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?