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.)