The Utter Ignorance of Higher Education

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist

They watched. They listened. They acted.

And once they understood the depths of the pandemic from the experts, college presidents at some of our finest institutions decided it was okay to open up their campuses to students. Brown University was the figurehead for opening up, stating in an open letter that they would open carefully but as normal. That is, until they moved their open date to October.

In the news this week is the episode playing out at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, one of our nation’s most prestigious public institutions. UNC opened last week only to move all classes online this past Monday after finding 177 students that tested positive for COVID-19. UNC’s Chancellor, Robert Blouin, said that they have “not taken this decision lightly.” But in the face of data that clearly suggests an alternative, they chose to open last week regardless. To me, that seems to be a decision taken very lightly.

What was possibly going through the minds of college presidents and their trustees to think that they could possibly outrun COVID-19? Clearly the United States does not have a handle on the pandemic, so how could a university with thousands of students, professors, and staff think they could possibly beat the virus?

Let’s be clear. This is higher education we are talking about. The institutions renown-if-not-lauded for their “higher” standards and insightfulness. How could they possibly come to a decision that would surely put hundreds or thousands of people at risk? It is, in a term, unconscionable.

This isn’t just about higher education, of course. K12 districts around the country have an even bigger battle going on. Given the 55+ million public school students and over 2 million public teachers, the potential impact of opening up our K12 schools is even more dire. Even so, some are moving forward with little consideration for the veracity of COVID-19. Others are more pragmatic. In Virginia Beach, where I live, Superintendent of Schools Aaron Spence has carved out a very narrow lane for reopening. Parents were given two options: (a) let their child attended school face-to-face based on a reopening schedule based entirely on very specific data milestones (and not yet reached, so they will start online regardless) that need to be reached; or (b) choose to have their child attend virtually at home for the entire fall semester regardless of the milestones, with reconsideration for spring at a later time. By using science and health indicators as a guide, the superintendent has given parents an option that can work for everyone. This seems both prudent and pragmatic.

The colleges that reopened in a traditional manner did try and enforce social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing, among other actions. But their gross error if not negligence was in their consideration of the “social” part of social distancing. They simply forgot who their clients were: 18-22-year-old students whose DNA is to interact and “multiply.” Kids will be kids, which means they can’t all be trusted to do the right thing. COVID-19 has shown us, on a daily basis, that adults can’t be trusted to do the right thing to hinder the spread of this virus. How could college presidents think that our immature youth would be the standard bearers in this situation?

Now colleges are backing off and moving online, something that should have been the only single consideration all summer long. It was clear in June that the reductions in cases and deaths were a short-term trend. Americans, by and large, have shown an incredible lack of consideration of both the complexity and the danger of the coronavirus. As a society, we will not beat this virus; the only thing we can do is outlast it by letting our scientists come up with a usable vaccine. There is no other alternative pathway. Sure, the development of a quick, affordable, and reliable test will help, but it doesn’t eliminate the virus. Only a vaccine can help us move past this issue, and it seems unlikely that we will have a usable and tested vaccine anytime soon. The director of the National Institutes for Health (NIH) recently called having a vaccine by the end of 2020 a “stretch goal.”[1] As of now, there are over 165 vaccines in development around the globe,[2] of which 19 are currently in Phase I of testing, 12 in Phase II, 8 in Phase III, and 2 have apparently been approved for “early or limited use,” although no information is readily available on those two candidates. The World Health Organization (WHO) has a complete listing of COVID-19 candidate vaccines on their website as of August 13, 2020. They list only six candidates in Phase III. However, none of these will have completed their 12-month required testing until at least September 2021. One lists October 2022. Remember, these are clinical trials with no guarantee that they will work properly or safely. The average testing cycle lasts 5-6 years.

This is all to say that the dang ‘ol virus will be with us for a long time. The thought of allowing students on campus in spring 2021 should have been the only possible question for consideration this summer. Consideration of this fall serves only as a sign of dereliction of duty. If I am on a college’s Board of Trustees, I would seriously consider the leadership of any president who pushed the thought forward. If I am part of the board that approved the process, then I would resign.

Adding insult to injury were institutions that required that students sign a waiver to attend on-campus classes this fall. Bates College required students to both read and sign an “Acknowledgement of Shared Responsibility and Risk” to attend on-campus classes. The agreement ends with the following:

I acknowledge and agree that by committing to attend Bates College as an on-campus residential student, I am voluntarily assuming any and all risks that notwithstanding the college’s best efforts to implement and require compliance with these prevention and mitigation measures I may be exposed to the coronavirus and may become ill with COVID-19, and that such exposure and illness may result in personal injury, illness, temporary or permanent disability, or even death. 

Bates is simply stating to students: “we’ll open up, but it’s all on you.” Seemingly pathetic for a liberal arts college that says in its mission statement that in embracing “a commitment to responsible stewardship of the wider world, Bates is a college for coming times.” This seems grossly off the mark.


[1] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/phase-3-clinical-trial-investigational-vaccine-covid-19-begins.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker.html

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