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Credit: Isabella Cossu

The global pandemic of COVID-19 threatens our universities and colleges with extinction. Some liberal arts colleges have permanently closed. University presidents and provosts have grabbed the media’s attention with proclamations and plans for going back to campus. But, it’s not just forecasting the trends in public health or our budgets that matters for these decisions. We need to add the voices of faculty and students to understand the true costs of not going back for the next generation.

As a student at an Ivy League institution on the East Coast, and as a professor at a large public university in the Midwest, we have both made difficult transitions with the unexpected shift to online teaching. We personally enjoy many privileges that we previously took for granted, including reliable WiFi, our own laptops, and (sometimes) quiet spaces in our house. We also have the advantage of a household that can quarantine without facing huge tradeoffs — where two parents can work remotely, still earn both incomes, and not face any health risks. We recognize that we are advantaged, yet, there is so much that we still miss. 

We may still deliver and receive the content of college classes, but we don’t have the quality of the experience. Students miss their freedoms. It’s not just about seeing our friends whenever we want and partying late at night. For many of us, college is a safe haven where we can realize who we are and be more fully accepted. Living back in our hometowns often comes with labels that are often more rigid and constraining. For Jasper, coming out in high school was a big deal. In our tightly-knit community, parents spread gossip that led to discrimination in his summer job. Being gay at Penn in Philly was hardly worth mentioning. 

Faculty miss the everyday in-person connections with our colleagues, students, and staff. For Lauren, a Zoom meeting with a class of 50 students literally pushes many faces off the screen. Reading questions and comments in the “chat” turns a live discussion asynchronous. We are all trying our best, but it’s just awkward, and our timing is off. We stay at the surface because we can “stop video” and hide behind our screens at home. Not forced to share our vulnerabilities face-to-face, we can’t have the same tough conversations in our classrooms, labs, departments, or administrative offices. 

Many of us have already had our chance to be on a college campus. But what about the entering class of students, new faculty, and staff? How will they gain their freedoms and make their connections if we are forced to continue remotely? First years are not the only ones seriously considering a leave of absence this fall. Students in other years debate whether online classes are worth the cost, international students may not be able to obtain visas or travel, and all students may struggle to pay tuition with looming economic hardships. The potential loss to campus extends well beyond one cohort. The coming semester’s shortfall will cause problems for at least the next four years. 

We want to return, but we know that everything has changed. It will be different. And we are ready to adapt and be flexible in ways that we never imagined before. We would rather try to return and have to scale back, than not try at all.

Administrators are rightly considering a wide range of options and assessing the scenarios based on systematic evidence rather than political gains. For faculty and students, though, it’s excruciating to wait on pins and needles for the next email update. Rumors about the fall have already gone viral, exacerbating the stress and uncertainty. 

We want to be part of the conversation deciding our next steps. Both faculty and students should be represented on the task forces dedicated to reopening.

For both students and faculty, being on campus means so much more than covering the content of facts and formulas. Together, we learn how to think critically and question one another. These are precisely the skills this generation needs to face the next pandemic or global crisis. 

JASPER MACLEAN is a College first year from Indianapolis. His email address is jmacl@sas.upenn.edu.

LAUREN MACLEAN is a 1991 College Graduate and Department Chair of Political Science at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her email address is macleanl@indiana.edu.

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