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Managing the Higher Ed Obstacle Course

This article first appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

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As colleges and universities across the country debate whether to bring students back to their campuses this fall, hold all of their courses online or offer some hybrid of the two, they are rightly focusing on how to best address all of the complicated health and safety challenges. But as they try to figure out a way through this maze, they will also need to answer equally important questions about their legal authority, academic integrity and financial liquidity.

Reopening the campus doors this fall significantly raises the potential for litigation. We have already seen multiple individual and class action lawsuits filed against institutions for sending students home in the middle of the spring semester and not reimbursing fees to families for lost access to facilities and equipment and prepaid food and housing costs. Some students and families also have demanded discounts on spring tuition, arguing that online instruction has neither the same value nor the same quality as more personalized classroom instruction. Unless colleges and universities are willing to differentiate pricing this fall according to whether instruction is online or on the campus, we can expect more litigation.

Further, institutions need to ask themselves if they have the legal authority to enforce the taking of coronavirus tests or the wearing of face masks. People will oppose both steps. The percentage of Americans who do not believe in vaccines was already increasing before the coronavirus; a Harris poll last year revealed that 45 percent harbor some doubt over the safety of vaccines. And we have seen numerous Americans across the country who refuse to wear face masks in public, claiming that it violates their constitutional right to freedom of expression or that it is simply an inconvenience they prefer to do without.

What will colleges and universities do if students, or even administrators, faculty members and staff, refuse to be tested or wear face masks in classrooms or workspaces? And if they cannot enforce such safety measures, how will they protect themselves from related claims of creating unsafe work environments by other faculty members, administrators or support staff? In the absence of congressional action, will each state Legislature provide indemnification protection against lawsuits for its colleges and universities, both public and private?

Maintaining academic integrity is essential to each institution’s mission, reputation, ability to win research grants and national ranking, even during a pandemic. For those colleges and universities that have not routinely been delivering online education, how will they assess the academic rigor of classes being taught online versus those taught on campus? Will they relax academic requirements for majors, such as laboratory hours, for the duration of the pandemic? Will promotion and tenure decisions be made using different criteria, given that faculty may not be able to collaborate with colleagues as before?

And how will institutions teach the teachers to reimagine and restructure their classes for online formats? Or even to teach some of them how to use the basics of Zoom technology? While many colleges and universities pivoted quickly to online teaching this past spring semester, they and others will now have to invest additional time and resources to ensuring that all their online courses this fall are compelling, accessible and rich pedagogically. The clock is ticking, as the semester starts in some cases in less than 60 days.

Finally, all colleges and universities will suffer some measure of financial hardship this coming academic year, no matter what they decide to do. As soon as possible, they should get a comprehensive picture of their financial liquidity — their cash on hand, revenue sources, access to credit lines and whether and when they can tap the unrestricted portions of their endowment. They will also need to know if foreign students, who frequently pay the full tuition sticker price, will be able to receive visas in time for the fall semester, as many U.S. consulates overseas in places like China and India have been closed for months. And they need to know if they can replace any incoming students who decide to defer for a year, or not come at all this fall, with those on a waiting list.

The loss of institutional revenue streams this past spring, as well as this coming summer and fall, may have already breached covenants with bondholders and bank lenders, further complicating the maneuverability of institutions. In short, liquidity can either extend or shorten the time available for them to make needed changes.

But higher education institutions can and should prioritize one major source of revenue: bringing back to their campuses graduate students who assist in research labs and do much of the necessary legwork in fulfilling science and engineering grants. Those grants can total hundreds of millions of dollars for some colleges and universities, with typically half of the funds allocated to pay administrative overhead costs. That allows those institutions to purchase equipment, provide scholarships and literally keep the lights on.

The relatively small number of graduate students would be much easier to accommodate on campus than inviting all of the undergraduates back. And this approach would have the added benefit of maintaining America’s reputation for world-class research, for keeping our colleges and universities on the cutting edge of discovery and innovation, and perhaps even for finding a breakthrough to help end this terrible pandemic.

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