According to a White House press release, the call, led by Pence, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, was intended to discuss “best practices to get students back to school in the Fall.” As reported by Inside Higher Ed and other sources, University of Texas at El Paso president Heather Wilson, who was on the call, said one way the federal government could help the reopening process “is to have some kind of liability protection.”
In an official statement provided to Pittsburgh City Paper, Dr. Jahanian did not confirm if he was among the presidents inquiring about liability protection during what he referred to as a “two-hour virtual meeting.” He added, “The conversation was closed to the media to allow the group to candidly express their concerns and exchange ideas.”
“In particular, I stressed the paramount importance of testing, the value of our international students to CMU’s community and intellectual landscape, and the role that higher education will continue to play in catalyzing the economic recovery and response,” says Jahanian. “I also stressed our commitment to bring as many students back to campus as possible, while also protecting our community’s health and wellness.”
However, further investigation showed that CMU is aligned with organizations that have asked the federal government to grant colleges and universities certain protections in the event that students and others might sue for being exposed to the COVID-19 virus on campus grounds.
In a letter dated May 28 and labeled “Re: COVID-19 Limited Liability Protections,” the American Council on Education urged leaders of the U.S. Congress to ensure higher education institutions would not face legal action for putting students, faculty, and staff at risk.
Among the “undersigned higher education associations” included in the letter is the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania (AICUP), which lists Carnegie Mellon University as a member.
The letter, signed by American Council on Education president Ted Mitchell, reads, “On behalf of the American Council on Education and the undersigned higher education associations, I am writing today to urge you to quickly enact temporary and targeted liability protections related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While these crucial protections are likely necessary for many sectors of the American economy, this letter focuses on the need to safeguard higher education institutions and systems, affiliated nonprofits, and healthcare providers and facilities from excessive and speculative lawsuits arising out of the pandemic.”
Mitchell also writes that protections are necessary, as the fear of lawsuits would have a “chilling effect” on the “otherwise reasonable decision-making leading to our nation’s campuses resuming operations in a safe and sensible manner.”
The COVD-19 shutdown has had a far-reaching impact on U.S. colleges and universities, with staff out of work, and students and faculty uncertain when and if they will return to class. But state and federal lawmakers still seem unsure of how to proceed with the reopening, as positive cases and deaths continue.
There are also fears that reopening too soon would be risky, as COVID-19 related deaths in the U.S. have topped 100,000. Various polls have concluded that the majority of Americans oppose reopening now, since testing has yet to become widely available and positive cases still persist.
Experts have also determined that reopening prematurely could bring a second wave of the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recently issued new guidelines specifically for colleges and universities that do not bode well for completely reopening in the coming fall. The CDC listed in-person classroom and campus activities, as well as residence and dining hall operations at the “Highest Risk.” This includes dorms and classrooms being at full capacity, where students would have little room to social distance.
“Lowest Risk” practices included virtual learning and closing residence halls.
While it's uncertain if CMU plans to reopen completely in the fall or seek liability protections, Jahanian assured that the school “continues to consult and work with local, state, and federal government officials as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis and develop plans for the fall term.”
See Jahanian's full statement below:
Carnegie Mellon continues to consult and work with local, state, and federal government officials as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis and develop plans for the fall term.
I accepted this invitation specifically because it provided an opportunity to be at the table with senior academic and government leaders and share perspectives on priorities of critical interest to our community. The engagement, attended by Secretary of Education DeVos and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, was very substantive. The Vice President listened attentively and asked many questions during the two-hour virtual meeting. The Vice President invited the presidents to share information on the status of plans for the fall semester, as well as our concerns and challenges. I appreciated the opportunity to highlight Carnegie Mellon’s ongoing commitment to advance our university’s educational mission and research enterprise, while protecting the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and community.
In particular, I stressed the paramount importance of testing, the value of our international students to CMU’s community and intellectual landscape and the role that higher education will continue to play in catalyzing the economic recovery and response. I also stressed our commitment to bring as many students back to campus as possible, while also protecting our community’s health and wellness. The conversation was closed to the media to allow the group to candidly express their concerns and exchange ideas.
I hope this clarifies the theme and focus of the meeting. It is just one of many conversations the CMU leadership team is having with peers, industry and non-profit leaders, members of Congress and other partners across the public and private sector, which are serving to inform our plans for fall.