Back to SchoolRoundup
tags: colleges, higher education, universities, COVID
François Furstenberg has taught early American history at Johns Hopkins University since 2014. He previously taught at the Université de Montréal. He lives in Baltimore with his partner and two daughters.
A savage irony inflects the debate over university campuses reopening this fall. All those campuses with their exquisite landscaping, their mausoleums to titans of private equity, their swanky LEED-certified buildings, and their recreation centers with climbing walls, all constructed at extraordinary expense to draw students and raise the ante in the college ranking game—all of them are potentially off-limits due to COVID-19.
Keep campuses closed through the fall, and administrators may plunge universities into insolvency. Open them up, and they risk fanning the flames of a pandemic.
Most universities are planning to open.
Some plan to bring some tuition-paying students back to their dorms, yet have most classes online. That seems backwards, since keeping students away from campuses—which have been compared to cruise ships and nursing homes as sites of rampant contagion—might seem like the highest public-health priority. Recently, an outbreak that infected at least 136 students at the University of Washington was traced back to fraternity housing, while Berkeley, which had enjoyed a relatively low incidence of the virus, traced 47 cases in one week to fraternity parties.
One must pity the administrators making these decisions—but not too much. The dilemmas they confront result from two generations of perverse transformation in higher education, for which they have been very well compensated. The great bubble that has funded university education in this period, characterized by ever-rising tuition, growing real estate footprints, and administrative bloat—paid for by an orgy of federally subsidized student loans and growing cohorts of foreign students paying full freight—is about to pop. An extinction event for a broad swath of American higher education looms on the horizon.
As it has in so many other areas of U.S. life, the COVID-19 pandemic is casting a harsh light on the dysfunction of American higher education and its move to a market paradigm. It’s not that university leaders necessarily want to open their campuses with new outbreaks looming in the fall. It’s that their business model leaves them no alternative.
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