Back to School Blues: Covid and the Crisis of the American University

As fall approaches, colleges and universities find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to reconsider the plans they made in the spring to reopen with a full schedule of on-campus courses and activities. The reconsideration is due to the spread of the new Delta variant of the Covid virus. On August 2, the University of Rochester where I’ve taught since 1992 issued new vaccination requirements for all faculty, students and staff. Eight days later, the requirement to wear a mask inside all campus building went back into effect. I suspect that the foremost question now for the university administration is how students will react to these changes. Not simply to these requirements but to the expectation that more restrictions are likely to follow.

Like other major sectors of American society, higher education experienced a shock in March 2020 that no one could have anticipated. At this university last year, spring break began on Saturday, March 7, and most of the students left campus planning to return by Monday, March 16 when classes resumed. Or possibly a few days later, if my students are typical. On Tuesday, March 10 the provost announced the university’s response to the rapidly spreading Covid virus. All students who had left for the break were not to return to the campus, and students who had remained on campus for the break were to leave. To stay would require an exemption. All courses would be online for the remainder of the semester. A day or two later instructions and guidelines for moving courses online followed. The university advised instructors to download Zoom and to attend training sessions. As far as classes with lectures, they could either be done by Zoom, or instructors could videotape them and upload them. Or—and this was best—they could do both. Office hours would also be done by Zoom.

My students reacted to all of these things as college students did everywhere. Many if not most wanted a refund, not simply for the housing they would not be living in, but also for a portion of their tuition, prorated for the rest of spring semester when they would not be attending classes on campus. What would come to be called “Zoom University” was not what they paid for. As we know, large numbers of students banded together to sue their universities for all or some portion of their tuition. Some of my students were among them.

Professors often complain about the attention span of college students today, but after spring break last year my students were paying close attention to what their professors said and even closer attention to what the administration said. After all it is the administration that controls the purse strings. By the third week of March my emails from my students were full of complaints about the administration’s handling of the crisis and also about how other professors were behaving—or more often in their view misbehaving—under the new conditions. None of them complained to me about anything I had done, which was not due to fear, but because I had done nothing for them to complain about.

When all the business about Zoom and videotaping had come down, I had written to my students to get their views about all of these things and to tell them my preference. Which was to do nothing. I suggested that we simply make use of the course management app called Blackboard that we already used for such routine matters uploading documents, sharing links to sites and so on. I would set up a chat room where the students post and share their comments and questions.

The national and local news in the next week was full of stories about people panic buying bottled water and toilet paper. Most Americans had no experience of a real crisis. That is, a crisis larger than a personal crisis, an illness or death in the family. This was a crisis over which they had no control. By way of contrast, I had friends from the Middle East who had seen revolutions and civil wars. They had seen family members kidnapped and held for ransom. Some had been thrown in prison for their political views. I myself had some experience in this regard. While working in Libya in 1981, a phony crisis, the so-called ‘Libyan Hit Squad’ crisis cooked up by the US had thrown our project into chaos. We were told that the US had ordered all Americans to leave Libya immediately. There was nothing to be done. In the event I worked there for two more months. The final result was it cost me $20,000 in lost wages. The panic buying when the Covid virus broke out was a mass reaction to people suddenly feeling they had lost control of their lives—which was only aggravated by having an idiot for president whose advice was, ‘Let them drink bleach.’ Most of the UR faculty being from middle class backgrounds were not immune to the general panic. The first thing humans learn to control are their bowels. That is why in those days millions of American reverted to the Covid crisis by hoarding toilet paper.

That was why my counsel to my students was to sit and wait. Not do things that would turn out to be a waste of time. Forget Zoom and all the rest of it—I had students who’d gone home to Syria, Egypt and Thailand. For them, bandwidth and civil war posed problems in addition to the Covid virus. My students voted for my plan. 100%. It was like one of Stalin’s elections.

By the third week of March their emails describing their problems at home and their complaints about their instructors were piling up. So I went further. With six weeks of the semester remaining I wrote the students in my classes that they had now completed all the coursework for the class and they had all done very well. I asked them however to stay in touch and to let me know how things were going for them at home.

By Tuesday of the week of spring break 2020, how to manage the rest of spring semester was not the only concern for college administrations, fall semester of the coming academic year was already a source of worry. The two biggest concerns were how many of the present students would return, and how many of the incoming freshmen who had accepted admission before the Covid crisis would now back out and ask for a refund.

Both of those things happened all across the country. The precise percentages are not important now. Suffice to say the numbers were unprecedented because the situation was unprecedented. Any comparison with the influenza pandemic of 1918 would be useless, because the percentage of the American population then attending college was miniscule compared to what it is now.

For faculty the whole situation got worse. Besides frantically altering their spring courses and moving them online, they faced the prospect of spending the summer of doing the same thing to their fall courses. That meant hours of work well beyond the usual preparations. Everyone was working harder but making the same salary of course. Here I must add something that is not generally known outside of academia. Faculty salaries have played no role in the huge increase in the cost of college in recent years. Adjusted for inflation faculty salaries have been flat since sometime in the 1970s. That huge increase of the cost of a college education and the massive growth of student debt that resulted are subjects we’ll take up again.

By May of this year for students, faculty and administrators the worst seemed to be over. The feeling was that they had gotten through the rocky academic year of 2020-21 and could expect that this fall semester would be something like fall semesters before the virus struck. But there still remained concerns, especially for administrators. For many students the economic hardships caused by the virus made the return to their college impossible. The students who had taken a leave of absence, but who could still somehow afford it were another concern. How many would decide, after a year away, to stay away for another year of wait-and-see—or worse—to withdraw altogether, having resolved to find a cheaper way to get an education? What created all these concerns was not the effect of the Covid virus itself but rather a problem that had existed long before the Covid virus came to campus and had been getting worse for years: student debt. Student debt was a major part of the crisis of the American university that had begun decades earlier. As with other problems in American society—poverty, race, health care—the Covid virus exposed the crisis of the American university in a way that was impossible to ignore. It was the child who said the emperor has no clothes on.

Students loans have been around a long time but it was in the 1980s, when I began graduate school, that student loan debt began to grow rapidly. By 1986 when I finished my MA, student loan debt stood at about $10 billion—which was then considered a problem. I took out no loans for my MA. I was fortunate. Eight years after I got my BA in English, I had gone back to study Arabic. My goal was not to get an MA per se, but rather to go back to the Arab world where I had worked for a few months in the fall and winter of 1981-82. My first Arabic professor told me after a few weeks that I should pursue an MA in his department, Near Eastern Studies. I was then a fifth-year undeclared student. I told him, “I have no money. I need money.” He said, “We will get you money.” That fall I had full scholarship. I recount all of this to show how unpredictable the decision making of college students can be.

After I got my MA I went to Princeton to get a PhD. There I had both a scholarship and a stipend—a salary that it is. I was newly married. My wife had taught Arabic at the American University in Cairo and the university gave her a good job cataloguing Arabic books in the library. When I finished my PhD in 1992, student debt had become a national issue. That debt only continued to grow as the costs of college grew to the point that in 2010 student loan debt became greater than credit card debt. As of July this year it stands at $1.73 trillion. Over half of that sum is for graduate study. The average borrower for a BA ends up with about $30,000 of debt.

Student loan debt has changed all aspects of education at the university level. Students seeking a college degree can no longer approach it in the rather carefree way I did. When I went off to the University of Washington in 1970, tuition was $140 per quarter. By the time I graduated it was $180 per quarter. The total cost of tuition for my BA in English was $1920. A year’s tuition at the UW now is $12,076. If that remains the same, a four years degree will cost $48,304. One dollar in 1975 is worth nine dollars now, so adjusted for inflation my degree would cost about $18,000 in present day dollars. Where did the $30,000 increase come from? As I’ve said faculty salaries adjusted for inflation since the 1970s are basically flat. The proportion of permanent faculty has actually fallen as those positions have been replaced by adjuncts. On the other hand college administrations have grown in the same period by 30%. What brought about this change? In simple terms, for the past half century universities have increasingly come to resemble corporations.

This is part of the larger story of capitalism in its neo-liberal phase when finance capital began to look for more markets—and to create more markets. Education at all levels was one of the places where public money could be transformed into private capital, hence the push for privatization of public schools—charter schools—hence the push for outsourcing at every level. For universities this has meant that they have become more like corporations, but strange and awkward corporations since the modern university grew out of the medieval university, and the basic structure of the modern university remains medieval in many aspects.

This can be seen in any number of facts. It can be seen in the way that what were once cafeterias on university campuses have been replaced by food courts so that campuses have come to resemble airports in that regard. It is still more evident in the organizational chart of a university today. Don’t be fooled by what on paper might resemble a great pyramid. The verticality of the organizational chart of a modern university is largely trompe l’oeil. The real chart looks more like a short stack of two pancakes with a strawberry on top. It is a strange hierarchy whereby every single faculty member really has the same boss, the dean of faculty. All the other intermediaries—the assistant deans, the department chairs—are just that, intermediaries with little power, mere water carriers. Jeff Bezos would tear his hair out—if he had any—at this state of affairs.

For this reason college students today know that their schools treat them much more like customers than students. And college administrators know that students, as customers, are extremely price sensitive in their behaviors. This is why college administrators contemplate the approach of this fall semester with some anxiety. They know that any changes in the way a college responds to the ever-mutating virus can result in significant changes in revenue.

The sensitivity, knowledge and concern of students about these matters was evident in their emails to me in spring semester of last year. This was something which I had known for some time, but here it was in their own words. Excerpts from those letters follow. Their concerns and complaints about the sort of education they’re buying are as relevant now as fall semester looms as they were then.

Here again, some details about my courses and my situation will provide a useful, maybe even necessary context for their letters. For one, my position is atypical for a tenured professor. I am a professor of Arabic in the Department of Religion & Classics. I am none of the above. That has given me a great deal of latitude as to what I taught beside Arabic. Besides Arabic language courses and courses on the contemporary Middle East, I’ve also taught courses on the history of the blues and on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. My courses were also unusual in that with one exception none of them was required for anything. My Arabic language courses were the one exception. At some point the department decided to add an Arabic minor, and at least two of those courses were required for the minor. But apart from that, while my other courses might be used to satisfy some requirement, that requirement could be satisfied by many other courses in many other departments. I mention all of this because it says something important about the students whose words follow. They all took my courses solely out of interest.

Their comments below show how they perceived the events of last March, how those events might affect the cost of their education, and how they influenced their views of the faculty and the administration for better or for worse. As I say, what they said then is still relevant.

Student 1 in the US:

3/27: “I’m really sorry for the lateness of this reply. I have picked up so many shifts at work this past couple of weeks because my mom was temporarily laid off from work due to the coronavirus. But I work at the Amazon facility center here in Rochester and online shopping is very high now so I had [to] take advantage of the available shifts and the $2/hr extra they were paying me because no one was willing to show up to work.”

Student 2 in Syria:

4/10: “The opposition … started to write sarcastic articles [on Facebook] about how god is only protecting the government and people in Syria but not everyone else. this, of course, led to people getting detained and arrested for posting such articles…

What happened for a fact, however, is that for the first time in 70 years, Friday prayers got cancelled in Syria. This is a very big deal as Friday prayer is crucial to a large population in Syria. Not even in the fiercest war months did they cancel Friday prayers so to do it now got people panicking.

The current count of Covid-19 cases is 5 (those are only the ones reported on by government news agencies and there is no way to know the real number).

Everyone is forced to be home by 6 pm and some people got arrested for being outside during the night (this is according to government news agency SANA). Schools and Universities are cancelled and no gatherings are allowed, yet bread and gas lines are more crowded than ever.”

Student 3 in the US:

4/14: “I have been dealing with quite a lot, as my mother is an essential, and has confirmed cases of the covid at her place of work. She herself has been sick for weeks now, and I am quite concerned for the health of her and my sister and I. I will try to be better at communicating here on out.”

Student 4 in the US:

4/13: “I am also very dissatisfied with how the University is dealing with this entire scenario. Also incredibly dissatisfied with the government. College students are perhaps one of the most indebted demographics, yet we’re not eligible for a stimulus check? But my 13 y/o sister receives one. And the University gets who knows how many dollars from the government (the email they sent the other week implies they’re going to receive at least a million dollars—UR sits on a large enough endowment that those dollars could go to something else)… I really appreciate how you’ve been handling this class in the face of the pandemic. Your emails and your concern for our health and wellbeing over the quality of our academics isn’t something I’ve been seeing in most of my other classes (which is disheartening). It’s incredibly reassuring to hear that someone cares a little more about the big picture than assignments and grades. Professors across the nation could learn a lot from your example.”

Student 5 in Cairo:

4/19:

“The current situation in Egypt is as follows, there’s still a curfew at night and everything is closed but open for delivery. The numbers of corona virus cases aren’t going down though. Me and my family are mostly staying home leaving when necessary. The internet isn’t the best so personally I struggle with the whole online… Also, I’m trying to push for a partial tuition refund as this is unfair for me and other students who are paying a lot of money for the university. This isn’t what we were promised and I feel like they should give us half of our money back as people in the current situation struggle with no steady income. I really want to know your opinion on this.

Thank you for being so understanding, I appreciate it so much because a lot of other professors are burying us in work and exams which isn’t ideal for a lot of students and that includes me in this situation especially with the internet being so bad here so something that I should be spending an hour on, I spend 3. So again thank you so much for being there for us!”

Student 6 in the US:

3/24: “I am sick. I have a fever, cough and a headache that I have never experienced before. I felt the pressure in my teeth and jaw. It’s so bad. I can’t get tested because my symptoms aren’t bad enough but my entire family is sick.”

3/27: “My mom has pneumonia and I can’t stop crying. I was only able to get her tested for covid. I can’t stop thinking. My heart hurts and I am so scared.”

4/4: “This might not make any sense—I haven’t had a good night’s rest in over two weeks…My mom’s pneumonia worsened last week and they changed her antibiotics. She also had to go to the ER. Yesterday night her feet were extremely swollen and pale. I called 311 and they hung up on me like 5 times. I called every number concerning COVID-19 and I called the department of health—no one helped.”

At 5am, my brother woke up with extreme stomach pain. He’s non-verbal so I don’t want to send him to the ER. I’ve always been his advocate and they won’t let me go with him… I am so scared. I have never cried more.

4/5: “I ended up taking a sleeping pill last night but my sleep was interrupted by mom’s coughing. I have another issue—my classes. One of my professors is not really understanding my situation and if anything I feel like is grading my assignments even harsher. I’m behind in some of my classes, including yours. I’m reading the stones buildings right now and trying to keep up. It’s really challenging. I’m so grateful that you’re so understanding of my condition.”

4/10: “I’m more worried about a humanities course I’m in for my take 5. I haven’t been able to attend the Zoom lectures even though they’re not mandatory but I think the professor is upset with me…

Right after my physics exam, I had to take my brother to the emergency room and we were discharged at 12:30am. He apparently ruptured his appendicitis but the doctors couldn’t make a proper diagnosis. They didn’t want us to stay at the hospital because apparently almost every patient in the hospital has been badly infected with the virus. My brother only has one working kidney that has 26% function so we were worried his kidney was in distress. I’m happy it wasn’t COVID related or anything with his kidney. I hope he recovers soon—the doctor said if he develops a fever or if the pain worsens I have to bring him back, which I really don’t want to.

I’m hoping this is the end of my hardship and things stabilize… Life is pretty traumatic right now.”

4/13: “My family and I all have covid-19. I live in Brooklyn, NY. So, the news is pretty accurate…It is pretty scary here right now.”

[My note: This student also posted in class forum that same day her reaction to one of the course readings, a book called The Stone Building and Other Places by the Turkish author Aslı Erdoğan. I include an excerpt of that post because she links that work with what she was experiencing then in NYC]

“As of now, to be honest, I feel the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt—even writing this seems like I’m giving part of myself away but also in a way I want someone to know what I experienced. When I took my mom to the emergency room because of her pneumonia, I kept talking to myself—telling myself to have courage but each time I told the doctor what was wrong with her I burst into tears. Now as I finished the book, I also agree with Erdogan that human life is fragile. Ultimately, her short book tells a complex analysis of the human psyche— the glorious triumph and the ruthless defeat— the ability to overcome the stone building and the failure of collapsing in front of the steps of the building. Humans reconcile with both extremes, the glory and the defeat, and somewhere in between lies their fate. The human fate is imbued with relentless suffering and as Erdogan states, humans just wish their pain is not in vain— hopefully, a story, a great tale comes of it. To spin one’s tragedy into a tale is part of the human condition— it allows us to accept that perhaps something terrible happened to us so we can relay our story of triumph to an audience, which is almost of none— there is no audience for our unmaking.”

4/23: “I am having a hard time falling asleep so I thought I should email you. My family and I were able to see a doctor. My brother was actually in the emergency room last week and he has special needs so thankfully I was able to stay with him. The doctors weren’t able to diagnose his stomach pain so they discharged him. He’s been feeling a lot better thankfully.

Turns out the new issue is my uncle. He recently started showing symptoms for covid and they just put him on a ventilator. I’m scared for him and thinking about him makes me cry… I’m sorry if I’m writing too much I guess it turns out I don’t really have anyone to write to at 6 in the morning. You can totally ignore this email I would understand.”

4/25: “I would also like to apologize for not being active on blackboard. Most of my time has been spent trying to take care of my mom and my sisters—making sure they stay healthy and make it a little easier on my dad (a firefighter) who’s the only one working in my household of five.

I honestly haven’t touched any homework from any of my classes and you have been the only one who has consistently taken into account how shitty this situation is and prioritized health and safety.”

The students’ willingness to confide to me some very personal details may surprise some readers. I should say that it is due at least in part to what many would regard as defects in my teaching. This is my lax attitude towards grades, attendance some other matters. I have never failed a single student in all my time teaching—including one student whose paper I knew to be entirely plagiarized because I had written it. He was to graduate in a week and needed the four credits from my course. Was it worth it to fail him and throw his life at that point into chaos? I did warn him to be more careful.

It was in grading that I deviated farthest from the norm—and this speaks again to the quasi-corporate nature of universities. For some years on the first day of classes besides talking about the usual matters, the syllabus, their written work and so on, I discussed my attitude about grades. I told them that while I like teaching them, I hated grading them.

Grades I said should be abolished—at least in the humanities. Instructors should simply report that a student completed the course or not. I explained my rationale in Marxist terms, in the difference between use value and exchange value. For Marx a use value is a quality of a thing. The use value of a hammer is that it can drive nails. The exchange value of a hammer is a quantity unrelated to its use value. It expresses how many hammers are worth a chair. In other words, the market transforms qualities into quantities. The result is a commodity. Students’ work, their remarks in class and their papers had use values and were qualities. Instructors learned about their thoughts and commented on them and students themselves, particularly in writing them, clarified their thoughts. Some of their opinions and writings were clearly better than others, but before that consideration they were simply different. In the humanities there are facts—the date Flaubert published Madame Bovary and so on—but most of what is taught in the humanities is simply opinion. In my opinion Marx knew a lot more about the nature of the French Revolution than Edmund Burke did, and it is enough to say Marx knew a lot more without the stupidity of quantifying it on a scale from one to ten. There was no need to convert the qualitative difference into a quantitative difference. And that, I would tell them, was why I hated grading. It was stupid. And why should I be required to do something stupid when we are all here to become more knowledgeable? Students drew their own conclusions about what kind of a grader I was.

When spring semester of 2020 ended. I wrote all the students and told them of the letter I was writing which I would send to the president, the provost and the dean of arts and sciences. I asked if they would allow me to include excerpts from their emails to me but they would remain anonymous. Those were the excerpts that I included here. What prompted me to write that letter were the cheery updates in the university’s daily circular reporting how students were dealing with the difficulties caused by the pandemic with resilience and humor, quoting students by name and often including their photos. What undergraduate would speak freely under those conditions? The end of the semester also coincided with my retirement, though I asked for emeritus status which would make it easy for me to continue to teach courses from time to time. So the letter was something a final report for me.

I had some things to say about confusing welter of communications made in midterm by the administration and some harsher things to say about how other professors treated their students after the Covid virus struck—based on the emails my students sent me. The confusing demands they made on students who had bigger problems to worry about than their coursework for Psych 101. Apropos those things I quoted some lyrics from a song by Sonny Boy Williamson called “Dissatisfied”:

There’s whole lots of peoples talkin’ but a mighty few peoples know

Those words should be over the entrance to US Customs at every airport and every border crossing.

I was not surprised that the president and the other recipients thanked me for my letter. I was surprised by the length of their replies. It was clear they had read my letter, and more importantly the students’ mails, carefully.

A few days later I put in my grades. I gave every student an A. It wasn’t the first time I had done that.

 

Daniel Beaumont teaches Arabic language & literature and other courses at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Slave of Desire: Sex, Love & Death in the 1001 Nights and Preachin’ the Blues: The Life & Times of Son House. He can be contacted at: daniel.beaumont@rochester.edu

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