Universities Must Lead in a Post-COVID World

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

Like the rest of the world, colleges are formulating their fall plans with imperfect information. But the set schedule of campus life, with students readying for classes in the late summer or fall, means they have a firmer deadline than most big institutions when it comes to figuring out how to navigate the pandemic era. Just as research universities are supplying global leadership in the development of treatments and vaccines, they must lead the way when it comes to basic operations in the new reality. The choices they make and the mistakes they inevitably suffer will help guide governments and businesses of all kinds in restarting our economy safely, effectively, and ethically.

My own campus is a great case in point. The University of North Carolina system is led by Dr. William Roper, a distinguished physician and former head of the CDC. Our Chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, is a scientist and a MacArthur Award winner. Our Gillings School of Public Health is internationally respected, and multiple schools and departments at the university are engaged in intensive research on virus treatment. A UNC lab did much of the foundational work on Remdesivir, one of the few drugs that have shown real promise in COVID treatment.

UNC is far from unique. The country’s research and land grant universities--with their enormous human and scientific resources--are in an advantageous position to develop an operating plan for the fall. Moreover, these schools have a long history of open collaboration, so they’re in touch with one another on a daily basis as they figure out how to protect students, faculty, and staff while reopening their doors. Assuming conditions permit, how should schools in a position to open proceed when there is still so much unknown? The best approach is to think of the fall more as a careful series of tests than a firm plan. A few things to consider:

Disclosure.  Students, faculty, and staff should understand that there are many unknowns associated with the fall semester, and absolutely no guarantee that events will go as planned. Another round of closures and a transition to all online classes is a distinct possibility.
Opt-Out. For some students and their families, the unknowns associated with returning to school are a bridge too far. They should be allowed to opt-out of the fall semester without penalty and continue their studies in the spring or the next fall. Alternatively, they should be allowed to elect an all online 2020 fall semester. Given the regular accommodations that universities make for students with disabilities or family emergencies, providing this assurance for at-risk or simply cautious students is only reasonable.
Student Participation. Surveys suggest that most students want to return to campus. They deserve to know in advance what campus life will be like. What social distancing protocols will be in place, how will living arrangements change, what kinds of activities and services will be put on hold? Will virus tests be widely available? Will officials be tracking student movements, something that a few campuses already do to gather data for academic interventions. Full disclosure will allow students to make an informed decision about whether to return, go online, or take a semester off.
Faculty and Staff.  Accommodations must be made for at-risk faculty and staff. No member of the community should be placed unnecessarily at risk, and different people will make different judgments about that, given all the unknowns. This almost certainly means no classes or other gatherings over 50 people. Large classes should be held online regardless of whether students are in residence or studying remotely.
Research. As worrisome as this sounds, campuses need to approach the fall with all the rigor they’d bring to any other research project. With the right data tracking and analysis, colleges can provide invaluable insight on how to continue operations while containing the virus. Appoint the equivalent of a principal investigator to coordinate the research arm of the endeavor and commit to sharing the findings regularly and publicly. It will build credibility with students and families, and serve as a genuine public service to other organizations as they find their footing.

For most colleges and universities, decisions about the fall are a complex balance of community health and economic survival. For major research universities, canceling the fall semester should not be an option. They have a responsibility to marshal their extraordinary financial and human resources and lead the way on a nation-wide restart premised on fact-based decision-making and continuous improvement. As we take on the greatest challenge in most of our lifetimes, we can do it in a way that lives up to the values of rigor and truth we have so long proclaimed.


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