There’s an awful lot of “shared sacrifice” and “for the good of the institution” rhetoric circulating in higher education circles today, driven both by the collective uncertainty about returning to campus in the wake of COVID-191 and by the resulting budgetary crisis colleges and universities find themselves in. Kevin McClure does a good job of digging into that rhetoric and turning our attention from how we should work to reopen our campuses to focus instead on why.
That why, where it’s addressed, is being treated as if it were a matter of concern for students and their futures: in order to deliver to them the high-quality educational experience they want, we must band together, take precautions, be prepared. If we don’t deliver that product, we are told, they won’t come back, and the institution will not survive.
I am a believer in the value of institutions of higher education, especially broadly public-serving institutions of higher education, which have long functioned as an engine for social mobility and empowerment. I want to see those institutions survive. But they do not deserve to survive based on that mission alone, and particularly not if they have to sacrifice the health and well-being of their very publics in order to do so.
The executive management teams at our colleges and universities have been charged with their institutions’ survival. I understand that. But we need to consider carefully what the institutions are for if not for the people who learn in them, the people who teach in them, the people who build them and keep them operational. The relationship between institutions and those people is the entirety of the institution’s value, and if the lives of those people do not come first, the institution should not survive.
My life would be enormously impoverished, both literally and metaphorically, if my institution were to shut down. But it is not worth the lives of my students, my colleagues, the members of my community — not to mention the lives of their families and friends and neighbors — to protect my livelihood.