Most Americans know about the president’s COVID task force, a body set up by President Trump to provide Americans with timely advice about the pandemic and to make decisions about a response. It was supposed to be headed by Vice President Pence, but Trump clearly dominates.
Yet, very few people know about my university’s “task force” on planning for the institution’s future in the COVID era. (We address questions like: Do we open in the fall or have classes online? If we open, how do we ensure health and safety?) No doubt, this task force is not unusual for U.S. colleges and universities. I’d imagine every university has one of these--a group of faculty, staff, students, administrators, etc. who are supposed to give advice to decision-makers, make “wise” contributions to the discussion, share their expertise, prevent groupthink, etc. Alas, despite being on sabbatical– and despite the fact that I should be in Tanzania right now had COVID not emerged—I have been roped into serving on the “task force.” We meet often, as time is of the essence: the fall term should begin in mid-August. We are called “Sewanee FOG—Fall Operations Group.” (Sewanee is the name of the community and the unofficial name of the university.) Sewanee FOG is a play on words, because the weather is often foggy here in Sewanee, Tennessee. (We are located on top of the Cumberland Plateau.) I wonder if our name doesn’t also refer to the nebulous situation that we face, with the unclear epidemiology, limited scientific findings, poor national leadership, divided society, politicization of disease, and devastating economic crisis.
So what is it like to be on the Sewanee FOG? (Full disclosure: I serve in its academic sub-group.) Not so easy. Despite my acute awareness of the health danger of COVID-19, I find myself feeling very sympathetic to students who had to return home in mid-March and desperately want to return to campus in the fall. (I teach at one of those small, liberal arts, undergraduate residential colleges where faculty really know their students because of small class size, close mentoring, interactions outside of class, etc.) Some students speak of the inability to study at home online (without internet, a laptop), their need for a routine that cannot be found away from the campus environment, and their concerns about health and economic stability. Some are overwhelmed, sad, lonely, and worried. I hear their stories and look at my two teenagers (whom I think have it pretty good), and I think that no 18-year old should be so worried. But it’s not just concerns over the students’ wellbeing and mental health that I ponder as I sit on this task force. My university is a major employer for the three rural counties in this part of Tennessee; it provides jobs for people in the poorest parts of the state. Sure, if we go to online courses (and students don't enroll) or we have fewer students on campus, I can teach from home. I can take a pay cut; I can survive. But what about the people who serve food in the cafeteria (and their families) or the person who cleans my office? Part of the institution being a good community member—and we often have students who work in the community on research and service projects—means we should be concerned about everyone. No, not jobs at the risk of life. But don’t we owe it to the lower income people in our communities to think about poverty too? How can we have both—health and economic stability?
Achieving that goal, though, requires a new form of citizenship: one that moves beyond a focus on “my individual rights” to a recognition that “I am because we all are.” How can we both acknowledge liberal citizenship (yes, rights do matter and we should protect them, especially the right to health and to life) and foster communal citizenship (the idea that a sense of belonging revolves around the most vulnerable in my community being okay). This balance says, “I will wear this mask even though it is hot, and I will social distance even though it means I cannot hang out with my friends.” Why? Because I am part of a community and my responsibilities to the community define who I am. I do it because it makes it possible for the university (and all the vulnerable people who depend on it) to survive. Urging such a communal view of citizenship—the African notion of Ubuntu—would always be a challenge with individualistic Americans. Unfortunately, at a time when we most need such a balanced view between rights and responsibilities, we have let the zero-sum game of politics drive a wedge through ideas of community. The “me first” citizenship seems to be the only game in town.