Guest Columnist

University of Iowa should change course to all virtual instruction

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld addresses the attendees during the 2019 Fall Philanthropy Talk at the Iowa Me
University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld addresses the attendees during the 2019 Fall Philanthropy Talk at the Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

Colleges and universities serve as hubs for innovation, build a shared identity among attendees, and prepare individuals for personal and career advancement. As someone who studies these institutions, I know higher education contributes most to our society and world when it makes data-informed decisions responsive to the broader public’s needs. Based on these criteria, the University of Iowa is failing to contribute to the good of those it serves: the university population, the Iowa City area, and the State of Iowa.

In March, colleges and universities across the country — including the University of Iowa — moved all classes to virtual instruction due to the spread of COVID-19 and the various uncertainties surrounding the virus. As both a student and an instructor, moving online proved challenging to my learning and teaching style. I am continually grateful for the ongoing resources and support provided by my instructors, the College of Education, and the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology.

Like many others, I was hoping the fall semester would bring a new sense of normalcy to what has been a chaotic and wild year. I expected the virus would be under control at a local, state, and national level where in-person instruction would be possible. I wish we could be in a place where I could cheer on the Hawkeyes in Kinnick. I wanted time to study with friends again at coffee shops and hope that my physical proximity to someone inspired intimacy for our relationship rather than fear for their wellness.

That did not happen.

As if they ignored the lack of coordinated response at a state and federal level, the university administration moved forward with a plan for an in-person fall semester. The UI was one of the few votes to maintain the fall football season in the Big Ten Conference. Those who know students’ behaviors and development best were rarely consulted, if ever. The University even boastfully reported student survey results that were more horrifying than comforting. For instance, rather than asking about the frequency of students’ behaviors related to curbing the spread of COVID-19, they asked about their intentions to undertake these behaviors. Researchers who understand social desirability bias and know that asking about intended actions almost always yields less accurate information than asking about actual behaviors.

As a former college administrator, I get it. Making these decisions cannot be easy in an environment where declines in state funding for education are the norm and not the exception. These decisions are not simple in a world where we have made higher education fit into a business model where students pay a larger portion of the price of educating themselves. It cannot be easy to fire, cut, and furlough individuals at rates no one could have predicted. These decisions are not comfortable when elected officials are ineffectual and take little action themselves. No one wants to be in this position.

And maintaining a course on a sinking ship is not the answer either. The University of Iowa — like other colleges — has continued to frame students as the problem. President Bruce Harreld’s letter shaming local businesses was no help either. Even decision-makers going so far to use the emergency alert system to tell students to “help keep campus open” is shocking in a year where I have little left to be surprised by. Yes, individuals and Iowa City business owners play a pivotal role in curbing the spread of COVID-19. And we cannot kid ourselves: the University’s decision to reopen in this way and make adjustments around the edges cannot be the answer.

The University of Iowa’s plans for reopening were made for an optimal situation. Unfortunately, we do not live in ideal times. We must take stock of where the data points us to now. Iowa City is one of the top areas where the virus has broken out over the last week and continues to rise. Even the White House’s coronavirus experts have called for more robust measures from the state’s leadership. With the writing on the wall, we — as a public university — must lessen the spread of COVID-19 and move all instruction to be virtual this semester. Doing this will allow those traditions and hallmarks of campus life that many of us love and cherish to become an actual reality once again rather than a remote possibility for the near future.

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Alex C. Lange of Coralville is a Ph.D. candidate in education policy and leadership studies at the University of Iowa.

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