U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A Backlash to Blaming

Back in July, two professors made a prediction in The Atlantic: “Colleges Are Getting Ready to Blame Their Students.” Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, and Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, were — of course — prophetic.

Here’s what they said back then: “Relying on the self-control of young adults, rather than deploying the public-health infrastructure needed to control a disease that spreads easily among people who live, eat, study, and socialize together, is not a safe reopening strategy — and yelling at students for their dangerous behavior won’t help either.”

And here’s a letter from a vice chancellor at Syracuse University last week: “Last Night’s Selfish and Reckless Behavior.“

“The world is watching, and they expect you to fail. Prove them wrong. Be better. Be adults. Think of someone other than yourself.”

Even when they’re not yelling, some administrators can’t help but employ thinly veiled threats. At Vanderbilt University, the chancellor and provost told students that flouting public health requirements could lead to not just student conduct violations, but criminal penalties that would derail their lives.

“We write this not to scare you but to be perfectly plain that the situation happening at other universities can be avoided at Vanderbilt, but only if you anchor down, step up, and do your part. Only if you make the right choices. … For those of you who were able to return, your choice states that physically being here at Vanderbilt in Nashville for your education is the most important thing in your life at this time.”

This week brought some backlash to student blaming.

  • College COVID strategies don’t adequately address typical student behavior (Inside Higher Ed)
  • Blame Pollyanna Presidents When Covid-19 Plans Fail (The Chronicle) In which, Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale University, wrote: “Who is being irresponsible here?… The Pollyannas who want to confidently march us into the new semester should be held responsible for their negligence and accountable for their actions — not the young people who were told they would be safe under their care.”

Perhaps the sharpest take came from a man — Holden Thorp — who once presided over the campus — UNC Chapel Hill — that has become the national symbol for reopening screw ups. (An aside: Is there a German word for that mix of relief and pity you feel when watching a job you used to have become immeasurably harder for someone else?)

Thorp went on to serve as provost at Washington University in St. Louis and is now editor in chief of the Science family of journals. In a column for The Chronicle, he drew a straight line between today’s coronavirus messaging and the ways college leaders talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to partying.

“Isn’t social culture part of the experience that colleges celebrate (and sell)? Doesn’t that make blaming the students ring hollow,” he wrote. “The system is held in place by a vicious cycle: The partying and other destructive social behaviors go on at a moderate level. When they get out of hand, the president expresses shock and outrage. That mollifies everyone long enough to get back to business. Among the critiques I received was that I wasn’t convincing enough when showing my disapproval. But it’s hard to be shocked or outraged at something you fully expect.”

To find the balance between these two narratives — students are recklessly partying vs. colleges never should have brought them back — we turned to the smart students we know.

Benjy Renton, a student at Middlebury College, has been thoroughly documenting colleges’ response to the pandemic in his weekly newsletter:

“I think we have to begin to quantify risk as a spectrum — an abstinence only approach will not work. Instead of colleges telling their students what not to do, they should encourage and even provide opportunities for them to socialize safely and hold outdoor events. What’s the cost of a drive-in (camping chair) movie if it prevents multiple cases due to a big party? In my opinion it’s a no brainer.”

Andrea Klick, a junior at the University of Southern California and former Open Campus intern, sees nailing down blame as difficult amid the web of connections, each choice rippling out to affect everyone else: Colleges thought we’d have the virus more under control so they made plans to bring students back, so those students rented apartments, so those landlords took their money. Now that most USC classes are online, students want to get out of their leases, but landlords can’t afford to let them walk. As Andrea points out, is that the students’ fault for wanting to be back in Los Angeles, or the college’s for bringing them back, or the federal government’s for not creating a robust economic stimulus program?

Ultimately, Andrea thinks most of the blame has to go to colleges:

“Colleges label themselves as these incubators of growth and innovation, but rather than innovating by finding ways to better online classes and keep students safe, they did everything possible to bring students back, even though they knew it put us at a greater risk. Whether students partied and gathered with friends or not, universities didn’t think to reinvent anything in their reopening plans other than adding dividers or tape to seats to signal that people should spread out. In more ways than one, they failed in their missions and showed students that they value our money a lot more than actually improving our educational experiences while keeping us safe.”

— Scott Smallwood

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Pandemic Diaries

What’s it like to try to teach and learn on a campus this fall? EdSurge’s new podcast series, Pandemic Campus Diaries, follows the stories of professors and students at six colleges who have agreed to record and share their experiences. The podcast is hosted by Jeff Young, a senior editor at EdSurge who’s also an Open Campus editorial advisor.

In the first episode, which came out this week, the stress of this daunting semester comes through. There are logistical challenges to work through: How to speak properly through a face mask. How to assign seats for hundreds of students. And there are weighty questions underlying it all: What if one of my students gets really, really sick? one professor asks.

“And then if that happens, will I wonder, did they catch it in my class? Could I have done something different to have prevented it?”

Follow along with the semester here.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Welcome to the start of a very unusual admissions cycle. In Next this week, Jeff Selingo examines what’s at stake for students and colleges when the normal routines of fall — college fairs and campus tours — are upended.

Here’s some of the newsletter’s advice for making the most of a virtual college search:

  • If you want to get a feel for the campus, read the student newspaper, suggested Jeff Kallay, senior vice president at RNL + Render — who, Jeff Selingo writes, has probably taken more campus tours than anyone else in America.
  • For an unvarnished look at a school, Jeff Selingo says, scroll through topic pages on Reddit, such as r/applyingtocollege or watch YouTube videos showing what life is really like on their campuses.
  • This year’s high-school seniors have a “unique advantage,” said Ellen O’Neill Deitrich, director of college counseling at The Hill School in Pennsylvania. Without campus tours right now, “they get to do their research first and really think about what it is they want, what’s going to inspire them in college.”

For American higher ed, declining international enrollments are a hardship. For some programs and schools, the problem could be existential, Karin Fischer writes this week in latitude(s).

People often talk about the impact of international enrollment declines on American higher education as a whole, Karin writes, and it’s true that international-student tuition has increasingly been baked into college budgets since the Great Recession. But it is often particular programs and schools that are especially vulnerable.

Intensive English-language programs are an obvious example, Karin says, but there are others. Some business programs are sustained by international enrollments. And more than 55 percent of the doctorates awarded by American universities each year in engineering and mathematics and computer science go to student-visa holders.

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Spotlight

‘We’re Living the News’: Student Journalists Are Owning the College Reopening Story
Student newsrooms have been tirelessly reporting on college reopening plans — and their editorials haven’t held back. (www.npr.org)

Alabama Students Forced To Leave Dorm To Make Room for COVID-19 Isolation Facilities
“I can’t afford to go here if they’re gonna send us home,” one student said. “It’s super unfortunate, but I had to drop out of college for it. This has been an absolute disaster.” (cw.ua.edu)

Pandemic Tests the Fragile College Mental Health System
COVID-19 has increased the mental strain on a generation of college students already reporting record levels of psychological challenges. (calmatters.org)

Interest Spikes in Short-Term, Online Credentials Amid Pandemic
Will they become viable alternative pathways to well-paying jobs? (www.insidehighered.com)

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