Rainbow Rant: Money drives the decision to reopen higher education

Joy Ellison
Miami University campus in Oxford, Ohio

When I was a queer high school student living in conservative suburbia, I applied for college like a prisoner appealing a life sentence. With my first step onto campus, I felt like my life was finally beginning. As a college instructor, I look forward to the first day of school because I know how much it means to my students.

Now, after seven years of teaching, I dread what the fall could bring. I keep refreshing my inbox, waiting for an email telling me if campuses will reopen. 

“In the absence of a vaccine or much more widespread testing, our institutions are the perfect environment for the continued spread of COVID-19,”wrote Michael J. Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College. Like a good academic, he cited evidence: Aworking paper by Cornell University sociologists Kim Weeden and Benjamin Cornwell, who found that even with a hybrid model of instruction, where large lecture classes are taught online and smaller courses are held in person, the risks of COVID-19 transmission remain significant. 

I’m no scientist; my expertise is in history and feminist scholarship. But my experience as a teacher leads me to believe that it will likely be impossible to enforce social distancing among college students. Students are attracted to campus life by parties, romance and friendships as much as academics. Schools can establish social distancing guidelines, but some students will break them. To pretend otherwise is irresponsible. WhenLiberty University reopened campus, it had an outbreak in a matter of days.

The potential consequences of resuming face-to-face instruction are dire. Even the healthiest students could be hospitalized with COVID-19. Those lucky to survive will likely face extended recoveries with long-range health consequences that we can’t predict. That’s not the kind of life-changing college experience students and parents imagine.

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But young, able-bodied students aren’t the only members of the campus community. Colleges and universities educate and employ a wide range of people: older students, professors and staff members, as well as people with additional risk-factors for COVID-19. Because of a disability, I am one of them.

I am terrified that I will be asked to risk my life to resume face-to-face instruction. 

Higher education is better able to operate digitally than many sectors. In fact, in recent years, many colleges and universities rushed to expand their online offerings. Online classes are cheaper for schools – and attract high enrollment rates. With appropriate technology and pedagogical training, they can be taught well, even if many instructors believe they have limitations.

Before the pandemic began, many educators in my field were arguing that our classes, which cover sensitive topics like sexual violence and racism, are far more effective in-person. Administrators were resistant to our concerns. Now that there is an urgent need to temporarily operate online to preserve public health, administrators are insisting that face-to-face instruction is invaluable. So, which is it? 

This irony illustrates what is driving the priorities of administrators: not public health or education concerns, but finances. 

Schools are desperate to retain students, as the majority of their budgets come from tuition. Nonetheless, many administrators are unwilling to make temporary sacrifices that could help us weather the storm. 

Take Christina Paxson, president of Boston College,who wrote one of the first articles arguing that schools should reopen. In 2018, she made $1,244,829. She took a 20 percent pay cut for this fiscal year, lowering her salary to $995,863.20. Imagine how many campus jobs could be saved if for one year she were willing to live on only, say, half a million dollars. 

When the pandemic began, college instructors across the countrymoved all of higher education online over the course of two weeks. We rose to the occasion, just like the majority of America has throughout this crisis. Most normal people, across ideological lines, have upended their routines to save lives. We are doing our part, but many powerful people aren’t willing to do the same. 

It’s not just school administrators who are failing us, but also billionaires, whose profits are growing while their workers suffer, and Republican politicians, who refuse to demand better of the president. 

The poor and the powerless shouldn’t bear the heaviest burden in times of crisis, but they do. Until that changes, I won’t sleep well. And I know I’m not alone.