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Tuesday, September 22, 2020 — Houston, TX °

Return to campus — but to what end?

Courtesy of Rice University CS Department

By Moshe Vardi     8/4/20 4:00pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors. 

In my July 24 letter, I questioned Rice University’s plans to bring back a significant majority of the undergraduate population to campus. I argued that these plans raise significant risks to the health of Rice’s students, faculty, and staff, as well as the surrounding community. In a July 28 letter to the Rice community,  President David Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches indirectly argued that the risk is reduced because Rice expects less than 40% of undergraduate students to be housed on campus and about three-fourths of our student contact hours will be taught remotely. But even at this reduced risk, students and their parents need to know that the campus will not be safe, and the risk to health and lives should be evaluated against potential benefits. Therefore, it is worth examining what these benefits are. 

In his July 17 letter, Leebron stated that Rice intends to provide a “robust intellectual and social environment” for the fall semester. So the main reason for returning physically to the Rice campus is to try and provide the experience our students value. I was told by the Faculty Senate that senior exit surveys show that about 75% of what Rice students value about their time at Rice happens outside the classroom. I am also told that students surveyed after the Spring 2020 semester told us that while they basically all understood and agreed with the abrupt transition to remote education that was made in mid-semester, they largely reported that classroom experience suffered noticeably. Clearly, if Rice does not bring back the students to Rice and instead opts for remote teaching, the value students and their families will put on Rice education may drop dramatically.

But it is an illusion to think that we can provide a robust in-person intellectual and social environment on campus under COVID-19.  As I pointed out in my earlier  letter to the editor, social interaction in the residential colleges will be very tightly regulated, and interaction in in-person classes is likely to be mediated by technology rather than by face-to-face communication. In a July 28 Thresher letter, my colleague Helena Michie pointed out that “when we talk about a ‘return’ to campus, we must be clear that it is not in any sense a return.” In fact, when I tried to imagine myself teaching an in-person class of 25 students who are spread across a large auditorium, communicating with me on Zoom, while the students and I are wearing face masks, it dawned on me that I will be conducting remote teaching in the classroom. Having realized that, I opted for fully remote teaching, where neither I nor the students have to wear face masks. Similarly, many students have opted for off-campus housing, having realized how stilted socially-distant person-to-person interaction will be on campus and how far it will be from normal. In a nutshell, the benefit is not worth the risk! I share the goal of “robust intellectual and social environment,” but we must figure out how to do it using remote technology.

Unstated in communications from the Rice administration was the financial motive. If Rice goes fully online, there is a concern that tuition revenue will also drop dramatically, one way or another — Rice may either have to substantially reduce what it charges students, or the students may choose not to enroll at Rice this year.  In addition, there would be the loss of the income from room and board fees as well.

I am fully aware that substantially reducing the number of Rice students welcomed back to campus this fall could have serious financial consequences, but I am deeply skeptical of trying to address such concerns by promises of a realistically unrealizable robust intellectual and social environment. If there is one clear lesson from COVID-19 so far, it is, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, that those who would risk health and lives for a temporary economic boost end up getting neither. While it is nice to imagine that COVID-19 will be over by Christmas, we must consider the possibility that we will also have to operate in the spring of 2021 under pandemic conditions. A disastrous fall semester would inflict on Rice lasting financial and reputational pain. I should add that my skepticism is shared by many Rice faculty members who have communicated with me on this topic over the past several weeks.

So how should we approach the fall semester? I’d suggest two key principles. First, the decision to be on campus (or in Houston) should be need based. For example, many research labs that need access to facilities are currently operational. This is a real need as they have no other option, so students that need access to physical labs should be invited to return. Second, invest more in remote teaching. Rice is making a substantial investment in outdoor tents, plexiglass partitions, massive testing and the like, which have no real long-term utility, all for holding in-person classes with, most likely, a few hundred students. But high-quality remote teaching requires more resources than in-class teaching. Thus, we should provide more resources to the faculty for remote teaching, considering that most of the classes will be online. In doing so, we will train our whole faculty body to become comfortable with online education, a skill that we can leverage in diverse ways in the future.

While the number of COVID-19 cases in Houston has declined over the past two weeks, some epidemiological models predict a new surge of cases. We should not hesitate to learn from several other schools, for example, Duke University, which just revised its own plan for the coming fall. I strongly urge Rice to re-evaluate the decision to bring back to campus a significant fraction of the undergraduate population. 

Moshe Y. Vardi is a University Professor and the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor of Computational Engineering.

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