On August 19, 2020, roughly one hundred Syracuse University students gathered on the campus’s quad, many without masks or not social distancing. The next day, Vice Chancellor of Strategic Initiatives and Innovation J. Michael Haynie’s sent an email to the university community condemning the “selfish and reckless behavior” of students who participated in the gathering. He claimed that they jeopardized whether students can remain in-person or on campus for the remainder of the semester. While some may blame the people who chose to gather on the quad for any potential COVID-19 outbreak, focusing on individual students deflects blame from the context, policy, and institutional priorities that made the gathering possible. While this article focuses on the administration’s response at Syracuse University, the same pattern has played out on campuses across the country.
Syracuse University likely chose to bring students back to campus this Fall, and continue to tout residential or in-person instruction, to justify the school's extremely high cost of attendance and recent tuition increase. (The annual cost of attendance now tops $76,000. Since 2014, tuition has increased from $40,380 to $53, 849.) Whereas other universities may rely more heavily on returns from their endowment, Syracuse University places a high priority on maintaining the flow of tuition dollars. As the Daily Orange reported last month, 65% of Syracuse University’s 2020 revenue comes from tuition.
The university’s tuition increases have not gone uncontested. Last semester, organizers from #NotAgainSU, a Black-led movement, demanded a tuition freeze (among other demands, including the disarming of campus police officers). During negotiations, the chancellor said that the Board of Trustees would follow its own process for setting tuition, not listen to a particular group of students. Apparently, this process determined to raise tuition during a pandemic characterized by high unemployment and financial hardship for workers around the country.
It is also worth investigating who on the Board of Trustees sets the process for determining tuition. The 44 voting members of SU's Board of Trustees include Wall Street executives, real estate developers, and corporate lawyers. The current chairperson was executive Vice President of a Koch Industries affiliate. The former chairman was a Bain Capital executive. Board members overwhelmingly belong to the class of wealthy people most likely to weather COVID-19, not suffer from the social inequities it has laid bare. Economic and financial incentives, as well as top-down university governance, are the crucial pieces of context that a narrow focus on individual student behavior ignores.
Vice Chancellor J. Michael Haynie’s email contains no meaningful public health information. (What was the nature of the gathering? Was anyone infected? Will there be additional testing or contact tracing? If someone were there, what measures should they now take?) Rather, the email creates a paper trail in which the administration is blameless, does not take responsibility, and preemptively blames students for any potential outbreak.
The Vice Chancellor’s email states that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) is reviewing security footage and individuals identified will be referred to a student code of conduct process. (The university has since suspended 23 students, but it is still unclear how many were suspended for directly participating in the gathering.) It was only six months ago that the university administration used the code of conduct process to suspend 30 (primarily Black) students for sitting in at the university’s administration building, Crouse-Hinds Hall, as part of the #NotAgainSU movement. During that same sit-in, DPS officers denied food, medicine, hygiene products and religious counsel from entering the building. The administration also falsely identified four Black women who were not present in the building after it closed. Why should anyone trust the university's code of conduct process to be fair or impartial or DPS officers to safely enforce social distancing or identify particular students?
The email concludes by stating that SU prioritizes the health and well-being of the Central New York community. Does bringing thousands of students to Syracuse during a pandemic prioritize the health and well-being of city residents, including campus workers? Does not formally paying property taxes to a tax-starved city contribute to city residents’ well-being? Do prohibitively high tuition costs make higher education accessible to people in the city? Does creating a market for luxury apartments that receive tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks from the city government contribute to the well-being of long-time city residents or tenants?
As we debate universities’ responses to COVID-19 and the decisions of some administrations to bring students back to campus, we should continue to interrogate larger institutional structures and histories.