Reopening UConn: How can we balance human lives with revenue?

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We can’t. 

The University of Connecticut reopening in-person schooling during a pandemic is a decision motivated by concerns about revenue. Otherwise, the administration would struggle justifying full tuition for online classes, instead abandoning millions in housing revenue and risking thousands of students withdrawing to take gap-years or enrolling in far more affordable community colleges. The many American universities that have moved to fully online instruction sacrificed a significant amount of revenue.  

Soon COVID-19 will have killed one million people globally. Given its developing spread among the Storrs campus and the likelihood of the disease being spread more whenever students return home, in-person schooling puts many lives at risk. Not only are the exact long-term effects of COVID-19 on those infected unknown, the disease kills people of every health status and age group. UConn’s decision to have in-person academics exchanges all of these lives for revenue.  

We should be clear: Moving to fully online instruction leaves plenty of room for violence. UConn has promised thousands of students secure food and housing for the fall, and has promised hundreds of workers salary, tenure and funding, all of which is risked by a move to online instruction. Potential cancellation does not bother the administration in the way that it bothers us materially insecure community members because it has already secured most of our fees and we will have little influence on the amount and distribution of refunds.  

In this way, UConn has established a situation where the community suffers no matter what actions are taken going forward. If classes are moved online, thousands of people lose access to housing, education and wages. If we remain on campus, thousands will continue to be exposed to a pandemic bearing unknown consequences including death. UConn has jeopardized all of our lives because of its hunger for revenue.  

Of course, the loss of revenue for a huge state school such as UConn is no simple issue. The university faces its largest budget deficit in school history, $50 million strong, an amount sure to increase with the move to fully-online school. This sort of deficit spells disaster and austerity cuts for basically every demographic at UConn: students, faculty and workers alike.  

But what are some preferable solutions to exposing the entire community to COVID-19? Our school, thousands strong, could organize to demand emergency funds from the Connecticut State Legislature. We could lobby for state or federal distribution of personal relief payments for the most vulnerable community members until it’s safe to resume in-person classes. At the very least, the school’s budget could be addressed by a coalition of students, faculty and workers who could democratically decide how to reduce the economic suffering caused by COVID-19, rather than simply being notified by the administration after critical decisions are made. We should be able to rely on our school’s full protection and resources during a crisis.  

Strategies such as these, which could work to safeguard UConn’s finances in humane ways, are off the table because UConn is not administered by the democratic coalition just described. UConn is administered by an unaccountable and unrepresentative Board of Trustees which monopolizes university policy at the expense of the Undergraduate Student Government, The Graduate Student Senate and the Graduate Employee Union as well as many other campus and regional unions bargaining for thousands of faculty, non-faculty, service, maintenance and clerical workers. Even if the community was overwhelmingly against risking human lives for in-person education, it would not necessarily have any impact on campus policy.  

The Board of Trustees time and time again places the generation of revenue before all other policy goals, including the protection of human life. This is true when campus mental health services remain criminally underfunded and under-resourced after two student suicides last winter. This is true when UConn expands cheap fossil fuel facilities, contributing to the destruction of any habitable global environment. This is true when UConn suppresses millions of dollars in essential COVID-19 emergency student grants. UConn’s ultimate priority of generating revenue is proven true now as they draw us back on campus during a pandemic.  

The reality which our administration is consistently hostile toward is that there is no amount of revenue that can compare to the value of a single human life. The beautiful and meaningful human lives here are the source of all value at the University of Connecticut, and they are being exchanged for money.  

We must be introspective. At some point our relationship to the university administration must come to reflect the fact that it is a body which generates revenue at literally all costs including our lives. We need campus politics that incorporates this understanding into organizing strategiesdefending those most vulnerable to these twisted priorities. We need to immediately build bargaining power between students, faculty and staff, totally independent from an administration that repeatedly exchanges our lives and livelihoods for revenue.  

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