The University of Kansas has either deliberately or through incompetence misled the public about student demand for face-to-face classes during the national COVID crisis. (Just kidding! It doesn’t matter in research ethics if the mistake you made the killed people was on purpose or through negligence. You are still responsible.)
Insisting that student preferences determine policy is foolish enough and reveals how much the consumerist model controls the university. (“The customer is always right” is nonsense when the customer is a person without a fully developed frontal cortex making decisions about life and death for others.) But it also may be a lie: we have no idea if KU students are “overwhelming” in their demand for in-person classes starting later this month.
This is despite KU’s insistence that their own data shows that students are. Their data certainly does not. After a lengthy battle to get the university to share its polling data on the matter, the local newspaper had to use a Freedom of Information request to get even an executive summary. That summary reveals that the university did not ask any question that could lead to this conclusion.
The university drew this conclusion, it seems, based on 35.7% of students saying that they were taking all their classes in person and an additional 42.8% of students saying that they were taking some of their courses in person. But taking a class face-to-face is not a measure of student desire to take a class in-person. And, additionally, this also means that 21.5% of students are taking all of their classes online. If 78.5% of students taking one or more face-to-face courses is “overwhelming” support for in-person offerings, isn’t 64.3% of students taking one or more online courses pretty significant evidence that students want online courses?
No, it’s not. Because we would need to see both the total number of online and in-person offerings to draw any conclusions AND the exact courses and student reasons for taking them. If you are a senior who needs to take your major’s capstone course to graduate and it’s only offered in person, then you are faced with the option of delaying graduation a year (during which you won’t be qualified for a job requiring a college degree but will begin paying off your loans) or taking the class in person. You’re a hostage, not an enthusiastic consumer.
There were a variety of better ways to measure whether students want to return (or, really, the question KU cares most about: How will we pay the bills if students don’t take in-person classes?). You could ask an honest survey question. You could offer every class face-to-face and online and see which ones fill. You could offer only online classes and see if students enroll, then, if they don’t, add face-to-face.
Or you could be a leader and make the decision that is best for students and faculty and staff and the larger community.
I’m a KU alum, and this story makes me ashamed of my alma mater. I hate that the university has engaged in unethical research. This is not the way I was trained to conduct myself as a researcher. I hope that everyone who had a hand in this is fired. I hope that the Institutional Review Board refuses to approve any new research until this is addressed. I hope every graduate-level educator and graduate student who has just found their own research reputation cheapened refuses to teach. I hope faculty give a vote of no confidence. I hope that major funding agencies refuse to allow KU to compete for research funding until every person involved in this is fired, the findings are retracted, and a real research study is done. I hope there are lawsuits.
If that sounds harsh, remember: KU administration lied about research that will likely kill people for financial gain.
So, no, there is no punishment harsh enough for a university for that. And if a university is willing to risk its its faculty, staff, and students lives and lie about its motivation in doing so, then those faculty, staff, and students should be willing to hold the university accountable. If a university is willing to demean itself by conducting unethical research, then it’s doesn’t deserve the title of a research university.
Until the current leadership is publicly dismissed and blackballed forever from higher ed administration, KU isn’t a research university.