Podcast: Universities, Colleges, and Law Schools Plan to Be Open On Campus This Fall

In this podcast, Spivey Consulting Group founder and higher education expert Mike Spivey discusses the plans universities are making to resume on-campus operations this fall, as well as challenges to those plans from the medical community.

You can listen to the podcast via the YouTube video below, or via SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

Or, read a full transcript of the podcast (with minor edits for clarity) below:

Hi, this is Mike Spivey of the Spivey Consulting Group. It’s Tuesday, [April] 28, and this is part 2 — it might be the last part, and I’ll get to why that is very quickly — but part 2 in our series of whether colleges, universities, and law schools will be open in the fall. Before I sort of break the news — because we do think that all three of those entities (colleges, universities, law schools) are very much moving forward and tipping in a certain direction — there are two disclaimers. The first disclaimer is, there could be a spike. And there could be a spike in July or August that would change the whole game, if there were a spike right before people were to report to campus. The second disclaimer is that public health officials have the final say in this. So, despite the intentions of universities, colleges, and law schools, those intentions could be overridden by public health officials. 

But let me get to the news, which I think is important for a lot of people to hear, important for you to know their state of mind and the uncertainty that’s been existing over the last few months. The news is this. Just about every college, university, and law school — in fact, every college, university, and law school we’ve spoken to; we’ve spoken to chancellors, presidents, provosts, and deans — plans to be open, on campus. We do not know of a single university other than Stanford who mentioned that they could do something like pushing the semester back. We don’t know of a single university or law school or college that has any plans — obviously they have back-up plans — but all of their intentions are to be open in the fall, and we’ll get into the why. You can shut the podcast off if the nuances don’t matter to you. I think they should; I think the nuances from both the university perspective and the medical perspective should matter. They have noted that there could be a real spike. See the graphic below, provided to us by retired General David Petraeus, which I believe he got working with Morgan Stanley. The most recent projection of a recurvature, which projects in mid-November:

The fact of the matter is, even if we were to assume a recurvature in mid-November (and maybe that would happen earlier on college campuses), colleges plan to be open. And incidentally, they haven’t announced this yet, but starting in May I think colleges are planning on giving the public their final intentions: “We will be open unless public health officials tell us otherwise.” I think the latest dates we’ve seen are mid-July, so between May and mid-July you’re going to hear what we’re saying right now from hundreds of colleges and universities.

Why is it so important to them? This is half the equation, and it’s an incredibly important half of the equation. Despite receiving $14 billion from the CARES Act, that doesn’t even scratch the surface of how much it’s been estimated that colleges and universities need, which the lowest-end estimate from higher education experts is $50 billion from the government. There are a number of colleges and universities that would shut down completely if they could not open on campus. The amount of losses they received from closing earlier — keep in mind colleges and universities were some of the first entities to close early — just from discounting tuition and room and board, it’s staggering. Staggering in aggregate when you look at the sum total of higher education, but when you look at individual colleges relative to the tuition dollars that they receive (which most are tuition revenue-dependent; most are not Harvard and Stanford with endowments in the multi, multi billions of dollars), their losses are not sustainable. They’re not even sustainable for two semesters online. The number of people who would be potentially laid off if things were to be postponed, pushed back — 3 million people are employed in the higher education sector alone. The higher education sector in 2017-2018 (the most recent data I believe) put $60 billion of spending into the GDP. So not only are colleges and universities cognizant of how much they would struggle, but also how much they impact the national economy. 

I would be remiss if I also didn’t note that in 2026 they have what is referred to as the “demographic cliff” approaching them. The demographic cliff comes from the fact that, during the great recession, people didn’t stop having babies but the number was cut by a third. So starting in 2026, colleges will lose a third of their enrollment, unless they creatively do things internationally, and that picture has changed dramatically. So the analogy I use is this: colleges and universities knew that they had Mike Tyson on their schedule to fight in the upcoming years, and they were just, without any training, unbeknownst to them, put in the center of the ring with Muhammad Ali. They’re fighting two financial battles at once. Not only that, but they are extremely aware of their mission, which is twofold: to educate and to disseminate knowledge. To instruct students and to research — both of which are much more efficacious when you do it in person versus online. Faculty want to be in classrooms; we’ve talked to a number of faculty members. If they need to be instructed and given the resources to do this online, they will, but faculty want to be on campus. Independent of their age, independent of pre-existing conditions, they are used to instructing, and they think the most beneficial way, the most viable way to instruct — and they’re right; the research backs this — is in person. So you have tremendous, and I mean staggering financial pressures on the vast majority of colleges and universities, and law schools which are even more tuition-dependent. And you have a model of education that is known and proven to be better in person than online. There’s almost a commitment to the citizenship that colleges feel entrusted upon to instruct but also to care for — and we’re about to get to this now — the well-being of students. 

So what is their plan? This is where things, to me, get interesting because it’s not what the plan was previously. There are some outliers; I’ll give you an outlier. There’s a charming college in Kentucky: Centre — it’s a very small college, about 1,500 students I believe. I’m just going to actually read this, because I don’t understand it — my brain has been too focused on COVID and talking to molecular epidemiologists. But the Centre plan is, “This unique approach divides the normal academic term of 13 weeks and 4 courses into 2 blocks of 2 courses, each 6 weeks plus 2 days long.” I’ll let you all, our audience of listeners, break that down. 

So colleges, universities, and law schools (and we’re going to get into all of them) have different structural plans; they’re not going to look the same. They’re going to look different than they did a year ago. There are going to be all kinds of mitigation and social distancing policies in place. There will be classrooms with lots of empty chairs, and that’s not only just by design, but enrollment to colleges and universities is going to be down, almost guaranteed. You’re going to have students taking gap years, students not going to college, students insisting on going to colleges when they’re no longer online — all understandably so, incidentally. I understand that side of the equation, particularly of course for anyone with a preexisting condition. And I’m going to end this podcast having talked to someone who was in critical condition with COVID who had a preexisting condition of asthma. There are a litany of preexisting conditions that could keep students taking a year off or seeking out online courses. There’s also international students. It’s unknown at this moment what’s going to happen three months from now, but to date, it would be impossible for an international student to get to a U.S. college if you moved heaven and earth and every mountain in between. But also by design, colleges and universities and law schools are going to have empty desks. There have been plans for dorms with one floor with students, one floor without; one room with a student, one room without. Dorms that used to have two students will now have one student. That will be very much a policy in place. So they’re going to have social distancing plans; if you’re a college student or a law school student you’re going to be given a set of policies. Not to gather more than 10, not to gather in public places more than 10 students. There is going to be testing on a daily basis, at least from some of the schools we’ve talked to. There’s some less optimistic news upcoming in this podcast, but the medical experts do believe that testing will be quick, inexpensive, and available by this upcoming August/September. There will be contact tracing for anyone who comes down with symptoms or tests positive, and we’re going to get into the medical side of that. And then there’s going to be, of course, quarantining. Colleges are not going to send students scattering to the wind or home — that is not the plan. And it’s incredibly likely — I hesitate to speak in absolutes, but it’s incredibly likely — that there will colleges, many, that have outbreaks. And the plan is to take those students, quickly, put them in specific quarantine dorms, even hotel rooms, give them medical care, quarantined space, online access while they’re in those rooms, and help them get better. The idea is not to send them home. The idea is to keep anyone who comes down with the pathogen, COVID-19, in a designated quarantine part on or near campus, so that no one goes home and spreads the virus.

So that’s the college plan. What are they not considering? I respect deeply the numerous people we’ve talked to in academia, in higher ed. I’m going to end with a quote from my mentor who I worked for at two universities. So I respect that they have medical teams at their disposal. But I still think there’s a second part of this podcast that we need to do, which is the other side of the story, which is the medical experts we’ve talked to that have covered some things that colleges need to and should be at least considering.

For starters, when you talk about contact tracing, you’re actually talking about two directions, not one. There's contact tracing, and there’s reverse contact tracing. So if I come down with COVID, and I’m a college student, we don’t only need to know who I’ve been in contact with (that’s contact tracing), but also, who did I get it from, and who have they been in contact with? Here’s the problem — and you’ve already figured this out, you can do it quickly in your head — it’s six degrees of Kevin Bacon. If you're going forward and backward on a colleges campus of who everyone’s been in contact with, pretty soon you’re looking at extraordinarily large numbers of people. There are 50,000 students in student housing in the Ohio State University system alone. And when you start talking about contact tracing backward and forwards — I don’t know how many permutations it is, or the exponentiality; I do know the R0 of the pathogen, and we’ll talk about that soon — but the exponentiality of how quickly one person becomes 25,0000 is very rapid. 

Students can refuse to be tested. We don't know what's going to happen, but there will be students who refuse to allow to be either tested or tracked. You know, Google, Apple are going to come out with these contact tracing apps, but students don’t have to abide by them. And then the question becomes, will the college, will the university, will the law school allow these students to take classes? I mean, these are problematic issues, because what happens, what do you do if a student says "no, I’m not going to be tested"? You probably don’t allow them to be in class, but then do you allow them to be in a dorm? Do you send them home, if they possibly have COVID-19 (if you can’t test them, you don’t know)? If a student has COVID-19, you can’t force them into quarantine to my knowledge. They have free will; their parents can come and pick them up. So you can see a scenario where there’s a cluster outbreak on a college campus, and a number of students go home, and that’s the scenario we’re particularly worried about, because when they go home they’re going home to their parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers and siblings who may have preexisting conditions, and that’s problematic. We don’t know if all students would say, "Sure put me in a hotel room." I mean, to me it doesn’t sound that bad, with a TV, if you’re doing well. I talked to David Lat, the lawyer, a pretty prominent lawyer and very prominent publisher, and he and I were laughing about how that wouldn’t be so bad being in a hotel. But if you’re really sick, you’re not going to be in a hotel, you're going to be in a hospital. Do your parents want to take you to their doctor, to their hospital? 

What about older faculty? You know, there are older faculty who want to be on campus, but students are going to be in contact with them. Per the CDC, anyone over 65 is at risk. There are a lot of wonderful faculty over 65 who want to teach in person — I’ve talked to some of them; I know some of them well. Here's where the medical argument, as far as some of the problems about being on campus, gets even a little bit stronger, per the medical community. And let me disclaim that I have no medical background. I’m going to pronounce some words coming up that I will assuredly get wrong. My firm has no medical training, no medical background, literally to my knowledge not a single person in my firm of 33 people has been pre-med. So we are basing this on thousands of pages of research that we’ve read by who we find to be trusted, the medical community. This pathogen is particularly contagious. Is it as contagious as polio? No. Or measles? No. But the range of contagiousness is around 1.4 to 5.7 R0, which in terms that I would understand a month ago (before I’d been reading up so much on this issue) is that the average person will pass on the virus to 2-6 other people. For comparison, the R0 of the typical flu is 0.9-2.1. And that’s an issue, because a lot of times you’ll hear people in the media reference, “Well the flu is also contagious and kills a number of people.” This is logarithmically more contagious than the typical flu. I can’t remember what the 1918 flu epidemic's R0 was, but I still think it was less than an R0 of 6. Ebola was 1.5-2. So you have a very contagious pathogen, with no predators, and almost unlimited resources. No predators means no therapeutics — and I’m going to get to that, because I think from what we’ve read from the Gates Foundation and the medical community, therapeutics would be a miracle by this fall. Unlimited resources are us, anyone immuno-naive in the population, anyone who hasn't had it, and sadly, potentially people who have had it — they don’t know yet. The optimistic view is that maybe antibodies will last forever, which is unlikely. Maybe 2-3 years, like it does for similar coronaviruses. But we actually don't know as of today to my knowledge, whether someone who had previously contracted COVID could contract it tomorrow.

So let me now bring in the Chinese restaurant study. 

This is a real study; this is not a made-up diagram. This is from early on in the very beginning of the outbreak. So they were able to contact trace one person who walked into a restaurant. By the time the restaurant cleared out, 11 people had it. And you can see by the diagram, the seating looks a little bit bizarre, it’s not just one table of 11 people. The reason why the seating looks a little bit bizarre is because the air conditioning ducts mattered, the ventilation mattered, and what direction air was being ventilated mattered. So we’re not sure yet whether this is just a respiratory droplet pathogen, or whether it’s an aerosol transmitted pathogen. Let me get to the point, and I’m going to quote one doctor who I spoke to this morning. “All dorms will become quarantine dorms.” So I said the stronger point; that’s what I mean by the stronger point. We don't know, and I certainly don’t want to intimate or in any way say that we or any doctor knows that this is the case — but there’s a scenario where you’re looking at not just having quarantine dorms, but you’re looking at having every single dorm on a particular college campus, or multiple college campuses, or many college campuses, where the infectiousness is just too much. Dorms are essentially cruise ships but dirtier. I’m sorry if you’re a college student, because I can remember my college days very well, but dorms are not as clean as cruise ships, and they are locked at port. By that, I mean they have 24/7 access and egress, unlike a cruise ship. And I don’t see a scenario where you could test every single person who enters a dorm every single time. So there is a scenario — and I’m not saying it’s likely or it will happen, but it could happen, and the medical community has discussed it — where any dorm, or every dorm, could become infected.

What about therapeutics? Because you hear a ton about that in the media, right? So in the beginning it was hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. And you know, I remember talking to my COO after reading a bunch from the Gates Foundation and saying, we’re going to hear about a number of therapeutics, and they’re just going to be shot down one after the other. Famotidine is essentially the active ingredient in PEPCID AC, and they’re giving it to people 9 times the regular dose intravenously. Remdesivir — see, I’m not going to say these words right; I apologize to anyone in the medical community, even if you’re pre-med, or even if you are a high school senior thinking about that school, I apologize for getting all of these terms wrong. The most promising is convalescent plasma, as far as efficacy, but there are significant side effects, I think blood clot coagulation is one. My point is, to quote Bill Gates (who amusingly we tried to get an interview with; we posted online that we received a 3:08 AM email from the Gates Foundation saying that Bill Gates was too busy — understandably so if they're emailing us at 3:08 AM —and we didn't think it was possible that we'd actually talk to Bill Gates), Bill Gates has, on more than one occasion, referred to a therapeutic as a "miracle therapeutic." And that’s our belief too, that based on the doctors we’ve talked to, it’s not viable to expect a therapeutic by the fall. I could give hundreds of examples of why it is that the Gates Foundation and many others in the medical community are not as optimistic about therapeutics as if you were to turn on the TV and see the latest in vogue drug or therapeutic, but let me just give one of hundreds. COVID-19 is a coronavirus. The common cold is a coronavirus. The common cold has been with us for a little bit over 200 years, and we have yet to have anything that treats it. On the plus side, I will add as almost a tangential side note, I mentioned in the first podcast research from David Sinclair, a PhD out of Harvard who’s a researcher, showing that these kinds of viruses mutate very rapidly — 1,000 times faster than the common flu. What we didn’t note, because we didn’t know it at the time (again, we’re not medical professionals), but what we do know now is, when they mutate they tend to mutate in the better direction, the less lethal direction. And if you think about it that makes sense, because the more lethal strains kill the host, so they’re not passed on. So there is good news that if this thing is mutating, and there's some evidence that it is, it’s much more likely mutating in a weaker direction (which will again be great for colleges and universities) than it is in the wrong direction.

So I’ve talked about colleges. They plan on being open, and there’s good reason for that. And we’ve talked about the parade of maladies that could happen, but we don’t know they’re going to happen. And this podcast is going to end on a somewhat optimistic note. We don’t know they’re going to happen; these are just possibilities that colleges and universities should be considering, and they are. So what about law schools? It’s a whole different entity because you don’t have dorms. They have a lot more flexibility because they’re smaller; they can have different methods of educational platform delivery because of the smaller sizes. I think that makes them more nimble. They’re going to look a lot different; it's interesting because we’ve talked to a lot of deans of law schools, this is where our firm got its genesis and where we have our most experience. Again, the theme is on campus. They want to be on campus; they want to educate in person. Faculty will likely be in the building, and they will be in the classroom, but they’ll also likely be in their offices. Law schools have the ability, again unlike a dorm, to test people every day, so you can test people entering and exiting. So they will be on campus. The plan for most law schools is to at least record but also potentially simulcast every single class — so for example, for international students, a class could be simulcast. Although, that gets kind of interesting because of time zones. If you’re nine time zones away, should you be required to attend a class at 3:00 in the morning? I mean, I guess if you work at the Gates Foundation, the answer is yes, you’re up at 3:00 AM. So maybe they’ll be recorded. There are some scenarios where maybe there will be 1Ls on campus but 2Ls and 3Ls will be online. That again helps with the mitigation, the social distancing. There are scenarios, potentially, where students will have a lot more say in whether they can just choose to take classes online, but law schools by and large — the ones we've talked to, which again are numerous — are going full throttle with planning to have at least an on-campus component, but with the backup — for anyone who doesn’t want to be there, anyone who can’t be there for international reasons, or certainly for preexisting conditions or symptomatic reasons — of recorded classes or simulcast classes online.

Which brings us to the second point: what will the grading be like? This is on a lot of people's minds who we talk to on a daily basis. If you’ll recall, and most people will know this in the law school arena, but almost every school that was on a curve went to P/F grading because they were sent home early in the semester. Again, we don’t think law schools are going to close, at least they don't plan to close, if there’s an outbreak. There is now this quarantine plan in effect that law schools, just like colleges and universities, just like we discussed, are going to follow. 

So law students won’t be sent scattering home, and unless there’s a spike or unless public health officials close them down, we think they’re going to be open. We’re not quite as certain on the grading yet; we know that faculty want to be grading the same way that they were pre-COVID. So for example, if you were on the Harvard grading model (and this is a very outlier-ish grading system) of dean's scholar/honors/pass/low pass/fail, you’ll go back to that model. If you were on a curve model — 3.1, 3.2, 2.9, whatever the curve was — you’ll likely go back to that model. It’s a little bit problematic, which is why we don’t have a definitive answer for law students yet, because there are going to be a number of law students internationally, which makes up a substantial portion of some law schools. There's one law school that I believe has 43% international; there are a number of law schools in the 15-20% range of international students, and this is just talking about JD, not even LLM, where some programs are 100% international. You will likely be graded on the same curve, same scale, that your school had before COVID. So that means, for the vast, vast majority of law schools, going back to a curved grading system. 

I’m going to bring up one interesting caveat to all of this — rather it’s not a caveat; it’s a conversation I had with the biglaw firmwide hiring partner of a top 10 AmLaw global law firm, who said they would actually rather see someone's online grades. And please don’t take this and run with it and think that every firm in the world believes this; this was just one person talking out loud, but there's a scenario you could see where an online grade would be just as valuable or even more valuable, in the new world that we live in, than an on-campus grade. My point being this: if you are online, if you’re home online, if you’re international, and you get a grade and you took the class online, I wouldn't be afraid to bring up to a firm in a hiring situation that you took that entire semester online, because law firms are moving much more in an online direction right now anyways. So that grade will be valuable to them. I know our firm is rooted in law schools first, and I know I didn’t spend nearly as much time on law schools, but the fact of the matter is it’s pretty simple. They’re going to be on campus while simultaneously, or at least through recording, having every class also available online. There will be backup faculty members for every class, and there’s even a scenario where law schools may share faculty members, so if you’re at Princeton Law School, you may get a Brown Law School faculty member if your Princeton faculty member is sick for a week or two and can’t teach.

I promised in a Tweet, because I get this question so often, that I would talk about college athletics. Athletics are near and dear to my heart. I have a background in athletics. I don't want to spend more than a minute on this, and in fact it will be less than a minute. I think that colleges plan on going full steam ahead with college athletics, and based on speaking with the medical community who we trust and based on the research that we’ve done, it seems unlikely at this time, unless there is a therapeutic (there won't be a vaccine for another 10-18 months), that many athletic sports will be able to finish the season, again because of the contagiousness of the virus. College athletes congregate by definition while they’re playing, in a locker room, in practice, so there’s no social distancing on a practice field.

Let me end on two more sort of upbeat notes. The message of this podcast, in some sense should be optimist if you’re a student wanting to go to college, because colleges are working really hard at figuring this thing out. And problems greater than COVID-19 have been figured out before. In World War II, when winter was coming and American troops had no food supply, they were forced to figure out how to get food to the American troops, and they did. It's kind of akin to Cortez coming to America and burning his ships so that they had to figure out how to build housing and forts and survive in America. Colleges right now feel like Cortez — they're not burning their ships, I promise you they have backup plans of not being open — but they are very committed to figuring out this plan.

On an optimistic note, I mentioned I talked to David Lat, who's a very prominent legal publisher and author, who was in very critical condition. In fact even when I talked to him, weeks I believe after he'd been discharged from the hospital, he was still in a weakened state, and I applaud him for giving me 15 minutes of his time — his voice had a cough; he was still short of breath. I thought David Lat was going to say that colleges shouldn't be open, and he basically said that he is eager for law schools (I believe David went to Yale) to be open. He wants them to be open. He brought up the notion that you might see, regionally if you're in a hot spot, a scenario where there are a few colleges or law schools that aren't open because of regional outbreaks. But what David Lat, who again was in critical condition from COVID, said was he would rather see them be open. I think that's optimistic. I would too, of course.

I will end with a quote from Kent Syverud, the Chancellor of Syracuse University, who for full disclosure I worked for twice, once at Vanderbilt University and once at Washington University. Kent said this publicly in a podcast, that education needs a Marshall Plan. To quote Kent, "I think, as a country, we should have a Marshall Plan that says we need to enable education to start again this fall." Now I'm going to use my own words to interpret. Educators want to educate. And the government, working hand in hand with higher education, needs to find a way to make this work. There probably is a pathway. There are lots of variables that we've discussed that could impede that pathway, but there are great minds at work, and those great minds are talking together, and they're figuring out the challenges of COVID.

The takeaway message from this, probably the longest podcast I've ever done, is this. These people want to be open, and they're planning on being open. There are a couple things that could shut it down, but I would walk away from this podcast saying, if I'm enrolled in a college, if I'm enrolled in a law school, I will be able to be on campus this fall.