Reopening Indiana University? Troubled Reflections of a Wayward Professor

Yesterday–Thursday, May 21—I received an e-mail from Indiana University President Michael McRobbie addressed to all IU colleagues. The message shared news about the “phased reopening” of IU campuses and planning for the fall semester. It also shared with readers the “expert” Restart Report put together by the Restart Committee charged with recommending “when and under what conditions the university can restart, that is resume, in whole or part, normal face-to-face operations.” The Report itself is a 22-page glossy document, professionally designed, that is dated May 15, 2020 (which means that IU administration had almost a week to consider it before releasing it).

In his message, President McRobbie noted that the Report was designed in accordance with the state of Indiana’s reopening strategy, which is predicated on the ability of the state to test all Hoosiers who are symptomatic. And he neatly summed up the Report’s significance:

“This report contains a number of important recommendations about the medical and public health measures that would permit us to enter into a period of phased reopening of our research and teaching operations. We are all enormously grateful to the members of the committee for their outstanding efforts, which have been driven by science and the overwhelming importance of the safety and well-being of the entire university community.”

McRobbie also noted that the Report’s recommendations left open important questions, to be decided in the coming days:

“Of course, the most difficult question we must consider is the resumption of on-campus instruction. A central recommendation in the Restart Committee’s report is that the fall semester can involve on-campus in-person instruction “in some proportion,” with extensive risk mitigation, testing and tracking procedures that the report describes in considerable detail. A key prerequisite for this is the comprehensive testing capacity that we now have in place that is a prerequisite to a responsible decision about bringing students, faculty and staff back to campus. I have transmitted the Restart Report to all campuses and have asked that they report back no later than May 26 as to how they will implement this central recommendation of the report, which supports a blended or hybrid model of instruction, and confirm that they can implement such an instructional model with appropriate risk mitigation as outlined in the committee’s report.”

I have read both President McRobbie’s message and the “Indiana University Restart Committee Recommendations Report” with care. And as an IU faculty member and Bloomington resident for 33 years who served two terms as chair of the political science department and makes a living interpreting political texts and analyzing political decisions, I am deeply troubled by the Report, what it says, and what it does not say.

I have been closely following medical, public health, and political discussions of the pandemic for months, reading reports, participating in online debates, and interacting regularly with a wide range of colleagues at IU and throughout the world. And everything I know tells me that residential university campuses are spaces that are extremely vulnerable to the super-spreading of an infectious disease like COVID-19.

I fear for the health and safety of myself and my faculty and staff colleagues, especially those of us who are approaching age 60 or older. I also fear for the health and safety of students, and of everyone in the city of Bloomington and Monroe County who is likely to come into regular contact with students and campus workers who have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Fear is not an argument.

Clearly decisions about the coming academic year need to be made; no decision is without costs, and all decisions have potential benefits and risks; and decisions ought to be based on the best scientific evidence regarding public health and the broad well-being of the university’s many stakeholders.

Decisions will be hard to make. Given the structure of power at Indiana University, these decisions will be made by the President, his Executive Council—which includes Bloomington Provost Lauren Robel—and close advisers, presumably in very close consultation with the Board of Trustees and very minimal consultation with a small group of “faculty leaders.” (Will city and county officials like the Mayor of Bloomington be consulted?)

As a political scientist, I know that all leaders of organizations have special prerogatives and vested interests that are not necessarily shared by all those who are included within the organization.

At the same time, I have no reason to doubt the good intentions of IU powerholders who are facing a difficult situation and trying to do the best that they can to keep IU running for the benefit of students, faculty and staff, and the broader community.

Hard choices need to be made, and these will involve sacrifices.

But this Report does not inspire confidence that the “phased reopening” that is being contemplated is a good idea for public health or public education at IU. 

The process that produced the report is shockingly narrow

IU is not a democracy. Indeed, like most major research universities, it has a very corporate structure of governance. At the same time, “faculty governance,” however feeble, is still given lip-service by the institution. And, more generally, it is acknowledged, even by the Report,  that the institution has a range of participants and stakeholders who will be effected by the decisions that are taken.

And so it is quite striking how unrepresentative the Restart Committee is. Chaired by the Executive Vice President and Dean of the School of Medicine, the committee includes four Medical School professors, six professors of Public Health, a representative of IU Health, a representative of Eli Lilly, and university counsel. It does not include any economists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, or legal scholars. Nor does it include philosophers or humanists or even psychologists who study moral decision-making or ethics and public policy. Keep in mind that this is a university committee of university “experts.” “Restart” involves questions of medicine and public health, but also questions of public policy, finance, the sociology of education, the culture of student life on campus and off, etc. Yet none of these issues were incorporated into the deliberations of the university’s strategic planning process as organized by this Uber-committee. [The Report is worth comparing to the Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience produced by a truly interdisciplinary group of experts at Harvard’s Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics.]

But it is not only that the Report fails to take advantage of the entire range of serious intellectual resources on the university’s faculty.

It also fails to represent any of the campus groups whose experiences are themselves a kind of knowledge, and who will bear most of the consequences of the university’s decisions about reopening. And while the university is not a democracy, it is a human association that involves the knowledgeable cooperation of many people. And these people matter as human beings who experience the world and are capable of articulating their experiences and concerns. This was put best by the great philosopher John Dewey in his most important work of political philosophy, The Public and its Problems: “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.”

Expert knowledge can only take us so far without a consideration of the human interests at stake.  And the historical record suggests that it is both arrogant and counterproductive for some to interpret the interests of others, without those others even having a say. What are the most important priorities for the diverse university community in the face of the pandemic? Advanced degrees in medicine and public health confer no special wisdom here.

University scholars are also teachers, employees of the university whose work potentially puts them at grave risk. Professional and non-professional staff, and student employees, also work on campus and have concerns, fears, etc. Should these groups—some actually even have unions!– have representation in the highest level discussions about “phased reopening?”

The question here is not only a question of legitimacy. It is a question of epistemology. Do the thirteen “experts” who produced the Report have the breadth and experience and knowledge to identify the full range of concerns that need to be considered in this moment of real crisis? 

Knowledge and its limits

Much of the Report centers on what is known about the virus and its spread; the kinds of measures–“social distancing” combined with testing and contact tracing—necessary to mitigate its spread; and the ways that these measures could be implemented on campus. There is no reason to doubt what the Report says about these things.

But the Report is strikingly evasive and sometimes silent about other important things that are known.

The most glaring evasion relates to one of the most grounded scientific-medical questions in play: the question of testing itself. The report emphasizes that IU is prepared to put in place a comprehensive testing regime capable of assuring the safe “student body. . . return (in some proportion) for fall semester.” The Report asserts that it “is aligned with the guiding principles” of “Back on Track Indiana,” including this principle: “The state retains the ability to test all Hoosiers who are COVID-19 symptomatic, as well as healthcare workers, essential workers, first responders, and others as delineated on the ISDH website.” In President McRobbie’s message sharing the Report, he notes that IU has just entered into a “comprehensive agreement” with IU Health “to screen and test any member of the IU community . . . who is symptomatic for COVID-19.” 

But the report itself lists this as its fourth “guiding premise” (p. 6): “Approximately 40-50% of individuals infected by SARS-CoV-2, and capable of shedding virus, are asymptomatic.” This is commonly known. And it is one reason why many scientists have argued that randomized testing is necessary for communities to obtain an accurate account of the dangers of mass infection. Yet the Report’s proposals offer no allowance for such testing, and say nothing about the practical implication of the fact asymptomatic carriers are very infectious.  Testing people only once they are ill does little to furnish any assurance that testing can help to limit the spread of the disease itself.

The Report’s comments about testing are thus strange. But stranger still are its comments on the “personal and public health practices” which are “primary tools to limit the viral spread and harm.” These tools loom very large in the report, much larger than any medical treatments.

Among these are the following:

“Promote education and awareness. Post signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if symptomatic.”

“Cloth face coverings are to be worn in public spaces and in face-to-face meetings while on campus.”

“Double dorm room occupancy will be feasible if students are allowed to choose their roommates.”

“Assign students to specific bathrooms if there are multiple units on a floor. Schedule times for grooming and showering to reduce simultaneous occupancy when possible.”

“Restrict self-service of food and/or beverages (buffets, salad bars, drink stations, condiment stations, etc.) and avoid using or sharing items such as menus, condiments, and food.”

“Limit number of indoor diners in accordance with state and local capacity guidelines and limit tables to six or fewer guests.”

“Recommend that housed Greek organizations, and where applicable, other off-campus housing organizations implement similar protocols for housing, dining, social gatherings, meetings and events.”

It is easy to see that measures such as these involve a substantial reorganization of the social space of the campus, and presume a high level of student compliance with publicly posted rules.

It is also easy to see that absolutely no evidence is provided in the Report to support the notion that such compliance is even remotely likely.

This is probably because there is no such evidence. 

If the Report were as serious about the social and cultural situation as it is about the medical situation, it would have sought to incorporate serious social scientific research about campus life, and to include people with scholarly and practical knowledge about this into its deliberations. 

Like most IU faculty members, I have no research expertise about student behavior. But having taught on the Bloomington campus for over three decades, I do have a great deal of practical, experientially-based knowledge. And what I know is that most IU students will not become careful readers of public postings about the coronavirus or anything else; they will not practice social distancing or proper personal hygiene; and they will congregate and party and drink and share food and utensils, and use bathrooms and showers as they please without regard to new rules that are unenforceable.

And then these students will use campus transportation—where the Report concedes “social distancing” is almost impossible– and come into classrooms where they will bring with them all of their habits and maladies. The Report says that it is important to “organize classes to minimize risk,” to “minimize class size to achieve physical distancing of at least 6 feet,” and to wear cloth masks “on campus and in classes.” Is IU really prepared to make classes this sparsely attended? And does it have ways of ensuring this level of physical distancing in classrooms? And what about the hallways of the buildings that contain the rooms? And the cafeterias and libraries?

Skepticism is a legitimate reaction to the Report

The Report rests on assumptions about social behavior, especially student behavior, on campus life that lack evidence and beg credulity.

At the same time, it is exceptionally vague about the practical ramifications of its proposals for the actual “phased reopening” of the university. Further, it acknowledges that a range of special accommodations may be necessary; that contingencies are likely; and that reversals or modifications of policies may be needed. And it is clear that this Report was never intended to be strongly prescriptive for any particular decisions about any particular campus, and is mainly intended to identify the central principles that any such decisions must honor.

In these respects, it is possible to read the Report as stating some fairly anodyne necessary conditions of reopening and little else.

But I think such a reading is mistaken. For while specific decisions have yet to be made, the Report establishes the basic framework through which possible decisions will be evaluated and then taken by higher administration. President McRobbie said as much in his message: “I have transmitted the Restart Report to all campuses and have asked that they report back no later than May 26 as to how they will implement this central recommendation of the report, which supports a blended or hybrid model of instruction, and confirm that they can implement such an instructional model with appropriate risk mitigation as outlined in the committee’s report.” This suggests that it has already been decided that there will be a substantial return of students to campuses in the Fall, and that the “risk mitigation” measures outlined in the Report will be considered sufficient to allay concerns about the serious dangers associated with such a reopening.

They do not allay my concerns.

Nor do they convince me that reopening in this way in the Fall is the most cost-effective or pedagogically wise option, for these issues were simply not taken up by the Report.

But on health grounds alone, what the Report says about testing and about student behavior should raise a gigantic red flag for anyone who is serious about public health or the well-being of themselves and their families.

3 thoughts on “Reopening Indiana University? Troubled Reflections of a Wayward Professor

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