What's in this post? Great question. For starters, it includes some absolutely heartbreaking quotes from people in higher ed. They cannot share their actual thoughts with their school leaders for fear of losing their jobs. Also, because I've been posting these all over Twitter, it seemed fair to include my action items for what higher ed should do to change course immediately. Lastly, I've added some amazing excerpts from higher education presidents/leaders who have made the right decision for the fall.
Because there's very little time left, I'm not going to bury the overall lede any further:
For the collective well-being of people in this country*, higher education institutions must not reopen this fall.
This virus does not care about our efforts to find creative ways to reopen schools.
It doesn't care about paychecks or football or res life. It will continue to harm our communities until we face the stark reality that our 'normal' has changed in countless ways. All the energy that's been invested in university-branded masks, athlete-only testing, and a hodgepodge of reopening dorm protocols needs to be aimed at the fight against COVID-19. The only way to stop a tidal wave of COVID-19 from killing many more people is for higher ed to not open back up.
Comments from the community
The following comments were posted on social media, sent to me via direct message or email from student affairs administrators, faculty members, and higher education social media managers. They are anonymous because all of these people are concerned that they will lose their jobs for voicing their true opinions at this time.
“If I was a senior administrator, I could not open a campus knowing that it was going to kill somebody. How anybody could have the dissonance to not put together the direct causality of opening the campus and killing somebody or the willful stupidity to deny culpability when it will happen is mind-boggling.”
“I cannot imagine being forced to try to convince students on social that they will be safe for in-person instruction. I HAVE, however, intentionally tried to strike an empathetic tone...our students miss campus and we do too. They can’t wait to be back and we feel the same way.”
“Students arrive August 17th. We’ve never made it out of phase 1 because of the rates of infection. We had to throw out that plan and just start telling employees to come back to campus because the students are arriving in 17 days, even as rates of infection rise and the local healthcare system is known to be stretched beyond capacity. The fear, dread and anxiety about Fall semester among faculty and staff alike is palpable in Zoom meetings! I enjoy your tweets but feel I cannot comment on them due to my position. Thanks for your public advocacy for higher ed to do the right, safe and ethical thing. Thanks also for exposing the fact that most institutions are doing no such thing.”
“I’m still expected to 'sell hope' to students regarding a special re-scheduled commencement ceremony. There’s a lot of 'selling' still happening on social on more than just Fall plans... and it’s happening everywhere.”
“I feel very much like my job right now is selling a situation I don’t believe in. I can state my protestations over and over but we need the $ from housing. I feel incredibly ‘doom and gloom’ all the time and emotionally and creatively drained.”
“Every week of the summer you’d say to yourself, 'surely this is the week that leadership looks at the data and the situation in the community and comes to the realization that bringing thousands of students back to campus is a terrible idea.' But it never happened. For us, at some point, I think we succumbed to the sunk cost fallacy - we had spent so much money on campus infrastructure and PPE that we 'didn’t want it to go to waste.' But much of it goes back to money. If we open now (while collecting tuition and fees) and then have to shut down in a month, we can throw up our arms and say 'look at the myriad of things we did to try to make this work. Don’t blame us.'”
“Broke down sobbing to my mom tonight on FaceTime because I am so emotionally and mentally exhausted playing the "WE CAN'T WAIT TO WELCOME YOU BAAAACK" person while on the inside I am vehemently against opening this fall. Sending good vibes to all my fellow HESM colleagues. There's comfort in knowing I'm not alone.”
“[Our campus leaders] are talking out of both sides of their mouths on returning for the fall term. Classes are moving online, but [they are telling people to] please still live on campus.”
“Higher-ed pros after we convince ourselves COVID won't prevent us from reopening safely this fall.”
“As social media professionals, a lot of us have grown accustomed to managing institutional crises on social media. But this isn’t a social media crisis or an institutional crisis, for that matter. It’s an everywhere crisis. Most of us love our jobs and love our institutions (and our PAYCHECKS) and we want to do good work that serves our communities. But that feels especially hard right now. Campuses shouldn’t open because we will see COVID spikes at colleges and universities, students will die, and it’s just not safe.”
“I was telling some colleagues recently that the worst part is that I can't ever remember a time when I've felt so far removed from the values I've always loved about working in higher ed. It is an entirely different thing altogether to have to market something you don't entirely believe in right now.”
“I am entering my 4th year in higher ed comms and never before have I believed in the messages I am putting out there less. I feel pretty powerless. I have strong opinions about reopening campuses (spoiler alert we shouldn’t do it). I don’t want to return to work. I don’t feel safe. I also think that too many university administrations, mine included, are playing a waiting game. Delayed decisions, wishy washy leadership and a failure to be realistic made my job an absolute mess. So far we have spent the entire summer promising students that it will be safe and fun to come back to campus. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we will have hundreds of cases on campus. And I’m sure the administration knows this too. To me, it feels like they are just crossing their fingers that it won’t be 'that bad,' naively hoping we aren’t one of the campuses that will inevitably cause a massive outbreak. But don’t worry, we’re ready for a fun semester! It is any surprise that I am job searching?”
“My university is doing the bare minimum--no testing for students, no formal or open tracking system in place. [We're also] operating at an overflow capacity. We are headed for big trouble.”
“I don’t sleep a ton right now. I'm doing my best with the direction that's been given. My hope is as we make our way through this that institutions take a hard look at what systems, policies, and personnel are and are not contributing to student success and support. A crisis can create challenges, but also reveals opportunities to improve and we must take advantage of that.”
5 things you can do right now
Push for pay cuts:
Pay cuts for senior leaders, athletic coaches and those academics who make far more than their peers. And if you are earning more than most and get to live in subsidized university housing than you absolutely need to make a financial sacrifice.
For example, half of the eight Ivy leaders have taken pay cuts of up to 25%. In 2018, the median compensation for this group was $1.4 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from tax filings. Now I know that the Ivy League is a small portion of U.S. higher education, but there are a lot of presidents, chancellors, vice presidents, faculty and coaches who would be just fine if they took a significant pay cut as a way of saving the jobs of countless members of their campus communities.
Shut your dorms down or reduce capacity in a meaningful way:
Res life is in a panic. Don't believe me? You're acting like you are trained epidemiologists or healthcare professionals. It's not your fault. Your school has put you in this position. And it's likely that campus auxiliaries as a whole are in a stressful state. However, it's a global pandemic. Is it really worth reopening residence halls to max (or only slightly reduced) capacity in order to generate revenue? How many lives will be lost? It will be like sending cruise ships all over the U.S. I know you have masks, stickers, and rules and such, but we all know that this virus doesn't care at all about policies. I'm waiting for presidents, chancellors, and/or vice presidents of student affairs across the country to stop this madness. Sending res life pros into a virus-ridden hellscape is not leadership. It is cowardice personified in a suit.
Make as much constructive noise as you can:
Write as many letters to the editors of both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle as you can. Let your senior leaders and your community know that this is not what you want. Join forces with your union if you can. Contact local and national media, too.