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In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly discuss the growing pushback from many in the academic community to colleges’ and universities’ reopening plans, focusing on two recent articles arguing that we’ll be all online in the fall.


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly


Phil: Welcome to COVID Transitions. I’m Phil Hill, and we’re back again with Kevin Kelly and Jeanette Wiseman. And great to talk to you guys this day, even though it’s been a very interesting week.

Jeanette: Hey.

Kevin: Hey.

Phil: Let’s jump right into the topic, which I have to say ahead of time, it seems like the pressure in higher education has really been ramping up over the past few weeks on the decisions about fall plans. And that’s somewhat predictable. We talked in our podcast called Enter Darkness about how the fall was going to be entering into this period of uncertainty. And people would second guess you, no matter what the choice was, for an institution to open up. But I don’t think I really had in mind or understood just how intense a lot of the pushback was going to be.

And this week, we wanted to talk about a lot of the academic community pushback on [00:01:00] school plans for reopening a particular looking, as an example, two Op Eds that were published this week. They were really calling out, saying that colleges who were planning on any form of face to face reopening, having any students on campus, that it’s just going to end in disaster. And it’s a major mistake. And one of the Op Eds was at Inside Higher Ed. It was published this morning – today is Friday – by Ryan Craig. For each of these I’ll set up the premise, as they did it. His post is titled “Flim Flam: College in 2020.” And jumping ahead:. 

“The story of every mark who encounters a flimflam man is a carnival version of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. First, the flimflam man approaches the mark. Second, temptation, followed by a small payoff to demonstrate the scheme’s purported effectiveness. Third, the hard sell to go all in. Finally, a sudden unanticipated crisis or change of events that results in a complete loss.Millions of college students are now on this sucker’s journey. College students and their families are perfect marks. They’re told a degree is the only pathway to good jobs. After a remote spring and summer best characterized by the great They Might Be Giants lyric “If it wasn’t for disappointment/I wouldn’t have any appointments,” they’re primed for the temptation of a return to campus and normalcy.” [00:02:00]

That’s the end of the quote. The second one is from the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it’s from Robert Kelchen, and his is titled “This Will Be One of the Worst Months in the History of Higher Education”.” It actually builds off of a Twitter thread that he put out that got a lot of attention. So in his first two paragraphs: [00:03:00]

“Summer is usually a period of relative calm for most of American higher education, but this one is different. Faculty members are increasingly indignant about the prospect of being forced back on campus in the fall; administrators are quietly scrambling behind the scenes to do contingency planning. These disruptions are just the beginning. Whether colleges are willing to admit it or not, chaos will be greeting many of them in the coming weeks, and wishful thinking will not be enough to avoid it.

Most colleges have been optimistically pitching a return to campus for students, even if they acknowledge the experience will be much different than normal. The Chronicle’s tracker of colleges’ fall plans currently shows that about 60 percent of colleges are planning for an in-person fall, while less than 10 percent are planning for a mainly online fall.”

So these are not the only two situations where a lot of people in the academic community are pushing back [00:04:00] on college plans. But I think they’re pretty illustrative and worth exploring. We haven’t discussed this between the three of us much, so let’s see how it goes. Let’s start out with the Inside Higher Ed article, the flimflam article by Ryan Craig, and let’s hear what your initial thoughts are. Let’s start with you, Jeanette. What were your thoughts on this article?

Jeanette: If it was a really interesting article. It was I thought thought out. I think it’s probably what a lot of people are fearing right now, especially students and their families, that there’s a lack of transparency, slight, maybe, wishful thinking from their colleges. And I don’t think that it’s necessarily something that universities or colleges are being dishonest about. I think that they’re just hoping for the best. They’re realizing that they’re trying to balance [00:05:00] revenues and what students are wanting, and making sure that they don’t close, with what is the safest for their students and the faculty on campus. And that balance has become really, really difficult.

Phil: Ok, great. Kevin, what are your initial thoughts on the inside higher ed article?

Kevin: My initial reaction was a little disappointment, a little ‘Hey, we’re using hyperbole.’ To make a point on Jeanette’s thinking that this is not a conscious effort to frame universities and colleges as flim flam artists, when really they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, and haven’t made a decision by the time they probably should have.

I was guessing most institutions would have made their decisions by July 1st, and would or should have planned for what might happen if things don’t get better. The wishful thinking paradigm [00:06:00] doesn’t really work when you’re running a multi-million dollar organization with thousands of students and staff and faculty all affected.

So to me, the article makes some good points, but it does so in a way that’s calling on, you know, the magic of that article from – was it McKinnie? – took away from its strength.

Phil: Oh, the McSweeney’s article, which is satire.

Kevin: Exactly.

Phil: It’s a satire site. Well, I’ll take you one step further. I thought this op ed was crap. There might have been some good points, but it got so buried in hyperbole as you’re saying. It illustrates to me how toxic some of the conversations are becoming, and how unhelpful this pushback – not all pushback – but this type of pushback is. I mean, setting up the whole thing as a flimflam, carnival, [00:07:00] is making the argument that collegiate administrators deliberately know they’re wrong, and they’re deliberately trying to trick people just for their own financial gain. And there’s no acknowledgement that, hey, there’s a difficult choice being made and we’re trying to weigh one risk versus the other. And we’re in a tough situation.

And ‘let’s consult people and make the best guess we can,’ which obviously I’m laying out that’s sort of my opinion more generally, but laying it out as flimflam and carnival scam artist. And then even throwing in a gratuitous calling his former college classmate, a Nazi. What was the purpose of throwing that in there? And so to me, by doing all that stuff, all the good points that were in there, I had to force myself to read the whole article to try to find something useful in there. And I think the hyperbole really harms [00:08:00] the whole thing. So that was my reaction to it.

Kevin: Well, and if you contrast it against another opinion piece that came out in the last week on CNN, Roopika Risam talked about the fact that if being humane is not motivation enough, universities should consider the role of racial equity in their reopening plans, going toward students, going toward the staff who might work in dining halls or housing facilities, or cleaning the buildings, that are at risk just as much as anybody else and may have less of a choice. Like faculty members may be able to teach online, even if it’s with students in the classroom. But some of these staff members may not have a choice about whether or not they get to go on a campus if it reopens. And so I prefer that approach to an opinion article than the one that could be left on the fiction shelf.

Phil: Sure. Jeanette. You’re the one who’s much nicer than Kevin [00:09:00] or I am, certainly than myself. Did do these issues – the hyperbole – did they affect you in the reading, or do you have a different opinion on it?

Jeanette: So I think my reaction to it wasn’t quite as angry as maybe the two of you. I think I read it and saw it as being a bit of hyperbole, but someone that was trying to get the point across. And I think that there’s some truth to it. I mean, I do think that there is some truth to students and and parents feeling a little bit like they’re not being told the honest truth and that they’re worried about their kids going into school and not really being protected. And I think that it was a little McSweeny-ish, but it’s got the point across, and I didn’t get angry reading.

Phil: Well, the bigger issue is not – certainly not myself – but I mean the bigger issue: Who’s it going to convince? I mean, do people when you call when you set it up as saying, ‘hey, [00:10:00] you guys are being flimflam artist,’ what are the chances this will influence somebody to rethink or to hear your point of view if you’re directly arguing that way? That’s what I’m concerned about, is how much positive influence on the dialogue. I don’t want to sound wishy washy, but who’s going to listen?

Kevin: Maybe that’s not his audience. Maybe he’s trying to incite the parents and students to take action.

Phil: And while this gets to a point that I had an episode earlier this week with Inside Higher Ed and another op ed that was called “When Generals Die in Bed,” where they made essentially the argument, you know, you’re sending your troops out to die. But the generals who are making these decisions, they’re just going to die peacefully in their beds. And I get the point they’re trying to make there, which is that faculty and staff are going to be much more on the frontlines in terms of in classes with students. But by putting [00:11:00] it that way. And that article demonstrated a strong lack of understanding of online education. It just to me, it ruins the opportunity. So I guess I’m not saying they shouldn’t be published. I’m just saying we’re seeing a lot of this type of academic pushback that’s happening right now. This is one example of one approach. And I think you might be right, Kevin. Maybe the approach is to try to get other people up in arms.

Jeanette: Well, I think it also reflects the sentiment of where a lot of people are right now, especially faculty who are reading this. We keep on focusing, I think not just we, but I think the general media are focused on the students, how the students are going to be back and forth with the students are going to be doing what you know, their impact is going to be. And there’s not been as much conversation, or things written about or even spoken about, the faculty and the faculty impact – both not only on just getting the courses up and running, but their [00:12:00] health and looking at especially, not necessarily community colleges, but maybe some of the more established schools where faculty are on the older side and asking them to come to teach in person is a risk for them.

Phil: You don’t think that’s getting covered? I mean, heck, with a big New York Times article. I think there’s a lot of coverage, at least over the past two weeks on the subject, maybe over the last two weeks.

Jeanette: I don’t think up to this point there hasn’t been as much focus on the stress and strain that it’s putting on faculty, aside from, hey, there’s a lot of faculty members and I don’t really know how to teach online. I think a constant theme since spring, but it’s not necessarily looking at what our schools are doing to protect faculty and staff. I was learning this week about a whole group of even the custodial staff of a certain school that was supposed to be really protected, and [00:13:00] it was subcontracted out by someone else. And the majority of that staff has been infected by COVID, and they’re the ones cleaning the campus. And I think that there’s a lot of those types of discussions that aren’t happening. And I think maybe these both, or at least these articles and one the two that you mentioned at Inside Higher Ed are just reflecting that sentiment of fear from faculty.

Phil: Kevin?

Kevin: Well, I was just going to say the CNN article was last Thursday the 2nd, and there is an article in San Francisco Chronicle last Friday. The third called A Problem for College in the Fall: Reluctant Professors and gets into if you look at the average age of instructors in higher ed, there are quite a few who are in a range that would be considered at risk for coronavirus. And so they definitely have to consider what if a faculty member says, no, I’m not going to do it? Then what? And even more upsetting for some [00:14:00] are the union issues related to lecturer teaching roles being basically changed or admitted so that full time tenure track faculty members can have a full load because certain classes are getting cancelled. And so the whole kind of class system on a campus is amplified when you have an emergency situation like this. And the CNN article did bring up the stuff that you just brought up as well, the custodial staff, Jeanette. So I think you’re right on line with – we’re getting close enough where people are paying attention to more factors. And it’s too bad that we didn’t have more thoughtful preparation a month ago, because I think we’re going be in this place where ambiguity reigns right up until the end. And so all the things we’ve been saying about students wanting clear communication. They want to know what’s going on. Even if you’re not quite sure. So that they are aware [00:15:00] that you’re preparing for their safety, that you’re looking for their learning to be a better set of experiences than they had in the spring and much more.

And right now, like the University of Southern California changed its mind and said, we’re not going to do a hybrid after all. We’re going to be mostly online. So students are getting mixed messages or no messages at all. And it’s it’s making it difficult for them to make decisions.

Phil: Well, if you look at it in these terms of the timing, I think you’re right that where we have seen the issue of faculty, not just preparedness, but health and their willingness – that’s been very recent, where these articles are all coming out. And in the spring, it was all about students and what they were going to do or what their well-being as does. That sort of runs counter to the narrative of higher education, that higher education has become all about faculty and what they want [00:16:00] and really not being student centric. I find it interesting that we’re talking about the reverse right now. Hey, there hasn’t been enough, or certainly until recently, conversation about faculty and what this does to them sort of goes against the popular narrative.

Jeanette: It does. But I think a lot of what has happened up to this point is the fear of loss of revenue, which is controlled by the students primarily except for auxiliary revenues. And so I think that’s where the focus has been. Is this school gonna be able to stay open? Are they going to be able to even offer any kind of education to these students? If not, is this school going to close? What’s how that going to impact not only the school but the faculty and the community that where that school resides? And I think just now, I think there’s two things that are happening. Not only are we getting closer to school start, but also I think in the spring and probably even in early May. Everyone thought that by this point, especially in July, [00:17:00] we were gonna see the COVID cases going down. And that’s not happening there, spiking in so many, so many places. So there’s now a real risk to these faculty members and it has to be something that people are looking at.

Phil: So let’s jump to the other article. The Chronicle of Higher Ed article from Robert Kelchen.

Jeanette: Well, I like that one because I have a lot of data and tables with information, especially around just looking and seeing how some of these schools, especially the smaller ones, rely so much on not only tuition, but auxiliary revenues, which are described in that article as being things like housing and food and things that are things people buy while on campus.

While I really did like the article, I thought it was well researched. And to have that information right in front of me, I really enjoyed. It was very depressing. What he is saying is pretty much so many schools are probably going to be closing in the next five weeks. And [00:18:00] that’s a real disturbing thought for me.

Kevin: Well, to me, it was sound. I had a lot of data and it reinforced some thinking that I’ve seen in other data that I’ve been reviewing for this meta analysis of student surveys. And one of them by the Hope Center at Temple University was talking about how COVID has exacerbated basic needs, insecurity like housing and food. When not only is that a problem for the campus, that, too, not just brought up that you’re losing that auxiliary revenue, but it’s also a problem for the students who may not have a place to go live and may not have a really hard time finding food. And so the challenges are are big and we haven’t figured it out yet.

Phil: I thought this was an excellent article. I didn’t agree with all of it, but I think it was excellent. And it contributes to the conversation, as [00:19:00] you guys are saying. It calls out situations. It explains itself. Robert did a good job of backing his arguments up with data as opposed to name calling, as opposed to just trying to inflame the reaction. So I applaud The Chronicle and Robert for publishing this, and I think it contributes to it. So in all ways, I like that. Where I have an issue with the article is it almost self refutes as he knocks himself down. But he doesn’t come to the point of saying he is so sure that all of these colleges are going to close in the next five weeks because of the risk and the increase in cases. Yet his own article lays out why that’s an existential problems for colleges. The revenue, will they be able to stay in business. And the point is, there is such a high demand on each side. Go [00:20:00] online or open some form of face to face.

And he calls them out within here. But I think that his conclusions are obviously they’re going to have to close, move to fully online without saying it could be that because of all the issues he calls out on the financial pressures, it’s going to ensure – and ensure is probably a strong word – it’s going to make it more likely that colleges will dig in and say, no, we really have to keep some form of face to face or hybrid going. So I think he missed that part. But overall, I think it was a very good article and it leads to some very good conversations.

Kevin: Well, and I think by taking a firm stance at one end of the spectrum, that’s the way public discourse happens. You get these perspectives and you react to them and inform them. So the fact that his only call to action at the end was to tell everybody you’re going online immediately, [00:21:00] his subsequent sentences about now you can devote resources to improving online education while you’re a month away from classes taking place. It’s going to be really hard for a faculty member to redesign a course and get ready to facilitate it online if they haven’t done so or haven’t been doing so already. And so it misses the mark in another way by not looking at the number of campuses that are looking at hybrid or hybrid flexible or some form of either one of those courses to increase the safety for students to make sure that there’s some sense of instructional continuity. And it kind of belies the fact that there’s been a lot of thinking and doing around the summer around the country. But it’s not that every campus has decided to go online fully. And so that’s where I think you could have done a better job.

Jeanette: Well, and I also wonder, would Robert write the same article after some announcements this week? You know, in terms of [00:22:00] from the administration, in terms of international students not being able to get visas and unless there’s in-person classes and then also about public funding of any schools that are going online.

Phil: What we’ll call THE tweet.

Jeanette: The Tweet, that’s right. So, the whole article is essentially about how the finances of these schools, and calling to question those things, and then saying to go on line when those things go against what the schools are really having to struggle with. If they go online, then not only the international students who really contribute a lot to tuition, but also in the communities of having these people in person. It’s going to impact those revenues, going online.

Phil: Well, we’ll call out Robert. See if he’ll listen to this.  [00:23:00]It would be excellent to get him to do a response to, or an update. Because this whole thing started with a Twitter thread, so it was done thoughtfully, but in a medium that can be done quickly. I think that’s a great question that we should ask him. What changes in your analysis based on this?

Kevin: And he he does a lot of focus on the small private nonprofit colleges that are at risk of closing and things like that. But what about the large systems, the the ones that maybe have a even harder time, maybe not because of the alternative revenue channels, but for reasons that Jeanette just brought up, that international students may comprise a large portion of their tuition. If they are fully online, those students may be at risk of going back to a place where it’s less safe than in the states. They may be working in labs where they’re no longer able to pursue the non coursework that they’ve been doing and their [00:24:00] contributions to the communities where they live are going to be removed as well. So there’s so many factors that are just not only about the money, but about students lives and their ability to to reach their own goals. There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not gap years turn into just no longer pursuing a college degree and other things that students who don’t have the luxury of sitting around will have to consider.

Phil: Even the Cornell study, and that’s just one example. But I don’t think there’s been enough discussion of, OK, if you do a fully online, what is the impact on students? So some of the surveys that you’re looking at, Kevin, on the students, it does get into it. But when you’re looking at this tradeoff of do we do a hybrid fall or do we do an online fall, it’s a mistake to say, well, if we do an online fall, well, then students [00:25:00] will be safe. No, they won’t. They’re doing a lot of the same activities and parties, whether or not they’re on campus. And the Cornell study, that they did for their planning, essentially argued that they will actually have a lower incident of cases if they’re on campus, because we can get students to test, and we’ll be able to have influence or control on students to a much greater degree than if we do fully online now.

Some of the pushback on the Cornell study is saying, hey, but you’re ignoring the impact on faculty and staff. And I didn’t think the study ignored it, but it just called out that this is not a moral question. In my mind, that there is no risk if you do one type of behavior versus the other, you have risk on both sides. You have a risk to student health, faculty health. You have risk on both sides. It’s what’s the most realistic and [00:26:00] appropriate decision for it. And I don’t think there’s enough of that understanding or discussing what the about what the analysis and trade tradeoffs are outside of finances in particular.

Did I squelch conversation with that?

Kevin: No, it’s just a really where do we go from here? A question that I don’t know if anybody has the answer.

Phil: So had this gets back to the Enter Darkness. I think that what we’re facing in the fall, we’re entering a dark fall on what we mean by that: It’s full of uncertainty. If you’re a school administrator, heck, if you’re even faculty member, whatever choice you make, you will get second guessed and there will be arguments about what you’re doing is wrong, and there will be students who are going to suffer either way. I mean, that’s just the nature of the fall that we’re heading into. And so I think the main point of these articles is just highlighting that this pushback is happening. And as Jeanette [00:27:00] was saying on the Inside Higher Ed highlighting the fact that it’s only recently that we’ve looked at the faculty perspective from a health and safety. And students, are they tuitions and are they getting ripped off? It is highlighting this perspective. Boy, this is an interesting fall that we’re heading into.

I did have one other point I want to bring up before we do a wrap up. Both of these articles, and I’m seeing it everywhere, tend to reference the Chronicle data tracker on what the college plans are. But there’s a persistent problem with the Chronicle data tracker, that they classify 60 percent, some 60 percent as fully in person. If you look at it, there’s very, very few colleges or universities who are truly opening up in-person for all students. The majority is some form of hybrid, which we’ve written about. But the fact is, people keep [00:28:00] referencing back to the Chronicle article, and then particularly for the general public, you start thinking, oh, most colleges and universities don’t have plans. They’re just going to try to reopen it, that the Chronicle data is missing its categorization. And I think it leaves some of this conversation astray.

Kevin: Well, I think some of it is based on public statements about intention rather than what’s actually going to happen. And so you get some conflation or some confusion or some other CONF word that I probably can’t think of right now.

Phil: Don’t use the CONF word effort.

Kevin: D’oh! Conference.

Phil: Yeah, but it’s a great data resource, and I’ve done a visualization based on the data. But I really made a mistake by doing the first visualization purely based off of their categories without addressing this issue first.

But as I look at these articles, people love to [00:29:00] reference this plan, and it misses that a lot of these schools that are have some form of in-person – they do have pretty in-depth preparations they are going through. They’re definitely making efforts to address safety concerns and figure out how to minimize. I guess I’m just complaining about that. But I wish that we had better categorization on what the plans are.

Well, this was not the cheeriest episode, but I think that’s where we are in higher education. We’re in a very tense month. That’s understatement as far as Robert Kelchen is concerned. This is a very difficult month and probably will be for the next few months for higher education, both in terms of the pushback and the polarizing discussions around fall plans, but also as budgets become more apparent. I had noted that the City University of New York system has gone for a budget trifecta where they’re cutting 25 percent roughly [00:30:00] of their adjunct faculty. They’re cutting 25 percent of their course availability, meaning larger courses, most likely. And at the same time, they’re raising tuition on students. And I called it the budget trifecta potentially, they haven’t determined yet if they’re also going to kick your dog for you, but I think that we’re going to see a lot more of these cases where it’s difficult decisions. But they can be done poorly, they can be done well. It’s a tense area at this point.

Kevin: Well, it’s gonna raise more equity issues on this, to get to Jeanette’s earlier point about refocusing on faculty as we get closer, is those adjuncts that are now out of jobs, where are they going to do for work? And I know there is a tendency to protect the tenure track faculty members first and make sure they have full loads because they’re [00:31:00] the permanent expense. There are something that you’re investing in, but when 75 % of the nation is lecturer or adjunct faculty, you can’t ignore that fact. And what the repercussions are downstream.

Phil: All right. Jeanette, any parting thoughts to our happy conversation today?

Jeanette: Just that, I think incredibly depressing. I mean, there’s no way to look at it where it’s not it’s not really dark, like you said. No.

Kevin: Well, if we truly are closer to entering darkness, then we might need to go back to the old Viking tales, because they had stories of the Fenris Wolf swallowing the moon and the sun. And so that’s how they dealt with darknesses, just creating myths around it.

Phil: Okay. So we’ll decide between that and Beowulf for the next metaphor that we work off of something dark and Nordic. Well, it is great to talk to you two on the subject, and really appreciate your insights on a very difficult time for higher education.

But thanks a lot.