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Covid-19, the Ford Pinto, and American Higher Ed

Moshe Vardi
Sep 5 · 5 min read

I came to the United States in 1981 as a postdoctoral scholar. My first car was a Ford Pinto, a subcompact car manufactured and marketed in North America between 1971 and 1980. It did not take long for me to learn that during the 1970s there had been many documented cases of Ford Pintos bursting into flames as a result of rear-end collisions. The Pinto became known as a “firetrap” and a “deathtrap.” Ford took a reputational and, ultimately, a major financial beating when it was revealed in the media that Ford knew about deficiencies in the fuel tank system, but proceeded with the design anyway based on the results of a financial cost-benefit analysis. The Ford-Pinto case is now a classic in business-ethics courses..

I am reminded of the Ford Pinto when I survey the landscape of how American higher education is preparing itself for the coming fall during COVID-19. While many institutions have opted for a fully online instructional model for the fall, many others are preparing for in-person or hybrid models. My own institution’s plans are premised on the physical return to the campus of a significant majority of the undergraduate population. The Rice University administration has put in place a structure of rules and systems to reduce the risk of students becoming infected with COVID-19. These measures will help, but no one should think that they will be sufficient. College-age students are young and full of life. While most will act responsibly, many will not reliably practice social distancing. There will be parties — off campus if not allowed on campus — and some students will get drunk. Hundreds of students will live off campus, without the supervision of the college magisters. Students will get infected with COVID-19; these students will infect others, including some of our over 3,000 academic and non-academic staff members who go home to their families and who interact with their communities every day.

Rice expects less than 40% of undergraduate students to be housed on campus and about three-fourths of our student contact hours will be taught remotely. But even at this reduced risk, students and their parents need to know that the campus will not be safe, and the risk to health and lives should be evaluated against potential benefits. It is worth examining what these benefits are.

In a July 17 letter, Rice President David Leebron stated that Rice intends to provide a “robust intellectual and social environment” for the fall semester. But it is an illusion to think that we can provide social and intellectual robustness on a campus under COVID-19. Social interaction in the residential colleges will be very tightly regulated, and interaction in in-person classes is likely to be mediated by technology rather than by face-to-face communication. In a July 28 letter, my colleague Helena Michie pointed out that “when we talk about a ‘return’ to campus, we must be clear that it is not in any sense a return.” The socially distanced classroom is as different from the intimate pre-COVID classroom as Zoom classes — and comes with much greater risk. Daniel Star, a faculty member at Boston University, puts it bluntly in his op-ed, False Advertising and the In-Person Experience. He referred to Boston University’s hybrid model for classes, and wrote “The mistake I wish to highlight consists in promising an experience to students that cannot be delivered in a way that meets their expectations.”

In fact, when I tried to imagine myself teaching an in-person class of 25 students who are spread across a large auditorium, I realized that the students in the classroom will have to be communicating with me on Zoom, to be heard and recorded. All this, while both the students and I are wearing face masks. It dawned on me then that I will be conducting remote teaching in the classroom. Having realized that, I opted for fully remote teaching, where neither I nor the students have to wear face masks and I can respond to some extent at least to facial expressions. “Remote teaching” actually can do a better job of reproducing the intimacy that we take for granted in small classes. Similarly, many students have opted for off-campus housing, having realized how stilted socially-distant person-to-person interaction will be on campus and how far it will be from normal. In a nutshell, the benefit is questionable and is not worth the risk! I have seen so far no analysis that offers a compelling educational benefit for risking health and lives via an in-person or hybrid educational model. I share the goal of “robust intellectual and social environment,” but we must figure out how to do it using remote technology.

Unstated in communications from many colleges and university administrations is the financial motive. If higher-ed institutions go fully online, there is a concern that tuition revenue will also drop dramatically, one way or another — institutions may either have to substantially reduce what they charge students, or the students may choose not to enroll this year. In addition, there would be the loss of the income from room and board fees.. But the Ford Motor Company also did a thorough financial analysis before deciding not to issue a major recall of the Ford Pinto. I am afraid that the behavior of American higher-education institutions under COVID-19 will become another classical case of business ethics. History may not be kind to us!

I am fully aware that substantially reducing the number of students welcomed back to campus this fall could have serious financial consequences, but I am deeply skeptical of trying to address such concerns by promises of a realistically unrealizable robust intellectual and social environment. If there is one clear lesson from COVID-19 so far, it is, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, that those who would risk health and lives for a temporary economic boost would end up getting neither. While it is nice to imagine that COVID-19 will be over by Christmas, we must consider the possibility that we will also have to operate in the spring of 2021 under pandemic conditions. A disastrous fall semester would inflict on higher-ed institutions lasting financial and reputational pain.

So how should US higher-ed institutions approach the fall semester? I’d suggest two key principles. First, the decision to be on or near campus should be need based. For example, many research labs that need access to facilities are currently operational. This is a real need as they have no other option, so students that need access to physical labs should be invited to return. There are also students who depend on being on campus for food, shelter, and safety — these must be accommodated. Second, invest more in remote teaching, for example, by ensuring that both instructors and students are properly equipped. Institutions have made a substantial investment in outdoor tents, plexiglass partitions, massive testing, and the like, which have no real long-term utility, all for holding in-person classes with little educational value. But high-quality remote teaching requires more resources than in-class teaching. Thus, we should provide more resources to the faculty for remote teaching, considering that most of the classes will be online. In doing so, we will train our whole faculty body to become comfortable with online education, a skill that we can leverage in diverse ways in the future.

Moshe Y. Vardi is a University Professor and the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor of Computational Engineering at Rice University.

Moshe Vardi

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Moshe Vardi

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