It seems hard to square face-to-face education with pandemic prevention. In states like Colorado, increasing COVID transmissions are driven by college student cases. The New York Times tallies 178 thousand infections and counting at institutions of higher learning across the country. My own institution has just shut down in-person classes for the next two weeks after learning about several large parties happening over the weekend. The few colleges that so far seem to be successful at preventing outbreaks have expended immense resources, some going so far as to test students weekly or prohibit leaving campus except for an emergency. Are universities up to the task of preventing pandemics?
So-called hybrid and in-person classes have taken an immense about of planning and preparation. Hand sanitizer and face masks had to be bought in immense quantities, rooms needed reconfigured for distance education, and dorms and food service needed redesigned to support social distancing. Unfortunately, it seems like few, if any, college administrators gave as much consideration to the organizational and social facets of pandemic prevention, preferring to wag their finger at undergraduates and expect them to behave. No one appears to have stopped to ask, “What do students need in order to be able to comply?”
Just as abstinence-based sex education is ineffective at reducing teenage pregnancy, an abstinence-based approach to pandemic schooling won’t stop social intimacy among college students. And this should have been no mystery to college administrators, or at least it would not have been if they consulted social scientists rather than only epidemiologists and virologists. Safety has rarely been the technological accomplishment. Preventing outbreaks could have only be done through achieving the right kind of campus culture and a deep understanding of how to actually empower people to act safely.
The reality that safety is socially accomplished is well-known to people who study risky technology. Decades of studies on operators of nuclear reactors, sailors on aircraft carriers, and air traffic controllers show that safety can be assured only by investing in a culture of high reliability. High reliability organizations invest considerable time and effort investing in people. Members need to have complete “buy in” regarding the organization’s performance. They not only receive considerable training but are also empowered to help make important collective decisions about the hazards they face. High reliability employees are more than just “rule followers.”
The question is, “Can university campuses become high reliability organizations when it comes to pandemic prevention?” There is good reason to believe the answer is “no.” The same kinds of organizational studies that uncovered the existence of organizations capable of averting disaster typically found college bureaucracies to be very much the opposite. Festering problems go unaddressed, “solutions” are developed to non-existent problems, and decisions get made without obvious efforts at careful problem solving.
The organizational dysfunction of universities is well known to the people that work in them. We have just been lucky up until now that colleges haven’t had to actually handle anything hazardous, like nuclear fuel or supersonic jets. The consequences of chronic institutional incompetence are just a growing mental health crisis among students, poor graduation rates, and graduates who lack many of the fundamental skills that they will actually need in their later careers.
To the skeptic, the solution is dead simple: colleges should only offer online classes. That is the only inherently safe strategy. As a classic paper on the safety of petrochemical plants put it, “What you don’t have, can’t leak.” The easiest way to mitigate the harms of dangerous chemicals is to employ them in smaller amounts, move them shorter distances, introduce them into chemical reactions under more benign conditions, or simply replace them with safer alternatives. The same is true for colleges: What students you don’t have on campus, can’t get infected.
But perhaps that goes too far. Maybe there are lessons from the safe operation of nuclear plants and other potentially catastrophic technologies that could be applied to the college environment. Safety expert Sidney Dekker calls one version of the high reliability approach “Safety Differently,” and it works by seeing people not as problem to managed or to fixed but rather as essential parts of the solution. University administrators have mainly done the former by implementing mandatory testing and quarantine procedures, enforcing social distancing protocols, and employing threats of punishment and injunctions to “be responsible” to try to cajole the students into doing the right thing.
All those efforts seem commonsensical. The problem is that they backfire. Threats of punishment lead people to hide their mistakes, meaning that vital information is not shared with the people who need them. Students have a party, then lie about it.
An overemphasis on protocols reduces safety to rule following, undercutting people’s motivation to think about what the right thing to do might be for a given situation. People treat mask wearing and 6 ft. of distance as if it were magic. They enforce compliance in situations where transmission risk is likely already low, like when walking outside, which can eat away at the seriousness that people take mask requirements. And it remains an open question whether or not cloth masks are really good enough to last an hour of breathing and talking in the enclosed space of a classroom, especially if students don’t launder them enough or they become wet.
Making students part of the solution of pandemic prevention would mean including them in discussions about what kinds of protocols should be implemented and how. In the effort to prevent campus outbreaks, students are no longer universities’ “customers” and more like the operators of a nuclear reactor. It is their behavior that determines whether risks are contained. It is only students who can prevent a pandemic meltdown. Most importantly, they are the only ones with the expertise regarding how different demands and precautions can be made compatible with student life and their social and mental health needs. Without them, administrators are trying to manage a high-risk sociotechnical system that they can’t really understand.
But that sounds like a tall order. Cultivating a high reliability culture is one thing on an aircraft carrier, but quite another among college students. Even worse, students are already infantilized by our educational system in general: by the demeaning carrot and stick incentives of the grading system; by the lack of space for individual curiosity; and by the reluctance to let students take responsibility for their own learning. If we cannot even trust students with their own education, how can we rely on them to be responsible when it comes to COVID? Achieving outbreak-free in-person campuses may prove to be impossible without far more radical changes to the structure of higher education.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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