How Colleges Can Save Themselves… and Save Lives

I’m in the college business. Yes, it is a business. Despite all the platitudes about the nobility of Academics and academic institutions, the bottom line is that all educational institutions are businesses. I should know, I am the founder and past president (emeritus) of a modest-sized WASC-accredited university that has been in business for more than 42 years. Like all other colleges, small and large, we depend on students paying tuition to generate the revenue we need to pay our employees, faculty, utility bills, and, ultimately, to stay in business. Our product is a service: we provide educational opportunities for students to learn a defined program of study and then we award an academic credential to those who complete the prescribed course/program. These credentials attest to the fact that the student has become proficient in, and demonstrates knowledge in, a particular academic area.

Like any business, a university needs customers. And we need our customers (aka students) to purchase our service because that generates the revenue we require to keep the lights on. For the past 1,000 years or so, from the founding of the first university in the City of Bologna, Italy (circa 1088), the accepted model is to have students sitting in a classroom with a faculty professor lecturing/instructing from the head or center of the room.

Through natural disasters, epidemics, politics, politicians, recessions, depressions, and wars, the basic model of classroom instruction has survived, and many colleges have prospered; that is, until today. COVID-19 has crushed our traditional model of higher education under the new reality that busy campuses and crowded classrooms provide seeding opportunities for disease. The campus has become a transmission center, breeding illness and death, instead of fostering learning. What past epidemics (e.g., flu of 1918), past pandemics (e.g., the Black Plague), and recent pandemics (e.g., Ebola) have taught us is that the only effective way to stop the spread of any virus or contagion is to eliminate person-to-person contact and to certainly avoid crowds. Closing campuses and classrooms would seem to be the obvious choice, IF we want to keep our students (and staff) healthy and alive.

By opening campuses and classrooms, colleges will continue to spread this disease, which will result in unnecessary illness and deaths. We are only just learning what the long-term consequences of even a mild case of COVID-19 can be on a healthy young body. Our epidemiologists/virologists can say with some confidence that respiratory fragility and osteoarthritis-like physical aftereffects will be the inheritance of our young COVID survivors for the rest of their lives. We should keep the colleges and universities closed until the disease has run its course. Anything less will inevitably result in the deaths of students, faculty, and college personnel.

College administrators are on the precipice of financial disaster when students cannot attend classes because tuition revenue dries up, and they cannot pay the institution’s bills. They are faced with two bad choices: open in any way possible or face bankruptcy and closure. There is no easy choice here: stay closed and save lives or find a way to open in order to save schools, jobs, careers, which risks lives. Whichever choice they make will have serious negative consequences for students and schools. As I write this, colleges are contemplating partial openings of their campuses, partial social activity, partial class sizes, partial contacts, but that will not result in partial disease spread. Obviously, at the first sign of contagion, the colleges will rush to close, and then we will have to start over, again.

There is a third alternative that most colleges are not prepared to adopt: “GO ONLINE NOW” and provide online home-study the best you can. Right now, in the heart of the pandemic, go online with what you have. Even though most colleges do not know how to provide online learning comparable to classroom learning, I strongly suggest they go online and see what works. The faculty and staff are unprepared, but they will learn; administrators and faculty need to accept online as an viable and legitimate model for learning; they need to invent ways to interact at-a-distance outside of the traditional four-walled classroom; they need to gain experience working with this new model. In time, they will learn what works for them, and they will make improvements in delivery and quality. In this way, colleges will save themselves and save lives.

Dr. Don Hecht, Founder, California Southern University
 “CalSouthern does online better”©

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