photograph of gate to school with
"School closed due to heavy snowfall" by belchonock (via depositphotos)

When it became clear that DePauw University was considering cancelling in-class sessions and having students move out of their living units, I began thinking through a number of reasons why this was something that places of higher education should seriously consider. Collectively these reasons make a strong case for thinking that colleges and universities have a moral duty to take measures to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, and furthermore, that places of higher education might have added responsibilities.

The first set of reasons is more of a response to objections that students and parents might have for thinking that cancelling in-person classes is a bad idea. I’ll address those first. Then I will offer four reasons for thinking that colleges have more responsibility for mitigating the spread of coronavirus than other individuals or institutions.

Things Students and Parents Might Be Thinking:

  1. This won’t be bad for young students
    A common attitude that a student or parent might have is that college students either won’t get coronavirus or if they do it won’t be that bad for them. The first attitude is patently false. College students around the country have tested positive for COVID19 and many more will. The second attitude has a ring of truth to it. Most college students will probably not have severe conditions, but some will. Many young Americans have compromised immune systems due to heart conditions, diabetes, respiratory conditions, and cancers. And the death rates are much higher for coronavirus than seasonal flu.  Top US health officials say that this virus is 10 times more lethal than seasonal flu. The confirmed case death rate for the flu is about 0.1% while the confirmed case death rate for the coronavirus is about 3.4%.
  2. We’re all going to get it anyway, so why the drastic measures?
    I’ve heard some people say that it’s inevitable that everyone (or almost everyone)  is going to get the virus, and so it doesn’t make sense to take drastic measures to stop the spread of the virus. However, whether it’s inevitable or not, there is still significant value in slowing the progression of this disease. Imagine if you owned a restaurant and you were guaranteed to have 1,000,000 customers place an order, but you didn’t know when they were coming. You don’t want them to come all at once or within a few days of each other. You wouldn’t have enough servers or tables to handle them all at once. You would likely run out of food and supplies. It would be better to have those customers spread out over 12 months. COVID19 is like that.Some healthcare professionals refer to this as “Flattening the Curve.” As this article explains, we are much better off having people get this at different times. It makes it more likely that there will be beds and healthcare workers for those who need it most. It gives the healthcare service industry time to scale up production of vital resources to mitigate the effects of the disease and save more lives. Optimism is high there will be a vaccine, but it could be at least a year before we have a viable vaccine. Slowing the disease buys us time so that it may in fact not be inevitable that everyone gets this.

Why Universities and Colleges Have Extra Moral Reasons to Slow Progression of COVID19
There are good reasons for everyone to take steps to help slow progression of COVID19, but colleges might have an even stronger moral duty to do this work.

  1. Higher Education Structure Spreads Disease
    Here is a plausible moral principle: If you are causally responsible for a harm (or potential harm) you have an extra moral reason to take steps to prevent that harm. Universities and colleges are in this position with respect to the coronavirus. As this article explains, the things that make colleges wonderful also make them an exceptionally good breeding ground for pathogens. Universities and colleges are very social institutions. We encourage students to live on campus in close quarters. They attend several different classes a week. When you count the number of classes, co-curriculars, athletics, and social groups (such as fraternity and sorority friends), the average college student is in close contact with hundreds of people every day. Add to this that colleges are global institutions that send faculty and students abroad, and it’s clear that every college or university is a potential hotspot for an outbreak in ways that a lot of other organizations and businesses are not. That puts a greater moral burden on higher education institutions to act.
  2. Vulnerable Groups at Universities and Colleges
    The situation could be even worse at a college or university because the average retirement age for professors tends to be higher and universities often have a vibrant and active community of retired emeritus professors in their midst. This means that there is more at stake locally for your typical college or university. On the plausible assumption that employers have a responsibility to care for the well-being of those they employ, colleges have extra reasons to be concerned about slowing the spread of the virus.
  3. Fundamental Mission to Sustain Democracy
    It is sometimes forgotten that one of the fundamental aims of colleges and universities is to strengthen and sustain a legitimate and flourishing democracy. The Jeffersonian idea is that we need all of these colleges and universities to provide citizens with the knowledge, skills, and capacities to be good, democratic citizens. Our fundamental mission is not to educate students; educating students is simply how colleges and universities think they can best fulfill the fundamental mission of preserving our democracy. To that end, anything that is a potential threat to democracy should be of grave concern to any college or university and sometimes colleges and universities should be called upon to temporarily suspend the usual ways in which we preserve our democracy, especially if business as usual poses a different sort of potential threat.  And, yes, pandemics are a significant threat to democracy.
  4. Colleges in Small Communities
    This last moral reason applies to colleges and universities in small, rural communities. Colleges and universities have responsibilities to the communities that they operate within. The degree of responsibility is proportional to how much damage the college is uniquely capable of inflicting on the community. When a college is part of a small community with few other large organizations, they bear a greater share of the moral responsibility to limit the ways in which it might cause harm via disease spread. A place like DePauw is the biggest risk factor for Greencastle having an outbreak, and so places like DePauw have extra reasons to consider closing down.

The decision to close a college is disruptive for so many people, and I get the sense that many students think that these are arbitrary and capricious decisions that couldn’t possibly be motivated by sound moral reasoning. Whatever you decide about the wisdom of closing colleges, I hope you do so with the understanding that there are several significant morally relevant considerations that give college administrators and boards legitimate moral reasons to join the fight to slow the progression of this virus.


UPDATE: (3-15-2020)

The Likelihood of College Students Spreading the Virus Without Symptoms
Since this piece was published, it has come to light that people who have the virus but do not have symptoms are playing an even bigger role in the spread of the virus than we previously thought. It’s also coming to light that people who spread the disease without symptoms tend to be 20 years old and younger. That gives colleges and universities even more reason to consider closing, since college age students are likely to contribute to the spread in ways that make mitigation extremely difficult.