There is one question we can ask ourselves about everything from holding in-person classes to conducting a football season that, if we answer it honestly, can make all of our decisions easier: Is this safe? If the answer is yes, we can proceed. If the answer is no, or unclear, our choice is obvious.
Stating things this simply helped us make the decision not to reopen Hampton University for in-person instruction this fall. As president of the university, I was alarmed that six of the 10 states where our students are most likely to reside were experiencing significant rises in cases, and that the population of people who were contracting the virus had become younger, including those in their 20s and 30s.
I couldn’t make this choice alone. I believe that people who have to live with decisions should have a say in the decision-making process. I presented this information to our trustees, senior administrators, faculty, staff and the Student Government Association president and asked them: “Is it safe for the Hampton University community to reopen to students and engage in face-to face instruction?” The unanimous response was a resounding “no.”
At that point, we shifted our focus to providing the best remote instruction possible. Recognizing the financial impact of the virus on students and their families, we decided to reduce tuition by 15 percent to help students continue their education.
That same calculation guided my thinking when I recently wrote to the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, suggesting that it consider recommending the cancellation of all football activities for fall. Football is a sport where there is contact on every single play, exposing players to each other’s blood, sweat and other bodily fluids. With cases already reported from summer training, there is bound to be a transmission of the virus on the field by someone who has tested positive or is either symptomatic or asymptomatic. That should be unacceptable to everyone.
Having served on the NCAA board, its executive committee and the search committee for the current president, I clearly understand the gravity of my request, but that is also why I believe so strongly that it is the right course.
It is clearly a hard decision for the NCAA and individual colleges to make. Not only will a number of institutions and the association lose money, but some seniors will also forever lose an opportunity to compete on the college level. For those who will not go on to play professionally, this decision could end their athletic careers. But even so, in my judgment, this would be in the best interest of the athletes, other students, coaches, faculty, staff and administrators of all NCAA institutions.
Safety comes before money. College presidents and their teams must plan for the lost revenue from a canceled football season without compromising educational objectives and understand that this is what leaders do. Layoffs, furloughs, discontinuation of travel, and freezes on purchasing equipment and supplies are not pleasant, but neither is a pandemic. At Hampton, I appointed a Financial Stabilization Task Force, which employed some of these measures in recommending retrenchment of $43 million of a $200 million budget.
We will have to ask ourselves “Is this safe?” over and over. What may have looked manageable when cases were declining now needs a second look. As coronavirus cases climbed, colleges and universities responded with precautionary measures ranging from mandatory face coverings to massive testing. Testing is extremely important and necessary, but it is not a panacea. An individual can be tested one day and contract the disease later that same day.
I understand how difficult this is, and how badly students and administrators want to find a way to return to normal. Everyone is trying to balance politics, health, safety, finances, a desire for social interaction and a psychological need to get back to “normal.” However, although getting students back to school is important, it is more important to get them back safely. There is no normal until our campuses, workplaces and neighborhoods are safe again.