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Universities Are Playing Fast and Loose With Students’ Health

Who’s really responsible for Covid-19 outbreaks when university campuses reopen?

By Cynthia Greenlee

August 17, 2020

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill freshmen wear masks around campus.(Ted Richardson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.

Update: The existence of a fourth Covid-19 cluster has now been reported at UNC-Chapel Hill. Also, in the hours since this article was published, the UNC administration announced that it would be moving to all-remote classes starting August 19 and trying to reduce the population living on campus.

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durham, n.c. On October 26, 1918, the popular 42-year-old president of the University of North Carolina, Edward Kidder Graham, died in the night. The cause: complications from a highly contagious flu that killed an estimated 675,000 US residents during a brutal pandemic.

Newspapers around North Carolina eulogized “Sonny” Graham as a fallen educational hero, the university’s youngest-ever chief, and a mentor much beloved by Chapel Hill students. The Monroe Journal detailed his quick descent into illness:

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Dr. Graham had been ill less than a week, being stricken with the influenza some time last Monday. The disease quickly assumed the most malignant type, and turned into the dread pneumonia on Wednesday. Dr. Graham had a high fever from the start, but doctors did not despair of saving him until yesterday.

Upon UNC’s naming Graham’s successor in January 1919, longtime university trustee William Nash Everett said in a speech, “Marvin Hendrix Stacy was of the material of which presidents are made!” But “within the week—of a disease contracted during the line of duty, while attending the meeting of the committee, Dean Stacy was dead.” Everett imagined Graham and his saintly sidekick Stacy helming some great pearly-gates public university in the sky.

The university trustees symbolically adopted Graham’s young son and named Graham Memorial Hall, an early student union, after the first dead president claimed by the flu. UNC also named Stacy Residence Hall after the second president claimed by the flu.

This history hasn’t been suppressed. UNC held a symposium for the centennial of the 1918 pandemic two years ago, and a recent article in the school’s excellent newspaper The Daily Tar Heel explored the episode. Still, my alma mater is not exactly shouting these facts from the rooftops overlooking the Quad, where until recently students sunbathed en masse.

Those UNC trustees named the institution as Graham’s son’s caretaker—a literal expression of the common claim that universities are one big family and that they exist to prepare and protect the young. And though we can’t do historical contact tracing, the claim that Stacy got infected after visiting campus feels plausible.

Yet despite this ghastly history of an administration robbed of its leadership not once but twice (not to mention at least seven known student deaths), amid buildings meant as brick-and-mortar reminders of the 1918 pandemic, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reopened its campus earlier this month. Move-in started August 3. Classes began a week later, and the university initially reported that 43 percent of classes are in-person or have components that require physical attendance. That statistic comforted no one.

This past Friday, the university confirmed Covid-19 clusters in two housing communities, meaning at least five people tested positive for the novel coronavirus. On Sunday, a third cluster, based at the Sigma Nu fraternity house, made headlines. By the time this article goes live, I’m sure there will be more cases and more clusters.

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These weren’t the disease’s debut on campus. When a late July New York Times investigation found 6,600 coronavirus cases at US colleges and universities, it listed 37 at UNC—all related to athletics.

News of the recent clusters circulated in official e-mail alerts—after headlines about large gatherings off campus (including at least one at a fraternity house) and the ejection of three students from campus housing for failure to social distance.

Let’s not unthinkingly embrace the conventional wisdom, or swallow the university-dispensed Kool-Aid, which defaults to student blaming. As a resident of the Triangle region—which is chockablock with universities and many of the state’s historically Black colleges—I occasionally engage in mild student bashing myself. I never look forward to the twice-yearly “Return of the Undergraduates,” a season fully deserving of capitalization. Year-round residents recognize its symptoms in minor inconveniences: longer grocery lines; newly crowded libraries; a proliferation of lithe jaywalkers in short shorts and yoga pants; and the sudden parties and lack of parking around campuses.

However, this year I faced this season with trepidation rather than peevishness, fearing the outbreaks that were sure to follow—entirely preventable outbreaks if UNC Chapel Hill, the state university system, and other area schools had heeded common sense, caution, and public health advice and not reopened on the usual fall schedule.

I know, from my reporting and work on reproductive and sexual health, that asking people to change their behavior is the hardest thing to do—even when the correct thing to do has been clear for decades. Right now, scientists and public health practitioners are still debating the growing evidence that the virus may be spread by even the tiniest floating drops spewed when we talk or cough.

I also know that young people can be inveterate risk takers. Younger Americans aren’t wearing their masks at the same rate as seniors; the Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of people 65 and older it polled said they wore a mask most or all of the time in the last month, compared with 62 percent of interviewees in the 18–29 range.

But plunking people—especially young people—into a common space and asking them not to socialize is likely to be just as effective as telling them not to have sex until marriage. And what a miserable failure moralizing and inaccurate abstinence-only sex education has been. UNC’s ongoing coronavirus debacle is another rank failure and an embarrassment—especially for a university with a respected school of public health.

Because the fact is, those students should have never had the chance or choice to move back in. The local Orange County Health Department recommended that UNC go to all-virtual instruction for fall 2020 or, at least, delay reopening for five weeks. It wanted to buy more time to assess the virus’s trend in a rare North Carolina city where public transportation is widely used. Their request—framed as a mere friendly suggestion by university higher-ups—also recognized that North Carolina’s “curve” has never approached anything close to “flattening.”

Obviously, the university didn’t heed the all-remote semester recommendation. I didn’t expect it to; when I was a student there, it was a matter of pride that the university didn’t close during the Civil War, even when under Union occupation. (Forget about snow days, kids.)

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Nor did UNC consult with the school’s Faculty Council about the recommendation, a brazen disregard for the university workforce most affected by instructional changes. Instead, it charged ahead with its reopening plans, and as of August 14, on-campus housing was about 61 percent full.

I refuse to lay primary blame for the outbreaks at the feet of young people, some of whom who may believe in their own invincibility and act with little regard for our collective safety. They might be young and reckless, but it’s the prematurely reopening universities that are more reckless—and ultimately responsible (no matter how they dodge legal culpability).

Universities are deluding themselves about campus outbreaks in the making—their making. They should take a page from the world of sexual health, where the language and understanding has shifted subtly but significantly from “safe sex” to “safer sex” and the recognition that no sex is 100 percent risk-free—condoms, backup methods, and compassionate partners notwithstanding.

There is no safety in residential education at this juncture.

I’ve watched universities in central North Carolina and beyond emphasize mask-wearing and individual-level choices, with good reason. But they engage in egregious institutional gaslighting (“we’re doing it for the students”) and avoid the obvious: that their decision-making has pushed some people—students, faculty, and staff—to risk their health for an education or a livelihood.

At Durham’s North Carolina Central University, a 36-page guide to campus life and operations during the pandemic has more bullet points about safety in campus research facilities than in dormitories. Across town, my doctoral alma mater, Duke University, argued that first-year students deserve to start their nonpareil Duke experience with that all-important freshman year on campus.

That won’t help town-gown relationships in Durham, which alternate between fraught, cautiously friendly, collaborative, and symbiotic. It won’t convince university housekeepers, graduate students, staff, and faculty that their lives matter. Duke’s exceptionalist rhetoric and the precious-metals price tag of its tuition won out over safety.

And for what? Its “Ivy of the South with basketball” brand will not wither on the vine after a virtual semester or two. Its $8 billion endowment is obscenely healthy—about the same size as Haiti’s gross domestic product in 2017. Its technology game is tight, with the university building an entire campus complete with its own Internet system in Kunshan, China. Higher-education hubris and profiteering are not pretty. They’re also dangerous—and can be deadly.

Maybe no one will die on campus like they did in previous pandemics. Medicine has progressed in a century; some of these universities have state-of-the-art hospitals; and Duke reported only four coronavirus cases among more than 3,116 incoming students tested (a surprisingly low number).

But here again, history may be a guide about what’s to come.

Duke (then known as Trinity College) identified what was believed to be its first flu case in late September 1918. By November, “six or seven profesors [sic], twenty or more young ladies, several of the ladies of the faculty, and nearly two hundred boys were affected,” according to an update in the school newspaper. “Thermometer Squads” took the temperatures of the ill twice a day, and the Student Army Training Corps chipped in. Meanwhile, an adjacent article noted, Alpha Delta Phi sorority had just taken an idyllic motor trip to the country, laying down all burdens but their lunch baskets; “owing to the scarcity of servants, the young ladies rolled up their sleeves and prepared dinner, while the gentleman helped.”

One might think that all was well, as those young men and women toasted marshmallows and listened to Victrola tunes. Yet months later, in April 1919, freshman J.W. Neal died from flu complications in Durham’s Watts Hospital. By mid-February 1920, Duke implemented another round of voluntary quarantine; the school newspaper reported 16 mild flu cases among students and urged the student body to “carry on” without going into town and without basketball games or a coming Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. Class schedules continued to be disrupted; the same article noted that an English professor was recovering from the flu. When he’d resume teaching was anyone’s guess.

North Carolina State University—to the east of Duke—couldn’t hold off the flu sweeping the nation either. In October 1918, the same month UNC President Graham perished, 450 NCSU students got the flu and 13 died. Nine were freshmen. That same month, 300 of the 400 students at Elon College (now Elon University, about a half-hour’s drive to the west of Duke) contracted the flu, which killed three of them. The university’s gym was transformed into a makeshift hospital, and students nursed each other. The young people we now assume to be careless agents of contagion were the frontline responders of the flu pandemic.

Cynthia GreenleeCynthia Greenlee, PhD, is a journalist and historian based in North Carolina. Her work is available at cynthiagreenlee.com.


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