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Universities Plan to Sacrifice Student and Employee Health for Fall Tuition Checks

After a spring semester hastily moved online, higher education is now hedging their bets on what to do for the fall. With money the top priority for administrators, students and employees need to fight harder than ever to protect their safety and livelihoods as COVID-19 cases in the United States continue to climb.

Olivia Wood

May 4, 2020
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A man walks at an empty campus green at Georgetown University, closed weeks ago due to coronavirus, in Washington, U.S., April 3, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC26XF9JM11S

How are Universities Preparing for the Fall?

The day CUNY announced that all classes would be moving online, most of the university community found out through texts from friends. Others found out through Twitter. An official email from CUNY administration didn’t go out for almost 12 hours. This was, to say the least, not an auspicious start for the transition to online teaching and learning. In fact, the transition was so disastrous that CUNY later declared a second “recalibration period” to give the university time to conduct damage control. 

Many professors, both at CUNY and across the country, are now reporting significantly higher workloads due to the demands of online teaching, on top of the many other additional demands on our time and mental health imposed by the pandemic. Furthermore, for many graduate students — my classmates — this is only their second semester teaching. Ever. Out of concern for both their students and themselves — and COVID-19’s impact on CUNY students is diverse and severe — some teachers are employing an “A for all” grading philosophy and/or have significantly reduced class requirements.

Now, CUNY is beginning its fourth consistent week of online teaching, unbroken by any “pause” or “recalibration period.” Faculty and students have adapted to some challenges, and given up on others. But now universities are preparing for summer classes, and the looming fall semester. Everyone hoped, and most assumed, that life would be back to normal by the fall. But known cases of COVID-19 are still increasing every day, and while some states are repealing their stay at home orders, we will not be safe from this virus as a population until there is widespread access to a vaccine.

Higher education’s plans for the fall are diverse, to say the least. Andy Thomason, senior editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education, is compiling a list on Twitter to track universities’ announcements of their plans, which range from a return to normal operations in the fall to fully online, with many, many variations in between. Some campuses are considering starting “fall” semester as late as November, or even January. Others, like Centre College, have altered their academic calendar so that students will take only two classes at a time in a condensed format, rather than the usual four, to limit their weekly exposure to others. 

One of the more controversial proposals comes from Purdue University. Last week, the President of Purdue sent a letter outlining potential measures for ensuring campus safety in the fall that were centered around separating the “healthy 80%” of students, faculty, and staff from the “at risk 20%” of those 35 and older. One proposed measure was that those 35 and older might be “requir(ed), if necessary” to work from home, while younger people are allowed on campus. 

Such a policy would be ageist and ableist in a number of ways. First, it places additional restrictions on some students and employees due to age alone (and a seemingly arbitrary age at that), not due to actual individual health status. Second, it ignores people under 35 who are extra vulnerable to COVID-19, such as those with asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, chronic lung diseases, and suppressed immune systems. Under this logic, because “most” people younger than 35 who catch COVID-19 will likely experience only a mild form of the illness, the health and safety of the rest are considered acceptable collateral damage. 

Additionally, the President’s statement pits students and faculty against each other and frames students as an irresponsible, “dirty” menace to society, saying that “our students pose a far greater danger to others than the virus poses to them.” Calling students a “[great] danger to others” calls to mind the stories of spring breakers in Miami refusing to take the virus seriously. Such a comparison only adds to the regular condescension, disrespect, and disdain that millennials and Gen Z are so often treated with. Purdue’s characterization of the student body is that they are selfish, irresponsible, and literally a threat to faculty and staff. Students cannot possibly be expected to learn and thrive in an environment where they are treated as the enemy. But if students aren’t on campus, universities can’t charge for room and board. 

Purdue is only one of the more explicitly egregious cases, however. No students can be expected to learn and no employees can be expected to work as if it were “business as usual.” As of April 27, the CDC reported nearly 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 50,000 confirmed COVID-related deaths in the U.S. alone, and the United States is already facing the highest real unemployment rate since 1934. Study after study shows that material factors like food, housing, financial security, and a stable home life consistently affect students’ learning more than any measure of so-called “innate ability.” And workers are affected in exactly the same way, since their jobs require the same cognitive functions as for learning, such as focus, information processing, and memory. 

How Did This Happen?

Aside from the issue of safety, universities already suffering under decades of austerity measures are now being faced with even more extreme budget cuts in response to the coronavirus. States don’t want to add additional funding to public universities when they are  already dealing with the unexpected additional costs of the pandemic, and universities around the country are anticipating lower enrollment (and therefore less income in the form of tuition) in the coming year. 

At CUNY, in addition to the decades of budget cuts implemented by the state, the university system is also trying to implement “preemptive budget cuts” to address reductions in funding that do not even exist yet. At Brooklyn College and the City College of New York, academic departments have been instructed to cut as much as 25% of their planned course offerings for the fall. Since more than 50% of courses at CUNY are taught by part-time adjunct faculty, a 25% reduction means many workers currently still teaching in the Spring 2020 semester will lose some or all of their income this fall. 

For the elite private colleges, the financial interest in reopening for the fall was made abundantly clear in an New York Times op-ed by Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University. Paxson’s main arguments were 1) that “remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue” and 2) that “The sector employs about three million people and as recently as the 2017-18 school year pumped more than $600 billion of spending into the national gross domestic product.” Paxson, it should be noted, receives nearly $1 million per year from Brown. Regardless of whether schools should open for in-person classes in the fall, that decision should be based on what is best for the safety and health of the campus community — not money. 

The elite schools also typically have massive endowments; the top 100 richest schools all have endowments worth more than $1 billion. Endowments are investments primarily used to generate wealth for the university — not to fund annual operating budgets, although some money generated from the investments is used to fund things like financial aid packages, upgrades to campus infrastructure, and a small number of endowed professorships. This means that at many, many schools, there is a substantial amount of money that could be used to continue paying workers during the pandemic and compensate for lower enrollment. While universities like to pretend that there is simply no other choice than cutting faculty and staff and raising tuition for students, these schools do, in fact, have choices.

Theoretically, income from endowment investments is supposed to “smooth the income provided to the universities” and “hedge shocks to other revenue sources,” acting as a “form of self-insurance” (see page 2 of the linked PDF). However, a 2014 study published in the American Economic Review found that during financial market shocks (such as the 2001-2002 burst of the “Dot Com Bubble” and the 2008 Great Recession), endowments actually “reduce [emphasis mine] payouts relative to their stated payout policies” rather than increasing payouts and using the endowment funds to offset the impacts of the economic downturn. We can already see this happening once again during these early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, Columbia University (endowment $392,666 per student) is continuing to charge rent for those living in university housing. If students and faculty living in university housing are unable to make these payments, their status at the university is also jeopardized. NYU (endowment $89,889 per student) has cancelled annual raises for most employees and instituted a hiring freeze, with rumors that they are also raising rent on faculty housing and forcing graduate students to continue paying for apartments they are no longer allowed to live in. While it’s true that endowments are designed to support universities in perpetuity, not to be spent all at once, what exactly is the point of a massive investment if not to be used in times of need?

Compared to workers in the hospitality and entertainment industries (among other hard-hit sectors), and even compared to our colleagues working in K-12 schools, the higher education field has been fortunate so far. In New York, CUNY closed for faculty and students almost two weeks before the city’s K-12 schools did, with some private schools like Columbia and NYU closing even earlier. Normally, this would not seem like a particularly large length of time, but 22,914 new cases of coronavirus were officially diagnosed in New York City between March 12 (the day that CUNY closed) and March 23 (the first school day that NYC public schools were closed). Who knows how many undiagnosed cases were contracted during that time? University staff were also put at increased risk compared to their faculty and student counterparts, since many campus workers initially deemed “essential” (such as librarians) were forced to report to work even after classes were cancelled, although most are now working from home. Who knows how many undiagnosed cases were contracted during that time? 

What’s Next for Students and Workers?

Despite some relative advantages in terms of material situations, the structure of the academic calendar has only delayed the full force of the pandemic’s impact on higher education. We can expect administrators to demand even more severe reductions in courses, services, student funding, and more in the coming months, as well as increases in tuition and fees to offset falling enrollment. 

Student, faculty, staff, and union groups at universities across the United States are already organizing a variety of actions to combat these announced and anticipated cuts. CUNY’s Rank and File Action (RAFA) group, a rank and file caucus of the PSC CUNY union formerly organized as $7K or Strike, has issued 5 demands for university workers in the face of the crisis:

  1. No unsafe work. Let all workers stay home with full pay until it’s safe to return.
  2. No layoffs or non-reappointments. No challenges to unemployment claims.
  3. Lower enrollment minimums and course caps to protect jobs and serve students.
  4. Time work = time paid. Compensation for hours spent transitioning to remote labor. We own all materials we produce for online work.
  5. Restore in-person teaching as soon as it’s safe. Ensure accessibility for all. 

Also in New York, the state with almost 30% of all U.S. cases of COVID-19, hundreds of graduate students at Columbia went on strike April 24, with even more striking on May 4th, to demand emergency summer funding for all graduate students, a cancellation of all rent in university housing, an extension of funding and time-to-degree rules by 1 year for all students, and legal protections for international students. 

It is likely that, in response to the twin coronavirus and economic crises that are currently sweeping the globe, the ruling class will employ shock doctrine tactics to gut public spending, further jeopardizing the working class. University administrators and bureaucrats have already shown that they will use any excuse they can to maintain their own power and luxurious lifestyles and are perfectly willing to raze the working and learning conditions for employees and students. 

Their elected official allies, like Andrew Cuomo, will cater to the interests of the ruling class by minimizing investment in the public good, thereby maintaining and increasing the already existing achievement gap between rich and poor students. Without substantial public investment, public higher education will continue to crumble (sometimes literally) at even faster rates, and private universities will become even more exclusively the domain of the elite than they already are.  We must organize together to resist these advancements and demand a worker-controlled system of education, where decisions are made democratically among the staff and students. 

The demands from RAFA and the Columbia students are good starting points, but more is needed. The crisis higher ed is facing is not limited to the duration of the pandemic, and every part of the university community is at risk — not just adjuncts, and not just graduate students. Universities need to protect all jobs while also keeping students, faculty, and staff safe. Students should not need to worry about their grades during a time of global crisis, or the impact a longer time to degree will have on their lives, but they also still deserve to receive a quality education. Yet, their teachers are also contending with the same global crisis and its attending impacts on their lives. It’s impossible for teachers to maintain the same quality of education under these circumstances (which is what students deserve) without significant extra unpaid labor (which ought not be expected of teachers). To resolve this apparent paradox, significant changes need to take place, such as free tuition for students, pay for all hours worked for teachers, smaller class sizes, and job security.

Furthermore, it’s vital to remember that COVID-19 is only exacerbating the contradictions and inequities already within the system of higher education. To solve these problems in a permanent way that results in postsecondary learning environments that are actually safe, accessible, and equitable for ALL, higher ed needs to be completely reimagined. And that can only be achieved by each sector of higher education — students and teachers, white collar staff and blue collar staff, full time and part time, undergrads and graduate students — organizing within themselves and in solidarity with each other to take control of our own working and learning conditions.

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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