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Editorial: Student self-governance is not enough for a safe reopening of Virginia’s colleges and universities
Higher Ed and COVID-19

Editorial: Student self-governance is not enough for a safe reopening of Virginia’s colleges and universities

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The leap from K-12 schooling to higher education is a significant transition. After years of assigned seats, set policies for bathroom breaks and other childhood standards to learn rules, colleges and universities set the tone for students to grow into adulthood and help make rules.

The University of Virginia describes its student self-governance approach as “groundbreaking,” with opportunities for young minds “to govern almost every aspect of life on Grounds.” A recent pamphlet explains “the radical idea that students from the moment they walk on our grounds are both relevant stakeholders at the University, and are equipped to advance it. Integral to this understanding is that students are just one of many stakeholders (including faculty, administrators, government, alumni and residents of Charlottesville) working collaboratively to move the University forward.”

Moving higher education institutions forward during COVID-19 is a taller task, in need of innovative policymaking beyond printed materials for young attendees. Student self-governance is not enough for a safe reopening of Virginia’s colleges and universities.

In a lengthy, 12-and-a-half-minute video published online Aug. 9, UVA President Jim Ryan walked students, families, faculty, staff and the broader Charlottesville community through the university’s reasoning for resuming on-campus life. “Our mission is to educate students, conduct research and provide medical care,” Ryan said. “All of those are better done in person.”

We agree, but colleges and universities drive more than education, innovation and health care. They are little cities, bringing in thousands of people from the state, nation and, typically, the globe. They add layers of complexity to a pandemic that, without a vaccine, already has proven risks associated with large-scale social activities. Community engagement — along with education, research and medical care — is a core component of the five-figure bill families pay for a residential setting. Gatherings at UVA will be limited to 15 people, Ryan said in the video, with masks and social distancing.

At the end of July, according to a Daily Progress report, UVA’s Board of Visitors conducted a mostly closed-door meeting to review reopening plans. “I think we have as well conceived of a plan as any in America, but we have to be clear,” said Rector James B. Murray. “This boils down to whether or not we have compliance. The pandemic is going to be the ultimate test of our students.”

It already has. When COVID-19 hit communities across the commonwealth in March, schools like UVA knew spring break travel might risk a rise in infections upon return. Several stakeholders in the university sphere of self-governance lost something with virtual learning.

Students’ education and social experience were minimized. Faculty replaced in-person teaching with instructional modalities that were less than practical. Staff members saw steady roles quickly become jeopardized. The Charlottesville community’s vibrant quality of life was put on hold. And administrators’ reliable revenue streams quickly went dry.

What’s missing from Ryan’s video message is a true reckoning of the economics of reopening. He mentioned students who would find campus to be safer and more effective than online learning, employees whose jobs are at risk, and the two-thirds of students living off campus, who might be in Charlottesville for online classes anyway. We hope the university’s planned town halls bring full clarity on deposits, financial aid dollars or other fiscal concerns.

“Being part of the UVA community comes with enormous benefits, but it also comes with obligations to each other and to our Charlottesville neighbors,” Ryan said in the Aug. 9 video.

We couldn’t agree more. But for the university to put the onus on one set of stakeholders to drive self-governance — students — is specious. We have plenty of evidence that self-governance is not enough to stem community spread of the coronavirus. Some grown Virginians were unable to accept wearing masks without government orders. Cases — and deaths — still are rising.

Ryan mentions punitive measures for a lack of student compliance, including suspension and expulsion for serious offenses. But what about a possible administrative consequence: a diminished reputation for the commonwealth’s flagship public university? We miss the candor of April 14 — a key point in recruitment of the incoming UVA class.

“As always, but especially now, we must be exceptionally good stewards of our resources so that we can continue to carry out our core mission, and in so doing be of service to the commonwealth and beyond,” Ryan and his team said in a statement. “At the same time, we must never forget that the people at UVA — our faculty, staff, and students — remain our greatest asset, and will be the key to our ability to weather this crisis and recover with strength.”

That’s a different tone. Reopening is a shared responsibility. And if the on-campus setting is not meeting one set of stakeholders’ expectations — including students, the university’s greatest asset — then college and university administrators should rethink the rules.

Chris Gentilviso

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