When making decisions about their plans for the fall, some colleges and universities have followed a poorly calibrated consumer-knows-best approach that has led them to make a serious mistake. I base my comments here on observations about my own institution, Boston University, and while the lessons I draw from those observations may not be fully generalizable, they are also not peculiar to BU. The University is presently following a hybrid model for classes, locally known as Learn from Anywhere (LfA). The mistake I wish to highlight consists in promising an experience to students that cannot be delivered in a way that meets their expectations. It is important not to confuse the in-person classroom experience before COVID-19, which we all wish to return to, with what the as-yet-unexperienced, in-person classroom experience will be like during this pandemic.
The consumerist approach that many institutions are following is poorly calibrated because it is based on a static view of student preferences. It is also an approach that reveals a crisis at the heart of higher education in the United States—both in terms of the way the apparent preferences of students were given so much more weight than concerns about faculty well-being when plans for the fall were drawn up, as well as insofar as our institutions turned their back on the ideal of faculty governance when it came to the process of arriving at those plans.
This mistake might not have been made in the first place if administrators at various colleges and universities had listened to genuine experts concerning pedagogy, namely, their own instructors and researchers. But it was not a surprise that they didn’t do this, given that their commitment to the ideal of faculty governance had already been severely eroded, as education has more and more come to be all about consumer “deliverables” rather than understanding and insight.
We’ve been told that students overwhelmingly want classes to be in person rather than online. Let us assume, since administrators are saying this, that most students presently want the option to be able to take classes in person. The crucial question is: why should we think such preferences will not shift substantially once students experience socially distanced, mask-to-mask classes—or stay at home watching a bad video feed of an instructor whose attention is divided, speaking through a mask? Bear in mind that it will soon become apparent to students that if everyone opts to stay away from the classroom, instructors will be able to remove their masks, and the online alternative will then be more straightforward and relaxed. Indeed, instructors can and probably should begin the semester by pointing this out to students.
Of course, students are desiring interactions with their fellow students, but that desire might be satisfied by living on campus rather than by being in closely monitored, socially distanced classrooms, as Harvard University has recognized. It is far from obvious that even Harvard’s policy of allowing no more than 40 percent of their students to return to campus is wise, but at least they acknowledge the fact that the probability that students will be able to stay on campus, rather than be sent home, will be higher if they stay away from physical classrooms altogether.
Institutional leaders have indicated that not following a hybrid model involves accepting very significant financial risks, since students disapprove of their colleges and universities moving their classes fully online, and it might be that not enough students would then be willing to pay fees and board. We do well to consider, however, that among the biggest financial risks that many colleges and universities are taking is the risk to their reputation and good standing if major outbreaks of COVID-19 occur because of their mistaken policy choices. That includes the choice to force all faculty members not covered by health-risk accommodations to work on campus, increasing the population density there.
We can expect there to be long-term costs. In addition, we should ask what a sudden transition to online classes, and students possibly needing to leave their campuses, might mean for fees and board in the spring.
Colleges and universities should not be behaving like used-car salespeople. And students need to be holding institutions to account—not by refusing to be their customers, but rather by insisting that they are not merely customers and hence should not be treated as such. They should be seen as people who are capable of thoughtful reasoning (as I and a colleague have said before), who might be encouraged to accept that this must be a year when the educational experience they receive won’t offer everything they’d hoped: classes will very likely end up being online only, at least for much of the time.
For their part, faculty members can help bridge the gap between administrators and students by promoting critical thinking, being innovative in their teaching, and doing their very best when teaching remotely. They should aspire to be role models with respect to demonstrating honesty and a commitment to truth, both when teaching and in their communications with administrators and students. These communications may, in part, contain critical reflections on the policies of their own institutions. Faculty members owe it to students to guard against being recruited into the business of simply offering PR spin or worse.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.