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COVID-19 and Higher Education

In 2015 Jim Keenan published his groundbreaking book University Ethics. Keenan contended that university professors and administrators are among the few professionals lacking a code of ethics.[1]  If ever the academy needed one to guide their decision-making, it is now.  The COVID-19 crisis has evinced the myriad, complex ethical issues in U.S. higher education, exacerbated many of its longstanding problems, and created new ones.  It is impossible to treat them all here adequately. However, having recently completed my forthcoming book Just Universities, several readily come to mind.[2]

Trust and Transparency

            Observers have bemoaned the lack of trust among stakeholders in U.S. higher education. Keenan and others have stated that many faculty members feel important decisions are made by administrators without their meaningful input.[3]  Boards of trustees and administrators (increasingly without teaching experience) often envision pursuing the mission of colleges and universities according to different paradigms. A former president of three Catholic universities, William Byron SJ contends this can be particularly problematic at Catholic institutions of higher learning, where knowledge of Catholic moral principles is sometimes cursory among leaders.[4] Tenure track faculty members have also contributed to the problems, as Keenan noted.   Far too many have overemphasized their own productivity rather than promoting justice and fairness at their own institutions and in higher education generally.[5]

Whatever the reasons for the tenuous relationship between faculty and administrators, it is essential to rebuild the trust necessary for all stakeholders to undertake the sacrifices presently needed.  Transparency is a must.  In this vein, Catholic social teaching’s emphasis on the right to participation aligns with the American Association of University Professors’ insistence that administrations “be transparent…keep the faculty fully informed…[and] consult meaningfully with existing faculty governance bodies.”[6]  Unfortunately, some professors believe, rightly or wrongly, that administrators will use the crisis to further erode shared governance, faculty compensation, tenure, and the academic ethos of their institutions.[7]

The COVID-19 crisis has also intensified scrutiny of the value and purpose of higher education among those paying the high costs.[8]  Some are calling for tuition reductions if classes continue online, while some students have filed lawsuits demanding their money back for last semester.[9] Parents who have lost jobs may not be able to pay for college this fall and beyond.  College was already unaffordable for many low SES (socioeconomic status) and middle class students in the U.S.[10] With revenue losses from this year and next in the tens or even hundreds of millions, some institutions, albeit likely a small minority, may even have to close permanently.[11] In short, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated a situation in which many stakeholders in U.S. higher education already felt the system burdens them unfairly, while the institutions maintain their budgets are already stretched thin.  Administrators face enormous pressure to reopen campuses this fall, as the majority of students find learning online “unappealing.”

Protection of the Most Vulnerable

However, returning to campuses is a threat to life and limb difficult to justify, even while acknowledging the significant benefits of classroom and laboratory learning and the major losses to budgets.  COVID-19 has a much higher mortality rate (6% of observed cases in the United States, with likely many more than the 100,000 deaths reported already) than the seasonal flu and is far more damaging to the human body.[12] In this situation, Catholic social teaching requires finding ways to protect human life, particularly the most vulnerable.  Among them are students, faculty, and staff with preconditions or above 45, who are at much greater risk of succumbing to the coronavirus.  The median age of faculty members (49) and proportion above 55 (37%) surpasses those numbers in the general workforce (42 and 23%).[13]  People of color are disproportionately dying of COVID-19.  Thus, university employees of color will be in a particularly precarious situation on campuses, which an epidemiologist likened to cruise ships in terms of rampant viral transmission.[14] Cases of young adults suffering severe inflammatory syndromes have also recently surfaced.

Given the nature of COVID-19, some academics believe that reopening campuses would require very costly testing, tracing, and quarantine protocols that exceed the capacity of most institutions.[15] Michael J. Sorrell, an attorney and president of a historically black college, thus contends returning to campus represents “an abdication of our moral responsibility as leaders.”[16] On the other hand, some university presidents have reportedly beseeched legislators and Vice President Mike Pence to shield them from lawsuits when students, faculty, and staff get sick or die, thereby demonstrating their cognizance of potential loss of life.[17]

Many university employees also stand to lose their livelihood, as universities have begun to furlough and lay off employees.  Staff, graduate assistants, and adjunct faculty who already earn paltry wages, lack health insurance and job security will likely suffer the most as further cuts are made.[18] Food and housing insecurity is increasing among low SES students as dorms and cafeterias remain shuttered.[19] Students are deprived of mental health services at a time when depression and anxiety are skyrocketing. Keeping campuses closed will aggravate these issues, creating moral dilemmas.

Straining for Ways Forward          

In Just Universities, I argue that highly-paid administrators, coaches, and tenured faculty members should be willing to accept “solidarity pay cuts” proportionate to their salaries to assist lower salary and wage earners. Some institutional leaders, such as the Chancellors of University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, have admirably done so for the upcoming year (20% and 10% respectively).[20] Institutions with endowments should consider increasing spending before asking faculty and staff to sacrifice pay and benefits, as faculty salaries have remained largely flat while the endowment returns have exceeded an 8% average over the last decade.[21]  According to one study, it is often erroneously maintained that most endowment funds are “restricted” and “half of all colleges have endowments that could withstand 13 years of rainy days.”  The authors contend that “real incomes will rise over the years, so nonprofits can, in general, look forward to increased revenue from donations and user fees. Squeezing today’s students…to save money for future generations … is misguided.”[22] In addition, in accordance with the option for the poor, more institutions should follow those recently adopting permanent test-optional admissions and need-based financial aid policies. As I show in Just Universities, such policies lead to more low SES and minoritized students, a stronger student body overall, and generally boost enrollments.  Athletics budgets, which have increased much faster than instructional budgets in recent decades, should be reallocated to needs more central to university mission.

None of these proposals are a panacea, and the crisis we face is not just financial, but also one of meaning and purpose.  Going forward, we should embrace a pedagogy of the present: what are we teaching our students through our decisions? Is being on campus, a real communal value, more important than risking the health and lives of those who will become infected?  Can we ask our students, families and all stakeholders, including ourselves, to sacrifice in solidarity, from a distance, while we weather a storm unlike anything in the last 100 years?  During that time, can we make high-quality teaching, mental health services, and spiritual guidance available to all students? Virtual delivery of these services is not ideal, but perhaps this temporary kind of learning community can suffice until it is truly safe to return to campus.  Some Catholic institutions adapted already this spring by holding daily prayer, faith discussions, etc. online.[23]  Can we provide temporary housing and meals for the relatively small number of homeless students while enabling social distancing among them and the support staff needed for these purposes? There are no ideal solutions and no easy answers for those entrusted with making these decisions.  They must, however, make them with the right principles, values, and virtues in mind.  CST provides a moral framework that should inform all Catholic institutions.

[1] James F. Keenan, University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 4.

[2] Gerald J. Beyer, Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021),

[3] Keenan, 64-67.

[4] William Byron, “Essential Ingredients for Trusteeship at Today’s Catholic Colleges,” Trusteeship, September/October 2011, 4-5.

[5] See Keenan, 57-61.

[6] AAUP Principles and Standards for the COVID-19 Crisis,

[7] See Jacques Berlinerblau, “After Coronavirus, the Deluge,” The Chronicle Of Higher Education, March 26, 2020, and François Furstenberg, “University Leaders Are Failing: Change is Needed,” The Chronicle Of Higher Education, May 19, 2020,

[8] New America Foundation, Varying Degrees 2019: New America’s Third Annual Survey on Higher Education, Executive Summary,

[9] Greta Anderson, “Students Turn to Courts for Refunds,” Inside Higher Ed, April 20, 2020,

[10] See

[11] Rick Seltzer, “Another Crack at Measuring Colleges’ Financial Strength,” Inside Higher Ed, May 8, 2020.

[12] See

[13] Jasper McChesney and Jacqueline Bichsel,  The Aging of Tenure-Track

Faculty in Higher Education, College and University Professional Association for Human Resources,

[14] Lilah Burke, “Is Testing Students for COVID Feasible?,” Inside Higher Ed, May 22nd, 2020,

[15] Irina Mikhalevich and Russell Powell, “The Misguided Rush to Reopen Universities,” Inside Higher Ed, May 21, 2020,  See also Burke, “Is Testing Students for COVID Feasible?”

[16] Michael J. Sorrell, “Colleges Are Deluding Themselves,” The Atlantic, May 15, 2020,

[17] Kery Murakami, “Colleges Worry They’ll Be Sued if They Reopen Campuses,” Inside Higher Ed, May 15, 2020,

[18] “A Very Stable and Secure Position?,” Inside Higher Ed,  April 30, 2020,

[19] Susan Snyder, “Homeless and Hungry College Students Will Face Greater Challenges Because of the Coronavirus,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 2020.

[20] Bill Shackner, “Penn State Cuts Budgets, Announces Furloughs amid Financial Losses Caused by Covid-19,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 27, 2020.

[21] See

[22] Burton A. Weisbrod and Evelyn D. Asch, “Endowment for a Rainy Day,” Stanford Social Innovation Review,

Winter 2010.

[23] Ryan Di Corpo, “Catholic Colleges and Universities Fight to Avert Fiscal Disaster amid the Coronavirus Pandemic,” America, May 7, 2020.