A Matter of Metrics

Colleges should determine and publicly post those that will guide their life-and-death decisions once they reopen, Andrew M. Schocket urges.

August 24, 2020
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Many colleges and universities -- including mine -- have decided to open campus this fall, come COVID-19-induced hell or high fevers. The pedagogical value of classroom teaching while physically distanced is dubious. Opening poses mortal risks to students, faculty members and administrators, as well as wider communities. However, many institutional leaders feel compelled to open their campuses.

By developing and publicly posting objective metrics before students arrive on campus, indicating under what conditions they would shut down, institutional presidents can resist financial incentives and cognitive biases while assuaging their constituents' safety concerns.

As early as May 12, some college and university leaders recognized that threats to their students’ health outweighed the benefits of gathering them together on campuses. Experts have been warning that reopening campuses will result in tragedy. The risks have become more dire the more that we know. On-campus housing won’t be safe, while college officials won’t be able to control what happens in college towns, which the latest, fine-grain projections show to be especially vulnerable to increases in cases.

Nonetheless many institutions will be opening physically in a way that has been described as pedagogical malpractice. These institutions plan to conduct instruction entirely in person or in the coronavirus version of “hybrid,” with some students attending class physically at the same time that others participate through teleconferencing software. Trying to hold discussion with everyone masked and distanced, for any more than a dozen people, will be nearly impossible -- and, with in-person students’ faces covered, poses an accessibility nightmare for the hearing impaired. Add, for hybrid courses, remote attendees trying to interact with in-classroom students, and we can expect that such courses will offer an inferior experience compared to all-online, what with the affordances of teleconferencing software that provides for polling, breakout rooms, live transcription and other engagement-promoting features.

Because opening campuses will threaten students’ well-being and, with the exception of those experiences like labs and art studios that must be done physically, diminish their education -- arguably the reasons colleges exist -- we must look to other factors to understand the decision to bring students back. Finances loom. Balance sheets took a beating from refunded tuition, housing, dining and other lost revenue after closing halfway during the spring. Many institutions depend upon housing and dining fees; some are being leaned on to service their heavy debt loads.

In addition, families hesitate to pay top-dollar for fully-online education, for a range of reasons, among them the often negative reputation of online, profit-institutions, the fact that much of the undergraduate experience occurs on campus outside the classroom and the haphazard experience this spring when faculty members were forced to improvise the midsemester shift to all online. Hundreds of colleges and universities already faced an uncertain financial future. Now, some previously thought to be healthy may be in trouble.

Presidents may also be under intense pressure to open. Public institutions depend upon political goodwill. Their leaders do not want to appear to be showing up governors or legislators who prioritize short-term economic recovery over what they portray as overbearing health edicts. Students, backed by vocal parents, want the traditional college experience. And a few gridiron powerhouses still yearn for college football dollars.

In fact, several university presidents have described going online as “unacceptable” or “failing” students. Once you do that -- very publicly, no less -- to close before even opening seems unthinkable. Even if eventually reversing course, presidents can tell themselves, and their constituents, that they gave opening the old college try.

Avoiding Clouded Decision Making

That is why, to protect themselves and their students, campus leaders should institute objective metrics -- now -- for the necessary and sufficient conditions for remaining open or sending students home. Such measures could be absolute -- for instance, number of cases or deaths -- or comparative. They could be pegged to local or state caseloads or threat levels, or to one or more rigorous models for what course the pandemic will be taking. Such metrics need not depend upon one statistic but could be the result of a formula.

Regardless of their form, however, these conditions should be objective, clear and, most important, made public, accompanied by a continuing commitment to openly and regularly communicate updated data to ensure future accountability.

Putting this process in place now holds many merits. The process would require college and university leaders to confront the potential mortal toll of learning and explicitly weigh the risks that they are asking their students, faculty and staff, along with community members, to bear. While they may rue the lack of flexibility such an approach would entail, that is the point: setting these conditions ahead of time will mitigate how, once the semester is underway, their decision making will inevitably be clouded.

As humans, we are all subject to cognitive biases in our decision making and information processing. Once the semester starts, having objective criteria will help senior administrators avoid what Suzanne C. Thompson identified as the “illusion of control”: that by dint of requiring face masks and having maintenance workers wipe down doorknobs, they, rather than the virus, can dictate the course of events. They will be less prone to optimism bias -- of thinking that somehow, things will work out, notwithstanding the dire numbers on their screens and the suffering in the local ICU. They would help combat their own escalating commitment to staying open that business school case studies have warned against for over 30 years, when institutional leaders make small decisions to continue rather than wiser ones to retreat.

This is all more urgent because the compulsion to stay open may be even stronger than the motivation to open in the first place. No one wants to be on the receiving end of calls from parents and students, angry that they now have to make alternate travel and housing arrangements after they went to the avoidable trouble of coming to campus in the first place. Every day on campus will result in potentially lower rebates for housing, dining and other fees. Every day on campus will be that much closer to Thanksgiving, or whatever date the institution has set for the end of in-person classes; maybe we can just hang on until then, the thinking will probably go. Only in hindsight might presidents see that their hesitation will have cost human lives.

While a vaccine for the coronavirus may be many long months away, college and university leaders can post objective metrics for closing to inoculate themselves now against being influenced by short-term financial incentives and cognitive biases. That is a difficult task. But it will make for better process later -- once students are back on campuses, the coronavirus rages and presidents will have to make choices unlike any they have made before quickly and with lives in the balance.


Andrew M. Schocket is professor of history and American culture studies at Bowling Green State University.


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