The tl;dr version: universities are running a “bait and switch” marketing strategy for fall 2020. Plan for online courses because it’s the only option that makes any sense, and it’s time that university administrators admit that.
Back in late April/early May, about a month after all of higher education got into the online lifeboats to salvage the term and at around the same time when, predictably, faculty and students with zero prior experience with online learning declared that the last month proved online courses were just “the worst,” we started seeing major universities announcing their plans to be open for f2f classes in fall 2020. I blogged a bit about it here. Purdue’s Mitch Daniels had a series of eyebrow raising ideas about how things could work in the fall, and while I disagreed then (and I do now) with Brown’s Christina Paxson’s reasons for reopening, at least she was honest: universities need the money.
Other universities soon followed, and, with the notable exception of California State University’s announcement that they were planning on primarily online courses for fall 2020, the pattern has been the same: universities are planning to be back in the fall with f2f classes and students in the dorms. EMU released its own statement along these lines both as ads on regional television and with this extended YouTube video.
All of these plans were short on details and long on emotions (not to mention carefully worded hedges), and they reminded me of what people say after a hurricane or a tornado. It’s a weather news cliché at this point. There’s the video footage of the storm hitting, the stock photo/video of the beautiful home or popular seaside restaurant as it was before, and then the after the storm ruins with a tearful family or owner proclaiming “We will rebuild!”
Hey, I get it. The first response to the hurricane destroying your business or a pandemic destroying your school year is to fight back, to at least pretend to have a little hope and optimism. The first thing you say to someone laying on the pavement and clinging to life after a car accident or a heart attack is “It’s going to be okay, you’re going to make it!” even when (especially when) you know that’s not true.
As we got into May, university presidents and officials began describing their plans for reopening, and it became clear these “plans” were not much more than “wishful thinking.” For me (and pretty much everyone else I know who actually teaches college classes), the plans just raised more questions. How are you going to have f2f classes that are physically distanced? As it is right now, my university is reluctant to run any class that is less than 3/4ths enrolled because (or so we are told) we can’t afford that; so how is a class purposefully kept at half capacity possibly going to work? Where are you going to put these classes, anyway? Where is the money going to come from to pay for mandatory testing, for everyone or randomly? What about these antibody tests– are they going to get more accurate? Or are we just giving up on testing entirely? What is the plan when (not if, when) students, faculty, and/or staff get sick and need to be quarantined? Is EMU going to just send those people home, and thus endanger the sick folks’ relatives and friends? How are we going to require everyone to wear masks while on campus? Given that the classroom buildings are barely cleaned now, how is the university possibly going to clean them even once a day (never mind between classes)? Who thinks teaching behind a plexiglass shield is a good idea? What if I as an employee am not willing to sign a document that says I won’t consider the university liable if I get sick, am hospitalized, or even die from Covid-19? And so forth.
Now and just within the last week or so, it feels like we’re entering into new phase. We have gone from “hope and optimism” and “wishful thinking” to a situation where it is clear these plans for a robust number of f2f offerings this fall just aren’t going to work. Here are a few simple examples of things I’ve seen recently, articles and commentaries that are getting a lot more pointed in questioning university administrator’s plans and motivations:
- To help pay for its (always strange and unrealistic) plans for reopening, Purdue is asking for donations specifically to pay for things like face masks, hand sanitizer, virus tests, and plexiglass shields, and they’re doing this with a campaign (here’s a link to the web site for it) that has the feel of one of those “feed the children” or “save the stray dogs” ads– “just one dollar a day can make such a difference,” etc.
- IHE published an opinion piece by Lia Paradis (a history professor at Slippery Rock) called “A Day in the Life This Fall (Faculty Edition),” which describes the many ways the administration’s plans for reopening can and will go wrong.
- From sociology professor Deborah J. Cohan in Psychology Today comes “Pandemic U,” where (among other smart things) she says it’s “profoundly revealing” that after years of universities encouraging students and faculty into online classes they are now insisting on face-to-face classes in the midst of a pandemic. “In and of itself, this rich irony should cause us to question motives. It is nothing short of institutional gaslighting.”
- In a New York Times Op-ed with one of the clearest headlines I’ve seen in a while, “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy,” psychology professor Laurence Steinberg draws from his expertise to explain something every person who actually teaches college has known forever: 18-24 year olds engage in a lot of risky behaviors and do not follow rules like staying six feet apart, wear masks in public places, etc.
- And from Forbes, where economist Andrew Zimbalist and Donna A. Lopiano ask the rhetorical question “Has Higher Education Lost Its Mind?” Specifically, has college sports lost its mind as we are already seeing the craziness of preparing for the all important football season while players increasingly become infected with Covid-19.
In short, the message “we will be open this fall” is now just a “bait and switch” marketing strategy, and it’s been that way for a while. Would-be and returning students said back in May that they would be less likely to start or return to college in the fall if they had to take classes online. Universities in turn said “oh, don’t worry, we’re going to have f2f classes,” albeit with a ton of hedges and qualifiers that I am guessing most students and their families ignored. That’s the bait. Once students are “locked in” for the fall term and it is too late for them to change their plans, universities will start announcing that despite their best efforts, they just aren’t going to be able to offer many (any?) f2f classes after all– darn it!– and if students want to go to college in fall 2020, they’re going to have to take their classes online. That’s the switch.
Bait and switch is usually described as a scam, though it’s such a common marketing strategy nowadays I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. What else would you call these “Black Friday” deep discount sales on giant flat screen TVs? Adding the phrase “while they last” doesn’t make it less of a bait. Regardless, it certainly isn’t an ethical practice.
I have no way of knowing for sure if this was the plan my university’s administration had all along or if it has just kind of evolved into this. And to be completely fair, maybe there will be some kind of Covid-19 miracle before the start of fall, or maybe in the next two months, these crazy, fantasy, delusional plans for successfully holding f2f classes really will come together and it’ll all be great. But I’ve also seen administrators at EMU (and elsewhere) do some pretty shady and dubious shit in the past, so it wouldn’t surprise me much if this bait and switch was part of the plan all along.
Either way, it does appear to be a marketing strategy that has worked– at least so far. According to this article in Inside Higher Ed, enrollments in public research and regional universities for the fall are not much different than they were last year. EMU was specifically mentioned in this article. “Eastern Michigan University, like many regional publics, does not use the May 1 (or this year June 1) deadline day to reply to an admissions offer. Currently, the university is down 8.4 percent on new students for the fall, but it has two more registration dates in June to close that. The university is also offering students who want them a single room.” And frankly, that drop in enrollments isn’t necessarily tied to Covid-19 at all since our enrollments have been falling for a while, mostly because of the demographics of the state and the upper midwest.
At this point, I don’t really care if this was the administration’s intention all along or if this was just a strategy they stumbled into; I just want them to tell everyone the truth about what is becoming patently obvious with classes this fall term. If it’s a class that can be online, it will be online. If it’s a class that can’t be online (say some kind of chemistry or biology lab, a ceramics class that requires a kiln, a class about welding, etc.), it is either going be held under strict limitations to maximize safety, or it’s not going to be held at all. I want my university to tell this truth because it is the ethical thing to do, and because faculty who are going to teach these classes and students who are going to take these classes need to start making plans.
Be honest for a change of pace.