Op-ed: A one-size-fits-all solution to coronavirus could be fatal to US colleges

Sweet Briar College campus in the afternoon light

Meredith Woo
President Meredith Woo

Op-ed by President Meredith Woo

Washington Examiner, May 29, 2020

The challenges facing residential colleges and universities as they ponder the resumption of in-person classes are complex. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who heads the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, remarked on Meet the Press on May 10 that current capacity for COVID-19 testing was not enough “when 35,000 kids and faculty show up on the University of Tennessee campus in August.”

Two days later, California State University, which enrolls nearly half a million students, announced it will cancel most of its fall semester in-person classes and go online. Lost in the glare of all these news-dominating headlines is the simple fact that American colleges and universities do not come in one size, nor do the solutions for ensuring public health on their campuses.

Sweet Briar College, where I am president, is at the opposite end of the size spectrum from the University of Tennessee or California State University. Perched on 3,200 acres of spectacular land in rural Virginia, it is a women’s college that offers a liberal arts education in small classroom settings — there are only seven students for every professor. If any college can keep students socially distanced in the classroom, we probably can.

We also have vegetables produced in our own greenhouse for farm-to-table dining, served in rooms that will follow the new and strict protocols for distancing. Because we are small, we are reasonably confident that we can test all our students, faculty, and staff for COVID-19. Above all, we can offer all our students a single dormitory room — “a room of her own,” to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, who underscored a woman’s need for space to be able to think and create.

By virtue of its small size and bucolic setting, Sweet Briar may be an outlier. But every aspect of its decision to reopen this fall for in-person instruction is still subject to public opinion (and the public policy that may in part reflect it) that is often formed by the immense challenges facing large public and private universities.

This is most unfortunate. One of the most important defining features of American higher education is its complexity and diversity. Unlike for-profit businesses, whose rise and fall may follow the path of what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” American higher education has prospered through additive layers of dazzling complexity. Its makeup includes small liberal arts colleges such as Sweet Briar, research universities, land grant institutions, community colleges, and technical and vocational schools, as well as the modern university system so varied in purpose that Clark Kerr, the late president of the University of California system, once called it the “multiversity.”

I have little doubt that American colleges and universities will lead the way in finding new solutions for how we learn, live, work, and relate to each other in the age of pandemics. They will use all the creative talents that reside within the confines of their campuses, whether be it ways to test for COVID-19, new technologies for on-line and hybrid instruction, new uses of residential and classroom space, or new ways to conduct contact tracing, to usher in an era hitherto unimagined. And they should be allowed to do so, in the way they know how.

In the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago, Sweet Briar made the best use of its practice of in loco parentis — a college in place of a parent — repeatedly checking on every student, providing excellent medical care, and making sure the campus was as safe as home and even safer. Not a single person was lost at Sweet Briar, even amid a pandemic especially fatal to young men and women.

There is no shortage of Cassandras predicting that a large number of small liberal arts colleges will shutter as the result of the current pandemic. That would be an ironic and tragic outcome if true, for it is precisely the small colleges that are best equipped to deal with the challenges of the pandemic. It behooves the policymakers to let these colleges thrive — and the first step is by not imposing the one-size-fits-all solutions that are created for a different set of circumstances.