Deciding to Open University Campuses Will be Harder Than Closing Them

Wed Apr 15 22:04:41 2020 EST (-0500 GMT)

A texture ball over a map of the Toronto area

In Ontario, local communities around universities will be empowered in influencing the decision to re-open university campuses because of the autonomy each university demonstrated when closing campuses.

On March 12, 2020, Alex Usher amusingly offered to “eat his hat” if Ontario universities did not close campuses within a half-hour of the provincial government closing primary and secondary schools. Over an hour later it was clear that he was wrong.

Mr. Usher noted the next day (while seeking a palatable hat) that in Alberta universities closed their campuses’ in tandem with Public Health Alberta’s announcement. In contrast, Ontario universities each made their individual decisions – all arriving at the same outcome.

These decisions were both contextual and procedural, though there was a different outcome in Alberta and Ontario. Without being privy to dialogues between parties, one can speculate in all cases this was a decision procedurally left for each institution, but in the Alberta case, the context suggested a coordinated response. In the Ontario case, the autonomy and authority of the institutions was prioritized through the new context and each institution decided to close their campus within roughly the same week.

In the end, the national “stay at home” movement took over and states of emergency were declared before these decisions could be meaningfully contested.

Universities are likely to find that their on-campus stakeholders (matriculated students, staff and faculty, etc.) will have differing levels of urgency measured against different senses of risk and these concerns may or may not be aligned with off-campus community stakeholders who will likely make different assessments based on issues like travel-based infection vectors or contributions or burdens to local economies.

An unlikely collation of landlords and international students could arise, as might other new collectives.

Pro-opening groups are likely to be opposed by local populations who prioritize reducing vectors for (re)introducing COVID-19 into their community over university finances or othered students’ degree completion.

Local communities around Ontario universities will likely be relatively empowered in contesting this decision based on the demonstrated provisional nature of the closures.  Universities in Ontario have procedurally established their decision-making authority and autonomy from government and the larger public, which will signal to strong local voices and collectives that these decisions are not beyond their influence or directly tied to decisions or authorities external to their localities.

Given the time and opportunity, Ontario universities will have one more chance to demonstrate that these are indeed larger decisions as the fall term nears and they might do well to coordinate likely declarations of continuances of campus closures and online instruction for the fall term.