Reopening Higher Education

November 4, 2020

The Honorable Kathryn Barger
Chair, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors 500 West Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Dear Chair Barger:

I write to you with a sense of urgency, but also with hope. As you know, colleges and universities across Los Angeles County have been closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the challenges the shutdown created, I believe we made the right choice to protect our students and communities. But now, as spring semester is approaching, with the stay-at-home order providing no immediate path to reopening, I urge you, our leaders, to take steps immediately that permit colleges and universities to reopen in a safe, responsible, low-density, and limited manner that protects our students and surrounding communities, ultimately improving public health throughout the county.

LMU, like most institutions of higher education in our county, has sustained major and ongoing economic and social losses. The closure impacted LMU’s revenues in three ways: first, in the new expenses we incurred to improve the safety of our campuses and move an entire university’s classroom offerings to a new and untested online methodology; second, in the decline in revenues that occurred when our students went home; and third, in significant costs of accelerated financial aid that we had to offer students to retain and enroll them.

Because of the pandemic, LMU is losing more than $30 million per semester in increased costs and lost revenues from on-campus housing, parking, and summer conference rentals. In response, we have cut salaries and retirement contributions, curbed hiring, adopted austerity measures, and worst of all, furloughed hundreds of employees, just to keep our virtual doors open. Many of our students are opting for gap years and leaves of absence, deferring their education, and in the process, deferring our collective progress.

That impact is severely felt at every level of our institution, which, according to a recent analysis by Beacon Economics, contributes over $1.3 billion to the nation’s economy. LMU supports more than 8,300 jobs, $435 million in labor income, and nearly $21 million in direct tax revenues in Los Angeles County alone. These financial implications do not include the social and cultural benefits that a university such as ours, with strong academics and a mission toward educating the whole person, creates, through the actions and attitudes of our students and alumni. You can easily extrapolate the shutdown’s toll once you consider that these impacts are amplified at every institution of higher education in Los Angeles County.

Fortunately, because of your bold leadership and the steps that Public Health has enacted, Los Angeles County is in a relatively strong position. By moving decisively earlier this year, your actions saved lives.

Yet those same actions, if left unaltered, risk doing harm to the public health of L.A. County residents. Also, the detrimental effects to LMU and other institutions of higher education will, in turn, damage the fabric of the entire county given the importance of education to our economy, livelihood, and well-being. Our communities will be safer with our students on our campuses than they are with our students off-campus, where students are less accountable and where different sets of rules prevail and enforcement varies. Our local economies will recover if our campuses are permitted to reopen, with direct impacts on local businesses and communities currently devastated by our closures. Our communities will again realize the promises that an in-person education can provide when we reopen safely, smartly, and with accountability.

I and other leaders of higher education across Los Angeles County have collaborated with Dr. Barbara Ferrer and other officials in the Department of Public Health to develop a comprehensive set of protocols that guide our industry toward a safe reopening. LMU’s reopening plan, which continues to be refined, shows our diligence and commitment to safety and compliance with Appendix D to the Public Health Officer Order and the Protocols for Institutes of Higher Education. Our refined plans include enhanced sanitizing, distancing requirements, mandatory mask wearing, testing, contact tracing, employee screening, outbreak reporting, quarantine and isolation, installation of physical barriers, and so on. We also will do what we do best: educate our students and employees about their roles in assuring the safety of themselves and others. Our students will be safer on our campuses because we have invested significantly in the resources and protocols that ensure their wellbeing—resources unavailable to them off campus.

Across the country, we have seen empirical evidence that colleges can bring students back to their campuses while reducing public health threats. The institutions that enacted and enforced meaningful protocols—specifically those involving testing, contact tracing, and isolation—have seen minimal cases, from Cornell College to Duke University. Other industries in Los Angeles County have been allowed to reopen, despite their larger and more varied populations, from indoor shopping malls to hairstylists and nail salons. If these businesses can safely serve customers, surely a college campus, which is home to the same people every week, can do so, as well—especially when one considers that institutions of higher education have developed and will implement protocols that far exceed safety protocols of other sectors.

When college students live on campus, and when they take their classes in one location, institutions like LMU can hold students accountable for their behavior. We can require that they wear masks, that they avoid large gatherings, that they check their temperature daily and submit to sufficiently frequent testing. We can assure that students will face meaningful consequences when they are not compliant, in ways that are not feasible when students live and learn away from our campuses. With our gates closed, we have no influence on students’ choices beyond providing tips and reminders. These are students who live in county neighborhoods, among residents of all ages, all levels of health, and all potential comorbidities. Students who live off campus can freely walk around without a mask or can attend a party with 40 other friends—and even leave their home while evidencing a fever. A recent COVID cluster at USC proves this reality; that university has tracked over 450 cases since classes began—entirely online.

We are in the business of educating our students, and as part of that, we know our students and we care deeply about them. As a consequence, our student communities are well-defined, well-known, and well-managed. They also care about their role in our society and, particularly in our newest generation of students, take responsibility in dedicating themselves to improving the lives of others. We can and must reopen responsibly, in a limited capacity, with extensive protocols in place. Designed in collaboration with leaders from higher education and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the protocols we have developed and adopted are safe and, through implementable steps, will reduce the likelihood of uncontrolled outbreaks at colleges and universities in our county and in our surrounding communities. I implore you to turn this efficacious scenario from a possibility to a reality.

With sincere appreciation and thanks,

Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D. President

cc: Supervisors Janice Hahn, Sheila Kuehl, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Hilda Solis