The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

How Many Universities Built COVID Potemkin Villages To Lure Students Back To Campus?

My cynical take on the first week back.


Over the past six months, cash-strapped Universities have spent untold amounts of money preparing to bring students back to campus. Colleges established elaborate plans on how student would interact in "pods." Classrooms were built on tennis courts to ensure there was enough space for learning. Modular housing units were constructed to ensure there was space for quarantining students. Labs dedicated critical resources for rapid-response testing. Intrusive "contact-tracing" apps were mandated, to ensure people did not socialize outside of their pods. Now, after barely a week on campus, COVID-19 outbreaks have come rampant. Campus after campus has shut down. None of these events should be surprising.

May I offer a cynical take? At some point last spring, universities recognized that if they shifted to an all-online model, they would see a drop in enrollment. And quite rationally, they recognized they could not afford that revenue cut. So the universities decided that they would have to prove to the students that there was a plan in place to safely open up campus. And they built these elaborate structures and implemented intricate plans to welcome back students. All of these efforts relied on overwhelmingly rosy assumptions about human behavior–assumptions that are inconsistent with everything we know about how 18-21-year-olds behave. Certainly, some of these universities recognized that if the students broke protocol, there would be a rash of positive tests. But they moved forward anyway.

In hindsight, these expensive efforts look like little more than Potemkin Villages. The universities crafted together fancy marketing plans to put students at ease, and prevent them from withdrawing. Now, students have paid their seat deposits. Tuition has been remitted. With the financials settled, it is far simpler to simply pull the trigger, and shift everyone online.

Last year we saw litigation over tuition rates. I suspect the litigation this term will be far more severe: How many colleges misled students into enrolling, knowing full well that there was no reasonable chance the semester would proceed in person? I would not be surprised if we see some RICO actions. One relevant piece of evidence will be the trigger for closure. That is, how many positive tests would the university be willing to tolerate before shutting down in-person instruction? If that number is non-existent, then the University's plans were illusory. If that number is too high, then the University's plan was unrealistic. If that number is too low, then the University never actually planned to keep students on campus for any reasonable period of time. Discovery here will be painful for universities.

In hindsight, perhaps all of that money spent on building Potemkin Villages would have been better used for tuition rebates.