Colleges Are Deluding Themselves

Institutions are letting their financial and reputational worries cloud their judgment about when they can safely reopen.

An empty Fordham University
ANDREW SENG / The New York Times​ / Redux

Crises challenge all of us. They reveal our true character and provide great tests of our strength. For college presidents, the coronavirus pandemic is the direst crisis we have ever faced. Even in the best of times, leading an institution of higher education demands an ability to weigh many competing individual interests against moral responsibility for the whole. The current health emergency makes striking the right balance all the more difficult—and multiplies the damage any missteps could cause.

Just as elected officials in many states have moved to end sheltering in place and return American life to pre-COVID-19 standards, leaders at many high-profile colleges and universities have announced plans to welcome students back to their classrooms, residence halls, and playing fields in the fall—with some modifications to allow for greater social distancing. But rushing to reopen our society and our schools is a mistake that will ultimately result in hundreds of thousands of citizens falling sick and worse. We should not let our own financial and reputational worries cloud our judgment about matters of life and death.

American higher education was in crisis long before the coronavirus showed up at our doors. For what feels like an eternity, our sector has been criticized for being too slow to respond to changing realities. Student debt in the United States totals more than $1.5 trillion. Alternative credential providers are nipping at the heels of degree-granting schools. Unfavorable demographic trends suggest that the number of college students will decline. In this environment, we face fair questions about higher education’s business model, cost, and long-term prospects—and about whom higher education ultimately serves. Do we serve the students and families who appear at our doors each fall full of hope and faith? Or does self-preservation come first?

The pandemic makes those questions more urgent than ever.

Institutions such as mine understand crisis better than most. Thirteen years ago, when I was named president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black school in Dallas, it was on the precipice of closure. The board of trustees and staff made hard choices. We eliminated football and shifted our educational model. The decisions we made—both early in my tenure and ever since—were all sensitive, because the population we serve was as economically vulnerable as the institution was. In subsequent years, despite the risk to the school’s finances, we reduced tuition for students’ sake.

Paul Quinn is located in a neighborhood that is filled with good people who have been underserved and largely ignored. The majority of our students, 80 to 85 percent of whom annually are eligible for Pell Grants, have lived the entirety of their lives on the margins, where nothing is simple. While the institution may have faced an existential crisis 13 years ago, many of our students face their own existential crises daily. Navigating such paths not only forces you to confront reality, but it also gives you clarity as to what is truly important.

During the present health crisis, administrators at colleges and universities should harbor no illusions. In the absence of a vaccine or much more widespread testing, our institutions are the perfect environment for the continued spread of COVID-19. In a recent working paper, the Cornell University sociologists Kim Weeden and Benjamin Cornwell used data on course enrollments to analyze the potential spread of epidemics on college campuses. They found that—even without the effects of shared residences and extracurricular activities—physical classes alone put almost all students on campus in close proximity to one another. Weeden and Cornwell concluded that, as the former wrote on Twitter, “the ‘small worlds’ networks on college campuses create fertile social conditions for an epidemic spread.” Even replacing the largest lecture courses with online classes would not be enough to reduce the risk, they found.

Because of the manner in which most residential colleges are operated, these institutions cannot use traditional face-to-face instructional methods and expect anything other than an unacceptable rate of disease transmission. Because we do not yet have the ability to bring students and staff back to campus while keeping them safe and healthy, we simply cannot return to business as usual. To do so constitutes an abdication of our moral responsibility as leaders.

We must ask ourselves: What would make leaders gamble with human life this way? The answer is twofold: fear and acquiescence—both of which, when left unchecked, lead down a path to moral damnation. The fear of the fiscal damage associated with empty campuses in the fall is the primary reason that schools are exploring every option to avoid that possibility. Many schools literally cannot afford an online-only existence; students would not want to pay the same amount for such an experience, but charging them less would lead to bankruptcy for some institutions. Exploring options to avoid financial ruin does not make you a bad leader. On the contrary. 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.

The other reason higher-education leaders may be forced into questionable decisions is their refusal to stand up to the unrealistic expectations of many faculty and staff members, students, alumni, and other stakeholders. If you are a college president right now, not everyone is going to like what you do. But if you are fair, honest, and transparent, you will be respected; and it is always better to be respected than liked.

Any path forward—for higher education and for everyone in society—requires telling people this truth: Life is going to be hard for the foreseeable future. We are in the early stages of a pandemic that we do not yet fully understand. What we do know is that this crisis was mismanaged from the start. As a result, every aspect of our lives is going to be changed for far longer than we are comfortable. Moreover, in all likelihood, our rush to reopen is going to set us back in our fight against COVID-19 even more. The sacrifices that we must make to restore order and safety will make us a stronger, more resilient society. For college students, those sacrifices will include long periods of remote learning. For institutions such as mine, the sacrifices will necessitate new financial models, including reduced tuition and fees. We will also need to change the way our students compete athletically, engage socially, and grow emotionally.

The good news is that higher education will get through this crisis. By adjusting our expectations and addressing our fears, we will provide room for a new model of realistic leadership. The freedom that accompanies this moment will provide space for necessary innovation. As is often said in black churches, there can be no testimony without a test. The coronavirus is our test. Whether we pass will not only determine our testimony, but also shape our legacy. May history judge us kindly.