Pandemics rightly invite the language of science and best practice when it comes to the choices we make. If you listen, however, there’s another conversation of right and wrong and assignments of “Who is responsible?” It’s the language of ethics and morality, and, in that vein, I’ve been ruminating on the ethics of colleges and universities reopening for the fall term. Here’s a baker’s dozen.
No. 1: Everyone holds ethical responsibility for others in a pandemic. A college or university president, much like a city mayor, relies ultimately on the responsible actions of everyone. That said, leaders do have the power to educate the community, to encourage responsible behavior and to moderate social interactions. For instance, they can call for installing Plexiglas between people, adjusting seat proximity and dormitory assignments, changing the timing of class exchanges, and so forth. They hold the power to send people away who prove themselves intentionally reckless or to provide separate accommodations for those who are diagnosed positive. Their responsibility extends to the reach of their power, no less and no more. The rest is up to us.
No. 2: Members of a college or university community are responsible for their own health. Period. Full stop. In a pandemic, going to a frat party is a health decision. So is attending class, teaching a class, eating in a cafeteria or sharing an off-campus apartment with a roommate. People who have known health vulnerabilities, especially, must make decisions with that in mind, regardless of the reopening decisions made by the cities or organizations of which they are a part.
No. 3. Pre-eminent is not the same as overriding. Preventing death and moderating the spread of the virus are pre-eminent ethical imperatives in a pandemic. If health imperatives overrode all others, however, society would return to home isolation. No one believes that imposing isolation for the 18 months (or more) of this pandemic is a feasible idea. Other priorities — including educating this age cohort, conducting the research our society needs and restarting hundreds of local economies — must be balanced against these pre-eminent but not overriding goals.
No. 4: Which ethic serves the moment? Scholar and author Carol Gilligan observed that traditional ethics is unhelpful when people are so caught up in personal rights and justice claims that they overlook the “responsiveness to relationships” required for a functioning society. She wasn’t speaking of a pandemic when she wrote In a Different Voice, but her “ethic of care” seems a useful starting point for the present moment.
No. 5: At what point are colleges and universities “irresponsible”? Judgments of right and wrong always need definition, but what’s the appropriate norm in a pandemic? The amount of programming, cleaning or money being spent is irrelevant if the campus transmission rates are exceedingly high. Yet if the norm is a level of disease in the community, what is the point at which acceptable levels become unacceptable? Is it a set percentage? A growth rate? A comparative standard?
Can the State University of New York, for example, claim the moral high ground if its rate of transmission is lower than that of the University of California system or New York State’s overall rate? Or is the ethical measure better set to a more operational standard, such as the manageable limits of local health care (number of ICU beds, medical personnel and so on)? Colleges and universities can hardly be accused of unethical practice just because some measure of disease is found in the community. But the concept of an unacceptable amount of disease — and, therefore, an acceptable amount of it — is undefined and, to date, not discussed.
No. 6: Ethical responsibility is situational and local. Regions with scant evidence of virus transmission can operate differently than those with heavy spread. This ethical latitude seems to be less meaningful in recent weeks, however, as areas that were once relatively virus-free are no longer so. And a second wave of infection can be reasonably expected.
No. 7: How much cleaning is enough cleaning to be ethically in the clear? Most public buildings focus their pandemic cleaning efforts on high-touch spots: door handles, elevator buttons, restroom facilities and the like. Colleges and universities will also be cleaning classroom desks, library tables and more. It’s unreasonable to expect an institution to clean a surface after every individual use (and therefore not an ethical standard). But is once a day enough? Where does the ethical line get drawn on the extent and frequency of cleaning? The airlines have dealt with this by giving passengers disinfecting wipes upon entry to the cabin, so that they themselves can clean the seats they will use. Does shifting agency to the user resolve the question?
No. 8: In a pandemic, shared governance is not suddenly ceded to the senior administration. Faculty, staff and student governance bodies, as well as organized labor, carry a responsibility to the extent of their defined powers. That includes not only advocating for the needs of their members but also brainstorming effective solutions, supporting decisions for the common good and encouraging one another toward responsible behavior.
No. 9: Boards of trustees and senior leadership must, of necessity, take financial effects and organizational sustainability into account in the decisions they are making. Pandemics wreak havoc on economies and can permanently ruin organizations. Many colleges run on very slim margins, and this pandemic has pushed most of them into deficit spending. Some have announced closure; others are nearing it. Determining the limits of spending today so that a nonprofit organization can continue to make a difference tomorrow is its own ethical calculation. Organizational sustainability is not the pre-eminent value in a pandemic, but neither is eliminating viral spread “at all costs” the overriding standard.
No. 10: Who decides, once institutions reopen, the point at which they should close again? The many operational and financial implications of shifting back to fully online teaching presents a classic duality of interest for university officials. Many institutions are wisely choosing to involve or even rely upon regional public health authorities to provide a certain independence of judgment about that.
No. 11: In a pandemic, some courtesies become ethical requirements. If a faculty member or someone in their home is part of a vulnerable population, it is no longer a kindness to permit them to teach online from home. It is an ethical responsibility. As long as they can fully accomplish their responsibilities in a safer context, such accommodations are fairly claimed.
No. 12: In college athletics, consent requires freedom. Athletes cannot maintain social distance in most sports or protect themselves from the respiration levels of all involved. Even still, students and institutions feel compelled to compete — and for reasons other than sport. Many institutions rely on athletics for enrollment and financial support, especially in Division III. Students can feel unable to withdraw from participating insofar as their scholarships to continue their education are affected.
An ethical needle can be threaded here, although it is admittedly a slim proposition. People regularly put themselves into personally risky situations, from skydiving to surgery to full-contact youth football. Society manages those situations with extensive protections, combined with the tools of full knowledge and signed consent. Consent, however, requires freedom. To increase that freedom in a pandemic, institutions might consider assuring their athletes that their scholarships will remain in place regardless of their decision to compete.
No. 13: What is the responsibility to the town? Colleges and universities are anything but ivory towers. They are deeply embedded in their local communities, raising the ethical question of the degree to which they have some level of responsibility to keep their surrounding communities free of contagion. Should students be encouraged (or even required) to socialize on campus rather than in local establishments? Should internships, service learning and volunteerism be discontinued in the immediate term? Alternatively, should students be encouraged to serve as contact tracers or to provide wellness checks by phoning the elderly who live alone? In short, should they become more or less a part of the community as we find ways to care for one another through a pandemic?
Perhaps an ethical imperative can cut in both directions: minimizing contact with the community while becoming an active part of the community’s public health efforts. What does that require of us?