Many institutions of higher learning across the nation find themselves in a precarious financial position. They face declining enrollments, oil bust-driven decreases in funding, and the costs of COVID-related protections. Throughout history, organizations in charge of serious hazards have had to grapple with similar economic pressures. And many of them have made unwise decisions as a result. The disaster in Bhopal, India that took the lives of thousands of people was the result of cost cutting measures by Union Carbide, which fundamentally undermined their chemical plants’ safety systems. More recently, Boeing stifled dissent about destabilizing design changes to their 737 MAX jets, because they were preoccupied with not losing market share to Airbus.
There is an implicit cost-benefit analysis behind university administrators’ justification for reopening. They have balanced the chance of a handful of students in the ICU—perhaps one or more dead—against ensuring a higher quality “educational experience” and shoring up enrollment numbers as well as room and board revenues. No doubt private companies and regulators do the same thing every day when they decide whether it is worth including additional safety features in cars or if extra road and highway deaths caused by high speed limits are a fair price for giving drivers a quicker commute.
But the hazard presented by reopening universities is a different class of risk altogether: Car accidents don’t spread exponentially. We risk repeating the mistaken thinking of Union Carbide or Boeing, courting disaster in the pursuit of more modest gains (or the avoidance of losses). Rather than accept the certain costs of decreased enrollment and of the absence of on-campus students, administrators have bet the farm on in-person and “hybrid” semesters, gambling on unproven strategies meant to keep college students from being socially intimate with each other. If they succeed, the spoils will be modest: Their own institutions won’t lose much ground to peer colleges. If they end up sparking a major outbreak, the damage may prove ruinous to their institution’s reputation and financial solvency, not to mention the harms to nearby residents and local healthcare systems. There are reasons why intelligent people don’t play Russian Roulette. You only get to lose once.
We can do far better than gamble with the lives of students, staff, faculty, and community members in order to avoid moderate financial losses. Forward-looking institutions will instead focus on attracting enrollment by drastically improving the quality of online delivery and on redoubling their efforts to attract dollars through research proposals and contract work. There is no guarantee that such efforts would bear fruit, but at least the losses would be known and plausibly manageable. Far too many universities and colleges are committing themselves to the institutional equivalent of Pamplona’s “running of the bulls,” where "winning" only means avoiding mortal injury. There is still time to change course. But will wiser heads prevail?