In North Carolina and Around the US, Neoliberal Universities Are Sending Students Into Hell

Many colleges and universities around the country have insisted on reopening in-person classes and putting the burden of preventing coronavirus on individual college students. The administrators behind these decisions seem to care little for the obvious devastation this is wreaking among students.

A view of empty dorm quads at UNC-Chapel Hill in North Carolina.

In the days before North Carolina State University announced they would be pivoting to online learning for the remainder of the fall semester, a graduate student friend at NCSU and I frantically texted back and forth, trying to predict when the decision would be made to close classroom doors in response to more and more COVID-19 clusters. This closure came only days after the UNC system’s flagship school, UNC-Chapel Hill, shuttered its doors in a too-little, too-late effort to stop the spread of coronavirus through the ranks of unprepared faculty and undergraduates.

My friend and I were not the only ones peering into our crystal balls to predict an entirely predictable outcome. UNC-Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, made waves across the country for its headline calling the reopening of the university a “clusterfuck.” The editorial points out that UNC-Chapel Hill flat-out ignored recommendations from both the county health department and the CDC, and went along with their plans to reopen anyway, knowing full well the risk to the lives of students and faculty. The university administration then tried to pass the blame off to the Board of Governors, the decision-making body of the UNC system as a whole, rather than acknowledge their own complicity in the ongoing calamity.

The college administrators doth protest too much. It was the hubris of helming a nationally recognized university, the “public ivy” of the South, that made these administrators think they could make the impossible possible, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the Daily Tar Heel writes, “the chancellor of a public university with a multi-billion dollar endowment is hardly powerless — not now, not ever.”

But the irony of “personal responsibility” in our neoliberal age is that it hardly ever applies to those in power. Instead, the burden of responsibility always falls on those who have to walk along the path charted on the “roadmap to hell.”

That is, in this case, our country’s youth and educators, along with the janitorial and cooking staff that keeps colleges running, are expected to make unnecessary sacrifice in the name of normalcy, while those in power ignore the very data and experts they so often appeal to in order to quash any attempt to restore dignity to the American working class. Instead, they believe, as UNC system president Peter Hans claimed in a recent public statement, that their “hard work is being undermined by a very small number of students behaving irresponsibly off campus, which unfairly punishes the vast majority of their classmates who are following the rules.”

As someone who spent many hours this summer sitting through faculty seminars on the plan for my university’s reopening, this is laughable. Hard work? The plan, as far as I could tell, for every university across the state, was to make sure that all students social distance and wear masks — the very thing that key segments of the American populace at large have proved incapable of doing for the past six months.

To put the burden of avoiding and suppressing coronavirus on college students just learning to live life outside of their parents’ or guardian’s home, expecting them to do what much of the rest of the country has been unable to do, seems at best short-sighted — and at worst a cynical way to hedge bets when reopening went sour. And all this happened while ignoring the very people who spend each semester with the students: their instructors. We all knew that there would be parties and other college-aged debauchery; but more important, we know the conditions college students live in these days.

Universities reflect the inequality of the larger society. Many students work their way through school while living in crowded housing, preventing them from maintaining the level of social isolation necessary to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Those who come from wealthier backgrounds find it far easier to take these precautions. But this is the morality of the market, the one that props up the neoliberal university. Students are seen as equally responsible for keeping campus safe, despite the very unequal status of different members of the campus community.

The continued appeal to personal responsibility is central to the decades-long project to neoliberalize the university that the current pandemic shock doctrine has accelerated. The neoliberal project to turn the university system from a public good to an individual “opportunity” has hollowed out what was once a symbol of possibility for the working class, a place to explore new ideas and learn about the wider world. What is left is a shell of that promise, a place to teach work discipline and sap creativity and curiosity in the name of what is practical for the labor market.

While the gospel of self-sufficiency is older than the United States itself, the newest appeal comes out of the crises of the 1970s, in response to the diminished capacity to provide for American expectations. At a time when less and less was expected from American public life, a university education became something for students to provide for themselves, a sorting mechanism to separate the wheat from the chaff. With that in mind, university funding was transformed from a model in which the cost was spread across society to one in which students are left to bear most of the burden. In the UNC system, for instance, the funding from tax appropriations fell by 50 percent, in direct proportion to the percentage provided by tuition and student fees, between 1986 and 2017.

At the time of writing, a third school in North Carolina has decided to move classes online for the remainder of the semester. Many remain reluctant — sometimes due to conditions outside their own making. The slow shift from higher education as a social good to a private responsibility, and the corresponding change in financing structures that has so starved universities, has left those schools to choose between providing what is best for their students and what will keep them financially solvent.

A collective crossing of fingers by college administrators to spare their campuses from the ravages of the coronavirus has become the rational choice of the moment. If this is the outcome that follows from the logic of the neoliberal university, perhaps the time is right to rethink higher education in this country.