First thought when I learned that Boston University is planning to reopen its campus this fall with an intensive COVID-19 testing policy that includes testing students as often as twice a week was: WOW! BU is handing one juicy plum to folks who thrive on needling the educated elite.
Is there any group, no matter how much direct COVID contact they have or how essential to our society they might be, that gets tested that often? I am hard pressed to consider college students in any essential or high-risk category, except maybe due to dangerous behaviors undergraduates have been known to inflict upon themselves.
Second thought was to check my reaction. Instead of projecting the reactionary spin BU’s effort could trigger, maybe I should actually learn about the plan. So, I did something atypical in our current media environment: I went to the source and read articles in BU Today that describe BU’s plan.
Boston University is trying to open its campus in the fall, which is a positive desire, if it can be done safely. To that end, they are creating a huge COVID-19 Center, where BUs 30,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff can be tested, contact traced, and quarantined as necessary. The plan seems well-thought out; it might even be effective. It certainly will be expensive. But a school whose tuition and fees are well north of $50,000 per year, and whose average student cost, after aid, is over $37,000, must be willing to spend money to keep that income flowing. And they must demonstrate their advanced state-of-the-art precautions will protect Jill or Johnny, or face the wrath of parents who folk over big change only to find their kid gets sick.
Unfortunately, learning more about BUs plan did not make me any more comfortable with its optics. Higher education is, by definition, elitist. Hence the adjective ‘higher’. So when a university decides to invest in a level of protection for its students and staff that is far beyond the (rather pathetic) norms of our society, it would do well to unveil the plan with at least a nod to equity.
First, BU needs to acknowledge the fact: what it is proposing is well beyond the norm. Then, BU could convince us that their program is valid for reasons beyond the unstated (that BU students and staff are somehow better…more worthy…than others). Perhaps BU could use this as a research project—a laboratory to understand the effectiveness of intense testing and scrutiny. Perhaps BU could announce it’s establishing similar testing and tracing endeavors to serve other segments of our society: meat packers; housekeepers; low-income communities of color. Perhaps it could do both: set up COVID centers to serve various communities, including BU, and compare/contrast the results.
If BU led with the idea that it’s going to use its capacity as a deep-pocket research institution to implement and analyze COVID investigation and testing strategies, (and, oh, by-the-way our own students will be included in the study), the optics of college students getting tested as often as twice a week in a society where some struggle to be tested at all might not sting quite so bad.
I realize that BU is not an isolated example, colleges and institutions all over are looking out for their own before others. But in a state where people with lower income, darker skin, and less education contract COVID-19 at three to five times the rate of affluent white people, it’s time to start calling out inequities wherever they occur.
In an ideal world, the resources and capacities of a place like Boston University would be available to all. Anyone who wanted a COVID-19 test could get one, and we’d do enough broad-based testing to infer useful attributes of the disease. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. For too long, universities have espoused the notion that as aspirational institutions they are apart, but not above, everyone else. But in this era of optical scrutiny, that perspective does not hold steady. BU needs to put forth a message that transcends protecting its own students (and income stream). It needs to find a way to spread what it does and what it learns across a broader spectrum of society. By taking such intensive care of its own—and only its own—BU justifies claims that higher education serves only the elite.