The Covid-19 pandemic has closed campuses across the nation, upending the familiar signposts of residential college life
At first, the virus came for spring break.
What, it forced students to consider, is a break without end?
Sadly, the virus teaches, it is no break at all. It is, instead, a disturbingly indefinite line — a horizon none can see.
Having taken the full measure of a global pandemic, college leaders across the nation have in recent days told students not to return from their annual bacchanals or service sojourns. What came instead was for many a crushing assignment: Move back in with your parents, and meet your professors online to finish out the academic year.
Whatever comes of the Covid-19 outbreak, which is forcing higher education to reinvent itself on the fly, the virus has already infected some of academe’s cherished traditions and laid waste to the familiar rhythms of the collegiate calendar. Through replication and transmission, the novel coronavirus attacks what was once comfortingly predictable and replaces it with fear and uncertainty.
The virus is uninterested in whether Easter Mass will be held at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit college that, under normal circumstances, would hold Roman Catholic observances twice a day. The virus is not invested in when, if ever, “final exercises” will take place at the University of Virginia, an institution so singularly devoted to its rituals that it has its own name for commencement.
What the virus brings, invisible and everywhere at once, is silence to that which bustles and isolation to that which communes.
It has brought a striking absence to the Scranton campus, where, on a recent afternoon, Father Scott R. Pilarz pondered the cultural and practical damage already underway. He could hear the consequences, he said, in the silence of his apartment, which is attached to a residence hall that just days before had teemed with students.
“It’s almost eerie,” said Pilarz, the university’s president. “It’s so quiet.”
These days, Pilarz keeps the company of an English bulldog named Jackie and 15 other Jesuits who live on the campus or nearby. There’s a 4 p.m. telephone meeting with the university’s vice presidents. The mail, once hand-delivered to Pilarz’s second-floor office, now is left downstairs.
On some days, since no one is around, Pilarz ditches his priestly black shirt and white collar for khakis and a button-down. He watches CNN. He reckons, he said, with one of the toughest decisions of his career: sending young people away when they needed the university community most.
“I spend a lot of time praying and reflecting,” Pilarz said. “I have more time to do it, but I feel frustrated and I feel awful. The place they ought to be is a university campus, where they support one another and feel supported.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Pilarz gathered with Scranton’s seniors at a local pub for an event called “Theology on Tap.” They asked him where he thought the church would be in 50 years.
“Who cares what I think?” he told them. “What do you think the church will look like in 50 years?”
Who can say anything about 50 years from now? That’s a parlor game for the futurists. But a week, a month, a semester? People thought they had a pretty good handle on what that meant. Spring break would end. Finals would come. Commencement would follow, and higher education would reset as it always does.
Rhythm, ritual, repeat.
Rhythm, ritual, repeat.
A few days ago, Pilarz received a letter from a freshman that was also signed by about 100 other Scranton students. It contemplated the notion that the university could be closed for the rest of the semester, rather than reopening on April 14, as officials had initially hoped. That would mean faculty and staff members “may be out of work for a long time,” the student wrote. Rather than issue refunds for room and board, the letter said, the university should steer the money toward employees who were sure to fall on hard times.
Reading the letter aloud, Pilarz’s voice cracked. He had probably read it 10 times before, he said, and it still moved him.
“These students are becoming the people we hoped they’d be,” he said, “which is generous in the service of others.”
On Thursday, Pilarz announced, the university would move to remote instruction through the spring semester.
Part of Pilarz’s job, as a priest, is to contemplate eternity. But he may be more keenly attuned than most to his own mortality. About three years ago, he was told he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an underlying condition that could put him at significant health risk if he were to contract the novel coronavirus.
“No one gets out of here alive,” Pilarz said. “Some of us get out of here sooner than others. When I pray about myself, it’s to be grateful for the here and now. But I realize time is of limited quantity. How am I going to spend it, and with whom? That’s very real to me.”
How and with whom? It’s hard to say now.
As the scale of the coronavirus pandemic came into view, James E. Ryan, the University of Virginia’s president, called Allen W. Groves, the dean of students. Telling students not to return to Grounds, as Virginia refers to its campus, wasn’t some mere inconvenience, Groves recalled the president telling him; it was likely to strike students on a deep, emotional level.
“He said, ‘Allen, I think what they’re about to go through is grief. What they’re about to go through is loss,” Groves said.
Groves recalled the conversation in a phone interview from his home, which rests on a pastoral stretch of eight acres in southern Albemarle County, not far from Monticello. Bordered by a white fence, it would seem a tranquil place from which to work. But on his first day of telecommuting, Groves already felt a sense of loss.
“A big part of what gets me going every day is how much interaction I have with students and my own team,” Groves said. “I don’t have that now. I can get on the phone. I can Zoom into a meeting. It is not the same thing.”
Groves misses an assistant dean, he said, who pops his head in Groves’s office most days with the greeting “Boss man, fist bump.”
“It becomes a very clinical approach to my work of sitting in front of a screen, answering emails, and typing documents,” Groves said. “It is not the same thing at all.”
Last week, Groves said, he was particularly moved by a student who had posted an essay on Medium titled “What Is Left.” Written by Derrick Wang, a fourth year, as Virginia seniors are called, the essay laments how the abrupt closing of campus had denied students the closure they naturally expected would come with final exercises.
“When I drove away from Grounds just over a week ago, I wasn’t prepared for those memories to be my ‘last’ moments,” Wang wrote. “I didn’t know that my defining memories of the end of college would be those final few hours.”
In place of that closure is uncertainty and isolation — the sorts of things that Virginia has tried to ameliorate for its students.
Not long ago, the university began drawing up plans for a new residence hall that would have offered students what they said they wanted: privacy. University officials, however, altered the plan to add more shared spaces, including larger common kitchens and a first-floor dining hall, because they were persuaded by emerging research about student isolation and loneliness, Groves said.
Rather than build a dormitory that prioritized personal space, Groves said, Virginia sought to “design a physical space that doesn’t allow them to retreat” — a residence that “drives interaction.”
At least in the near term, Covid-19 challenges such intentions and the models that universities like UVa have developed to achieve them. The virus attacks one of the more accepted precepts of residential higher education — that there’s something powerful about bringing students closer together and creating seamless experiences that meld their academic and social development. It is this idea that brought us living-learning communities and a Starbucks in every library.
It was this philosophy, too, that F. King Alexander, then president of Louisiana State University, leaned on, in 2017, when the Baton Rouge campus completed an $85-million renovation and expansion of its student-recreation center. The sprawling facility, which features a 536-foot-long lazy river in the shape of the LSU logo, was designed with the idea that students might never need to stray from the confines of campus again.
“Quite frankly,” Alexander told students at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, “I don’t want you to leave the campus ever. So whatever we need to do to keep you here, we’ll keep you safe here. We’re here to give you everything you need.”
Now under a statewide “stay-at-home” order, LSU has sent its students home and locked up all the buildings.
After years of bringing students closer together, the university has embraced a new national mantra: Please disperse.
Academic life now follows an unfamiliar path, devoid of the usual signposts. It is jarring not just for students, but also for professors, who have grown accustomed to an existence punctuated by predictable ceremony, unfolding in semesters.
“I’ve never known an annual or seasonal rhythm that is not attached to the academic calendar,” said Misha K. Becker, a professor and chair of linguistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It is really an anchor for us.”
Before transitioning to online instruction this week, Becker sent a survey to her students to see how they were feeling. In their anonymous responses, some students said they were concerned that they would not do well in an online class. Others spoke of financial insecurity because of lost work opportunities for themselves or their parents. The students’ responses, Becker said, ran the spectrum from low-level anxiety to “true catastrophe.”
For Becker, there’s anxiety, too. Until now, she has never taught an online class. She worries that the subtle gestures and body language that inform her instruction will be lost in virtual translation. She wonders if her persistent cough — no fever, thankfully — could be something worse. Her parents live nearby, but Becker is limiting in-person contact with them.
As with many other universities, Chapel Hill announced last week that it would postpone commencement. Graduation ceremonies provide symbolic recognition of the end of an academic journey, but as a linguist, Becker said, she is struck that the word “commence” means “to begin.”
Canceling commencement, Becker said, “is of a piece with the whole disorientation we’re experiencing — not having that anchoring moment of completing your university studies and moving on and beginning something new.”
This is the sort of thing that Dimitris Xygalatas, an assistant professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Connecticut, ponders in his own research: What does it mean when rites of passage are denied?
“I’m finishing a book on ritual,” Xygalatas said, “and I’m living through this.”
The outbreak coincides with a moment of personal transition for Xygalatas, whose wife is pregnant with their first child. About a month ago, the couple had a baby shower, and Xygalatas anxiously wondered if the get-together was a bad idea. Travel restrictions mean that his in-laws, who live in Spain, won’t be visiting their new grandson, as planned.
Xygalatas occupies himself now, he said, by painting the baby’s nursery green. He whiles away the hours playing Trivial Pursuit with his wife or watching Better Call Saul. He talks with students whose lives have been upended. One student, who is living at home with his parents, told Xygalatas that the family members eat dinner in separate rooms and convene over Skype. They’re worried that one of the student’s parents, who is continuing to work, could bring the virus home.
When Xygalatas held his final in-person class this month, his students seemed particularly worried about missing out on commencement. That didn’t surprise him. Without ceremony, the professor said, somehow “our accomplishment is left unfinished.”
None can say if or when colleges and universities will return to their familiar rituals. But for the Class of Covid-19, there is a daunting new paradigm: An ending that doesn’t come. A beginning that won’t start.
Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at [email protected].