Open Letter to BU Leaders and the University Community of June 2, 2020
Russell Powell and Daniel Star
BU’s plan for the fall of 2020 remains very much in flux. At the moment, however, the university appears wedded to the idea that not only should all students who are well and able take up residence on campus, but also that all or most courses be taught in person using a “Learn from Anywhere” approach that would allow students to attend classes either in person or remotely. Students would be permitted to make this decision based on their personal medical condition, family circumstances, travel burdens, and willingness to assume the health risks and potential anxieties that in-person attendance entails. We will not opine here on the practical or moral wisdom of bringing students to campus in the fall, a decision that many peer universities (for good or for ill) have also made. What is unusual about BU’s approach as compared to peer universities, and in our view raises serious moral misgivings, is that the university’s policy as it stands does not carve out a similar sphere of liberty for BU faculty.
The Fall Plan
As of early June, BU faculty are being given no choice but to teach in person in the fall, even though this is a deeply personal decision—one that is no less than a matter of life and death—for faculty members and their families. Like the students they teach and mentor, faculty members find themselves in diverse medical, familial, and geographic circumstances and have very different tolerances for risk. A blanket requirement that faculty teach in person without regard to their medical and family situations would be an unconscionable breach of the university’s moral fiduciary duties to faculty members, one that places the overwhelming weight of the health burden of this once-in-a-century pandemic on important and vulnerable stakeholders.
The notion that faculty members could choose to take a paid sick leave in lieu of teaching, as suggested to us by some in the university administration, is woefully inadequate for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that a paid sick leave would not (as presently configured) cover situations wherein one’s family members are in high-risk categories, such as if one’s partner is pregnant or if one cares for elderly parents. Furthermore, many faculty members are parents of young children and cannot risk being quarantined from their family for 14 days at a time with each exposure (or worse, if they become infected with COVID-19), leaving them unable to properly care for their children. As it stands, the only recourse for a faculty member who finds themselves in such circumstances would be to take an unpaid leave, which for obvious reasons is not a satisfactory option. There is no doubt that a policy that allows professors, lecturers, and graduate students that fall into certain risk classes to teach online would be considerably better than a blanket policy that admits of no exceptions. If the university chooses to go in this direction, we would strongly urge them to also include faculty who are responsible for the care of young children or elderly family members.
However, we strongly favor a policy that would give every faculty member the option of teaching their classes wholly online. This would allow all faculty members to exercise their autonomy over a fundamental life decision in light of their own personal circumstances and in consultation with their own values and priorities—just as the university has done for students. There are several reasons why this is the morally best policy.
First, and most obviously, it is morally wrong to demand that professors risk their health and that of their family members, given the online teaching alternative. In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to open universities in an even remotely safe manner is to have robust testing, contact-tracing teams, supportive quarantine for those exposed, and full PPE gear for faculty in place by the time the fall semester begins. Given the dire national shortages of these things, to say this is a tall order would be an understatement. Creating a reasonably safe environment must go well beyond “security theatre” (such as temperature taking, hallway segregation, classroom spacing, etc.), which risks creating a false sense of security. There will also be major hurdles to adequately enforcing the required conditions, as some students will (e.g.) refuse to wear masks for any number of reasons, including political ones (and we have heard from the university administration that the campus police will not be in the enforcement business). Even if these conditions could be miraculously met and all protocols abided to, many students, faculty, staff, and people in the surrounding Boston community will inevitably get infected, some will be irreparably harmed, and some will die. It is far from clear that this would be a morally acceptable outcome even if the only alternative were to shut down the university for the fall; but it is patently immoral given the remote teaching alternative.
We fear that despite assurances from the university and the good-faith efforts presently underway to physically reshape parts of the campus, the population density on campus will be too high at certain times to allow for adequate social distancing measures if all courses are taught in person. A mixed approach that allows some courses to be offered online only would considerably lower the population density on campus at critical times.
In defending the urgent need to bring students back to campus, universities have stressed the value of in-person teaching and the limits of teaching remotely, despite the advent of what only a decade ago would have seemed like miraculous communication technology. It is far from obvious that lecturing while dressed in full PPE gear, including masks, goggles, visors, gloves, and gowns, would be in any way optimal for anyone—as opposed, say, to carrying on these same activities from the safety and psychological comfort of one’s own home. Moreover, it is likely that many classes, if not the entire university, will be forced to switch to fully remote learning mid-semester as outbreaks flare up and students and faculty get exposed to the virus. In any case, it seems rather obvious to us that optimal pedagogy cannot conceivably justify significant risks to the health of faculty members, staff and their families, to say nothing of the wider Boston community.
The only conceivable justification for in-person teaching under pandemic circumstances is that without it many students will choose not to enroll for the fall—and as a result, the economic impact on the university will be so devastating that many faculty members and staff will have to be furloughed or laid off. We are skeptical that this is the forced choice universities are confronted with, especially for institutions with vast real estate holdings and large endowments invested in a stock market that is booming irrespective of national unemployment rates. However, it is incumbent upon BU and any other universities to make this moral case explicitly and transparently, so that its stakeholders can meaningfully evaluate and contribute their voices to decisions that may have a profound effect on their health, their lives, and their livelihoods.
Sending a Moral Message
What sort of a message are we sending to students if we encourage them to return to campus because their own health is not dramatically at risk, when they are likely to asymptomatically spread the virus to older and more vulnerable university populations? We are telling them that they should not care (or should not care very much) about taking risks that might seriously harm or kill other people. We are telling them that BU faculty do not deserve the same rights as students. We are saying that faculty are here to serve students at any cost—to provide supposedly optimal teaching environments at the expense of their own lives and the lives of those they love, rather than to work collaboratively with students in their development as responsible citizens of our community and stewards of our planet.
Crucially, universities should not take student preferences for how campus life should be conducted in the fall as a fixed point. Instead, they should make the moral case to students that we are all in this together and that we have an obligation to keep one another safe and to support the institution and community we have chosen to be part of. One of us (Powell) co-wrote an opinion piece on the science and ethics of reopening universities that was published in Inside Higher Ed. Since then, the article has been assigned in summer ethics classes, and it turns out that students embrace and appreciate the strength of the arguments therein. Many prospective and current students, who are not themselves at great medical risk, have yet to think through the moral ramifications of attending class in person (an obvious but important one of which is that teachers in the classroom will need to wear masks and screens, whereas online teaching requires no such impediments to teaching well). But they are receptive to reasons. The university must make the case that not only should these students join or continue with BU in the fall, but also that they should do so in ways that do not put others in grave danger.
Are we, or these other ethicists, saying that it’s never permissible for the university to engineer an environment in which its members risk being harmed or harming others? No. We are simply asking that the seriousness of the policy being proposed be acknowledged and the costs and benefits transparently discussed. At the very least, professors and students should, where possible, have the option of teaching and learning online. If, knowing there are serious risks, professors choose to teach in the classroom, and students choose to return to the classroom, that is a decision they should be allowed to make in a way that respects their autonomy, weighing these considerations for themselves.
Faculty, not physical spaces, are the life blood of the university. Compelling faculty members, at the pain of their jobs, to risk their lives for putatively preferable pedagogy or unclear economic benefits is to cut off the university’s nose to spite its face.