A Procedural Virus Brings Higher Education Low

As a former administrator at several institutions of higher education, I experienced the reluctance of other administrators to do the human thing. When a crisis hits, administrators are taught to stop and call the lawyers. Doing the legal thing is not always the human thing, nor the right thing. It is the thing that will most likely save your job, and it allows the administrator to pass off a sticky situation to someone else.

image of Brueghel's Village Lawyer

The Village Lawyer by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Thus, it isn’t surprising to read what happened at the University of Maryland. The people in charge of the university “follow policies,” “consult” with experts, hire people to confirm the viewpoint they will use as protection. “Following policies and procedures” is a euphemism, in many instances, for covering one’s tracks. University presidents and boards hate bad publicity. They can afford luxurious rugs under which they can sweep mountains. Remember that, if you plan on sending your children to a college or university. There’s a reason the university lawyers are hired by the president, and usually have offices in the same building (usually one of the best, well-maintained, and non-moldy buildings on campus) as the top officials at the institution. The lawyers learn quickly what the president and the board members want, and, if they plan to keep their jobs, they advise accordingly. A lawyer’s self-interest will frequently factor into the decision. The lawyers craft those policies and procedures designed to limit the university’s liability.

The details in the University of Maryland case are exemplary of the reactionary behaviors anyone in the U.S. could expect from most administrators.

[T]he university waited 18 days to tell the community after learning the virus was present on campus. Officials discussed — but decided against — notifying students with compromised immune systems and residents living in Elkton Hall, according to records reviewed by “The Washington Post.”

As the days passed, more and more students fell ill.

Many parents and students have denounced the administration’s handling of the viral outbreak and the mold infestation, complaining its actions endangered thousands of students, faculty and staff on campus. In the end, more than 40 students were sickened with adenovirus, and 15 of them treated at hospitals, according to the university.

Here’s the response from the people in charge.

[U]niversity officials defended their actions, saying they hired a remediation company to remove the mold in September and provided guidance to students on how to prevent the spread of viruses. They said they went beyond what was legally required to address the adenovirus outbreak and public health officials advised that it was not necessary to inform the public about the virus. In April, the college hired two outside doctors to review the school’s response. They found the university followed policies and procedures.

One problem with this response is that it looks like no one followed up on the “remediation” company to test whether the mold problem improved, because there’s no federal or state law, i.e., policy or procedure, dictating that companies produce evidence that the problem has been fixed, or at least improved. What parents and students think would be logical steps toward a solution are sidestepped and justified under the umbrella that someone did what the law requires. In other words, in higher education the lowest level solution is the one most frequently chosen, lowest in terms of finances, time, and thoughtfulness.

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