Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ian Hansen Ph.D.

Reactance Without Atrocity (To Lethal Coercion)

Part 2: The moral obligation to resist deadly campus reopenings.

This is the second part of a two-part series of essays.

[July 14 update: I posted this essay July 13, one day before the Trump administration announced that it was rescinding the ICE policy described below. I almost certainly had nothing to do with influencing the administration's decision, but I am very happy regardless.]

In Part 1, I brought up the psychological concept of “reactance". That's the common inclination people have to resist persuasion attempts that seem coercive. I also argued that the attempt by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to force college campuses to reopen can make reopening these campuses appear racist. And, in fact, reopening the campuses would be racist. Crowding indoor college spaces and the public transportation servicing them will exacerbate the spread COVID-19, the burden of which falls disproportionately on people of color.

In this second essay, I explore what’s wrong with reopening college campuses even in a counterfactual world where COVID-19 kills and harms people of all races with perfect proportionality.

Reactance, as I laid out in Part 1, can be stronger if the coercive persuasion grating on you comes from someone whose values you hate. Conversely, if you're forced to act on values that you like, coercive persuasion might not stir up your reactance at all. Consider the coercion to work, teach, and learn online from March 2020 onwards. Most professors, students, and college staff responded to this big change in how they did things (and typically a lot of added work too) with minimal grumbling. Faculty and staff didn't insist on taking a paid vacation for the rest of the spring semester in other words. That's probably at least in part because they valued educational continuity, as any university-affiliated person should.

That may also explain why labor unions did not generally object to departments firing faculty and staff who were unwilling or unable to transition online. Student government also didn't threaten student strikes to stop professors from requiring them to attend classes online, complete assignments online, and take exams in an unfamiliar online format. Strikes sometimes occurred out of frustration with lack of support for the transition, but not outrage at having to make the transition itself.

This commanded transition to online everything sometimes had sweeteners like extended-deadline pass-fail grade options for students, discontinuing teaching observations, and generally pausing the tenure clock. Often, though, there were no sweeteners. And the burdens on some individuals—especially with young children or sick family members at home—were sometimes immense.

Given the stoically-accepted COVID-related transition stresses already forced on faculty, staff, and students, perhaps some voluntarism is in order. Administrators seeking to reopen campuses, if they must do that at all, should let that opening be entirely voluntary. Administrators should clearly articulate that faculty or staff who wish to stay online for any reason can stay online. Respecting faculty and staff conscience on this question seems particularly appropriate since COVID-19 has for a few weeks seen its highest new case-per-day rates since the first national peak. And now deaths are starting to rise again as well.

No kind of reopening makes sense under these conditions, but a coerced reopening is particularly terrifying. Faculty and staff, if not required to work from home, should be incentivized to do so in some way, to thin the crowds and flatten the curve. At the very least they should be allowed to work from home, and without having to produce ten different doctors' notes each signed in triplicate.

The voluntary approach would likely also make most university community members feel safer, including those insisting on returning to campus. Emptier campuses, and thinner crowds on the public transportation servicing them, make for easier social distancing. However, university administrators (and those they answer to) have largely ignored pleas to respect faculty conscience, and presumably also ignored similar pleas to respect staff worker conscience, and student conscience. Perhaps they fear it would set a bad precedent. Or answer to those who do sitting on Boards of Trustees, in City Hall, or in the governor's residence.

As described in Part 1, ICE and Trump, given their abysmal reputations, have made it look extra bad to force millions of people back to campus. Prior to their tainting of the push to reopen, though, substantial reopening was widely considered a done deal. According to Business Insider, a majority of colleges planned to reopen their campuses prior to ICE trying to blackmail all colleges into doing that. In other words, before ICE’s new “your international students or your lives” ultimatum, administrative decision-makers thought forcing people back to campus during the second wave of a pandemic was just as okay as it had been to force them off for the first wave.

And administrators did not seem deterred by professors’ resistance to this deadly coercion, even when it was clearly inevitable. Perhaps the pre-ICE coercers in university administrations had nobler reasons to force campuses open against their will. People enacting unseemly policies usually do. Notre Dame's president, John I. Jenkins, wrote in The New York Times, “the mark of a healthy society is its willingness to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young.” That’s a lovely martyrdom-exalting sentiment until you realize that in a pandemic, putting yourself at risk puts others at risk as well.

I imagine Jenkins might also say something like, "don't worry, young people are very unlikely to die from COVID-19 when infected." This puzzlingly popular idea, in addition to confidently concluding something about which evidence-gathering is still ongoing, completely ignores the implications of the word "pandemic." In pandemic reality--the one we're living in--young people sometimes hang out with elderly people (and people with pre-existing conditions), and can infect those people to death while being asymptomatic. Or they can infect someone who infects someone else who infects them.

I get it. We should all be willing to Joan of Arc ourselves for the sake of optimal pedagogy. Okay. Please understand, though, you can Joan-of-Arc yourself with a fiery pyre, but not with COVID-19. With COVID-19 you're more likely to 9/11 your own city. It's not morally noble to get yourself sickened unto death with a highly infectious and deadly disease for which there is no vaccine or cure. Nor is it tough-but-fair, or pedagogically responsible, to coerce others to do so.

Not all college campuses are the same, of course. Some campuses are residential. They have quaint tree-lined walkways between plush dormitories and airy classroom buildings. They have ample resources to make necessary health and safety improvements and to monitor and regularly test members of the campus community. Under such circumstances, administrators could mount a somewhat plausible argument that coercing everyone back to that campus is a lesser evil than the alternative.

Letting people act freely on their fears of bringing sickness or death to themselves or others might, counterintuitively, cause more sickness and death. Indeed, Cornell University produced a mathematical modeling study claiming precisely this conclusion. Forcing Cornell students on campus (with regular monitoring) would—according to the study’s imaginary models—cause fewer COVID-19 infections than letting those students decide where and how to live themselves (thus escaping such monitoring). For the sake of life and health, then, the professors who teach those students must be forced back to campus too.

Whatever models can be manufactured to make coercive reopening seem sensible for campuses like Cornell, there is considerably more reason for caution at most other U.S. campuses. The Chronicle on Higher Education has found that “over 450 U.S. colleges are in COVID-19 hot spots”. The mathematical models might need to do some special somersaults to make reopening those campuses look rational and humane.

The fact is, universities more often than not crowd people into windowless and insufficiently ventilated offices and classrooms. They also often crowd people onto insufficiently ventilated public transportation (with people who do not always wear masks) to access these offices and classrooms. And forcing people to crowd indoors this way in inappropriate during a pandemic involving a deadly, infectious, vaccine-free, cure-free virus that spreads most prolifically indoors. That’s a stubborn fact that’s just not going away.

Asymptomatic transmission is another stubborn fact, and one that I'm afraid I have to repeat just five paragraphs after bringing it up the first time because if you're like most administrators you've already forgotten about it. In general, opening-hungry administrators have been inclined, against all medical evidence, to treat COVID-19 like asbestos in the ceiling. They speak of it like something that people have a right to worry about only if they are especially vulnerable to being hospitalized or killed by it themselves.

For instance, Notre Dame’s vice president Paul J. Browne wrote, in an email to the Chronicle on Higher Education, "The university expects faculty to be available for in-person classes unless an individual's circumstance results in an exception." By "individual's circumstance" I presume Browne means how likely any individual is to get hospitalized and die if they're infected. But moral concern for the lives of others is also an individual circumstance. Reopening enthusiasts have generally not recognized the virus as something that young healthy college kids might reasonably worry morally about passing on to vulnerable others, whether in their home, on the bus, or in the grocery store.

Hopefully making these points will get easier now that ICE, Trump and Betsy Devos have thrown their weight behind re-opening college campuses and other schools. Their moral reputation, as Part 1 examined, has likely intensified reactance to the coercive means they are using to get their way. This reactance should help to bring back to memory all those easily-forgotten facts that make moral reality so clear. That reality is that we have a moral obligation to boycott human-crowded closed spaces. Complying with commands to crowd these indoor spaces--whether issued by white supremacist ICE or cuddly, liberal college presidents--effectively contributes to widespread harm or death no matter how young and healthy the crowders are.

It is certainly possible that there will be professional costs to refusing the commands of administrators--even as the likes of ICE morally downgrade those commands by echoing them. But doing the right thing often comes with professional costs. I hope we would all admire people with the moral courage to help undocumented immigrants threatened with deportation or worse, even when doing so puts the helpers at legal risk. It is not so far from that ethos to take professional risks to protect those who would be most likely to be hospitalized, permanently sickened, or killed by the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. If we do not resist the forced crowding of indoor spaces, we'll bear some responsibility for the consequences. Let's not be like those obedient subjects in Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment. Haplessly shocking all the way to the end, imagining that our effortful professionalism has all been for the sake of advancing knowledge and good pedagogy.

For that matter, let’s not pretend to be the liberal #resistance while succumbing to the lethal (and, yes, also racist) will of Trump and ICE on campus reopenings. University staff, faculty, and students should instead join together to form “the reactance.” The whole university community needs to have the courage to openly and forcefully react with horror to the lethal madness of Trump and ICE. The community needs to mount some organized refusal to collude with, normalize or dignify that madness. Then maybe administrators (and the boards of trustees, governors, etc. to whom they answer) will realize they have no choice but to let faculty, staff, and students do the right thing and work from home during a deadly pandemic.

For more on this subject, see a related pair of essays—Caution Without Atrocity parts 1 and 2— completed after ICE rescinded its blackmail policy threatening international students. There I discuss the specific example of New York City, my home city, and the City University of New York (CUNY), my home university. The obstacles to safely reopening NYC campuses—especially CUNY’s 25 campuses—make the moral dangers of reopening campuses particularly salient.


About the Author

Ian Hansen, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Behavioral Sciences Department at York College, City University of New York.