Earlier this year, I suggested that the University of North Carolina (UNC) system and other university systems across the country were sending their students “into hell.” This dire warning, along with many others, fell on countless college administrators’ deaf ears.
Instead, the university system’s need to take in tuition dollars trumped the health and well-being of its students — the supposed raison d’etre for the system in the first place. Love of mammon has ensured that our nation’s students stand as sacrifice to Moloch. And now in North Carolina, he has taken his first victim.
By all accounts, nineteen-year old Chad Dorrill was a fit and healthy young man, a student athlete at that — and the last person anyone would expect to be struck down by COVID-19. But tragically, this virus spares no one, old or young.
Like many students attending Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, Dorrill lived off-campus and was taking classes online. He fell ill in early September, after which he returned home to Wallburg, North Carolina. There, he tested positive for COVID-19 and spent two weeks recovering at home, before making the trip back up the mountain to Boone. The return proved short-lived, and he was soon brought to Winston-Salem for treatment.
Dorrill’s respiratory system was able to withstand the virus. But it appears the virus’s attacks on his brain may have triggered a rare disease known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome in which the body’s immune system wreaks havoc on its nerves. Only three weeks after testing positive, he succumbed to complications related to coronavirus.
In response to Dorrill’s tragic death, Appalachian State chancellor Sheri Everts wrote: “all of us must remain vigilant with our safety behaviors wherever we are in our community. We can flatten the curve, but to do so, we must persevere.” Echoing her sentiment, UNC system president Peter Hans released a statement for students to reflect on their “heightened duty to one another in these extraordinarily trying times,” and of course, the “need to remain vigilant.”
These appeals to vigilance or individual responsibility are a constant refrain in the neoliberal era. In the time of a pandemic, they’re downright dangerous. Administrators’ invocation of personal responsibility provides cover for universities’ wholly inadequate response to the virus and grossly downplays the pandemic’s gravity. Students are now dying as a result.
New cases have continued to spike at Appalachian State. Active cases sit around 160, with 8.4 percent of student tests coming back positive for COVID-19. We know that the best way to fight this invisible enemy is to stay home. At the same time, appeals to scientific reason fall short precisely because they are butting up against the demands of the neoliberal university. Universities’ need to fill their coffers through tuition dollars drives the fight to keep campus doors from shuttering for the fall and spring semesters, even at the expense of public health.
This was clear in late July, when the UNC system’s Board of Governors (BOG) chairman Randy Ramsey instructed all seventeen campuses to plan for up to a 50 percent budget reduction, a move meant to simultaneously stifle discussion about public health and highlight the dire financial straits faced by the UNC system if the choice was made not to bring students back to campus for the semester.
Even more clarifying, the debate to reopen the system’s largest campuses has resumed in the immediate wake of a student dying. Their plan? More vigilance. More individual responsibility.
In response to talk of bringing students back to North Carolina State’s campus in the spring, the university’s American Association of University Professors chapter called the “fall debacle…a failed and dangerous experiment,” one we should learn the lessons of “to avoid a repeat, or worse.” Earlier in the semester, the Appalachian State faculty senate expressed a similar sentiment when they held a vote of no confidence for Chancellor Everts, citing concerns about the handling of the pandemic among others as the motivation behind the vote.
Both of these actions show an awareness that the pandemic is a public health problem that must be dealt with as a community, not as atomized individuals. But the budget threat by the BOG was not simply a shell game. The university funding structure represents a real barrier to keeping students off of campuses.
The situation at Appalachian State is bigger than one chancellor’s incompetence, however incompetent she may be. Even if Everts had every intention of fighting for her students’ health and well-being, she would still face the same problem of finding funds to fill the university purse without regular tuition revenue.
Instead, the answer can be found in the halls of political power in Raleigh, the state capital, where demands to make higher education a public good can be realized through a change in how universities are funded.
Unfortunately, there is no easy path to political power for those that would like to change the university system. The level of change required to reverse fifty years of neoliberal privatization would probably require those who keep the university running to grind its gears to a halt — something that very few academics are willing to do right now, whether because of precarity in employment or a continued faith in higher education as an institution.
There are some reasons to hope this might change. For instance, the pandemic has seen an acceleration in graduate student unionization at schools like Brown, Georgetown, and Oregon State University. But the overall level of unionization remains low among both graduate students and faculty. Partly, this stems from a tradition of academic jobs being stable, white-collar careers. The medieval origins of the university provided fortification from the slings and arrows of capitalist work discipline. But neoliberalism has breached its walls.
As Alex N. Press wrote last year, there is a widespread belief that unions are not for academics, instead: “they’re for factory workers; for manual laborers; maybe they’re for low-wage service workers. But teachers, engineers, graduate students, journalists? Those are middle-class jobs.” But as universities shift from long-term tenured positions to highly flexible adjunct teaching pools, the ability to cobble together what constituted a middle-class life is less and less a reality. At UNC-Chapel Hill, tenure and tenure-track positions account for just over half of the faculty positions.
As the pandemic intensifies and clarifies these trends in higher education, there will likely be more attempts to organize university campuses across the country. But it is not a given that they will succeed. University workers can continue their infernal march into the abyss, or they can come together to storm the gates of heaven.