Feel the glare? The coronavirus has thrust colleges and their response to the potential pandemic in the spotlight.
That’s because few sectors are as global as higher education. Colleges welcome more than 1 million international students to campus and send another 342,000 students abroad. Faculty and staff travel for research, for conferences, to teach. A handful of universities have campuses overseas; many more offer degrees and other joint programs. Most weeks, the average research university welcomes multiple foreign delegations.
I was thinking about this last week when I wrote
about colleges’ response to the coronavirus. In talking with officials at more than a dozen institutions, one of the biggest impressions I was left with was how multifaceted the response had to be: Administrators were constantly weighing numerous factors both on the home campus and abroad.
That’s distinctly different than just a decade ago when I covered an outbreak of the swine flu. Then, most of the attention was on outbound students and professors. It’s a reminder of, despite the challenges facing the field, how deeply internationalized higher education has become.
A few other takeaways from my reporter’s notebook:
Higher education has a reputation for being slow and deliberative, but in this case, colleges had to respond to a swiftly changing environment.
The U.S. government
went from warning travelers about going to Wuhan, the city at the center of the contagion, to telling Americans to stay away from China, period. Major air carriers stopped flying there. One study-abroad director told me he wrote an email to his students in China, got up to go to the bathroom, and by the time he returned to his desk, a fresh advisory was released. Needless to say, he had to draft a new email. I know the feeling: When editors held my story for a day, I had to re-report the whole thing because the prior day’s information was now out of date.
Faculty travel is an extra wrinkle for colleges. As the advisories ratcheted up, many colleges shut down study-abroad programs. But dealing with faculty can be more complicated – often, colleges don’t know when professors travel, or where. “In a decentralized research university environment, coordination is difficult,” said Michael J. Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs at Duke. As a result, many colleges prohibited university-funded travel or required faculty to report trips to China, rather than issuing a blanket ban.
The coronavirus’ origins in China exacerbate the challenge.
More students come from China than from any other country, and college leaders name China as the top spot for international collaboration
. It’s among the top 10 destinations for study abroad. Andrew M. Thomas, chief clinical officer at Ohio State’s medical center, told me he regularly checks in with the two faculty members at the university who do research in the Central African Republic, which has been hit with ebola. That sort of personalized attention simply wouldn’t be possible with China – there are more than 4,400 Chinese students at Ohio State. “When you deal with all of the people who come and go to China, the scope and scale is different,” he said.
Communication is key. Thomas said that one of the most important roles of a university-wide task force he helps lead is communication. It’s easy for misinformation to spread and fears to grow. Colleges have to make sure people across campus have the most up-to-date information, from academic leaders to students. And I’d add parents to that list. On Twitter this week, I heard from a number of parents who expressed concern about their children’s safety. It made me wonder whether colleges typically include parents in their communications plans.
Institutions like Duke and Ohio State have a wealth of resources, including dedicated international risk management staff and campus medical centers, to draw on, but what about small colleges?
Gary Rhodes, the director of the Center for Global Education and a professor of education at California State University-Dominguez Hills, told me smaller colleges may be able to turn to larger neighboring institutions for help. And there are a lot of external sources of expertise they can rely on, such as this list
compiled NAFSA. Still, I’d like to hear directly from small colleges about their strategy to deal with coronavirus. Send me an email at email@example.com or messsage me on Twitter or LinkedIn. I’ll share what I learn next week.