The Summer of Magical Thinking

What’s your college or university doing about the fall semester?

This question seems more urgent now then ever, given how Dr. Anthony Fauci told a Senate committee today that he is profoundly worried about the nationwide trends regarding the covid-19 virus. “We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around,” he warned. In the higher-ed world, recent headlines have presented a litany of covid hotspots, from football players at Clemson to over 140 students and staff at Georgia. And that’s before everyone returns to campus from their various summer spots and activities. Nationwide, the midwest, as well as states like Florida and Arizona, are seeing an ominous rise in covid-19 cases, and a shortage of hospital capacity and health care resources looms on the horizon.

So…what’s your college or university doing about the fall semester?

According to the aggregate results for over 1,000 higher-ed institutions aggregated by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the most likely answer is “planning for in-person” instruction—61% of the colleges and universities in this dataset have said this is their plan. The next most prevalent answer is some sort of hybrid model (20% of the institutions), with only 8% “planning for online” (one has to assume that a large portion of this group is the Cal and Cal State systems), and a mere 3.7% who have yet to decide. What strikes me about this data is that out of over 1,000 institutions of higher learning, over eight hundred of them are planning on at least some degree of face-to-face instruction, with three-quarters of that cohort proceeding as if that will be the dominant mode for the fall semester. Business as usual, apparently.

It’s the presidents and administrators in this group that have been the whistling the loudest when walking past the graveyard. Mitch Daniels wants you to believe everything will be just fine this fall, but he’s only the loudest representative of the magical thinking camp. Purdue’s going to do face to face classes, by gum, Daniels has told anyone who will listen; to do otherwise, to not “re-open,” he argues, would be “an unacceptable breach of duty.” Brown University’s president Christina Paxson (trained as an economist) argued in The New York Times last month that colleges and universities must reopen in the fall, as the risks of not doing so apparently far outweigh continuing the remote instruction we all embarked upon this spring. Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s demesne, had a raft of Covid-19 cases this spring, which critics charged was due to the school’s blithe dismissal of the need for any public health precautions. And despite Liberty’s propaganda arm insisting their approach is a “model for the fall,” it’s worth noting that the university has just been sued by some of its students for failing to take protective measures as the virus spread on campus. Notre Dame’s president, John Jenkins, says reopening for the fall is “worth the risk”; he wants us to consider the consequences for future generations if we allow the education of today’s students to be interrupted. (Not present in his meditations is any consideration of the consequences for future generations from the present one having a spike in its death rate.)

Hey Mitch–this u?

There are several things Daniels, Paxson, Jenkins, et al., have in common besides being presidents of campuses committed to re-opening in the fall: they do not spend significant time in either the classrooms, dormitories, or dining halls of said campuses, and indeed have the luxury of offices and routines that can easily keep them at least relatively sequestered from large groups of people and things like hallway traffic and lecture halls with sniffling, coughing students. They also likely have private restroom facilities, which, when you think about it, is a big deal in these covid-drenched times. As Juliana Gray put it in her brilliant McSweeney’s piece “A Message From Your University’s Vice President for Magical Thinking,” what these campuses and hundreds of others like them, have proclaimed as their strategy is “Our university will proceed as if everything will be okay because we really, really want it to be.”

This is, of course, ludicrous.

We are in the midst—likely still in the first wave, even—of a global pandemic, caused by a virus for which we do not yet have a vaccine. The United States, because of our unique capacity for both sociopathic individualism and blithe dismissal of inconvenient facts, leads the world in per capita cases and deaths from the virus. Several weeks ago, many states (including Iowa, where I reside) decided that even though they hadn’t really closed closed, it was still time to “re-open,” because capitalism. And now, with R-naught numbers headed in the wrong direction, and new covid cases reaching record daily highs in some areas, the sheer folly of this rush to get back to “normal” has become tragically evident.

Have I mentioned that Dr. Fauci thinks 100,000 new cases a day is a distinct possibility?

In light of all this, the thing that scares me the most is that I hear a lot about why leaders want their campuses to be as open and in-person as possible, but very little about how that will happen, specifically. Oh, sure; Mitch Daniels got his advancement office on the case, and now you can subsidize a student protection kit for the low, low price of $65. Yes, it’s crass as hell [1] but it’s way more specific than many campuses have gotten. I understand the existential dread that’s out there with college leadership, I really do. I work at a small, not-lavishly-resourced, tuition-dependent university. A plunge in enrollment is bad, perhaps fatal, news for schools in our demographic. Because we live in a country whose political leaders have decided we can’t have nice things, and thus higher ed is in truly perilous shape, there is ample reason to be afraid of the financial consequences of anything different than an as-normal-as-possible fall semester.

BUT.

Leaders who make decisions out of fear often make bad decisions. It makes one reactive, rather than proactive, and conveys a sense of desperation rather than assurance. For the figures on our campuses who get paid the big bucks to Lead Boldy and Innovatively™, we ought to expect more than we’re getting. No one has the answers to what the fall semester will look like; hell, just trying to plan two weeks out is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. When we hear assurances that “we’ll be face to face” and “you can count on having the full [insert University here] experience,” those sound like Advancement Office and CFO prayers rather than actual plans. All of us in higher education understand the stakes involved. Most of us understand them, I would submit, in a more nuanced and multifaceted way than some of the decision-makers. In that light, it seems to me we can draw upon the clear lessons we’ve already learned from the previous few months of pivoting to remote instruction:

Face-to-face is not the a priori gold standard.

Students do not learn simply because they are physically present in the same space as other students and the instructor. Yes, face-to-face teaching and learning has been the predominant mode of instruction in higher education as long as it’s been around. And it’s the preferred pedagogical approach of a large majority of instructors and students. But it is not the only way to teach and learn, as online learning practitioners have been telling us for years. Do many students want the traditional in-person, residential college experience? Yes. But do they want it bad enough to live in a room in Disease Vector Hall on the residential quad? Will they even have that experience this year? That leads me to the next point:

Whatever face-to-face occurs in the fall will be weird, awkward, and contingent.

Unless you’re Jerry Falwell, Jr., in-person instruction this semester will involve plexiglass shields, masks, socially-distant classrooms, staggered schedules to reduce hallway traffic, expanded class times to accommodate smaller capacities, and enough Lysol wipes to make the entire campus smell lemony fresh for months. When the proponents of “as much face-to-face learning as possible!” make their case, they’re doing so with an idealized image of some seminar room where IDEAS HAPPEN and The Discourse percolates, and you can’t replicate that with Zoom, goddamnit! But in reality, that seminar you’re talking about won’t be Socrates and his interlocutors in the Agora, it’ll be twelve students scattered around a big lecture room, sitting 6-8 feet away from anyone else, wearing masks, and having to yell just to be heard.

Classrooms are going to be rearranged, there will be social pressures for students to at least act like they care about others’ health, and perversely, there will also be social pressures for students to stop being sheeple and quit bitching about social distance and masking, man, it’s such a pain. A student’s daily routine in this type of environment is going to be weird, at the very least. And is there anyone reading this who would bet against another spike in cases by, say, October, and the whole pivot-to-online thing having to occur once again? Is this awkward, stilted, face-to-face experience worth it? As institutions, we aren’t asking that question.

We haven’t come close to figuring out how face-to-face is going to work when the rubber hits the road.

Yes, there are more and more institutions issuing policies for a covid-influenced fall. Students will be required to wear masks on campus. Some activities will occur differently, or not at all. For some campuses, dorms will be single-occupancy. Dining halls will be grab and go, not buffet-style.

Fine.

But…..*inhales deeply*

What are you going to do when folks don’t adhere to those community expectations? What happens if a student comes to class without a mask and the instructor is immuno-compromised, so they ask that student to mask up or leave? Who is responsible for wiping down tables and chairs between classes? Do you really think social distancing will happen in building hallways and common spaces between classes? What if a student tests positive for the virus, and one of their instructors decides they need to go into quarantine because of a family member’s health status? Are you going to make your employees divulge personal health information whenever something like this happens? What if you have a student who thinks masks are political discrimination and their parents back up their refusal to wear a mask on campus? What if one of your instructors gets ill? Who takes over the class? How is that determined? Should faculty have a “Covid Buddy” just in case? How are you going to avoid getting sued? Even if you have people sign waivers (HA!), doesn’t the very act of seeking that release of liability serve as evidence you’re aware of the risks involved? Has anybody involved community leaders in their strategizing about the fall semester? Colleges and universities exist in larger communities, and the residents of these locales are going to be significantly affected by your institution’s choices; what are you telling them about how you’re trying to ensure their safety?

Had enough? I’ve got more, you know. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and your strategy damn well better be thinking about these types of scenarios. Because they will occur.

Your faculty and staff are not cannon fodder.

To be blunt: it’s real easy to rhapsodize about the beauty and importance of in-person teaching when you aren’t the one in a classroom with dozens of students in the midst of a global pandemic. If your institution is planning on any degree of face-to-face instruction, and you are not involving actual instructors in that planning, or even acknowledging the many concerns these instructors have as legitimate, you are failing. If you are not supporting those who are redesigning courses to meet the needs of a hy-flex, hybrid, or socially-distant F2F course, you are failing. If you expect adjunct faculty to do this extra work without any acknowledgement or additional compensation, you have no ethics. And you are failing.

Colleges and universities run on relationships; but the physical environment where these relational interactions occur is riskier than ever before. Faculty and staff can interact with literally hundreds of different students per day. How is the institution making things safe for them? What plans are in place for locations like the Business Office, Bookstore, Registrar, and Financial Aid, that are often overcrowded in normal times? The employees who staff those offices play a vital role in both the institution’s daily business and student success. They should not be punished for being in such student-facing roles. Lots of them are worried; are you listening to them? Are you acknowledging those worries? Or are you inwardly rolling your eyes and wishing these overdramatic doomsayers would just understand how hard you’re trying to fix everything? If you answered that last question in the affirmative, you’re failing.

This virus is making structures of inequality worse.

If you are an upper-level college or university administrator, you are most likely wealthy and white. This pandemic is disporportionately affecting people who are not wealthy and not white.

What does that mean? One example: when you say you campus is going to be undertaking rigorous deep-cleaning measures, know that the cleaning and maintenance staff you’re asking to undertake this hazardous and grueling work is, if the average statistics hold, mostly Black and Brown people. The same goes for your food service workers. Higher education has a dismal record with campus workers; it will be even worse as these workers shoulder an unfair burden, asked to work harder in more hazardous conditions to alleviate the consciences of those who argue campuses should be as open as possible. Any plan for the upcoming semester that does not account for the extra burdens placed upon vulnerable groups is an unsatisfactory plan and a repudiation of the values your mission statement trumpets. [2]

Magical thinking is not a leadership strategy.

This is the crucial point. If you have a compelling “why” for your fall semester plans, there had better be an even more compelling, well-thought-out, sustainable “how” that accompanies it. College leaders have healthy egos; I get it, it’s part of the job. But a pandemic is not something you can will your way through, or persist in a “strategic approach” long enough to make it go away. There need to be answers to the litany of questions that have, and will continue to, come up from all quarters of your campus community. The Mitch Daniels approach is not leadership; it’s a belligerent gamble that uses others’ lives as stake money. The Christina Paxson approach is not leadership; it’s a declaration that it’s OK to sacrifice some lives for “the economy.” You may think you’re more nuanced than they are, that you’ve thought the issues through more deeply…but have you?

Let me pose this question: how can you assume any safety measure you take in classrooms and academic spaces will matter at all if the dorms remain…the dorms (the landlocked version of cruise ships, for the purposes of this scenario)?

Let me pose another question: if your re-opening plan was an experiment, would your institution’s IRB approve it?

Finally,

What seems clear, even in an unclear time such as this, is that no one is going to do everything right this fall. We must reckon with the fact, as distasteful and against one’s optimistic nature as it is, that there are no great options for the Fall. What we are after is simply the least worst one.

That’s the hard conversation we need to have, and it’s one largely absent from the panglossian statements about how awesome we’ll be able to keep things this fall. Yes, the financial stakes for our institutions are high. Yes, this is existential for some of us. Yes, remote instruction can impact enrollment. All these are bad. You know what else is bad? Dead students. Dead Faculty. Dead Staff.

What, honestly, are we saying we’re willing to risk, and what—PRECISELY—are we risking it for?

That is the conversation that needs to happen. As yet, it has not.

We have 6 weeks.

 

  1. [1] It also seems to belie Daniels’ casual assurances that everything will be just fine this Fall because students are all young and can fight this virus better than us olds—which of course begs the question of who he actually thinks will be teaching said students.
  2. [2]And even if your campus contracts these services out, it still matters; leadership means being responsible for everything the institution does, not outsourcing low-wage labor and then pleading ignorance.

13 Replies to “The Summer of Magical Thinking”

  1. Kevin, you’re right on. Magical thinking is exactly why things are going so well in Texas and Arizona, states which are probably harbingers of things to come.

    Were I involved in the teaching decision (I’m not), I’d spend the next 6-8 weeks maximizing people’s skills on Zoom, working up demonstration labs and preparing for a full year of distance learning in hopes that there’s a vaccine by a year from now.

    Hey, aren’t a lot of kids doing a gap year these days? So what’s the big deal if we do year off-campus? Really?

  2. This conversation isn’t happening?? It’s all we talk about at the community college I work at. We’re making plans for every single one of your questions. No faculty will be forced to teach in person if they don’t want to, so 80% of our classes will be fully online. We’re making plans to protect staff from students and from each other in shared offices. Our dorm has more plans than anywhere else on campus. And we acknowledge that it could all fall apart and we could end up sheltering in place again. I just don’t know what to say to the colleges and universities that aren’t preparing like this.

  3. Thank you. 100% what is going on at the public university in the northeast where I work. The “capitalism first” mentality driving the “leaders'” decisions is disheartening. When administrators veil this as “what students want” they ignore the risk to faculty and staff who are in the classrooms, hallways, and stairwells. And when a response by union leaders is to protect their friends by suggesting a voluntary one-year furlough so older, wealthier faculty can ride out the pandemic and avoid having to learn new technology (or retire) while the rest of us are in the trenches, we see how poorly those in charge are able to handle true challenges. Oh, and take on this added risk while we pay you about 7% less (welcome to the state-required furlough). Morale has never been lower.

  4. I think the magical thinking extends to student life and mental health, as well. To take the problems with single-occupancy dorm rooms and “grab and go” meals a step further, leaders at my college aren’t willing to consider the issues that this will exacerbate. First-year students often struggle with loneliness, depression, and even self-harm in the best of times. There has been no acknowledgement of how trudging alone to a makeshift 7-11, trudging back, and eating a reheated burrito in a lonely dorm room each night is going to make these things worse, especially if we make it to the cold, dark days of late Fall.

    Or, to put it in callous terms they understand, I can’t see this being good for Fall-to-Spring retention.

    1. It’s not magical thinking. It’s not that the admin is unaware of the risks. It’s (at least in my institution) that we at least pretend we’re going f2f or we will lose enough money that there will be massive, damaging layoffs. It’s the feds having abdicated all responsibility for higher ed as well as public health.

      Every time I see a higher education institution saying that they’re going f2f in fall, I see Tressie McMillan Cottom’s tweet in my mind’s eye, saying that that college is telling you a lot about their financial situation.

  5. My favorite perspective on this question comes from Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College. His Atlantic piece is critically important: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/colleges-that-reopen-are-making-a-big-mistake/611485/

    For my money, this single line is the most critical for higher ed leaders pushing for in-person instruction: “However, if a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that includes the term acceptable number of casualties, it is time for a new model.”

  6. Thank you Kevin a well thought out indictment of the kind of magical thinking that has been part of the norm in higher education for decades – the pandemic has just brought it more clearly out in the open. Keep up the good work. I’m glad I’m retired from the classroom and can do the editorial work I do now online and at home.

  7. Your ego shines through…and your erroneous position that no one is thinking of these issues and risks in higher education is laughable. Your article is so obviously written with the predisposition and point of view without any nod to the thoughtful solutions universities are coming up with. There are so many arguments contrary to your positions and facts. It’s not worth addressing here. To say and believe that all universities are only thinking about money and their existence is so antithetical to the facts. This missive is a true waste of time.

    1. Hi John, You’re mistaken in summing up my position. I never say no one is thinking about plans, it’s that they’re not asking the right questions. As someone who works at a university and consults at others, I feel like my experiences offer a counterpoint to what you suggest here. I’m sorry you thought this was a “true waste of time,” but it appears that at least you got to break out your thesaurus, right?

    2. The idea that there are thoughtful solutions is what’s ludicrous. What’s going on is a game of Russian roulette. People will die, it’s just a matter of how many. Denial in action is what we have here.

  8. This entire essay is so spot-on I just sent it to the rest of my department. It’s not only the magical thinking dominating the administrative class, but also the arrogance — in the past week, faculty at my university have received 3 emails from administration. The first was about how they’ll likely cut our pay, the second was telling us we have to teach in person unless a physician provides a clear-cut reason we can’t, and the third was informing us there’s already an outbreak on campus despite only a bare-bones minimum of people currently on campus. Thought I lucked out when I got a tenure-track job, but it turns out I also got a potential death sentence with it, so maybe it’s not as lucky as I first assumed.

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