There’s No Simple Way to Reopen Universities

How do you operate institutions designed to mix people and ideas without also mixing viruses?

College students sitting on a grassy field.
Eve Arnold / Magnum

One of the few things we know for sure about COVID-19 is that breathing the same air as other people is an excellent way to transmit the disease. Another thing we know is that mixing events such as college classes—where people emerge from their usual social groups and trade droplets with others—are efficient ways to send contagions flying all over a campus. And mixing events are a large part of what higher education is about.

Yesterday Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University in Rhode Island, proposed a path to reopening universities in the fall, just in time to welcome students and their tuition back from quarantine. Paxson is an economist, and forthright about why those tuition checks matter: “Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue,” she writes, and for many colleges, losing half a year’s tuition would mean bankruptcy. The solution, she says, is to “test, trace, separate”—in other words, to do in universities what the United States has failed to do as a country, but what Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea have done with some success.

When university presidents talk about the value of higher education, they often adopt lofty and idealistic language—about the value of knowledge, civic virtue, service, and in Paxson’s case, social justice. But the coronavirus is not so sentimental, and it certainly does not care about universities’ need for tuition. If anything, the desire of the virus to propagate and the desire of the university to educate are in dangerous harmony. A properly functioning university is a never-ending festival of superspreader events, and to open campuses in the fall will be a challenge. (I teach part-time at a university, so these challenges affect me directly.)

When I was a college student, I called attending sections (the small-group seminars led by teaching assistants that met after big lectures by professors) “going to the DMV.” My teachers were dedicated and competent. But each section was socially strange, and the only thing I knew to compare the experience to was getting my driver’s license renewed.

Whenever I went to the DMV, I stood in line with people different from me: older, richer, poorer; with unfamiliar talents and disabilities; speaking languages I could not identify; wearing clothes no one I knew would wear. Like jury duty, the DMV was a great leveler. Where did these people come from? Everyone needed a driver’s license, so here we were. My fellow students—assigned by some computer to my section—were only slightly less alien to me. They were not my friends. They were the engineers who spent all their time in a machine shop, or artists who rarely left their studio spaces, or football players still damp from the showers. I had my own habitats and was equally alien to them. But for an hour every week, we’d meet in an airless classroom, learning about the First World War or biophysics, before dispersing to our regularly scheduled social programming.

If you have paid any attention to the dynamics of coronavirus transmission, the word “airless” will already have given you a little shiver of fear. But it’s more than that. Ten years ago, the sociologist Nicholas A. Christakis showed how the H1N1 virus (which really was, unlike COVID-19, no worse or better than a very bad flu) infiltrated Harvard dorms. The students who tended to get infected first, and to serve as the virus’s liaison to their classmates, were the gregarious ones in multiple social circles—who knew football players and engineers and painters. They were the Kevin Bacons of Harvard.

The whole point of a classroom section is to turn everyone into Kevin Bacon for an hour. Ideally, everyone speaks. The engineer says something that the painter would never hear from his painter friends, and the engineer hears something from the painter that she would never hear from the engineers back in the shop. That is part of the pedagogical idea of the university, anyway: Students are supposed to encounter new ideas and new people, to become different from who they were when they matriculated. That means mixing with new people—students, faculty, and guest speakers.

Students are like any human group. They have their affinities, and they hang out with friends and not with strangers. But they are, unlike many other adults, encouraged into these droplet-swapping arrangements on a regular basis, because of classes, dining halls, clubs, sports, and randomized dorm assignments. Without the mixing—which begins on move-in day, when you meet your first-year roommates—a university education can be little more than a very expensive library card.

The catch is that this mixing is a social-distancing nightmare. A university could survive a coronavirus outbreak in a machine shop with perhaps a dozen regular visitors. But an outbreak in the machine shop, and another in the locker room, and another in a painting studio—now you have a university-wide plague.

Paxson’s suggestions to prevent such a catastrophe are good ones, and some of the strategies are not even that hard to implement. On the campus where I teach, nearly every exterior door requires touchless keycard entry for at least some hours of the day. Make tapping those keycards (each with a unique personal identifier) a constant ritual on campus, at even more locations, including shuttles, libraries, and lecture halls. Presto, you have a geographic record of each person, and with a little analytical work on the back end, you can trace cases and tell students when they may have been exposed. Add extreme vigilance and testing—the likes of which the United States has not achieved anywhere—and you might be able to open in the fall.

Dorms and cafeterias will be a problem. “Campus life,” Paxson says with some understatement, “will be different.” A single COVID-19 case could turn a college dorm into a small landlocked cruise ship, and the university will probably have to quarantine or otherwise isolate whole floors, perhaps whole dorms, at a time, or designate some for recovery. A university might reasonably ask its students to practice heavy-duty self-quarantine for their first and last weeks of term, so that they don’t bring the virus with them or carry it home, and commit not to leave campus unnecessarily in between. It might even give students the option, with a tuition break, of learning from home for a semester. (Fewer students would mean less densely packed student housing.) And as Paxson says, those on campus should be aware that parties are verboten.

Everyone knows how much college students love rules, especially rules that restrict how much they can party and drink together, and how many opportunities they will have to meet new sexual partners. Consider how much depends on the willingness of students to abide by these onerous new rules. Residents of college towns will see tens of thousands of people arrive all at once, and some significant number of them will have the virus. Faculty and staff are not as youthful and COVID-19-resistant as the students. Will a 70-year-old professor with an immunocompromising condition have to hope her students have spent their evenings in monkish isolation, rather than out drinking and pawing at one another? And when students go home, which university will be willing to suffer the mortification of being known as the campus that became a petri dish, then sent its infected students back to kill a dozen grandparents over Christmas?

College administrators are looking at the fall calendar and weighing the danger of medical catastrophe against the danger of insolvency. So are many, many other businesses desperate to reopen and return to normal operations and revenue flow. But not every business is equally vulnerable to the virus, and colleges are more like cruise ships and retirement homes than they are like hardware stores and driving ranges. A cruise ship without a limbo contest and Lucullan buffet is not much of a cruise ship, and a college without significant intellectual and social mingling is not much of a college. But some students might put up with that, in return for a lower risk of an early death for themselves and others. Or maybe they’ll take a gap year—and hope that when they get back, the colleges they left behind are still there.