Wednesday, May 20, 2020



   by Philip J Cunningham

Cornell University, like most campuses around the world, is facing hard decisions in tough times. A faculty survey just conducted at Cornell University suggests that the 2020 fall semester, if it happens at all, will be a hybrid affair at best.  Things could change for the better or the worse, but the mood of the moment is captured like a time capsule in a new faculty survey which is riddled with hopes, fears, altruistic impulses and selfish concerns about the future.

College as we know it is being undone by the coronavirus pandemic. If public health requires closing down for a semester or two, the challenge is existential. Some of the lost revenue can be made up online, but the loss of the "college experience" in terms of in-person teaching and residential life is harder to replace and compensate.

An F20 With In-Person Teaching--Faculty Thoughts on Personal Risk” was put together at Cornell to better assess the risks inherent in classroom teaching during the pandemic. Over 150 responses were collected from Cornell faculty “to understand more fully what opening-without-vaccine might mean for vulnerable faculty and staff.”   

The posts were collected online between May 11-17, 2020 and do not constitute a comprehensive survey, let alone a consensus, but the 58-page compendium is a valuable document for anyone wrestling with the big question.

Risk it or skip it? 

Should students and teachers go back to school in the fall term if the pandemic still rages?

Faculty sentiment alone won’t swing it, but a significant number of the Cornell respondents indicated they would not teach in the classroom until a vaccine that counters the risks of Covid-19 becomes widely available. 

Roughly one-third of Cornell’s faculty is over age sixty. The demographics alone alone help explain the “vulnerability” focus of the discussion prompt, but the online forum quickly blossomed into a more general discourse about the pros and cons of opening for the fall term, for all stakeholders, young and old, on and off campus alike. 

Across the board, a concern was voiced that Cornell is not ready for it. Although several self-identified senior scholars took great pains to indicate their desire to teach the old-fashioned way, there was a concomitant concern that necessary protective measures were not, and would not, be available.

The anonymous format allowed for some strong opinions.

"I simply cannot imagine returning to classroom settings of any sort until I, and everyone else who might potentially enter that room, are vacinated. Period." 
"It would be criminally insane to open in-person teaching before an effective vaccine is available."

These somewhat uncompromising responses were outliers, but even the most carefully-couched and gently hedged replies were mostly variations on the theme. Willing to teach, but not willing to infect family, friends, etc. “I really want to teach in person but…” 

Scientists predict a second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall, a point raised several times because it puts the entire question of students returning to campus into question.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, “the product of a Cornell education” is cited as an inspiration. Also cited is Kim Weeden, a Cornell sociologist who conducted  a key study on classroom transmission.             
Various unorthodox models were put forward and discussed, including staggered sessions, intensive summer study, residential seminars, graduate students-only and freshman-and-seniors-only. There were hybrid suggestions, such as starting online at the outset of the term and then transitioning to in-person instruction, or vice versa.

There was a call to include an online option for everyone, student and teacher alike, no questions asked. Several of the impromptu proposals stipulated mandatory quarantine for arriving students, extensive testing and the provision of isolation lodging for any teachers or students who subsequently were exposed or tested positive. A strict ban on off-campus travel during the term was recommended, while another post called to end the term at Thanksgiving before the flu season hits in force. 

It's a cruel calculus. How big do the stakes have to be to put lives at risk?

One of the rare voices in favor of a prompt opening quoted President Martha Pollack as saying that “the cure is worse than the disease” but then seemed to undermine that very point by saying that contagion is a given, so “just let it happen more quickly.” 

Just let it rip?

Out of the blue, one professor argued in favor of decreasing financial aid in order to better boost professor salaries, which would in turn boost school rankings, while another opined that Cornell was too generous to faculty already, and faculty couples should consider designating a stay-at-home mate. 

Many faculty bristled at the idea of being forced or expected to teach in person. Despite discomfort and difficulties with the sudden transition to online instruction as mandated by the Pollack administration in mid-March, the default option is that online teaching is the way to go for the time being. Few were opposed to a hybrid solution, but several expressed a reluctance to teach both online and in-person, saying it was too much. 

Unfortunately for a huge, cash-strapped institution already suffering from reduced income due to dorm and dining rebates for the truncated spring term 2020, more financial setbacks are on the way. The cancellation of lucrative summer programs is a loss, but even more significantly, endowment funds are at risk due the volatility of the stock market. Cuts in state and federal funding are to be expected. Facing the prospective loss of tuition for the fall term, the institution has fears for the future.

But students and their families are impacted, too. Is it fair to charge full tuition for online classes taken at home? How many students will opt out, choosing not to study, or take a leave? Does it not make sense to defer study until the pandemic recedes, given the low likelihood of a traditional, unfettered campus experience in the interim? 

If only the hands of the great clock tower could be magically be turned back to before the pandemic. But the forward-facing challenge cannot be ignored. Can Cornell, in good conscience, open up for business in August, more or less as usual, when the science suggests it is still not safe for people to congregate in close quarters?

It’s a devilish conundrum, pitting public health against the bottom line. Is it wise and compassionate, on balance, to have kids come back to campus when a national public health crisis puts the vulnerable at risk and necessitates complex protocols and soaring expenditures?

Students whose families have been hurt by the record wave of lost jobs will need increased financial aid and new workers will need be hired to install social-distancing props and put in place testing, tracing and strict sanitation measures. In the dorms, double rooms need converting to singles and entire buildings will need to be put aside for isolation purposes. 

A ready supply of masks, sanitizers and tests is not yet easy to come by, either.

It was obvious by early March that tuition revenue might be at risk. The Arts and Sciences admissions department, despite its claim to be “blind” to need-based aid was stealthily examining prospective student finances. Though it is impolite to say so, students from Asia, most especially China, have long been cash cows for the university, but visa problems, travel limitations and worsening ties, especially between Beijing and Washington, are going to reduce the number of students who might otherwise be willing to pay full tuition. 

One argument in favor of switching over to online teaching is that some of these sought-after international students could engage in a remote education without the encumbrances of travel to Ithaca, the idea being to push Cornell as a brand to rake in some tuition revenue that way.

Several professors expressed doubts about teaching in masks, including one who bemoaned that the necessity of using "face-shields an N95s" and then adding parenthetically, "not sure if that's more or less awkward than zoom teaching."
Big lectures are almost certainly a thing of the past, but even seminars pose risks of contagion due to proximity and duration of time spent in an enclosed space. The chances of a return to “normal” remain close to nil until an effective Covid-19 vaccine is developed.

At best, an awkward hybrid mix will define higher education for the foreseeable future. If the naysayers about opening up next term get their druthers, no one will be put under pressure to appear in a classroom and no prying questions will be asked of those who opt out. 

Younger faculty without tenure confided the not unreasonable fear that opting out of in-person teaching would be a mark in the file against them, while older, tenured faculty, who enjoy an enviable job security and with it a high degree of free speech, found the anonymous format useful to discuss co-morbidities and health considerations that they would otherwise prefer to remain private. 

Most posts were too provisional and nuanced to allow for an up and down vote against opening, but the overall drift of sentiment was clear about one thing: the broadly acknowledged benefits of in-person instruction do not begin to outweigh the risks as currently understood.

To summarize, going back to the old model of in-person teaching is out of the question until a vaccine, or an extraordinary regime of social controls, mitigation and sanitation can be put in place. 

Long-distance teaching is likely to be the norm until the contagion risk factor is significantly reduced. Many faculty expressed a willingness to experiment with various hybrid measures involving small groups of students in a carefully contained environment. There was some back and forth as to whether on campus instructors should be compensated more than those who stay at home. One stay-at-home wag resisted the idea of differential pay saying that online teaching is hard and those who elect to teach on campus will have easy access to parking and plenty of free tables at the Zeus café.

If crowding in a classroom a few times a week presents a serious risk of contagion that extends beyond teacher and students to nearly everyone on campus in a few short jumps, then what about cheek-and-jowl residence in crowded dorms? What about public spaces in town? 

One professor used the example of students from neighboring Ithaca College, which has just announced the intention to open a few weeks late on October 5, to obliquely make a point that is applicable to college students in general: 

I am extremely worried about the return of undergrads to Ithaca in the fall. I live in a neighborhood where many Ithaca College students have chosen to remain in off-campus housing and they continue to have parties, run/hike/play sports in groups, and have been the least respectful of social distancing guidelines on the neighborhood trails and sidewalks (they wear their IC gear, thanks for identifying yourselves!)

The professor comes down unduly hard on Cornell's academic neighbor but the point of restraining the sporty ebullience of youth is well-taken. Something as simple as a policy mandating mask-wearing is hard to enforce. 

When the closure of the university was unexpectedly announced on Friday March 13, 2020, confused students wandered about Collegetown trying to come to terms with the sudden end of campus life, commiserating in shock but not yet able to register the enormity of the change. The disappointment was palpable that day.

Cornell faculty, teacherly pride notwithstanding, know as well as anyone that the college experience cannot be reproduced online. It is as much about what happens in between classes as inside the classroom. 

The question of campus residential life, though not a focus of the faculty inquiry, was inevitably raised. Sharing small rooms, eating in dining halls, and mixing socially are all riddled with risks. What about sports and theater and music and clubs? What about weekends, parties and social life? 

One of the first clusters of positive cases identified in Ithaca was traced to a popular student hangout that was packed tight on that final, fateful weekend of March 13, 2020. A full thirty percent of positive cases subsequently reported in Ithaca (Tompkins County) as of mid-May can be attributed to individuals in their 20’s, which suggests probable student infections, though no details have been made public.

With even a small number of graduating seniors and graduate students left on campus, one can daily observe both conscientious social distancing and social distancing observed in the breach. 

Drinking parties, barbecues, large tightly-spaced gatherings on lawns and public sidewalks are proliferating as of mid-May, now that winter has finally relinquished its chilly grasp on Ithaca. To control student ebullience in violation of lock-down guidelines in even a rudimentary sense seems beyond the ken of local authorities both on and off campus. 

If the entire student body returns in force in the fall, how is social spacing to be maintained?

One respondent put it rather acidly this way: "There is no hope that students - who too often defy rules (Sexual assault? Underage Drinking? Cheating in exams? Not reading the syllabus?! the list goes on) - will keep physical distance, high hygiene, and a regiment (sic) of temp taking.
That's utopian, and I will not risk my health on that hope."

Another theme that surfaces, above and beyond faculty considerations of personal risk, is the well-being of this rural upstate community. Cornell, the stately campus up on the hill, may look and feel like a realm apart, and it is a veritable bubble to students in the throes of the undergraduate experience, but it is intimately integrated with the Ithaca community through the daily labor of service and support staff, not to mention student excursions into town for shopping, drinking and dining.

One professor, distressed at the thought of Cornell not opening, dressed up personal paranoia as a noblesse oblige concern for those "lower in the socioeconomic pecking order." Cornell’s lost revenue "will also devastate Ithaca, which for all practical matters will quickly become Cortland." The panicked professor added that there are risks worth taking "in order not to wake up in Cortland." 

This is an unfair jibe. Neighboring Cortland is indeed poorer than Ithaca, but is also home to a respected college of long standing, SUNY Cortland, which faces many of the same challenges as Cornell. “Centrally-isolated” Ithaca, like its good neighbor Cortland, has been spared the intense outbreaks seen in the New York City, Westchester and Long Island, but both institutions draw heavily on students from downstate New York.

If there is a fall term in the traditional sense, it will involve the movement of thousands of idealistic, energetic, ambition young people from the epicenter of the pandemic to a peripheral area. The "splendid" isolation sought by all is likely to be threatened or attenuated by a second wave outbreak.

The pandemic poses a shared predicament, even if individual responses diverge. But it shakes collective identity to the core. As one punning respondent  put it, the college is at risk of being known as "Coronell" if the public health issue is not handled right.

That many of the respondents have indicated a willingness to risk docked pay or even dismissal speaks to the gravity of the issue:

"I'll take a salary cut if it means I can keep my loved ones out of the hospital or morgue. How about we *all* take a salary cut in solidarity?"
Is it really worth opening before it is safe to do so?

An isolated college campus is not unlike a cruise ship, and not just for the ease of contagion in close quarters. Putting a large number of people with dreamy aspirations into a fantasy space with nowhere else to go engenders strongly interactive group dynamics. 

Visitants are away from home in a place where the at-home rules don’t fully apply. Being away from family and free from work-a-day worries is part of the attraction of the experience. The schedule is flexible, there are attractive like-minded strangers and a confined but enticing world to explore. Shared bedrooms, bathrooms, dining halls and lecture rooms and theatres are integral to the layout. Romance is in the air and a party beat beckons.

For Cornell and other well-established colleges impacted by the pandemic, closing down for a semester or two does not present an irrecoverable loss, but it does pose an unprecedented challenge. A "lost" term is a quirk for the history books, but it will take a lot of work to make up for it. Financial and social shocks will linger.

Sitting atop a hill facing a lake and flanked by steep, waterfall-laced gorges, Cornell juts forward proudly above Ithaca like the prow of a great ship. Students are a big part of what makes Ithaca vibrant and interesting and they will be missed.

But they will be back. When conditions that are currently beyond the ken and control of those steering things ameliorate and improve, it will be full steam ahead. 

The college dream will go on. 

The author spent eight years resident on the wonderful Cornell campus as a student and later as a visiting faculty fellow.