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Op-eds, Opinions

Pipatjarasgit ’21: President Paxson, since when has safety been your priority?

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Friday, August 14, 2020

On Aug. 11, President Christina Paxson P’19 announced “modifications” to the University’s original fall 2020 plans released on July 7 (though the term “reversal” is more appropriate in my view). This announcement came the day after students were supposed to (but didn’t) receive their housing information, less than a week before the start of the pre-registration add/drop period and, most glaringly, less than three weeks before students were supposed to arrive on College Hill beginning Aug. 29. Ultimately, I support this decision, as I believe it is in the best interest of safety for students and the greater Providence community. But the suddenness of President Paxson’s recent reversal, juxtaposed against her April 26 op-ed for the New York Times, raises questions about whether she actually prioritized safety before.

Many other schools were putting safety first weeks ago through decisive actions and clear communications. Several institutions in New England that had intended to reopen in person have since backtracked and will be offering all fall 2020 courses online, such as Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory in Boston on July 22, as well as Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, on Aug. 5. Plenty of other schools along the East Coast have made similar decisions, including Princeton, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and American University. Brown University stands out as having reversed course and deciding to start the semester all-online only after many other peer institutions had already decided to do so.

The reversal casts the viability of the University’s original plan into deep doubt. The need for a new plan seems to be an implicit admission that the University was unable to keep students safe under its previous plan. While Brown’s decision now appears to be the best option for keeping our community safe, the fact that the University’s reversal follows the decisions of many other schools raises a sobering question of whether or not safety, in Paxson’s adamance for reopening, had been a top priority up to this point. The University may have made this new, last-minute decision in the true interest of safety, but perhaps it is simply following its peer institutions because not doing so would be otherwise indefensible.

Paxson’s op-ed is perhaps the best example of her original commitment to reopening with little regard for whether the environment is actually safe. Paxson titled her piece in a way that speaks for itself: “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It.” The opinion piece focused on the economic harm that could be caused by not reopening college campuses, whereas the term “safely” was used a mere three times, suggesting that safety may not be Paxson’s guiding principle for reopening. Interestingly, Paxson makes her argument as if she were an infectious diseases expert, when in fact she is a health and family economist.

More importantly, the University’s messaging around safety and how it would have responded to safety concerns under the previous plan have become even less clear in light of this new change. “Colleges and universities must be able to safely handle the possibility of infection on campus while maintaining the continuity of their core academic functions,” Paxson wrote in her April op-ed. Furthermore, Paxson wrote, “Our duty now is to marshal the resources and expertise to make it possible to reopen our campuses, safely, as soon as possible.” If this were true, it would mean that a safe reopening, according to Paxson, is achievable; all an institution would need to do is simply take the proper steps. Therefore, the University’s last-minute decision to not reopen campus in September is indicative of one or both of the following: Either Brown failed in its planning for a safe reopening, or Paxson, a health economist but not a health care professional, exaggerated and overstated the realm of possibility for students to safely return to college campuses in the age of COVID-19.

What has changed in the state of Rhode Island since July 7, the day that Brown announced its fall 2020 decision? The seven-day average of reported deaths due to COVID-19 has remained in the low single digits since early July and has even been in consistent decline since then. It is also true that Rhode Island’s number of new, daily reported cases is significantly higher than it was on July 7. Paxson did note in a June 23 faculty meeting that she would reverse course in August if conditions worsened sufficiently. However, if we follow Paxson’s logic in her op-ed, this increase in rate of cases shouldn’t matter as long as the University can “safely handle the possibility of infection on campus,” which, as Paxson indicated, “universities must be able” to do. There seems to be a discrepancy between what Paxson promised in her op-ed and what would actually constitute a safe way forward. Paxson also maintained in her op-ed that universities’ plans should not involve sending students home in response to “upticks or resurgences in infections.” The University is clearly shifting, either for a month or for a semester, to remote learning, with the situation in Rhode Island having “deteriorated” within the past few weeks. Perhaps the University is hoping to avoid this problem of sending students home by not allowing students to return to campus in the first place, but this once again reveals a flaw in Paxson’s op-ed argument: The University is no longer living up to her confident claims that campuses will be able to safely reopen this fall.

Last-minute decisions and a lack of transparency provide for little student flexibility, and these patterns of action among University administration are not new: Brown’s reopening plan was announced on July 7, just five weeks ago, and students were asked to hastily make a decision as to whether or not they wanted to return to campus by July 15, just four weeks ago. Likewise, undergraduate students intending to live in University housing were told that they would receive housing information by Aug. 10, but the Division of Campus Life quietly changed this to the week of Aug. 10. Three weeks prior to the beginning of a semester is when universities and their students should normally be making their final preparations for the beginning of the semester. But instead, by pushing a necessary decision to the last minute, the University has confused and deeply stressed students. Many more last-minute decisions are likely to follow, and there appears to be no end in sight, harming the almost 85 percent of students who had been preparing to return to campus.

I am a rising senior, and even with my occasional criticisms, I have loved my time at Brown. Personally, this decision is disappointing, effectively eliminating my senior year experience. But as much as I want to return to campus and attend in-person classes, I am glad that Paxson and the University finally seem to have come to their senses, making safety their priority by taking the most extreme step needed to protect the community: keeping our campus population as small as possible. But this decision and its context, based in Paxson’s apparent newfound interest in safety, highlights the University’s conspicuous patterns of overpromising, underdelivering and turning its back on students, especially those facing, in Paxson’s own words, “financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely.”

Poom Andrew Pipatjarasgit ’21 is a concentrator in anthropology, French and Francophone studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies. He misses College Hill dearly and can be reached at poom_pipatjarasgit@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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