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COVID-19Higher EducationOpinion

Further Questions for Universities Closed by COVID-19

By A.G. Holdier
23 Mar 2020
photograph of empty lecture hall
“Big empty modern lecture hall” by chaoss (via depositphotos)

In response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, universities across the United States have cancelled or delayed events, shifted to remote instructional methods, shuttered campus buildings, and more. Recently, Andy Cullison outlined several moral reasons to support these sorts of actions, chief among them that the social nature of global institutions like colleges and universities promotes the sort of pathogen transmission which “social distancing” measures are precisely designed to reduce. In the interest of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, universities have upended normal procedures of all sorts, doing what they can as large institutions in service of the public interest to “flatten the curve” of the coming strain on our national healthcare resources.

However, external concerns aside, further questions remain about the nature of a university’s responsibilities to its own students, faculty, employees, and community in the wake of this semester’s upsets. While the decision to effectively (or, in some cases, literally) close campuses looks to have been the right move, I’ll focus here on three additional decisions that colleges and other institutions will consequently need to be making in the coming weeks.


Although the merits of college grading systems in general often provoke debate, a sudden shift to online instruction poses additional problems for the assessment of student work this semester. For one, although online courses can certainly be valuable learning experiences that contribute strongly to a student’s education, such courses take considerable planning and structure – far more than the hastily stitched-together online experience that students will get for the remainder of Spring 2020. As one popular blog post explained, it is simply wrong-headed to pretend like a typical syllabus for a brick-and-mortar course could simply be transferred online with minimal effort: “Release yourself from high expectations right now,” writes Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University giving advice to instructors on how to make the online transition, “because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”

If that’s the case, though, then it also seems impractical to hold students to the same sort of expectations for the work they submit this semester. Students were told in the first week of class (or, at the very least, by the original course syllabus) how their final grade would be determined, but such metrics may indeed require unorthodox rethinking, given the unorthodox disruption of the course’s structure. Even if digital surrogates are available for in-person class techniques, it might well be unfair to simply treat “Making at least two online Discussion Board posts each week” as equivalent to “Regular participation in discussions in class” in the final assessment – particularly since the student did not sign up for a class which would require them to post in online discussion boards. Expectations of flexibility for teachers goes hand-in-hand with expectations of flexibility for students.

And this also extends to assignments that might initially seem to be easier because of such disruptions: reading requirements, term papers, and other ‘deliverables’ that are typically done primarily (or exclusively) at home might appear to be resistant to the exigencies of the global pandemic, but this is not clearly true. Given that many students now have additional pressures at home, such as disrupted work schedules, families – particularly those with children whose schools have closed – with additional needs, and the looming stress of global uncertainty, it will not be surprising if many students find themselves in difficult positions to complete work at home, even if the expected work is typically done at home.

So, given that many universities have made the decision to unexpectedly shift to a radically different structure to safely finish the semester, those universities also need to consider how best to assess student work overall this Spring. Some institutions have announced that this semester will be graded on a standard, widespread pass/fail system for all students, thereby leaving instructors with the flexibility to make generalized assessments about student work, without holding students to the standard expectations of the typical tiered letter system. Other universities have given students the choice to request a pass/fail assessment scheme for this semester; students who do not choose such a dispensation will receive a standard letter grade for their work. At the writing of this article, only a minority of colleges have announced such plans; many still are undoubtedly in talks behind-the-scenes to work out how things like scholarships and other matters of financial aid tied to GPAs would be affected by such a move.

But, no matter the moves that institutions might make overall, individual college instructors would do well to consider precisely what they are asking their students to do to finish out this semester – and grade them graciously, regardless.

Teacher Evaluations

In a similar way, course and teacher evaluations from students are perpetually questioned about their efficacy and the inevitable role of implicit (and explicit) biases on student reports; Kenneth Boyd reported last academic year on some of the ethical questions posed by student evaluations of their instructors, concluding “a system that provides unreliable and biased results ought to be reformed or abandoned.”

This seems particularly true this Spring, when students will be asked to evaluate instructors who were forced to upend their plans two-thirds of the way through the course and hastily “triage” the remainder of their syllabi to finish out the semester. Even if the shift was done in comparably smooth fashion, technological failures will unexpectedly disrupt even those best-laid plans – particularly now, when user loads are taxing online learning management systems beyond their capacity. There are always questions about the usefulness (or lack thereof) of student evaluations; those questions are only compounded in the wake of university responses to the coronavirus.

Given this, the American Federation for Teachers and the American Association of University Professors issued a joint statement calling for, among other things, explicit protections “against the punitive use of negative teaching evaluations during the period of the disruption (e.g., a quick transition to an online format may create a lack of depth; a faculty member may not have been adequately trained to teach online, etc.).” Given that numerous career-determining decisions are impacted by such evaluations (hiring committees, contract renewal, tenure conferral, etc.), the extension of grace towards instructors in this matter is also important.

Fees and Refunds

Finally, questions of financial recompense have already come bubbling to the forefront of this conversation. Consider how this article began – by underscoring the uniquely social character of the university – if this semester has been fundamentally unable to deliver such an experience, then students who paid tuition to receive such an experience may feel entitled to be at least partially refunded.

Consider what a denial of this claim might entail: if a college insists (hypothetically) that a student does not deserve a refund for Spring 2020 because they were able to complete their coursework and receive a grade, then that suggests that it is the grade, not the class experience that is of utmost importance. Not only does this seem wrong, but it seems to contradict the general manner in which colleges tout themselves as institutions of higher education that offer unique learning experiences undeliverable by other methods (or other institutions) – not simply as functional providers of classwork that grant grades and degrees at the end of some-course-or-another.

Furthermore, the closure of campus services – like libraries or recreation centers – might well warrant at least a prorated refund for the fees charged for students to use them. This seems especially true for those students forcibly removed from their living arrangements in on-campus dorms and dining halls. Some colleges have already announced plans to return at least some of these monies to students; others have suggested that such refunds are implausible.

For this second group, colleges – like other operations that charge regular participation fees (such as gyms, museums, or country clubs) – could argue that the unpredictable circumstances about the pandemic (and, in some cases, governmental orders) were not the fault of the institution, so the institution’s closure does not entail an obligation to refund disadvantaged students (or members). Furthermore, given the significance of so-called ‘auxiliary fees’ (like what students pay for room and board) for many college’s overall budgets, it might not be feasible for institutions to issue widespread refunds without risking financial insolvency.

While the case to close campuses was fairly uniform nation-wide, answers to these questions are anything but clear. Although a slow consensus seems to be congealing around the move to more generalized grading systems this semester, concerns over teaching evaluations and the eventual question of financial liability for the semester’s upsets will soon be unavoidable. In the midst of practicing good “social distancing,” it might be prudent to start thinking through an intelligent response to such debates.

A.G. Holdier is a doctoral student in philosophy and public policy at the University of Arkansas interested in cultural capital, social and political epistemology, and the intersection of ethics with philosophy of language. More info available at www.agholdier.com
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