Boston University admits classrooms may stay empty in autumn

US university eyes overhauled residential experience for the autumn, possible wait until 2021

April 20, 2020
Boston University
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Boston University (BU) is telling its community to prepare for the possibility of dramatically different or even no on-campus instruction this autumn, a blunt warning its president calls a necessary admission of reality, to allow for proper planning.

The mindset, said BU president Robert A. Brown, is helping his staff keep their focus on the preparations that matter most at a time of great uncertainty across higher education, the nation and the world.

“Facing up to that fact, I think, is important at this time,” Dr Brown, a former provost at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has led BU since 2005, said in an interview.

It is nevertheless raising anxiety, he admitted, at a time when students, faculty and almost everyone in society is eager for a return to normality, while trying to assess the relative costs of a bunkered civilisation.

For the most part, US universities are still consumed by the unexpected challenges of moving their entire spring semester operations online, while perhaps talking in general terms about evaluating options for the autumn.

A professor of chemical engineering, Dr Brown said that he took a hard look at the realities of fighting Covid-19 and the necessary conditions for normal close human contact.

He concluded that the nation’s current progress against Covid-19 meant that BU could not realistically host on-campus courses this summer and possibly this autumn. As a result, it is keeping classrooms closed through this summer. That position clears the way, he said, for BU to seriously begin reimagining the concept of a residential campus once the pandemic eases enough to allow some in-person instruction, with promises to set out specific details.

In practical terms, Dr Brown said, BU’s assessment process means considering tactics such as reconfiguring classrooms to hold far fewer students, with course time divided into online components and smaller in-class periods.

In somewhat more abstract terms, he said, the process means gaining a greater appreciation for faculty-student interactions and considering how to take the best possible advantage of them when they can occur.

By examining details such as touching doorknobs and sharing bathrooms, Dr Brown said, BU’s planners will unavoidably have to ask themselves what level of ongoing infection rate is acceptable while awaiting a vaccine. “That really is the fundamental question,” he said, “because it’s not going to be zero.”

The pressures on higher education, as with much of the rest of the economy, are substantial. US colleges and universities are especially vulnerable, Moody’s Investors Service said in a global analysis, because they rely so heavily on state funding, foreign students and endowment investments that have been hurt by paralysed economies.

The US institution with the biggest endowment, Harvard University, has just joined the growing number of campuses that have frozen spending, announcing a hold on hiring, salaries and capital spending, with pay cuts for top executives. Its president, Lawrence Bacow, has acknowledged being consumed by the need to decide about the autumn semester while “a tremendous amount of uncertainty” remains globally.

Dr Brown said that he, too, cannot predict the shape of the autumn semester, owing to major medical questions such as the future availability of widespread testing for Covid-19.

But he suggested that US colleges could be clearer to their communities about what simply isn’t possible at this point, and what some of their main choices look like, even while he admitted that broaching the idea of spending the autumn semester outside classrooms appears to have amplified fears at BU in the short term.

“There’s a risk with it,” he acknowledged. “And I think a lot of universities say: ‘Well, there’s a real risk of giving uncertainty by saying you don’t know the answer and exposing yourself.’”

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Reader's comments (2)

As the parent of an international student, I truly find it commendable that Dr Brown is so open about the process. Most other universities are probably discussing the same issues, but are so far refraining from disclosing this. From the start of this crisis, BU clearly had three priorities: our children‘s health and well-being, maintaining the quality of education, and social responsibility. They have been very transparent, very helpful, very flexible, very efficient. My daughter is proud to be a Terrier, now more than ever.
As the parent of a junior going into his senior year at BU, I appreciate the honesty,being proactive, and more careful than lax with this pandemic. Fact: We are expecting a second possibly more severe hit in the fall according to most epidemiologists including Dr.Fauci and WHO. Fact: Lives matter and my own son is already preparing for that possibility emotionally so he is not in shock or too upset when it happens. Fact: Our kids want to live once they graduate and not be permanently injured from this virus or worse. Fact: They don’t want to spread the disease either since it is now reported that community spread seems to be due most to those who are Asymptomatic and each person can infect up to 40 people. Fact: We cannot have students and faculty return without TESTING - we have to have an abundance of testing - COVID19 tests and antibody testing that has been approved and tested by the FDA. (There are only 4 so far yet the FDA has released over 100 non-sanctioned tests due to pressure) Fact: If students are sick we do not want the hospitals in Boston to be overloaded as they are now without students there. We want them to get the best care with enough staffing in hospitals with enough PPE. Fact: This will be an experience our students will remember and realize they were in an invisible war without guns without harm if they followed all medical guidance and listened to the scientists not the politicians. It’s a small sacrifice compared to our heroes on the front lines and we need to remember we will be protecting them too by making cautious deliberate thought out decisions. I want my son safe and sound as he has asthma. He is one of those vulnerable citizens. We think he MIGHT have had this virus but we don’t know. No tests available. I don’t want to attend an early funeral because of pressure, people feeling inconvenienced, and ignorance to the facts. I also want to live in my battle with cancer. I want to continue surviving cancer and I am one of those vulnerable citizens medically too. And lastly remember this name: Skylar Herbert. She is one more reason we need to take this SLOW. For now, stay home to save lives and wash your hands, wiping down surfaces. Remember our shared humanity.