Higher Ed in the News: 6/22/2020

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

This week on Higher Ed in the News, the realities of testing and maintaining safe conditions as campuses open. Also, student-athletes are using their power to make their voices heard as leaders on campus. You can read previous editions of this series here and here.

Social Distancing, Testing Will Be Major Obstacles for Colleges

As the start of fall semester gets closer, plenty of uncertainty lingers. A survey of 970 colleges and universities revealed that roughly two-thirds of the respondents will be conducting in-person classes this fall, but professors and administrators recently interviewed by David Leonhardt of the New York Times foresee many obstacles to creating a safe and learning-friendly campus environment.

This group highlighted a number of potential issues, focusing on complications keeping social distancing protocol and executing an effective testing strategy.

Leonhardt points out that “nearly all distinctive parts of a campus experience […] revolve around close social contact, often indoors,” which makes it especially difficult for schools to establish social distancing guidelines and even more of a challenge for students to adhere to them. Limiting student options for extracurricular activities, restricting access to campus facilities, lowering maximum capacities for dorms, and implementing new safety protocols for dining services are just some of the precautionary measures schools plan on taking this fall to limit exposure, but they can only accomplish so much. 

Administrators are worried about students traveling between home and school where they could become infected, then bringing the virus back with them to campus. The only ways schools could keep this from happening are by prohibiting commuters from attending in-person classes and students from going home during the semester, or developing a feasible and extensive COVID-19 testing strategy.

With schools already dealing with tightened budgets, they’re choosing the testing option despite its complexities. The challenges that come with testing are the focus of an article by Alia Wong on Education Dive, where the author pinpoints financial burdens and logistical complications as the primary causes of testing-related strife. Some larger universities are projecting to pay upwards of $20 million in testing expenses alone. 

For an impressively wide-ranging compilation of viewpoints (faculty, staff, students, experts in various fields) on reopening campuses, also see this recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education,


Student-athletes making their voices heard

Student-athletes at the University of Texas are speaking out in hopes of the school renaming several buildings and ending its use of a song with racist ties.

The athletes sent a two-page letter to interim president Jay Hartzell calling for a handful of buildings on the campus named after school officials that were connected with segregation, as well as the discontinuation of “The Eyes of Texas,” which is sung at nearly every campus event and after every sporting event. The song has roots in minstrel shows, a form of 19th and early 20th century entertainment in which white actors in blackface portrayed Black people as exaggerated stereotypes.

They also want 0.5% of the athletic department’s earnings to be donated to Black Lives Matter and other organizations and have a black athletic history exhibit created in the Athletics Hall of Fame, and want part of the stadium renamed for Julius Whittier, the first black varsity football player.

Until these conditions are met, the student-athletes said they will not help with recruiting future players and won’t participate in alumni events, though they will still participate in team activities for the rest of the summer. The statement was shared by players on Texas’ football, basketball, soccer and volleyball teams on social media. Hartzell said he plans to hold meetings with Black leaders, student groups and other members of the community to address these issues and find other ways to promote diversity at the school.

While sports may seem like a niche issue at this time, the major money sports of college football and college basketball are overwhelmingly Black, despite being led by primarily white coaches and athletic directors. This racial dynamic has been used to mute Black student voices, but they are now empowered by the movement that has been brewing for years as the Black Lives Matter movement proceeds.