By Lambert Strether of Corrente
This will be a short post, partly because it’s one those “I went to the swamp, but I didn’t find the bird” posts, but also because I want to make time for a clean-up on aisle Covid.
America’s Covid-19 debacle can be, in one telling, traced to a failure of leadership, as for example in The New York Times headline: “Inside Trump’s Failure: The Rush to Abandon Leadership Role on the Virus,” with the deck: “The roots of the nation’s current inability to control the pandemic can be traced to mid-April, when the White House embraced overly rosy projections to proclaim victory and move on.” The nation’s failure, then, is Trump’s failure. (As a corollary, all we need do to succeed is replace Trump). But could leadership failure be more general?
To find out, I thought I would examine mobilization by university leadership in the Covid-19 crisis; specifically, University Presidents. University Presidents are by definition leaders, and very well paid to be. University Presidents, or at least administrators, are also, at least if conservative commentary is to be believed, are more liberal than average. Hence, they would be the least likely to be swayed by Trump, and therefore likely to exercise leadership collectively to protect students from covid regardless of what Trump said or did. University Presidents collectively also have, if not in their gift, at least under their influence, enormous resources of every kind: scientific, engineering, medical, business. If ever there was an opportunity to mobilize, it was here. I won’t assess the success or failures of university leadership; I am simply asking whether or not they mobilized.
In fact, university Presidents — leaders, let us remember — did not mobilize to protect students from Covid. Frankly, I never thought they did, because I do try to pay attention to these things, but to prove it to myself, I went through 33 pages of headines for the Coronavirus tag in the Chronicle of Higher Education, all the way back to the first entry on February 24 (“Coronavirus-Themed Party at Albany Draws Criticism“). No headlines like “University Presidents form Task Force to Address Covid Crisis,” or “Ivy League Presidents form Testing Consortium for Student Health Centers,” or even “Land Grant University Presidents Sponsor Webinar on Covid and Partying.” Nothing.
As it turns out, protecting students from Covid was never a top priority for University Presidents. The American Council on Education (“a membership organization that mobilizes [ha] the higher education community to shape effective public policy and foster innovative, high-quality practice”) has published periodic surveys on what University Presidents consider pressing issues.
For April, here are the results in prose:
From a list of 14 issues, presidents were asked to select up to five they deem most pressing (see Figure 1). Overall, 86 percent of presidents selected “fall or summer enrollment numbers,” 64 percent selected “long-term financial viability,” 45 percent selected “sustaining an online learning environment,” 44 percent selected “laying off of faculty and/or staff,” and 41 percent selected “mental health of students.”
As you can see, “safety” would go under “Other,” at 5%. Here are the results in chart form:
In September, the results are somewhat different:
In the September survey, presidents were presented with a list of 19 issues and again asked to select up to five they view to be most pressing for them currently (see Figure 1). Mental health of students (53 percent) was the top concern selected by presidents.
And here are the results in chart form:
As you can see, “safety protocols” clock in at #7. (Frankly, I just don’t understand it. They rank mental health #1, and rank becoming safe from what’s making everybody crazy at #7? How does that work?)
So, University Presidents may well have mobilized on other fronts (financial, for example, or lobbying). They did not mobilize around student safety, and the surveys suggest they did not because that issue was not very important to them.
Inside Higher Ed also has two opinion pieces on March 24 that lay out two different paths that for University Presidents to take. The first, from Susan Resneck Pierce, “Leadership and Community in Tumultuous Times” (I edited for length):
So what should boards and presidents do in response to all this? As a starting point, I suggest the following:
- With the president’s involvement, the board chair should create a crisis response committee…
- Presidents and key trustees should work with senior staff to determine how, if at all possible, to continue to pay and provide benefits for employees…
- Under all circumstances, presidents and other campus leaders should do everything possible to sustain a sense of community….
- Presidents need to create additional teams, some populated with those with expertise in specific areas (e.g., enrollment, financial aid, fundraising or facilities) and others that might include faculty, staff, students and trustees to do scenario planning…
- More than at any other time, trustees need to set a philanthropic example — something that may be difficult for some in light of what is probably happening to their own financial portfolios….
- The advancement team might reach out, as some institutions already have, to alumni to provide support for students from low-income families….
- The academic vice president or provost should work with the faculty to develop contingency plans for curricular offerings…
- Institutions might make it clear to current students …
- Campuses in line for accreditation visits
- Finally, in the event of the truly unhappy reality that some institutions will no longer have the financial means to remain open, the board and president need to fairly quickly make a series of truly devastating decisions…
First, I read this list of recommendations twice: There is no mention of health and student safety whatever; apparently that’s not worthy of concern at President and Board level. Second, institutionally, there is no mention of reaching out to any other institutions; it’s “every tub on its own bottom.”
The second, from Jeff Selingo and Martin Kurzweil, “The Networked University in a Pandemic — and Beyond“, starts out well:
Navigating both the immediate crisis as well as changes in the long run is going to require more strategic collaboration among colleges and universities. Deeper alliances will not only save campuses precious time and resources in the coming months but also could mitigate the consequences of COVID-19 in the longer term.
From the beginning, institutions tackled their response to this crisis largely on their own even while looking to their counterparts around the country. Academic departments trained faculty members on pedagogical tactics and technology to shift their classes online. Admissions offices turned campus events into virtual gatherings.
Over time some decisions started to take on a herd mentality within higher education, such as a shift to pass/fail grading policies for the semester and extended admissions deadlines. To be sure, there has been some limited but helpful coordination in these early days: webinars to share best practices, associations and third-party organizations pulling together makeshift Google Docs of responses, or activating long-existing shared-services agreements. But far more is needed.
In a recent study, we found that multifaceted higher education networks are necessary to tackle complex problems when the expertise is distributed across different organizations and when the situation has no readily apparent solutions. This current crisis has all the elements for that networked solution in higher education.
However, Selingo and Kurzweil, though at least approaching collective mobilation through their “networking concept,” also do not mention health and student safety. For them, apparently, health and student safety are not “strategic,” no more than health and student safety are part of Pierce’s “community.”
A final example comes from the “Rapid-Response Webinars” sponsored by the American Council on Education (ACE). Here is a list of video titles for the webinars:
- Mental Health Task Forces: How to Center Equity and Support Student Flourishing
- Transforming an Institution and Its Workforce After COVID-19—Q&A Breakout Session
- Leading in Tumultuous Times: Three Case Studies in Crisis Management
- Digitizing Academic Delivery after COVID-19—Q&A Session
- Key Leadership Actions to Prepare Our Campuses for the Election: Part 2
- Managing the Student Lifecycle after COVID-19—Q&A Session
- Key Leadership Actions to Prepare Our Campuses for the Election
- Workforce Management During Challenging Times
- Public Policy Pop-Up: September Edition
- A Conversation on Student Success: Equity and Success for Online Community College Students
- Mental Health and COVID-19: A Student-Led Conversation with Senior Leaders
- The Economic Impact of COVID-19 and Growing Need for Higher Ed Affordability
- Basic Needs for All Students
- Pointing COVID-19 Responses Toward a Sustainable Business Model for Higher Education
- Rethinking Career-Relevant Instruction in Pandemic Times
- Recovery 2020: Scenarios for the Fall and Beyond
- The Gendered Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education
- Promoting Civic Engagement and Democracy in a Global Pandemic
- The Effects of COVID-19 on Academic Research
- Helping Students Prepare for and Navigate the Transformed Job Market after COVID-19
- Making Assessment Meaningful, Rigorous, and Secure During and Beyond COVID-19
- Enrollment Strategies and Tactics for the Global Pandemic
- Student-Informed Principles and Strategies to Support Enrollment in Light of COVID
- How Can Blockchain Play a Role in Learning Continuity? A Non-Technical Introduction
- Advising Students Virtually in Uncertain Times
- Provosts’ Perspectives on Internationalization: COVID-19 Edition
- Navigating Technical Challenges of a Rapid Shift Online
- Supporting Students New to Learning Virtually
- How Leadership Can Support Rapid Faculty Adaptation to Online Courses
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and COVID-19: Implications and Strategies
- Weathering the Financial Storm of COVID-19
- Public Policy Pop-Up: March 2020
- Community Colleges Respond to COVID-19: What Leaders Need to Know
- Managing Well-Being During the COVID-19 Crisis
- COVID-19 ACHA Guidelines: Preparing Campuses for Crisis Management at Light Speed
- Swiftly Pivoting to a Fully Remote Campus: Responding to COVID-19
Do you see student health and safety mentioned those titles? (See comment on “mental health” above.) In addition, providing webinars to institutions otherwise not networked is the essence of tub-on-its-own-bottom-ism.
It may be objected that in these divided, partisan times, there’s no point attempting to mobilize University Presidents because they won’t be able to agree on anything; for example, masking, lockdowns, etc. I would urge that there is, in fact, a lowest common denominator of “innovative, high-quality practice” (as the ACE put it, above). Here are three examples.
First, waste water testing. It’s been known at least since April (see Nature here) that a “community’s” waste water can be used as an “early warning system” for the presence of SARS-COV-2. Syracuse University and the University of California at San Diego were using waste water testing as early as June 8. “If testing finds a sudden spike in the sewage, Syracuse said, the university can test students in that residence hall for a potential outbreak. And the wastewater monitoring can help identify people with mild symptoms or who are asymptomatic.” Simple, cheap, obvious, not intrusive, not political. Surely University Presidents could have mobilized around this lowest common denominator?
Second, dashboards. The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities maintains a list of dashboards for its members here. Why is there no central site that at least lists all dashboards (and ideally maintains them in a common format)? Certainly this would be useful for parents with children at different schools, adjuncts who work at several shooks, not to mention the public service aspect for researchers. It would also be useful to students themselves, so they could measure their institutions against others, and hold them accountable. Surely University Presidents could have mobilized around this lowest common denominator?
Third, partying. One of the more amusing albeit features of college students returning to school was the University administrator’s shocked horror that students would actually party, breaking the rules (well, I never). Leaving aside the issue of what form of magical thinking allowed University Presidents to imagine this wouldn’t happen, surel surely “let’s get drunk and screw” is a lowest common denominator behavior that could have been addressed by a public relations campaign for all universities and colleges? Surely University Presidents could have mobilized around this?
Yes, of course these things all cost money. Boards and Presidents seem to be spending all their time raising money, so why not raise it for student health and safety, ffs?
Well, the Covid situation on our campuses has developed not necessarily to our advantage. And over the spring, summer, and fall, the concept that universities might find advantage in mobilizing collectively seems to have penetrated the University President’s collective mind. They have been surveyed, and here is the result. From Insider Higher Ed, “Who Leads Colleges After COVID-19?“:
What specific long-term steps leaders are considering for the coming years seem to vary greatly. Some are still generating ideas.
Partnering could lead to savings through consolidated central office functions. Institutions could learn from each other’s complementary core competencies. A community college might bring adult education, two-year degrees and flexible course delivery to the table. A liberal arts college might have physical assets, four-year degrees and the ability to teach critical thinking skills or to tap global networks. Together, they could offer stackable degrees while connecting local talent to new opportunities.
So, I’ll take “increased partnerships” as a half-hearted proxy for mobilization. But look at the long-term steps. Is student health and safety there? No! Never, ever… Perhaps Trump isn’t the only leader who’s failed us?
 I think “leader” and “leadership” sound better in the original German, but what do I know?
 Interestingly, the ethical principles of the American Association of University Administrators (“the only professional association for individuals who are interested in the entire range of higher education management… in the entire diverse set of American colleges and universities”) do not include a duty of care to students.
 From the Boston Globe, “COVID-19 thrusts college presidents into the hot seat“:
College presidents usually spend their summers at dinners with potential donors, flying off to prestigious international conferences and welcoming dignitaries at campus events. This summer they’ve been wading through coronavirus testing data, defending fall plans on cable TV networks; and holding video conference calls with anxious parents and angry neighbors.
Many have been forced to confront some of the harshest criticisms of their careers from skeptical faculty and students, who fear their schools’ reopening plans may be driven more by flagging institutional finances than public health.
The number of college presidents who’ve been blaming students instead of acknowledging their reopening plans were inadequate has been disappointing, said A. David Paltiel, a professor of the Yale University School of Public Health.
“,” said Paltiel, who’s been advising college presidents on reopening.
Well, I never!
 Long-time readers will be aware that my views of college adminstrators are jaundiced. Sadly, my priors have been confirmed.
This is how you do it: https://covid.cornell.edu/testing/dashboard/
Standard story in the US and around the world.
If you want to prevent Covid-19 from shutting you down and sickening people, you need to focus on details and make it happen. Then it happens and transmission is shut down and your community can function. Cornell is proving that colleges can function without significant transmission. Everybody works together in a serious prevention framework with lots of testing and functional reaction to positive tests.If people think you are serious, they will take you seriously.
Or you can just make bleating sounds and ignore science as it runs rampant through your community.
This constantly reminds me of the classic Onion headline: https://www.theonion.com/no-way-to-prevent-this-says-only-nation-where-this-r-1819576527
I hate to have to defend the university-industrial complex, but this argument is undermined by only presenting the ACE surveys of college and university presidents from April and September — when in fact ACE was surveying them on an ongoing basis. By the September survey, Fall classes had already been cancelled at many colleges and universities, so of course Fall term safety protocols had fallen in the rankings.
If you were to look at the July ACE survey of college and university presidents, safety protocols for the fall related to COVID-19 were in fact their Number 1 concern — unsurprisingly as July was when they were engaging in decision-making over whether to proceed with the Fall term. https://www.acenet.edu/Research-Insights/Pages/Senior-Leaders/College-and-University-Presidents-Respond-to-COVID-19-July-2020.aspx
I’m privy to some of the inner-workings at one of our great public universities, the University of California, and that institution’s leadership struggled mightily with balancing their mission of educating students who need to complete their degrees in a reasonable timeframe in order to minimize their future debt peonage with the safety of the communities surrounding their campuses.
There admittedly has been are real collapse of leadership elsewhere in the country, but our local campus did the Right Thing and shut-down pretty much everything relating to in-person education and housing of undergrads. There haven’t been super-spreader frat parties, but the trade-off will be higher drop-out rates and degrees with an asterisk due to the ineffectiveness of on-line learning in many disciplines.
I picked the first and last dates (pressed for time, sadly). My argument is that the health and safety of the students should be a top concern throughout the entire process, starting in April when the dangers were well-known. As things played out, the Presidents had other things on their minds, primarily financial (as shown), and that was what also drove the re-opening planning (as the collectively ridiculously bad approach to parties shows). To put this another way, if health and safety is only a concern when deciding whether to collect tuition checks and rent, then perhaps health and safety are not really a primary concern.
I take your points, but I have to say after seeing David in SC’s post I did have the feeling I had been misled somewhat, though I accept your pressed for time explanation. Just my impression. I’m glad David chimed in and you were able to respond, though.
As to the mental health question, I could speculate, cynically and non-cynically. Non-cynically: the fact the disease doesn’t affect the Youngs as much as those who are older (though it does affect them) perhaps led the administrators to believe that the corollary mental health effects of a world subjected to Covid are more pressing in those under their care than the disease itself. Cynical: Students afflicted by mental illnesses are more likely to drop out, thereby negatively impacting enrolment and revenue.
Fund raising as in getting their football teams back on field and basketball on the floor. This is singularly disgusting, for about 10,000 reasons, greed being only the first. Student-athletes being one in the same as slave.
Interestingly, the players are pushing the schools to allow them to play. Some even sued. In the case of football, Covid is probably down on the list of health concerns for a player.
Might the drop out trade off be a good thing? degree’s value is headed towards collapse because it is a bubble. Most 30k/year entry level jobs at any company of institution require at least a masters degree, simply the wrong incentive for the job. My online classes have indeed resulted in learning less than in person, however, the classes themselves do not teach much in the first place. I think this allows students to see the fraud in the present day experience. That we are so blinded by how busy we are with homework, living on our own for the first time, and partying, that we don’t realize we are being swindled financially and taught the bare minimum in class. Unlike a job there is not union to change this through for students do not have any leverage on campuses like workers do. i will be happy to see some colleges close down because it means people are waking up to the game, shame it took a pandemic.
Both the UC and the CSU systems acted quickly to switch to remote instruction, perhaps because California was first to implement a lockdown and seemingly promoting a proactive stance, initially. I don’t think this response occurred on campuses, nation-wide. The CSU will continue remotely through the spring 2021 semester, and the UC will continue remotely at least through winter quarter. Even at that, almost 400 ucla students (some on-campus and most living in surrounding off-campus housing, have contracted Covid.
I disagree with your list of actions because there is a layer below actions they can take. It is that they will fail regardless of the decisions and actions they make because they are not physically capable of helping their students, It simply isnt their job. It’s like asking a banker to protect your money. Their job is to make money not protect it. Their job is to make money for the school, themselves, and their alumni, along with market the school. Another analogy is it’s like asking a principal with an mba to teach a biology class, except the grades are deaths. Some evidence of this:
1.I plan to return to school next semester and asked to be released from my housing contract so i could safely live on my own….They said no because they need to fill more housing spots. That is not care for students, nor is it even registering on the “surveys.” I trust our school’s administrations statements about as much as I trust our political party’s campaign promises.
2. Kids who had covid ended up having to “quarantine” in their rooms/suites with roommates who did not have covid. That is a basic logistical failure that a middle schooler could do better at.
3. The president announced his retirement 1/2 way into this semester (take notes sleepy joe). this comes after messing covid up, buying up most of the real estate in town and jacking up rents in a poverty stricken town, and excusing multiple rapes by the same fraternity within three years (that same fraternity just so happens to have alumni who contribute 30% of all donations).
4. Despite having a MASSIVE medical school ,all they were able to conjure up was 1000 random tests over the course of the semester in addition to symptomatic testing which was based on a self reporting app. That screams haphazard third party attempts to comfort parent’s fears as opposed to taking concrete action of testing everyone, every three days, and allowing them to live on their own.
5. this does not even scratch the day to day surfaces. the gym was open, so were the cafeterias, libraries, sporting events, and common areas.
Spot on about no care for students because there is none, there has never been any, and I feel incredible remorse about my choice in where i went to school.
Don’t students pay in advance each semester?
If so, then would it be more profitable for them to drop out sick?
AKA selling lecture seats twice per semester?
Students: stay home, pay yourself $200,000.
there’s only one thing to say about all of this:
mom-in-law report, former college professor (non tenured) in the specific field of credentialing future education administrators:
“they wanted their money, and that’s all they cared about!”
The response to coronavirus in the USA has been “ad hoc”. Very much in line with the ruling philosophy that the only thing that matters is profit. There has been no messaging, planning, and only one economic stimulus package, eight months ago. For-profit vaccines in Operation Warp Speed is the sole response to coronavirus pandemic except for local lockdowns when hospitals are over flowing with patients.
It would take a mental transformation for a University President to consider students anything other than a source of money to be exploited. No different than Casino, Meat Packing, Assisted Living, Oil and Gas, Airliner Assembly, or Pharmacy Industry Executives. It is quite clear that CEOs will do nothing as hundreds of thousands of Americans die early unless the government jails them for their crimes. Except this remedy has been discarded by both the Obama/Biden and Trump Administrations.
Capitalism is a morality system, not primarily an economic one but using economic enforcement.
didn’t M. Thatcher say openly that their “project was the Soul”?
I have a child and a nephew in 2 major US universities. This article is light-years from our family experience.
1) There’s plenty of leadership. But there’s no consensus on the best approach. Anyone with 2 eyes can see that the nation is deeply divided about where it wants to be led. Even the best leaders can’t quickly go where the people won’t go. Note also this is not purely a US issue – all the western democracies in similar situations.
2) It’s a feature, not a bug, that we don’t have some centralized University President Groupthink Council. Strength in academia comes through diversity of thought – run 500 experiments and learn from the successes.
3) Many universities – Cornell is one but it’s not just Cornell – are doing a great job of protecting their students, faculty AND staff members. A university cannot long protect its enrollment numbers without making sure those 3 populations are on board with health & safety.
There is an old true joke about what is important to college administrators: 1) Sex for the students. 2) Football for the alumni. 3) Parking for the faculty.
So to be fair, their priorities have been upended and they are lost in fog.
University presidents of state universities implement policies provided by the government. At least, in the state I live in. The most significant policies with implications for student safety, such as in classroom instruction, are decided at the state level.
UIUC developed its own test and protocols (test, trace, isolate) in the spring and has achieved solid results – the UIUC dashboard’s most recent positivity rate was 0.33% (21 Nov.). The saliva-based test has a turnaround of 6-12 hours, is highly accurate (very few false positives), and students must have a negative result to be allowed into any university building – including, of course, classroom buildings. (Undergrads are required to be tested 2-3 times weekly). Those testing positive are compelled to isolate, and there’s a highly organized tracing system set up as well. A spike in cases early in the semester was traced to several frat/sorority parties, and the university cracked down hard on these – the whole campus was forced into lockdown for two weeks, and several students were suspended.
Keeping in mind that this is a campus with around 30,000 students and 15,000 employees – 45,000 people – and that it’s in a county (Champaign) in a region (6) with a positivity rate of 14% currently.
It’s quite costly but effective, and the program (called “Shield T3”) is now being expanded to other Illinois organizations and a mobile version is also being prepared.
Coincidentally (?) I just read https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/11/23/stan-n23.html?pk_campaign=newsletter&pk_kwd=wsws :
Stanford academic senate condemns Scott Atlas
Jonathan Burleigh 11 hours ago
The Stanford faculty senate voted by over 85 percent to condemn the COVID-19-related actions of right-wing Trump administration adviser and Stanford-affiliated Hoover Institution senior fellow Scott Atlas. This principled stand against Atlas, a prominent ideological architect of the US government’s murderous herd immunity policy, demonstrates the overwhelming support within the scientific establishment for a rational, science-based approach to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It includes interesting discussion of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. The other ivy league universities also seem to be very ‘establishment’ oriented, including such ideas regarding imperialism, the oligarchy, conservatism, the wealth divide, etc. There has been a splits in education between conservatism, liberalism, and socialism (which is often repressed), and yet the schisms may be growing larger, reflecting the growing divisions in society, and shifts in thinking between generations. The game is afoot.
There are two telling observations: 14 percent concern for international students in the first bar chart, 17 percent concern in the second bar chart
There is plenty of evidence that international students, that is, students from outside the U S of A, are a kind of profit center. They pay full freight. The Indian students seem to come mainly from entrenched upper-caste families with money–unless someone can show me a U.S. school actively seeking out Eastern-Rite Christians from Kerala and dalits from other regions. The Chinese students also pay full freight. So the “concern” for the students is concern for something like a racket that many U.S. schools are involved in.
By the way, the universities then bruit it about that they have achieved their diversity goals with these upper-middle imported students. At least, my beloved alma mater is one that does. Black American students, though, remain underrepresented at said beloved alma mater. I wonder why.
COVID: As is often written on these pages, these are clarifying times.
Not just international students. The covid crisis has demonstrated that all college and university students in the US and the UK are viewed as profit generators. Hence the university presidents’ focus on the “mental health” of students rather than their physical well-being.
Anyone who works in academia already knew that. What has been more shocking is the confirmation that sick people who visit hospitals are supposed to be profit generators, too…
Friday, the Shelby County Health Department came out with new rules for restaurants and bars. 4 adults (+2 kids) from same household max at a table. Masks worn at all times at table except for when actually eating or drinking. New rules took affect today. While this basically causes dine in restaurants to grind to a halt, which may need to happen, the Memphis Grizzlies and University of Memphis will still be allowed to have 4,000 people at games. First game is the tiger basketball team on December 2. The athletic department is such a financial black hole, I’m sure the university put a lot of pressure on local government to allow basketball teams to have fans. Of course, no one is allowed to sit in first 12 rows of courtside seats to protect the college and professional players. I think the administrators are not so much worried about health of students and more about those athletes playing.