to teaching remotely in the Fall, but for those who dissent with doing so, please be honest with yourselves about just what you are valuing in arguing for the contrary (ie that face to face teaching should happen). You are not weighting public health considerations seriously.Report

Phil prof
Phil prof
1 year ago

Jeeze, these critical commentaries remind me of students I’ve had who would come up with the most creative ways to avoid addressing the substance of the actual arguments in the texts I assigned.Report

Kevin J. Harrelson
Kevin J. Harrelson
1 year ago

Unlike the anonymous Phil prof above, I think the commenters make good points. Here’s one more, and a very selfish one:

Humanities departments cannot survive multiple (very) bad consecutive fiscal years. And shutting down campus guarantees that – the comparison to Canada misses this entirely, since in many countries the states actually save money by closing campus. A large campus in America loses hundreds of thousands of dollars of gross income each day it’s closed.

This is not the kind of moralistic, agent-independent argument you might want. But it’s something.Report

Benjamin Hale
Reply to  Kevin J. Harrelson
1 year ago

I mean, fair enough. I don’t think any of the authors are suggesting that universities or humanities departments go out of business. I suspect that most think that the best way to get universities to open again, to ensure the long-term health of the university, is by tackling the pandemic and not pretending that it doesn’t exist. I tried to make that clear in my essay, but maybe I didn’t succeed at that.Report

Kevin J. Harrelson
Kevin J. Harrelson
Reply to  Benjamin Hale
1 year ago

Thanks for the reply, Benjamin. I didn’t take myself to be disagreeing with your piece, which I enjoyed. I’m just adding to the litany of arguments in favor of reopening more rather than less. There are plenty of considerations in the other direction.Report

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  Kevin J. Harrelson
1 year ago

Kevin Harrelson, I am not sure what you mean by Canadian provinces saving money by shutting down universities. We are not saving money. We are losing revenue from ancillary services (parking, recreation) that serve to actually help balance the budget. Salaries still need to be paid. Other revenue sources are also lost. Some universities have stable enrolments of international students, others have lost international student tuition revenue. This budget year is okay, because it is based on last year’s revenues, but next year is going to be ugly. You missed my point: we have articulated the principles that guide decision making: governments and institutions are prioritizing public health. Institutions are also trying to provide the best education we can remotely. What are *the principles guiding decision making* for those arguing that US institutions that choose to open with face to face instruction? I would like to see those articulated, and not just a list of particular considerations.Report

Kevin J. Harrelson
Kevin J. Harrelson
Reply to  Lisa
1 year ago

Thanks for your reply Lisa.

I didn’t say Canadian universities are saving money, but only that comparisons between decisions by administrators in Canada and those in the States are irrelevant (due to the differences in economic circumstance and structure). I did say that “in some states …,” but I don’t know enough about the precise budget models of Canadian universities to address that.

I also don’t mean to suggest that saving Humanities curricula is a good enough reason for everyone to support F2F reopening, just that it’s enough for me. But moralistic posturing about how administrators are heartless capitalists (there’s a fair bit of this in the six pieces, I hope you’ll allow) should at least take this into account: massive program closures and the near-elimination of the humanities will be inevitable consequences of campus shutdowns in some places, such as at US public institutions. It’s easy to point the finger at the people making the hard decisions, even when they’re taking our interests into account.Report

Kevin J. Harrelson
Kevin J. Harrelson
Reply to  Lisa
1 year ago

As for the very reasonable request you make at the end: I don’t have the answers for you. University administrators don’t operate in a vacuum. They negotiate budgets with (in most cases) Republican lawmakers who are all too willing to gut education budgets. So everything is compromise. We can’t just draw up principles about how the university operates, because the university exists within a larger social and economic structure that is not guided by any principles that we could just decide upon.Report

nelu
nelu
Reply to  Lisa
1 year ago

Public or Private (if any) Universities in Canada? IReport

John
John
1 year ago

I’ve piped up in a few different threads about this issue on this site, so at risk of belabouring…

From what I saw, only two contributors mention the financial side of the coin. Lisa Fuller wrote: “In almost all cases these requirements could be met by the institutions if they were willing to make further financial sacrifices…”. And Daniel Star wrote: “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.” Notice that these comments are very general, and that they do not refer directly to whether the authors themselves ought to financially sacrifice in order to help their universities. The sacrifice is presented as one that ‘they’–the university, the institution, just ‘they’–would have to make.

I agree that many universities’ responses to the pandemic are morally problematic. So I’m on board with a fair bit of what these authors say. But I think each of them does not pay enough heed to the significance of the financial exigencies that are partly (mostly…?) guiding administrators’ decisions. It is true that some universities are concerned about balancing the books if they adopt across-the-board remote learning. And as some have said in other threads, universities have a moral duty to make these financial details clear to stakeholders, like faculty. ‘Trust us, we’re concerned with your best interests’ is not a persuasive pitch from higher-ups.

The problem, to my mind anyways, is this: how many of these authors’ professional privileges–tenure, great health care, job security, pensions (!), low teaching loads, sabbaticals, and research and travel funds–are afforded by structural injustices inflicted by the universities they now decry? And since the answer is, trivially, >0, how many of these authors spoke out about these injustices when others, who do not enjoy the same platform they do, have been their victims? For example, how many asked how much the university is paying the instructors teaching his or her courses when they are on sabbatical? How many are asking tough questions about whether their graduate programs exist primarily to subsidize their low teaching load, rather than to prepare students for positions just like theirs?

I could go on. The issue isn’t that the authors are wrong about university policies during COVID. It’s rather that, to anyone paying attention, similar injustices have existed in academia for ages, they have been getting worse, and yet (though I stand to be corrected) I’m not sure how many of these authors spoke up about them until they came home to roost. So I think that many of us (yes, I speak for myself), who are scraping buy in academia, even though our credentials are entirely comparable, read posts like these and roll our eyes.

It’s one thing to decry the corporatization of the university. It’s quite another for tenured professors to do so.Report

Mitchell Aboulafia
Reply to  John
1 year ago

John, To answer your question: I have spoken up about exploitation countless times over the years. I don’t think anyone should assume that this group of authors hasn’t.

Of course, you are raising a real problem, that is, too few people have spoken up in academia. But here is where Covid-19 provides an opportunity, which I have been trying to “exploit.” Look, colleagues, see, when push comes to shove, you are going to be treated just like these folks, these marginalized workers. Join with them, unionize, etc.

Regarding some of the ways I have tried to speak to a wider audience than that of my own institution, here’s a passage from a post I wrote a while back. I have been furious about the mistreatment of adjuncts and non-tenure stream instructors for a very long time.

“One of the justifications for the universal salary and benefit discrepancies between tenure-stream and non-tenure-stream staff is that tenure stream faculty are more productive than their adjunct colleagues.  Just look at how many more articles and books they produce!  Of course if people with tenure were teaching 5 or 6 courses a semester at different institutions, their productivity presumably would take a significant hit.  Further, once someone has not produced much for several years, it becomes virtually impossible to find a tenure stream position because the assumption is, well, once a productivity loser, always a productivity loser.  How marvelously insidious.  A perfectly self-fulfilling and self-justifying framework for exploitation.  To add insult to injury, adjunct colleagues who do manage to write must send their work to journals that are overloaded with submissions, leading to massive delays in the peer review process.  This certainly hurts those with less work to submit more than those who can circulate several articles at once.” https://upnight.com/2018/05/31/the-productivity-syndrome-or-why-i-stopped-writing-philosophy/Report

John
John
Reply to  Mitchell Aboulafia
1 year ago

Hi Mitchell,

Thanks for your reply. Simply put, you’re right: I was being too pointed. If I’d done a quick Google search I’d have seen that you do in fact speak out about these issues.

I do still believe that the majority of tenured faculty do not. But that you do speak out is really great. Thanks.Report

Mitchell Aboulafia
Reply to  John
1 year ago

John, Thank you! Good of you to have taken the time to respond like this.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
1 year ago

The debacle at UNC highlights an oversight in the Wilson article. The issue isn’t whether whether continuing with the football programs poses some risk to (largely black) athletes, but rather whether it puts them at greater risk than the being in the student body in general. There’s no reason to think it does, and instead the reverse, given the structured schedules of such athletes, and their access to regular testing and medical supervision.

Of course, even that risk may be too great, but then the greater complaint should be from the student body, especially if schools went face-to-face just so they could have football (something they would deny publicly of course). The comparison then is the risk of being with the football program, being in the student body, and the risk of being “at home”. That might not be knowable. In Florida, where I am, 85K people between the ages of 15-24 have tested positive, in spite of not participating in organized football or attending university.

As to the heroism of HBCUs, it’s worth noting that their revenue generated by football is at least an order of magnitude lower than for the Power 5 schools, and at most of the smaller schools, is a money loser. That doesn’t mean they weren’t sincere when speaking of their concern for the student athlete, but I’m sure it made the decision easier.Report

Dan Werner
Dan Werner
1 year ago

I’d like to get away from the financial arguments. I am teaching one of my three courses in person this semester. I am rather surprised to hear that some in our profession consider me to be an “accomplice” to sickness/death for doing so, without even considering contextual factors. I did not want to be in a classroom in the spring, and right now I would not want to be in a classroom were I living in TX or FL or other such places. But in my state (NY) infection rates are extremely low right now. Does that not matter as we weigh whether to return to the classroom? Also, alongside the harms of reopening, we must acknowledge some of the harms of not doing so: namely, a profound sense of malaise, ennui, and “endless pointlessness” (to borrow Taylor’s phrase) from so many students and faculty who are subjected to online courses. (If I had a college-age child right now, I would tell them to take a year off rather than pay tuition for a Zoom education, no matter how carefully crafted.) I have already received several emails from my fall students telling me how excited they are about the in-person course. That matters. So before casting moral blame, all I ask is that we recognize that no one way of weighing risk/harm is *self-evidently* true, and that some of the values being debated here (health vs. meaningful learning, for instance) are incommensurable.Report

nelu
nelu
1 year ago

@ Dan Warner actually in NYC many students asked for online courses. You need not to use Zoom, try Webex, Big Blue Button and others. Philosophy, and for that matter almost any teaching content, is conceptual which means that students aren’t supposed to attend a college to “live the experience” but to learn something.

But you are right, most students “learn” by “watching” and “feeling”, less by thinking so we should probably go back to campus in order to make them “feel” and “watch” again… I Eventually everything is about “feeling” and “watching”Report