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COVID-19 and Higher Educaton

30th July 2020

 By Gerald J Beyer, author of Just Universities (Available January 2021)  

Beyer 9780823289974 1

In 2015 Jim Keenan published his groundbreaking book University Ethics. Keenan contended that university professors and administrators are among the few professionals lacking a code of ethics.[1]  If ever the academy needed one to guide their decision-making, it is now.  The COVID-19 crisis has evinced the myriad, complex ethical issues in U.S. higher education, exacerbated many of its longstanding problems, and created new ones.  It is impossible to treat them all here adequately. However, having recently completed my forthcoming book Just Universities, several readily come to mind.[2]

Trust and Transparency

Observers have bemoaned the lack of trust among stakeholders in U.S. higher education. Keenan and others have stated that many faculty members feel important decisions are made by administrators without their meaningful input.[3]  Boards of trustees and administrators (increasingly without teaching experience) often envision pursuing the mission of colleges and universities according to different paradigms. A former president of three Catholic universities, William Byron SJ contends this can be particularly problematic at Catholic institutions of higher learning, where knowledge of Catholic moral principles is sometimes cursory among leaders.[4] Tenure track faculty members have also contributed to the problems, as Keenan noted.   Far too many have overemphasized their own productivity rather than promoting justice and fairness at their own institutions and in higher education generally.[5]

Whatever the reasons for the tenuous relationship between faculty and administrators, it is essential to rebuild the trust necessary for all stakeholders to undertake the sacrifices presently needed.  Transparency is a must. 

In this vein, Catholic social teaching’s emphasis on the right to participation aligns with the American Association of University Professors’ insistence that administrations “be transparent…keep the faculty fully informed…[and] consult meaningfully with existing faculty governance bodies.”[6]  Unfortunately, some professors believe, rightly or wrongly, that administrators will use the crisis to further erode shared governance, faculty compensation, tenure, and the academic ethos of their institutions.[7]

The COVID-19 crisis has also intensified scrutiny of the value and purpose of higher education among those paying the high costs.[8]  Some are calling for tuition reductions if classes continue online, while some students have filed lawsuits demanding their money back for last semester.[9] Parents who have lost jobs may not be able to pay for college this fall and beyond.  College was already unaffordable for many low SES (socioeconomic status) and middle class students in the U.S.[10] With revenue losses from this year and next in the tens or even hundreds of millions, some institutions, albeit likely a small minority, may even have to close permanently.[11] In short, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated a situation in which many stakeholders in U.S. higher education already felt the system burdens them unfairly, while the institutions maintain their budgets are already stretched thin.  Administrators face enormous pressure to reopen campuses this fall, as the majority of students find learning online “unappealing.”

Protection of the Most Vulnerable

However, returning to campuses is a threat to life and limb difficult to justify, even while acknowledging the significant benefits of classroom and laboratory learning and the major losses to budgets.  COVID-19 has a much higher mortality rate (6% of observed cases in the United States, with likely many more than the 100,000 deaths reported already) than the seasonal flu and is far more damaging to the human body.[12] In this situation, Catholic social teaching requires finding ways to protect human life, particularly the most vulnerable.  Among them are students, faculty, and staff with preconditions or above 45, who are at much greater risk of succumbing to the coronavirus.  The median age of faculty members (49) and proportion above 55 (37%) surpasses those numbers in the general workforce (42 and 23%).[13]  People of color are disproportionately dying of COVID-19.  Thus, university employees of color will be in a particularly precarious situation on campuses, which an epidemiologist likened to cruise ships in terms of rampant viral transmission.[14] Cases of young adults suffering severe inflammatory syndromes have also recently surfaced.

Straining for Ways Forward          

In Just Universities, I argue that highly-paid administrators, coaches, and tenured faculty members should be willing to accept “solidarity pay cuts” proportionate to their salaries to assist lower salary and wage earners.

Some institutional leaders, such as the Chancellors of University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, have admirably done so for the upcoming year (20% and 10% respectively).[20] Institutions with endowments should consider increasing spending before asking faculty and staff to sacrifice pay and benefits, as faculty salaries have remained largely flat while the endowment returns have exceeded an 8% average over the last decade.[21]  According to one study, it is often erroneously maintained that most endowment funds are “restricted” and “half of all colleges have endowments that could withstand 13 years of rainy days.”  The authors contend that “real incomes will rise over the years, so nonprofits can, in general, look forward to increased revenue from donations and user fees. Squeezing today’s students…to save money for future generations … is misguided.”[22] In addition, in accordance with the option for the poor, more institutions should follow those recently adopting permanent test-optional admissions and need-based financial aid policies. As I show in Just Universities, such policies lead to more low SES and minoritized students, a stronger student body overall, and generally boost enrollments.  Athletics budgets, which have increased much faster than instructional budgets in recent decades, should be reallocated to needs more central to university mission.

Gerald J. Beyer is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Villanova University. He is the author of Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education ( January 5, 2021)

Note: Posted to Catholic Theological Efforts in the World Church on 6/1/20.