misusing this crisis

This Monday, the University Senate Executive Committee (SEC) met in a special meeting and “voted unanimously to exercise its emergency powers to take” Resolution RS2003 on the University’s Response to COVID-19.

The process asks for giving the Members of the Academic Senate 3 days, till 5 p.m. of Thursday, March 26 to express their views, so that SEC can adopt a resolution and recommend a course of actions to the administration on Friday, March 27th.

This is a fast track action, if one ever saw one. And the reason for this rush: the resolution asks to stop teaching dead in its track. Here’s the language:

Be it resolved, Senate members call for the University to end immediately the Spring 2020
semester and direct instructors to calculate final grades based on the first eight weeks’
assessments or convert to pass/fail <…>

What is the rationale for this abrupt stop? The bulk of it is a litany of our privileged lifestyle disruptions: “panic and anxiety”, “extraordinary moment for the University, the United States, and the planet”, “dire conditions of a world-historic, once-in-a-generation global health crisis”, and (at the background of the world-historic crisis) the fact that we had to spend the spring break moving our classes online.

All these grievances could safely be ignored, but one, a true and serious reason: the digital divide. Indeed, moving classes online assumes that the students have the devices and the Internet service at home, – and many don’t.

What shall we do in this situation? This is the standard choice of how to achieve basic fairness: either we disrupt to make everyone equal at the lowest level, – denying half a semester worth of education to our students, – or at the highest, by acting quickly and providing access to all.

As a quick example: setting a program of our students who purchase decent tablets or laptops would cost $500 or so per person. Another $500 would cover buying broadband internet access for half a year. One time cost to our University will be high, for sure, but miniscule compared to the inevitable hits down the road, as the enrollment, especially international one, dwindles. Showing that we are committed to giving to all of our students a fighting chance to learn (world-historic crisis be damned) will make a huge difference to keep faith in UofI as an institution.

Should we follow the course charted by the resolution, the reputation losses from reneging on what is written in our mission, – “to transform lives and serve society by educating, creating knowledge, and putting knowledge to work”, – would be immeasurable.

We can do better. Progressive fairness is not to deny to all what is not given to some. The fairness is to give to all the best we can. Resolution 2003 would be a spectacular failure at it. Do not adopt it.

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