Chicago campuses wrestle with the costs of COVID-19. Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Ah, fall: a crisp breeze off the lake, a blush of crimson and gold in the trees, and the invigorating return of students to one of the largest college towns in the country—books, computers, masks, and hand sanitizer in tow.

It’s the strangest back-to-college season ever.

And for higher education officials the scariest: still at the mercy of an uncontrolled virus, in the midst of catastrophic economic collapse and rising social protests.

In late July, the unionized faculty and staff of public and private colleges across Illinois tried to tame it, issuing a joint statement that called for remote classes only, with few exceptions. They argued that “plans that utilize hybrid teaching strategies prioritize presence over safety.”

But, after a summer of vacillation, hybrid plans that combine online instruction with in-person classes are what most schools settled on.

Like the virus, the qualms persisted: just days before the start of the fall term at UIC, for example (where students are getting saliva tests and undergoing daily wellness checks), the faculty union issued its own statement, “declaring the plan to return to the UIC campus next week unsafe.”

The result has been a patchwork of ad hoc and contingent solutions: Loyola moved nearly all classes online and closed its dorms; classes are also mostly online at DePaul, with only students in exceptional circumstances allowed to live on campus. IIT and Columbia College will be online-only for the first two weeks of classes, with Columbia allowing limited student access to the campus during that time. Northwestern, in a late-breaking decision, told freshmen and sophomores to stay home.

Nowhere is this complicated scene more fraught than at the School of the Art Institute, already embroiled in demands from students, staff, and faculty to rectify systemic racism and inequity at an institution that celebrates the collecting habits of the city’s most vigorous capitalists. A petition demanding the resignation of SAIC provost Martin Berger has attracted over 2,500 signatures, along with accusations of racism for an academic whose career has been built on a critique of mass media photography of the civil rights era. His offenses: reading aloud a vicious but historic quote that included the N-word while explaining his work at a meeting of faculty and staff, and subsequently being promoted from dean of faculty to his current job.  

SAIC physics professor Kathryn Schaffer has described the school’s plan for reopening as “safety theater,” and called leadership on this issue “dangerously negligent.” She didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but in an appearance on Free Radio SAIC, maintained that this dense urban campus, with its elevators and other crowded spaces, scattered student living arrangements, and lack of ability to isolate (along with a lack of science faculty with the expertise to advise), should be “among the last schools to open.”

We should not just be saying we’re going to follow what the government says, Schaffer argued. “The government has decided that the economy is worth lives. We should question that.”

How many of the 200,000 or so students who came to Chicago for college last year—about 50,000 in the Loop alone—will be back for this term? How many of them, looking at a campus experience that would unfold almost entirely in their dorm room, decided to take a semester off?

And what are the financial implications for the schools?  

I put that question to David Baker, executive director of America’s Urban Campus, a sort of trade association for Chicago higher ed. AUC’s 20-member institutions account for 96 percent of all college students in the city and employ about 59,000 people.  

“It’s too early to tell,” Baker said, explaining that the schools won’t lock in their enrollment numbers for a month or so. “The biggest loss at first will be the loss of income from residence halls,” he said, but “the schools were generally experiencing slow declines in enrollment for the past ten years, caused by demographic decline for 18-to-24-year olds along with a robust economy that offered job opportunities and a drop in international students.” (Demand for higher education had reached a peak in the recession of 2008-2009, largely from students enrolled in short-term programs in community colleges.)

Has Baker, who retired as a vice president at IIT in 2016, ever seen anything like this? “The 2008 recession caused a dramatic paper decline in endowments,” he said. Then, for the public institutions, there was “the lack of a budget during the Rauner years. They had to lay off staff to stay afloat. But nothing like this. Everything that is the justification for higher education—bringing students together to learn from faculty and from each other—all of that is going to be scrutinized going forward.”  

“The biggest thing is that all the universities have learned how to teach remotely, and students and faculty have learned how to adjust to that. So the question of what role remote learning plays in the future is going to be there.”

If the result is more online college, and a concomitant demand for significantly reduced tuition, there could be a difficult period of contraction ahead for schools with tenure and pension obligations to faculty and massive investments in brick and mortar, Baker said.

Could it also, at last, end the assumption of a lifetime of student debt in return for the promise of a four-year party and a diploma?  v