By Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, President, Benedict College
College and university presidents nationwide are wrestling with the difficult decision of whether and how to safely open their campuses this fall, but I am struck by opinion leaders who make broad, sweeping assertions about these decisions without any consideration for the challenges that make them complex. The uniqueness of individual campus contexts, cultures, capacity, and demographics are far more important than financial considerations which are significant in their own right but secondary to our primary mission as historically black institutions.
For those of us who work tirelessly to provide educational opportunities to low-wealth, first-generation, students of color who are disadvantaged in every conceivable way, education and safety are two parts of the same goal, every single day and for every single family who entrusts a student to our care.
Pundits have bantered about the catastrophic losses that Division I schools stand to lose on high revenue sports like football should campuses not open on schedule and the extent to which the decision to open will be based almost entirely on the fear of lost revenue.
I lead a private historically black college that serves a student body that is nearly 82% Pell dependent. Three-quarters of my student body is comprised of men and women who are the first in their family to attend college. Since COVID-19 required us to shift to online instruction, we have learned a few other statistics about them. Twelve percent (12%) of my student body does not have access to broadband in their home and for some, anywhere in their community.
They are forced to walk to local libraries and other public facilities (most of which are closed) and sit in parking lots for hours to access free Wi-Fi network to complete assignments. In rural South Carolina, those access points can be miles away from their homes. Moreover, temperatures in the region this spring have hit 90 degrees. These conditions are far from optimal for knowledge transfer.
Additionally, a significant proportion of our students experience homelessness and other forms of housing insecurity as well as food insecurity and threats to their physical and emotional well-being. Suggesting that many of my students have adverse home environments would be a gross understatement.
Benedict College embraces its unique mission and has a clear understanding of the students we serve. They are, to a large extent “at risk.” COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues and forced us to reconcile the best interests of our students through the lens of their physical, mental, and emotional safety.
To be sure, COVID-19 is far from the only thing threatening their well-being. If we are honestly conducting risk assessments, we must consider the risk to these students of not returning to campus. As we consider options, we are monitoring local and national data on testing, diagnosis, mortality, and recovery. We have read and re-read guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, much of which is changing on an hourly basis. Given the obvious and well-documented disparate impact of Covid-19 on Black communities, we have analyzed data regarding known underlying health conditions and the extent to which they are represented on our campus. We have also carefully considered our social context and the communal behaviors that define our culture.
Beyond our campus, we are monitoring positive cases reported among current students and their immediate family members. These data paint a picture that suggests that the communities within which our students reside are not immune to the transmission of COVID-19, but rather are “hot spots” for it. Many students live in families where the primary breadwinner is an “essential” front line employee who risks exposure daily while working to feed their family.
Conversely, we are monitoring students who are applying for emergency aid to address food security issues occasioned by the fact that they, or their family members, have lost jobs due to COVID-19. Further, we are tracking students who are dealing with displacement and other emotional disorders that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Moreover, we are tracking data on students who have expressed an intent to drop out of school if on-campus opportunities are unavailable, thereby contributing to a perfect storm: college dropouts with few opportunities for gainful employment beyond high-risk, low-opportunity, service line jobs in an economy decimated by the pandemic. Finally, as people of color, we track data on mortality rates for young black men in America that suggest that COVID-19 is one of a long list of many “risk factors” for the population we serve.
The bottom line is that Black men are safer on the campus of Benedict College, even in the wake of COVID-19, than they are out jogging in their own neighborhood; walking down the street with a bag of Skittles and wearing a hoodie; sitting in a car, or eating a bowl of ice cream in their own home. Trayvon Martin is dead. The world will never know what he might have become. His aspiration was to become a pilot. He is dead because a white man, whose name doesn’t merit repeating, chose to kill him.
Ahmaud Arbery is dead. He is dead because two white men decided that jogging and taking a quick peek at a vacant new home construction was a capital offense. They pursued him and they killed him in cold blood.
George Floyd is dead. He is dead because a white police officer decided that he deserved to die, face down, on the concrete in broad daylight, begging for his life, while three other officers watched and failed to intervene.
These are not isolated incidents — they are a shockingly regular occurrence. The reckless disregard for the lives of Black men (and women) in this country has always been a defining characteristic of democracy shaped by colonization. This is not new — it is simply being captured on cellphones more frequently.
Benedict College is home to an NCAA Division II football program. Division II sports do not drive significant auxiliary revenue. However, it remains an important consideration as we flesh out our plans for fall. We are a football school and it is a defining characteristic of the Benedict Experience. The reality is that 80-90 young men choose Benedict College every year because they want to play football. While we take the notion of “scholar-athlete” seriously, we know that if it were not for football, those young men may not be in college at all.
That is not an “acceptable risk” for me. I am crystal clear that the safety and well-being of the Black men that matriculate on my campus, depends on us being able to bring them to campus and mentor, support, and protect them. We are more than a school. Benedict College is the “field of dreams” for these young men.
Off the gridiron, these young men will become thinkers. They will learn theory, acquire skills, and earn a degree that will, quite literally, change their lives and the lives of their families. They will be tested, challenged, pushed, and supported in ways that are central to the HBCU experience. They will leave as resilient, confident, educated men of purpose. Unfortunately, the degree will not insulate them from being victims of violence at the hands of white vigilantes or racist police officers, but it will give them access to an economic future that makes it infinitely more likely that they will be a part of the solution.
I embrace the moral imperative to lead our HBCUs with integrity and I am offended by any suggestion to the contrary. I am not blind to the risks posed by COVID-19. Benedict is conducting a thorough and painstaking evaluation of our capacity for testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment procurement, and social distancing. In short, the safety of our students, staff and faculty is our “polar star.” The financial indicators are a critical, but secondary concern. Thus, I am not basing my decision about opening the campus or about hosting a football season solely on those financial indicators. In truth, we stand to lose very little in the way of revenue (beyond enrollment) if we cancel the season.
As we continue to work toward a solution to the problem of whether to re-open for fall, we do so with the full appreciation of the risks inherent in opening the campus and bringing our students home and of the risks associated with prohibiting their return and leaving them in negative environments that often pose an existential threat to their safety and well-being. These are highly contextual conversations and every institution is different. For some institutions, football doesn’t matter – financially or otherwise. However, I offer it as an example because it amplifies the enormity of the challenge and the ways in which it escapes the black and white approach to opening or closing our campus community.
I am not delusional — I am honest.