It took months into the pandemic for University College Dublin (UCD) to realise that teaching in the autumn cannot go ahead as usual. Only on May 28th, UCD’s President Andrew Deeks communicated to staff a teaching framework, which is largely oblivious of the risks around bringing large groups of people together, especially in older, unventilated rooms at the Belfield campus. And even more, it completely ignores the fears that staff and students have.
Instead, the University’s driving motive seems to be money. Getting students back on campus at all costs. Sending the troops into battle, no matter what the casualties are. Just so that UCD can say that we are open for business as usual again and that overpaying international students can keep coming to finance the university. Of course, our universities are publicly underfunded and consequently scared of financial implications Covid-19 might have. But sacrificing public health and moral responsibility paints the picture of an overly commercialized university that I never wanted to see.
Pedagogic considerations on what a good educational experience in times of Covid-19 is seem secondary. The much needed and appreciated live-interaction with students could be facilitated much better online. But instead of embracing this and the way higher education has changed in the 21st century and using its limited resources efficiently, UCD management asks lecturers to do some half-baked fumbles that are destined to fail.
A good leadership would have foresight, take a stand and uphold the responsibility and duty of care it has to both its employees, its students, but also to this country as one of the largest universities. Instead, in the best bureaucratic fashion of responsibility diffusion, UCD’s management slavishly follows government recommendations that still do not make the wearing of face-masks mandatory in higher education institutions. Why cannot Andrew Deeks say that everybody has to wear a face-mask on campus when the new academic year starts? It seems to be the only feasible way how some form of face-to-face contact can be achieved.
It seems that UCD’s president as well as the members of his University Management Team (UMT) have not been standing in front of hundreds of students in lecture theatres that are badly ventilated. It’s delirious to think that lecture theatres can be cleaned in between sessions or that up to 50 students can be brought in and out of lecture theatres with narrow entrances safely. Similarly, nobody seems to have thought through what it means to force students to come to Belfield and then not have a safe place for them in between sessions.
Most recently, UMT asked all Schools to plan even more ambitiously with a 1m distance instead of a 2m rule in place in the autumn. This change in direction can only be seen as yet another way to return to business as usual leading into disaster. Brushing all scientific evidence aside, and in the best Trumpian way, cosmetics and money seem to be all our university’s leadership cares about. While worldwide infections are at an all-time-high and with a return of the virus to Ireland being almost inevitable, our leadership wants to send the troops and our students back into battle without a vaccine at all costs.
Of course, UCD is no online university. And it is always good not to pretend to be something that one is not, but focus on one’s strength instead. But storming wide-open into reopening, risking a public health disaster, losing touch with its employees and not listening to the fears and anxieties among staff, UCD management seems to live on another planet these days.
Personally, I will not teach on-campus in the autumn and risk my own health and the health of my students just so that Andrew Deeks can say that we are back to normal again. Inside my lecture theatre I have a duty of care. The duty to educate my students, expand their thinking, challenge their thoughts, see the world in a new way, but also to help them to become good people with moral standards and values and stay safe. And that is what I am going to do (online) and recommend all my colleagues as well.
Thomas Grund – Associate Professor, School of Sociology