In a statement made last week, the University of Illinois announced it will be holding a “modified” version of on-campus instruction in the fall. You can read all of the FAQs about it here. This comes amidst a steady climb in infections and deaths around the country due to COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently stated that we’re still dealing with the “first wave”, and that there is no telling what a second wave may look like.
The decision to resume on-campus instruction this fall shouldn’t come as a surprise; there’s a lot of money at stake (tuition, housing, dining revenue, etc.), and the University is simply keeping up with the most common trend in plans being made by most educational institutions across the country. Here's an updating list on colleges' plans for the fall. Though many are choosing to reopen in-person this fall, several substantial university systems (most notably in California) have pledged to convert to an all-virtual fall semester, a precaution taken due to the high probability of a second wave hitting the U.S.
Though technically non-profit institutions, everyone understands that universities and colleges around the country are big business, and the current mindset of reopening for the sake of saving their bottom lines is what’s being prioritized. It may seem like this is a pragmatic choice that cannot be avoided, but reopening campus — even with a thorough plan to administer tens of thousands of tests, clean and disinfect spaces around the clock, reduce class sizes and frequency, and more — is a mistake. The choice to reopen is meant to soften the financial blow, as U of I looks at millions lost due to the pandemic. But it will come at the expense of the entire community, and very possibly, at the high probability of sickness and death. We implore administrators to reconsider, and to do that swiftly.
While we agree that reopening businesses is important, provided it is done safely with scientific methods and the medical community leading the way, universities and colleges are a different beast. University campuses should be treated with much more caution when it comes to reopening due to the sheer volume of people. With no widespread vaccine in sight, the term “unprecedented” comes to mind, especially as it relates to protecting students and faculty. The Atlantic’s article on how institutions are allowing financial worries to make decisions about their fall plans amidst the pandemic sums it up well: It’s not safe, and it’s not going to end well.
And that is what is so confounding for us. The U of I has always prided itself on leading the way with forward-thinking, world-class innovation, and the development of strategies to improve lives all around the globe. This decision runs counter to its magnificent reputation in innovation and technological breakthroughs. To put students, faculty, and staff in harm’s way during a pandemic that’s projected to take upwards of 200,000 lives by October flies in the face of the mission of the U of I: the safety of its students, faculty, and staff.
President Timothy Killeen stated back in April that although he hopes to “bring campus back to life” in the fall, “transitioning to a ‘new normal’ while retaining our world-class educational experience and protecting the health and safety of our campus communities will be the overriding priority.” Though we are about to enter Phase 4, activities like eating inside of restaurants are still hazardous (and employees are getting infected), how this decision can be made to not just ask, but also encourage all to return demands a reevaluation of what’s important when it comes to a big piece of the mission statement the university proclaims to uphold.
The Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) has been vocal in its efforts to “put people first” to provide a safe environment for all this upcoming semester. And this doesn’t even begin to dive into the increased labor expected from faculty, as planning for a semester of hybrid teaching and research. Having to develop and build asynchronous hybrid or online courses, faculty are expected to dedicate more time to teaching but aren’t necessarily rewarded by the University because of the structure of the tenure system and the activities it prioritizes. Specialized, or non-tenure track faculty, are in even more precarious positions.
Think of how much more damage this will cause to the Black communities in C-U and on campus, as they are dying at a rate three times that of White people nation-wide. Think of all of the Facilities and Services staff who will hold the burden of cleaning nonstop in addition to work they’re already doing to keep campus clean. Think of how this will undo the progress made to flatten the curve by our entire community. Reopening like this is not at all an inclusive plan. At what point do we treat our biggest community boon as our biggest cause for concern?
There’s still an opportunity to be more progressive in the approach to returning than what U of I has outlined. It’s not too late. An online-only program could be implemented, alongside a program to encourage students to take a “gap year” or gain experience through jobs and internships to explore and educate themselves inside of the “new normal” while they await more research and data to aid in the recovery process. We understand the U of I isn’t an “online university” — an argument used by administrators in Iowa to justify reopening — though there are ways to make the semester work while we attempt to stop the spread of the virus.
We all know these are extremely challenging decisions to make, but allowing money to lead the way is wrong, dangerous, and unethical. This teaches a generation of students that money is more important than lives lost. We saw how the U of I was able to manage the remainder of the semester this past spring. It wasn’t in-person, or ideal, but it got it done. Sure, offering this same process in the fall is not going to result in as much tuition being generated, and there will be a considerable financial loss across the board. But that’s the safest thing to do with the absence of a vaccine, or a better idea of how to effectively treat this virus, which has confounded the medical and scientific community from the start. Assuming the financial loss to protect those you’ve always claimed to serve — students, faculty, staff, and beyond — is the morally correct, and ethical, thing to do.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.