Tom Friedman:  How We Broke the World!

Dear Commons Community.

Tom Friedman has a column this morning entitled, How We Broke the World, that presents the case that greed and globalization have set us up for disaster.  He sees a destabilizing trend in major crises that we have experienced in the past twenty years including the current coronavirus pandemic. Pandemics are no longer just biological — they are now geopolitical, financial and atmospheric, too. Below is the entire column.  Lots to think about!



New York Times

How We Broke the World

By Thomas L. Friedman

May 31, 2020

If recent weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the world is not just flat. It’s fragile.

And we’re the ones who made it that way with our own hands. Just look around. Over the past 20 years, we’ve been steadily removing man-made and natural buffers, redundancies, regulations and norms that provide resilience and protection when big systems — be they ecological, geopolitical or financial — get stressed. We’ve been recklessly removing these buffers out of an obsession with short-term efficiency and growth, or without thinking at all.

At the same time, we’ve been behaving in extreme ways — pushing against, and breaching, common-sense political, financial and planetary boundaries.

And, all the while, we’ve taken the world technologically from connected to interconnected to interdependent — by removing more friction and installing more grease in global markets, telecommunications systems, the internet and travel. In doing so, we’ve made globalization faster, deeper, cheaper and tighter than ever before. Who knew that there were regular direct flights from Wuhan, China, to America?

Put all three of these trends together and what you have is a world more easily prone to shocks and extreme behaviors — but with fewer buffers to cushion those shocks — and many more networked companies and people to convey them globally.

This, of course, was revealed clearly in the latest world-spanning crisis — the coronavirus pandemic. But this trend of more frequent destabilizing crises has been building over the past 20 years: 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, Covid-19 and climate change. Pandemics are no longer just biological — they are now geopolitical, financial and atmospheric, too. And we will suffer increasing consequences unless we start behaving differently and treating Mother Earth differently.

Note the pattern: Before each crisis I mentioned, we first experienced what could be called a “mild” heart attack, alerting us that we had gone to extremes and stripped away buffers that had protected us from catastrophic failure. In each case, though, we did not take that warning seriously enough — and in each case the result was a full global coronary.

“We created globalized networks because they could make us more efficient and productive and our lives more convenient,” explained Gautam Mukunda, the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.” “But when you steadily remove their buffers, backup capacities and surge protectors in pursuit of short-term efficiency or just greed, you ensure that these systems are not only less resistant to shocks, but that we spread those shocks everywhere.”

Sept. 11, 2001

Let’s start with 9/11. You could view Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, as political pathogens that emerged out of the Middle East after 1979. “Islam lost its brakes in 1979” — its resistance to extremism was badly compromised — said Mamoun Fandy, an expert on Arab politics.

That was the year that Saudi Arabia lurched backward, after Islamist extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and an Islamic revolution in Iran brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Those events set up a competition between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia over who was the real leader of the Muslim world. That battle coincided with a surge in oil prices that gave both fundamentalist regimes the resources to propagate their brands of puritanical Islam, through mosques and schools, across the globe.

In doing so, they together weakened any emerging trends toward religious and political pluralism — and strengthened austere fundamentalism and its violent fringes.

Remember: The Muslim world was probably at its most influential, culturally, scientifically and economically, in the Middle Ages, when it was a rich and diverse polyculture in Moorish Spain.

Diverse ecosystems, in nature and in politics, are always more resilient than monocultures. Monocultures in agriculture are enormously susceptible to disease — one virus or germ can wipe out an entire crop. Monocultures in politics are enormously susceptible to diseased ideas.

Thanks to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Arab-Muslim world became much more of a monoculture after 1979. And the idea that violent Islamist jihadism would be the engine of Islam’s revival — and that purging the region of foreign influences, particularly American, was its necessary first step — gained much wider currency.

This ideological pathogen spread — through mosques, cassette tapes and then the internet — to Pakistan, North Africa, Europe, India and Indonesia.

The warning bell that this idea could destabilize even America rang on Feb. 26, 1993, at 12:18 p.m., when a rental van packed with explosives blew up in the parking garage below the 1 World Trade Center building in Manhattan. The bomb failed to bring down the building as intended, but it badly damaged the main structure, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.

The mastermind of the attack, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, a Pakistani, later told F.B.I. agents that his only regret was that the 110-story tower did not collapse into its twin and kill thousands.

What happened next we all know: The direct hits on both twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, which set off a global economic and geopolitical crisis that ended with the United States spending several trillion dollars trying to immunize America against violent Islamic extremism — via a massive government-directed surveillance system, renditions and airport metal detectors — and by invading the Middle East.

The United States and its allies toppled the dictators in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping to stimulate more political pluralism, gender pluralism and religious and educational pluralism — antibodies to fanaticism and authoritarianism. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know how to do this in such distant lands, and we botched it; the natural pluralistic antibodies in the region also proved to be weak.

Either way — as in biology, so, too, in geopolitics — the virus of Al Qaeda mutated, picking up new elements from its hosts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, violent Islamic extremism became even more virulent, thanks to subtle changes in its genome that transformed it into ISIS, or the Islamic State.

This emergence of ISIS, and parallel mutations in the Taliban, forced the United States to remain in the area to just manage the outbreaks, but nothing more.

The Great Recession

The 2008 global banking crisis played out in similar ways. The warning was delivered by a virus known by the initials LTCM — Long-Term Capital Management.

LTCM was a hedge fund set up in 1994 by the investment banker John Meriweather, who assembled a team of mathematicians, industry veterans and two Nobel Prize winners. The fund used mathematical models to predict prices and tons of leverage to amplify its founding capital of $1.25 billion to make massive, and massively profitable, arbitrage bets.

It all worked — until it didn’t.

“In August 1998,” recalled Business Insider, “Russia defaulted on its debt. Three days later, markets all over the world started sinking. Investors began pulling out left and right. Swap spreads were at unbelievable levels. Everything was plummeting. In one day, Long-Term lost $553 million, 15 percent of its capital. In one month it lost almost $2 billion.”

Hedge funds lose money all the time, default and go extinct. But LTCM was different.

The firm had leveraged its bets with so much capital from so many different big global banks — with no trading transparency, so none of its counterparties had a picture of LTCM’s total exposure — that if it were allowed to go bankrupt and default, it would have exacted huge losses on dozens of investments houses and banks on Wall Street and abroad.

More than $1 trillion was at risk. It took a $3.65 billion bailout package from the Federal Reserve to create herd immunity from LTCM for the Wall Street bulls.

The crisis was contained and the lesson was clear: Don’t let anyone make such big, and in some ways extreme, bets with such tremendous leverage in a global banking system where there is no transparency as to how much a single player has borrowed from many different sources.

A decade later, the lesson was forgotten, and we got the full financial disaster of 2008.

This time we were all in the casino. There were four main financial vehicles (that became financial pathogens) that interacted to create the global crisis of 2008. They were called subprime mortgages, adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs), commercial mortgage-backed securities (C.M.B.S.) and collateralized debt obligations (C.D.O.s).

Banks and less-regulated financial institutions engaged in extremely reckless subprime and adjustable rate mortgage lending, and then they and others bundled these mortgages into mortgage-backed securities. Meanwhile, rating agencies classified these bonds as much less risky than they really were.

The whole system depended on housing prices endlessly rising. When the housing bubble burst — and many homeowners could not pay their mortgages — the financial contagion infected huge numbers of global banks and insurance companies, not to mention millions of mom-and-pops.

We had breached the boundaries of financial common sense. With the world’s financial system more hyper-connected and leveraged than ever, only huge bailouts by central banks prevented a full-on economic pandemic and depression caused by failing commercial banks and stock markets.

In 2010, we tried to immunize the banking system against a repeat with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in America and with the Basel III new capital and liquidity standards adopted by banking systems around the world. But ever since then, and particularly under the Trump administration, financial services companies have been lobbying, often successfully, to weaken these buffers, threatening a new financial contagion down the road.

This one could be even more dangerous because computerized trading now makes up more than half of stock trading volume globally. These traders use algorithms and computer networks that process data at a thousandth or millionth of a second to buy and sell stocks, bonds or commodities.

Alas, there is no herd immunity to greed.


I don’t think that I need to spend much time on the Covid-19 pandemic, except to say that the warning sign was also there. It appeared in late 2002 in the Guangdong province of southern China. It was a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus — SARS-CoV — known for short as SARS.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website notes, “Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia” before it was contained. More than 8,000 people worldwide became sick, including close to 800 who died. The United States had eight confirmed cases of infection and no deaths.

The coronavirus that caused SARS was hosted by bats and palm civets. It jumped to humans because we had been pushing and pushing high-density urban population centers more deeply into wilderness areas, destroying that natural buffer and replacing it with monoculture crops and concrete.

When you simultaneously accelerate development in ways that destroy more and more natural habitats and then hunt for more wildlife there, “the natural balance of species collapses due to loss of top predators and other iconic species, leading to an abundance of more generalized species adapted to live in human-dominated habitats,” Johan Rockstrom, the chief scientist at Conservation International, explained to me.

These include rats, bats, palm civets and some primates, which together host a majority of all known viruses that can be passed on to humans. And when these animals are then hunted, trapped and taken to markets — in particular in China, Central Africa and Vietnam, where they are sold for food, traditional medicine, potions and pets — they endanger humans, who did not evolve with these viruses.

SARS jumped from mainland China to Hong Kong in February 2003, when a visiting professor, Dr. Liu Jianlun, who unknowingly had SARS, checked into Room 911 at Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel.

Yup, Room 9-1-1. I am not making that up.

“By the time he checked out,” The Washington Post reported, “Liu had spread a deadly virus directly to at least eight guests. They would unknowingly take it with them to Singapore, Toronto, Hong Kong and Hanoi, where the virus would continue to spread. Of more than 7,700 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome tallied so far worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 4,000 can be traced to Liu’s stay on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel.”

It is important to note, though, that SARS was contained by July 2003 before becoming a full-fledged pandemic — thanks in large part to rapid quarantines and tight global cooperation among public health authorities in many countries. Collaborative multinational governance proved to be a good buffer.

Alas, that was then. The latest coronavirus is aptly named SARS-CoV-2 — with emphasis on the number 2. We don’t yet know for sure where this coronavirus that causes the disease Covid-19 came from, but it is widely suspected to have jumped to a human from a wild animal, maybe a bat, in Wuhan, China. Similar jumps are bound to happen more and more as we keep stripping away nature’s natural biodiversity and buffers.

“The more simplified and less diverse ecological systems become, especially in huge and ever-expanding urban areas, the more we will become the targets of these emerging pests, unbuffered by the vast array of other species in a healthy ecosystem,” explained Russ Mittermeier, the head of Global Wildlife Conservation and one of the world’s top experts on primates.

What we know for sure, though, is that some five months after this coronavirus jumped into a human in Wuhan, more than 100,000 Americans were dead and more than 40 million unemployed.

While the coronavirus arrived in the U.S. via both Europe and Asia, most Americans probably don’t realize just how easy it was for this pathogen to get here. From December through March, when the pandemic was launching, there were some 3,200 flights from China to major U.S. cities, according to a study by ABC News. Among those were 50 direct flights from Wuhan. From Wuhan! How many Americans had even heard of Wuhan?

The vastly expanded global network of planes, trains and ships, combined with far too few buffers of global cooperation and governance, combined with the fact that there are almost eight billion people on the planet today (compared with 1.8 billion when the 1918 flu pandemic hit), enabled this coronavirus to spread globally in the blink of an eye.

Climate Catastrophe

You have to be in total denial not to see all of this as one giant flashing warning signal for our looming — and potentially worst — global disaster, climate change.

I don’t like the term climate change to describe what’s coming. I much prefer “global weirding,” because the weather getting weird is what is actually happening. The frequency, intensity and cost of extreme weather events all increase. The wets get wetter, the hots get hotter, the dry periods get drier, the snows get heavier, the hurricanes get stronger.

Weather is too complex to attribute any single event to climate change, but the fact that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more expensive — especially in a world of crowded cities like Houston and New Orleans — is indisputable.

The wise thing would be for us to get busy preserving all of the ecological buffers that nature endowed us with, so we could manage what are now the unavoidable effects of climate change and focus on avoiding what would be unmanageable consequences.

Because, unlike biological pandemics like Covid-19, climate change does not “peak.” Once we deforest the Amazon or melt the Greenland ice sheet, it’s gone — and we will have to live with whatever extreme weather that unleashes.

One tiny example: The Washington Post noted that the Edenville Dam that burst in Midland, Mich., this month, forcing 11,000 people out of their homes after unusually heavy spring rains, “took some residents by surprise, but it didn’t come as such a shock to hydrologists and civil engineers, who have warned that climate change and increased runoff from development is putting more pressure on poorly maintained dams, many of them built — like those in Midland — to generate power early in the 20th century.”

But unlike the Covid-19 pandemic, we have all the antibodies we need to both live with and limit climate change. We can have herd immunity if we just preserve and enhance the buffers that we know give us resilience. That means reducing CO₂ emissions, protecting forests that store carbon and filter water and the ecosystems and species diversity that keep them healthy, protecting mangroves that buffer storm surges and, more generally, coordinating global governmental responses that set goals and limits and monitor performance.

As I look back over the last 20 years, what all four of these global calamities have in common is that they are all “black elephants,” a term coined by the environmentalist Adam Sweidan. A black elephant is a cross between “a black swan” — an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications — and the “elephant in the room” — a looming disaster that is visible to everyone, yet no one wants to address.

In other words, this journey I have taken you on may sound rather mechanistic and inevitable. It was not. It was all about different choices, and different values, that humans and their leaders brought to bear at different times in our globalizing age — or didn’t.

Technically speaking, globalization is inevitable. How we shape it is not.

Or, as Nick Hanauer, the venture capitalist and political economist, remarked to me the other day: “Pathogens are inevitable, but that they turn into pandemics is not.’’

We decided to remove buffers in the name of efficiency; we decided to let capitalism run wild and shrink our government’s capacities when we needed them most; we decided not to cooperate with one another in a pandemic; we decided to deforest the Amazon; we decided to invade pristine ecosystems and hunt their wildlife. Facebook decided not to restrict any of President Trump’s incendiary posts; Twitter did. And too many Muslim clerics decided to let the past bury the future, not the future bury the past.

That’s the uber lesson here: As the world gets more deeply intertwined, everyone’s behavior — the values that each of us bring to this interdependent world — matters more than ever. And, therefore, so does the “Golden Rule.” It’s never been more important.

Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you, because more people in more places in more ways on more days can now do unto you and you unto them like never before.


Protests over the Death of George Floyd Raged Across America!

Protesters in Washington, D.C Near White House

Dear Commons Community,

Protests yesterday raged across America  over the death of George Floyd.  Most of the major cities in the country saw some form of protest.  While many were peaceful, unfortunately some of the protests turned violent.  The video above was taken in Washington, D. C. a few blocks from the White House.  Here is reporting courtesy of the Associated Press.

“Few corners of America were untouched, from protesters setting fires inside Reno’s city hall, to police launching tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators in Fargo, North Dakota, to shattered windows at police headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.

— In Indianapolis, police were investigating “multiple shootings” downtown, including one that left a person dead, amid the protests. Police gave few details but said no officers were involved.

— In Washington, the National Guard was deployed outside the White House, where chanting crowds taunted law enforcement officers. Dressed in camouflage and holding shields, the troops stood in a tight line a few yards from the crowd, preventing them from pushing forward. President Donald Trump, who spent much of Saturday in Florida for the SpaceX rocket launch, landed on the lawn in the presidential helicopter at dusk and went inside without speaking to journalists.

— In Philadelphia, at least 13 officers were injured when peaceful protests turned violent and at least four police vehicles were set on fire. Other fires were set throughout downtown.

— In Salt Lake City, protesters defied a curfew and National Guard troops were deployed by Utah’s governor. Demonstrators flipped a police car and lit it on fire, and another vehicle was later set ablaze. Police said six people were arrested and a police officer was injured after being struck in the head with a baseball bat.

— In Los Angeles, protesters chanted “Black Lives Matter,” some within inches of the face shields of officers. Police used batons to move the crowd back and fired rubber bullets. A graffiti-covered police car burned in the street.

— And in New York City, dangerous confrontations flared repeatedly as officers made arrests and cleared streets. A video showed two NYPD cruisers lurching into a crowd of demonstrators who were pushing a barricade against one of them and pelting it with objects. Several people were knocked to the ground, and it was unclear if anyone was hurt.

“The mistakes that are happening are not mistakes. They’re repeated violent terrorist offenses and people need to stop killing black people,” Brooklyn protester Meryl Makielski said.

Not all protests devolved into violence. In Juneau, Alaska, law enforcement officers joined elected officials and residents at a peaceful protest in front of a giant whale sculpture on the city’s waterfront.

“We don’t tolerate excessive use of force,” Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer told the gathering.

Back in Minneapolis, the city where the protests began, police, state troopers and National Guard members moved in soon after an 8 p.m. curfew took effect to break up protests, firing tear gas and rubber bullets to clear streets outside a police precinct and elsewhere.

The show of force came after three days when police largely avoided engaging protesters, and after the state poured in more than 4,000 National Guard troops to Minneapolis and said the number would soon rise to nearly 11,000.

“The situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd,” said Gov. Tim Walz, who also said local forces had been overmatched the previous day. “It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear and disrupting our great cities.”

Minneapolis’ streets steadily grew calmer as the night went on, and Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said the tough response would remain as long as it takes to “quell this situation.”

…Overnight curfews were imposed in more than a dozen major cities nationwide, including Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Seattle.

More than 1,300 people have been arrested in 16 cities since Thursday, including over 500 Friday in Los Angeles.

The unrest comes at a time when most Americans have spent months inside over concerns surrounding the coronavirus, which the president has called an “invisible enemy.” The events of the last 72 hours, seen live on national television, have shown the opposite: a sudden pivot to crowds, screaming protesters and burning buildings, and a stark contrast to the empty streets of recent months.

…This week’s unrest recalled the riots in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Rodney King, a black motorist who had led them on a high-speed chase. The protests of Floyd’s killing have gripped many more cities, but the losses in Minneapolis have yet to approach the staggering totals Los Angeles saw during five days of rioting in 1992, when more than 60 people died, 2,000-plus were injured and thousands arrested, with property damage topping $1 billion.

Many protesters spoke of frustration that Floyd’s death was one more in a litany. It came in the wake of the killing in Georgia of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was shot dead after being pursued by two white men while running in their neighborhood, and in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that has thrown millions out of work, killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S. and disproportionately affected black people.”

God please give wisdom to our political leaders to resolve the issues being raised by the protesters!


Michelle Goldberg: America Is a Tinderbox!

Protesters set fire to Minneapolis police precinct as Trump ...

Minneapolis Police Precinct on Fire

Dear Commons Community

The last several months in America have been surreal and have felt like the opening scenes in a film about a nation being ripped apart. First the corona virus pandemic hit. The national economy froze and unemployment soared; one in four American workers has applied for unemployment benefits since March. Lines of cars stretched for miles at food banks. Heavily armed lockdown protesters demonstrated across the country; in Michigan, they forced the Capitol to close and legislators to cancel their session. Nationwide, more than  100,000 people died of a disease almost no one had heard of last year. New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, analyzes the situation and questions whether we are a nation in free fall.  Here is an excerpt.

“Then, this week, a Minneapolis police officer was filmed kneeling on the neck of a black man named George Floyd. As the life went out of him, Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, whose 2014 death at the hands of New York policemen helped catalyze the Black Lives Matter movement. Floyd’s death came only days after three Georgia men were arrested on charges of pursuing and killing a young black man, Ahmaud Arbery, whom they saw out running. A prosecutor had initially declined to charge the men on the grounds that their actions were legal under the state’s self-defense laws.

In Minneapolis protesters poured into the streets, where they met a far harsher police response than anything faced by the country’s gun-toting anti-lockdown activists. On Wednesday night, peaceful demonstrations turned into riots, and on Thursday Minnesota’s governor called in the National Guard.

For a moment, it seemed as if the blithe brutality of Floyd’s death might check the worst impulses of the president and his Blue Lives Matter supporters. The authorities were forced to act: All four of the policemen involved were fired, police chiefs across the country condemned them and William Barr’s Justice Department promised a federal investigation that would be a “top priority.” Even Donald Trump, who has encouraged police brutality in the past, described what happened to Floyd as a “very, very bad thing.”

But on Thursday night, after a county prosecutor said his office was still determining if the four policemen had committed a crime, the uprising in Minneapolis was reignited, and furious people burned a police precinct. (One of the officers was arrested and charged with third-degree murder on Friday.) On Twitter, an addled Trump threatened military violence against those he called “THUGS,” writing, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Whether Trump knew it or not, he was quoting a racist phrase from the 1960s used by George Wallace, among others. The president later tried to tamp down outrage by saying he was just warning of danger — the Trump campaign has hoped, after all, to peel off some black voters from the Democrats — but his meaning was obvious enough. This is the same president who on Thursday tweeted out a video of a supporter saying, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”

The Trump presidency has been marked by shocking spasms of right-wing violence: the white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, Va., the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the mass shooting targeting Latinos in El Paso. But even as the country has simmered and seethed, there hasn’t been widespread disorder. Now, though, we might be at the start of a long, hot summer of civil unrest.

So many things make America combustible right now: mass unemployment, a pandemic that’s laid bare murderous health and economic inequalities, teenagers with little to do, police violence, right-wingers itching for a second civil war and a president eager to pour gasoline on every fire. “I think we’re indeed in a moment where things are going to get a lot more tense before they get more peaceful,” said the University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2016 book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”

Already the Minneapolis protests have spread to other cities. On Thursday night, someone fired a gun near a crowd of demonstrators in Denver and more than 40 people were arrested in New York City. Seven people were shot at a protest in Louisville, Ky., where crowds had turned out to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, an unarmed black woman who was shot by police in her own apartment in March.

These demonstrations were sparked by specific instances of police violence, but they also take place in a context of widespread health and economic devastation that’s been disproportionately borne by people of color, especially those who are poor. “Sociologists have studied collective behavior, urban unrest for decades, and I think it’s safe to say that the consensus view is that it’s never just about a precipitating incident that resulted in the unrest,” Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at U.C.L.A., told me. “It’s always a collection of factors that make the situation ripe for collective behavior, unrest and mobilization.”

Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s progressive attorney general, told me that lately, when he goes out walking or running in Minneapolis, he feels a “coiled sort of anxiousness ready to spring.” Many people, he said, “have been cooped up for two months, and so now they’re in a different space and a different place. They’re restless. Some of them have been unemployed, some of them don’t have rent money, and they’re angry, they’re frustrated.”

That frustration is likely to build, because the economic ruin from the pandemic is just beginning. In some states, moratoriums on evictions have ended or will soon. The expanded unemployment benefits passed by Congress as part of the CARES Act run out at the end of July. State budgets have been ravaged, and Republicans in Washington have so far refused to come to states’ aid, meaning we’ll likely soon see painful cutbacks in public jobs and services.

“Where people are broke, and there doesn’t appear to be any assistance, there’s no leadership, there’s no clarity about what is going to happen, this creates the conditions for anger, rage, desperation and hopelessness, which can be a very volatile combination,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton. “I would not at all be surprised to see this kind of reaction elsewhere over the course of the next several months.”

As I write this the lyrics from a Buffalo Springfield song from 1967 comes to mind:

“There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down.”




Barack Obama on the Death of George Floyd!

View image on TwitterBarack Obama – Statement on the Death of George Floyd

Dear Commons Community,

By now most Americans have seen the video of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  We have also seen during the last several nights the protests and violence in that city and elsewhere. 

Former President Barack Obama on Friday declared the death of George Floyd, the black man who died after being pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer, unacceptable. “This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America. It can’t be normal,” Obama said in a statement. “If we want our children to grow  up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.”

Floyd, who was 46, was handcuffed on Monday and held down by four white officers, including one who kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes. The police were responding to a call about someone attempting to pass a counterfeit bill.

“It will fall mainly on the officials of Minnesota to ensure that the circumstances surrounding George Floyd’s death are investigated thoroughly and that justice is served,” the former president continued. “But it falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station — including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day — to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”

Obama said he was sharing parts of conversations with friends about the case, including one with a “middle-aged African American businessman”  who wrote “the knee on the neck is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down.” The former president praised a viral video of a spiritual composed and sung by Keedron Bryant, a 12-year-old boy, who sang: “I just want to live.”

“The circumstances of my friend and Keedron may be different, but their anguish is the same,” Obama said. “It’s shared by me and millions of others.”

Floyd was unarmed and handcuffed while he was held on the ground. Four Minneapolis officers involved were fired the next day as local and federal authorities launched an investigation into the case.

The arresting officer, Derek Chauvin, 44, is a 19-year veteran who has been the subject of a dozen police conduct complaints that resulted in no disciplinary action. Chauvin’s use of his knee to pin Floyd to the ground was a technique not approved by the city’s police department, and it drew widespread condemnation from U.S. police officials.  Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Footage taken by a bystander triggered near-universal outrage and protests around the country over his killing.

Obama’s statement came hours after demonstrations over Floyd’s death escalated in Minneapolis for a third straight night, where protesters set fire to a police precinct and looted and torched businesses.

President Trump condemned the protesters as “THUGS” and suggested the military, which has been called in to assist local and state police, shoot them. The message was flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence.”

“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” Trump wrote. “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Trump’s tweet left him “furious.”

“I will not lift the President’s tweet. I will not give him that amplification,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “But he is calling for violence against American citizens during a moment of pain for so many. I’m furious, and you should be too.”

America cries out for leadership in this time of despair by so many of its citizens!



Trump targets social media companies with executive order after Twitter fact-checks his tweets!

Trump signs order targeting social media giants


Dear Commons Community,

President Donald Trump yesterday signed an executive order cracking down on “censorship” by social media sites, a move widely seen by critics as retaliation against Twitter’s decision to slap fact-checking labels on the president’s tweets.

The executive order targets companies granted liability protection through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Under the statute, large social media companies cannot be sued for much of the content posted by others using their sites.

Without congressional action, however, there are limits to what Trump can do with the executive order. The president said that he would indeed pursue legislation in addition to the order.

Attorney General William Barr, who also attended the signing, said the Justice Department would seek to sue social media companies, saying the statute “has been stretched way beyond its original intention.”   As reported by CNBC.

The order would push the Federal Communications Commission to set new rules on some websites’ protections under Section 230. It would also encourage the Federal Trade Commission to take action against companies that engage in “deceptive” acts of communication, and it would form a working group of state attorneys general to review relevant state laws.

Barr earlier this year signaled the department’s intention to look “critically” at the law, originally designed to allow growing technology companies protection. But critics of the law have argued it allowed social media firms to turn a blind eye to unlawful content. It is unclear, though, on what grounds the Justice Department might sue. 

While Barr said that the president’s order does not repeal Section 230, Trump added shortly after: “One of the things we may do … is remove or totally change [Section] 230.”

The executive order came two days after Twitter, for the first time, added warning links to two of Trump’s tweets, inviting readers to “get the facts.” The tweets made a series of claims about state-led mail-in voting services, an issue Trump has railed against in recent weeks.

The labels, when clicked, led Twitter users to a page describing Trump’s claims as “unsubstantiated.”

“Trump falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to ‘a Rigged Election.’ However, fact-checkers say there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud,” Twitter’s fact-checking page said, citing reporting from CNN, The Washington Post and other news outlets.

Trump said Thursday that social media companies selectively choosing who to fact-check is tantamount to “political activism, and it’s inappropriate.”

Twitter on Thursday night called Trump’s executive order “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law, saying attempts to erode it “threaten the future of online speech.”

Facebook issued the following statement Thursday evening:

“Facebook is a platform for diverse views. We believe in protecting freedom of expression on our services, while protecting our community from harmful content including content designed to stop voters from exercising their right to vote. Those rules apply to everybody. Repealing or limiting section 230 will have the opposite effect. It will restrict more speech online, not less. By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”

Google also released a statement which said the company had “clear content policies and we enforce them without regard to political viewpoint.”

President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order cracking down on “censorship” by social media sites, a move widely seen by critics as retaliation against Twitter’s decision to slap fact-checking labels on the president’s tweets.

The executive order targets companies granted liability protection through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Under the statute, large social media companies cannot be sued for much of the content posted by others using their sites.

Without congressional action, however, there are limits to what Trump can do with the executive order. The president said Thursday that he would indeed pursue legislation in addition to the order.

Attorney General William Barr, who also attended the signing, said the Justice Department would seek to sue social media companies, saying the statute “has been stretched way beyond its original intention.”

The order would push the Federal Communications Commission to set new rules on some websites’ protections under Section 230. It would also encourage the Federal Trade Commission to take action against companies that engage in “deceptive” acts of communication, and it would form a working group of state attorneys general to review relevant state laws.

Barr earlier this year signaled the department’s intention to look “critically” at the law, originally designed to allow growing technology companies protection. But critics of the law have argued it allowed social media firms to turn a blind eye to unlawful content. It is unclear, though, on what grounds the Justice Department might sue. 

While Barr said that the president’s order does not repeal Section 230, Trump added shortly after: “One of the things we may do … is remove or totally change [Section] 230.”

The executive order came two days after Twitter, for the first time, added warning links to two of Trump’s tweets, inviting readers to “get the facts.” The tweets made a series of claims about state-led mail-in voting services, an issue Trump has railed against in recent weeks.

The labels, when clicked, led Twitter users to a page describing Trump’s claims as “unsubstantiated.”

“Trump falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to ‘a Rigged Election.’ However, fact-checkers say there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud,” Twitter’s fact-checking page said, citing reporting from CNN, The Washington Post and other news outlets.

Trump said Thursday that social media companies selectively choosing who to fact-check is tantamount to “political activism, and it’s inappropriate.”

Twitter on Thursday night called Trump’s executive order “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law, saying attempts to erode it “threaten the future of online speech.”

Facebook issued the following statement Thursday evening:

“Facebook is a platform for diverse views. We believe in protecting freedom of expression on our services, while protecting our community from harmful content including content designed to stop voters from exercising their right to vote. Those rules apply to everybody. Repealing or limiting section 230 will have the opposite effect. It will restrict more speech online, not less. By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”

Google also released a statement which said the company had “clear content policies and we enforce them without regard to political viewpoint.”

“Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences,” the statement said. “Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.” 

On Wednesday night, Trump lashed out — on Twitter — accusing the social media giant of “interfering” in the 2020 presidential election and trying to “CENSOR” him.

“If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen!” Trump tweeted Wednesday night.

The president had earlier tweeted that “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”

While Section 230 has critics on both sides of the aisle, including apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has said he believes Section 230 should be “revoked,” the executive order was swiftly panned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“The proliferation of disinformation is extremely dangerous, particularly as our nation faces the deadliest pandemic in history,” Pelosi said in a statement.

“Clearly and sadly, the President’s Executive Order is a desperate distraction from his failure to provide a national testing strategy to defeat COVID-19.”

Social activists condemned the order as unconstitutional. 

“Much as he might wish otherwise, Donald Trump is not the president of Twitter,” said American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane after a draft of the executive order was made public earlier Thursday. ”This order, if issued, would be a blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president.”

Still, the order had some supporters, including the Internet Accountability Project, a conservative opponent to Big Tech that is funded, in part, by Oracle.

“The social media platforms, regardless of whether or not they are bound by the First Amendment, should be held accountable to their end-users,” said Rachel Bovard, senior adviser for Internet Accountability Project.

“There are many lawmakers looking to recalibrate the law in order to foster the accountability and transparency that achieves that goal. President Trump’s Executive Order seeks those same ends.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo, who has introduced legislation tackling section 230, took to Twitter to remind his followers of own battle with Big Tech, though did not address the President’s order directly. 

“Gotta remember that key to #BigTech dominance/monopoly is advertising, and how they have manipulated [section 230] to create behavioral advertising machine,” he wrote.

Trump’s opponents have long pressured Twitter to take action against his frequent, and frequently criticized, use of the platform. Of the 18,000-plus false or misleading claims Trump has made as president, more than 3,300 were made in tweets, according to The Washington Post.

Those calls for action reached a fever pitch this week, as Trump continued making baseless suggestions that MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough might have been involved in the death in 2001 of his former staffer when he served in Congress. 

The staffer’s widower asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to remove Trump’s tweets on the matter. “I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain,” the widower wrote in a letter to Dorsey.

Twitter refused to delete Trump’s tweets about Scarborough. But Dorsey on Wednesday defended his company’s fact-checking labels, saying Twitter will “continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally.”

To borrow a line from the film A Few Good Men – Trump “can’t handle the truth!”


NOTE:  I was alerted to this development by my colleague, Fred Lane!

2.1 Million Americans Filed for Unemployment Last Week Bringing the Total to Over 40 Million!

Image: Jobless claims

Dear Commons Community,

More than 2.1 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits for the first time last week, the 10th straight week that jobless claims have been in the millions as the coronavirus continues to cripple the economy.

According to data filed by the Department of Labor, the total number of people who have sought unemployment assistance now stands at more than 40 million since the coronavirus crisis began in mid-March. As reported by NBC News.

“While the weekly totals for jobless claims have continued to fall since hitting a peak of 6.8 million in late March, state labor departments have been overwhelmed by the application process.

That said, much of the backlog should have been eliminated by now, economists argue, after local governments completed updates of their websites and hired thousands of additional staff to help speed up processing.

The layoffs reflect an economic landscape that has been shattered and shuttered. Despite a gradual state-by-state reopening, many of the stores and restaurants that have returned to business must operate at one-quarter of their pre-coronavirus capacity, due to social distancing measures, requiring a smaller amount of staffing.

The cancellation of most summer camps, and an overall lack of child care, are also contributing to the elevated unemployment numbers, with some furloughed parents simply unable to return to work even when their position opens up again.

Additionally, higher-than-normal unemployment checks are keeping a portion of the labor market at home. The Federal Reserve noted in its monthly Beige Book report on the economy that business owners “cited challenges in bringing employees back to work, including workers’ health concerns, limited access to child care, and generous unemployment insurance benefits.”

Around 40 percent of all workers could earn more while unemployed than by returning to their previous job, according to a recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Thursday’s jobless data comes ahead of next Friday’s closely watched monthly employment report. Government figures showed that more than 20 million people were out of work in April, kicking the unemployment rate up to 14.7 percent, the highest since the Great Depression.”

Let’s face it – our recession has evolved into a depression for much of America!


Michael S. Roth: Beware the Doyens of Disruption of Our Colleges and Universities!

The disruption of higher education - The Economist Intelligence ...

Dear Commons Community,

Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, has an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, Beware the Doyens of Disruption, that tries to put the brakes on all the doom and gloom we are hearing that our colleges will be changed forever and that the era of online education is here and ready to redefine how we teach and learn.  He cautions not “to believe the hype.”  Here is the entire text of his op-ed.

“Already in March, I was hearing that Covid-19 was going to “change everything.” And indeed, despite initial reluctance to take the threat seriously, almost all campuses were emptied out by the end of the month. Faculty members who had routinely dismissed online learning as unworkable were suddenly teaching on Zoom, and their students were showing up and completing their assignments. Online was “working.” The pandemic was doing what MOOCs and their Silicon Valley promoters had failed to do in the wake of the Great Recession: unbundle the college experience. Now all students were going to get credits and credentials online without involving themselves in athletics, campus life, or advanced research. You want a class in microeconomics? That’s all you’re going to get! And that’s just fine!

Or is it? The prediction that campus life is over has been made before. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the doyens of disruption were certain that the cost structure of higher education, combined with the ubiquity of technology, would quickly lead to the replacement of the campus quad by the computer screen; the idiosyncrasies of university cultures would be flattened into more affordable and more standardized fare. In The Innovative University, Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring foresaw that colleges would go online or disappear; Kevin Carey predicted the “end of college” in a book with that title. One thing is certain, announced the blurb for Jeffrey J. Selingo’s College (Un)bound:“the Class of 2020 will have a radically different college experience than their parents.” (Selingo is a former editor of The Chronicle.)

Now we’re being told that the age of online education envisioned by the technophiles of the previous decade has finally arrived.  Online has come into its own. Coursera reportedly added 10 million new users from March to May. Skill-based classes that provide a badge to show to a prospective employer are increasingly popular (again). But enthusiasts overlook the fact that this online innovation is being driven not by a desire for distance learning, but by fear of a contagion, which will pass.

I am not a reflexive online-learning skeptic. Indeed, I was an early adopter, pushing years ago to develop online classes at Wesleyan University for Coursera. I’ve had more than 100,000 students in my Coursera classes, and during the pandemic about 1,000 new students have enrolled each week.

There are important advantages to allowing students to follow lectures at their own pace and enabling them to interact with classmates from around the world. So, when we sent most students home from Wesleyan, in March, I knew I could reach them despite the fact that they were dispersed. But over the past few months, I missed being in the same room with them. The routine opportunities for spontaneous interactions on campus just didn’t happen on Coursera, and they weren’t going to happen via Zoom. My Wesleyan students were doing the work (remotely), and their work was good, but they were feeling deprived of something fundamental.

And that’s what students have been feeling across the country. They are clamoring to get back to campus, and many are saying that if their colleges are fully online in the fall, they will take a break and find something else to do. Meanwhile, pundits are predicting that college will never be the same, and that after hundreds of colleges fail for financial reasons, the ones that remain will, for example, team up with big tech companies and be fully remote. Having failed to predict the impact of the great dislocation after 2008, higher-ed watchers are now convinced more than ever that the future belongs to online learning.

The desire of bright young people for an on-campus education remains strong.

It is true that students in search of more-affordable education have already chosen online itineraries. And some have chosen hybrid or low-residency models that combine online and in-person experiences. Such models can offer flexibility as well as a more economical path toward a diploma. For decades now, experiments in access and price points have enabled millions more students to take courses from classics to calculus, creative writing to computer science. I expect that when colleges reopen their campuses (in the fall, I hope), they will have hybrid models so that online education can supplement what happens on campus. In some cases, these models may reduce the time to completion, allowing colleges to lower their tuition charges.

But to the frustration of some of those who populate think tanks, technology centers, and business schools, these experiments have not proved fundamentally “disruptive.” The desire of bright young people from all over the world for an on-campus education remains strong. Unless you have been drinking the disruptors’ Kool-Aid (or is it now hydroxychloroquine?), it should be clear that the disappointment of students this spring isn’t because the features of Zoom aren’t cool enough. It’s because they recognize that carving out a space and time for learning together in a setting that amplifies understanding and inquiry is deeply satisfying. It’s because the bundling of research and teaching, athletics and the arts, classes and social life makes learning deeper and more fulfilling. It’s because the connectivity among people and practices that takes place in person intensifies the learning experience. And it’s because they look at alumni and trust that this intensification on campus empowers lives beyond it.

Colleges and universities, notwithstanding their traditions and rituals, have been environments of change for hundreds of years. When the pandemic recedes, they will continue to evolve. But they will do so while recognizing the abiding advantages that come from being on campus in the company of mentors and fellow students.”

I agree fully with Roth’s position.  Online education is not going to take over everything.  However, I believe that when this pandemic is over, many faculty who were forced to teach online will now incorporate more of it in their instruction in blended and hybrid models.


Congratulations President Trump:  You Led Our Country to 100,000 Deaths from the Coronavirus!

Workers move a deceased coronavirus patient in New Jersey. 

Workers move a deceased coronavirus patient in New Jersey


Dear Commons Community,

The confirmed COVID-19 death toll in the United States has surpassed 100,000, according to data tallied by Johns Hopkins University.  The U.S. continues to have the greatest coronavirus death toll of any country in the world — around triple that of the United Kingdom, which ranks second in total deaths.

The development falls in line with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projection in mid-May that the U.S. would reach that milestone by June 1. 

Less than four months ago, President Donald Trump baselessly claimed that the coronavirus ― then concentrated in China’s Wuhan province ― would probably disappear “in April as the heat comes in.” Infectious disease experts warned him not to be so sure. Nearly 59,000 Americans died from COVID-19 during the month of April alone.

The president has repeatedly revised his predictions of the U.S. death toll upward as the pandemic sweeps the country, an act that’s allowed him to boast of the job he’s doing regardless of how bad things get. A New York Times analysis of all Trump’s public comments on the pandemic from March 9 to April 17 found that he congratulated himself on the U.S. response to coronavirus roughly 600 times. He rarely expresses any empathy for the victims but dedicates lots of time to attacking his critics.

The U.S. would not be hitting 100,000 deaths this soon had it acted earlier, one analysis concluded. A recent Columbia University study found that if the country had put broad social distancing measures in place just a week earlier than it did in March, roughly 36,000 deaths could have been prevented. 

The Trump administration is under more fire than ever for brushing off the advice of medical experts early on before the disease began spreading on U.S. soil. Rick Bright, the recently ousted government vaccine official, testified before Congress this month that he “pushed for our government to obtain virus samples from China and to secure more funding … to get started quickly on the development of critical medical countermeasures,” only to be fired from his job. 

We grieve for the families and friends of those who have died – many needlessly!


Conservative Commentator S. E. Cupp Rips ‘Weak, Insecure Coward’ Trump in Blistering Op-Ed!

S.E. Cupp moves to CNN with a patriotic update to design ...

Dear Commons Community,

Conservative commentator and CNN host S.E. Cupp didn’t hold back on President Donald Trump in an op-ed, calling him out for attacking people who can’t defend themselves. She specifically targeted his consistent pattern of “picking on the dead and harassing their surviving family members,” as she wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News

Trump in recent days has been tweeting a baseless conspiracy theory that implies MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough might have killed a congressional intern in 2001, Lori Klausutis.

Klausutis worked in one of Scarborough’s Florida district offices when he was a Republican member of Congress. She was found dead in the office one morning, and authorities later determined that she had fainted due to an undiagnosed heart condition and fatally struck her head on a table.

Klausutis’s widowed husband, Timothy Klausutis, has asked Trump to stop spreading the “vicious lie,” but Trump has refused

Cupp wrote:

“Even someone with just a modicum of decency and awareness of social mores would know better than to drag the deceased and their relatives through the muck for no good reason at all.”

But Trump, she said, “has neither decency nor awareness.”

And she noted Trump’s longtime pattern of using the deceased to advance his own agenda, mocking the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and suggesting that the late Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) might be in hell

Cupp said Trump was “punching down” by attacking those who can’t defend themselves. 

“Punching down — even at the dead — isn’t the mark of a strong, secure, courageous man,” she wrote. “It’s the mark of a small, weak, insecure coward with no impulse control, compassion or common decency. That’s our president.”

Good piece, Ms. Cupp.  Trump is indeed a weak, cowardly bully!


Higher Education Prepares Campuses for Social Distancing and the New Normal!

Dear Commons Community.

Over the next several months, students across the country will soon be returning to their colleges.  Nobody knows exactly when that will happen because so much depends on the future spread of the coronavirus and on orders by state and federal officials. But many college presidents have suggested it will be fairly soon — this fall, in fact. Whenever it happens, as long as no vaccine exists yet, it is likely to involve some form of social distancing.

College leaders are already preparing for that future by considering ideas to prevent the virus’s spread in spaces like classrooms, dining halls, and dormitories. To get a sense of what studying, working, and living on a socially distanced campus would look like, The Chronicle of Higher Education gathered documents and interviewed administrators to learn their plans to re-engineer their campuses’ physical spaces to blunt the virus’s contagion. The Chronicle heard proposals from community colleges and public and private four-year institutions with enrollments ranging from fewer than 400 to 30,000.

Many administrators emphasized they had not made firm decisions yet, but they shared ideas that might work for themselves and others.  Here is an excerpt from The Chronicle’s reporting.

‘Stranger Things Have Happened’

In a way, social distancing in classrooms is straightforward. Colleges need to put fewer students in the same space, or the same number of students in more or larger spaces.

Many interventions are likely to be low-tech. Institutions say they’ll remove furniture to discourage students from sitting too close to one another, and tape off furniture that can’t be removed. They’ll designate entry and exit doors for classrooms, where possible, and redefine meeting rooms or event spaces as makeshift classrooms. Doorknobs may be removed in favor of hands-free options.

The University of Miami may even hold some classes outdoors, once Florida’s temperatures cool in the fall. The university’s president, Julio Frenk, told The Chronicle it was like “going back to the Greek ideal of academe, which was the olive grove where the philosophers would meet.” Even tents are an option, said Kevin E. Kirby, vice president for administration at Rice University, where he leads its crisis-management advisory committee. “Large temporary structures,” he said, could be used as classrooms or overflow study spaces.

At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, classrooms will hold fewer students, contain barriers between faculty members and students, and have marked entry and exit doors.

Campuses may take extra precautions to protect faculty members, who because of their age may be at higher risk than their students of contracting a serious case of Covid-19. Tape on the floor might remind students not to come within six feet of their instructor, or faculty members might find themselves teaching behind plexiglass screens, as Purdue University’s president, Mitch Daniels, told CNN.

“As a professor, I have a hard time envisioning how I can engage with my classroom if I’m surrounded by plexiglass,” said Kathryn M. Cardarelli, senior assistant provost for faculty affairs and professional development at the University of Kentucky. “But stranger things have happened.”

Even straightforward spacing creates some thorny problems, however.

Class schedules will have to be reconfigured. Many campuses are considering lengthening the time between course sessions, to lessen the class-to-class rush and give the custodial staff time to deep-clean. That means longer days and weeks.

“Traditionally, folks don’t like Monday-morning classes or Friday-afternoon classes,” said Michael Rounds, vice provost for operations at the University of Kansas. “That’s probably going to be much more flexible than it used to be.”

Even weekend classes are on the table at Kentucky, said Cardarelli, who leads a scenario-planning team there. “I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback about that idea,” she admitted.

At Texas A&M University at San Antonio, students could take multiple classes with the same small group of peers, whose size would be dictated by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on large gatherings, in a block schedule. The arrangement might be more suited to freshmen taking required or introductory courses, and could resemble their past schooling. “Your first class would be English, your second class would be math, the third class would be science,” said Cynthia Teniente-Matson, the president. Theoretically, keeping students in smaller groups that don’t interact could help limit the spread of the coronavirus, should anybody become infected. It could also help make contact tracing easier

Kentucky administrators have even considered assigning students to small cohorts that would stay in one classroom — within a residence hall — all day, and professors would come to them. Even so, Cardarelli said, students would remain socially distanced in their seats.

If a 30-student class becomes a 10-student one, how will the college keep teaching the other 20, without overburdening its faculty? Forms of hybrid instruction figure heavily in many campuses’ fall planning. Frenk, of the University of Miami, proposed that in a class that meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, one-third of the students could attend in person each day, with the remaining two-thirds watching live online.

‘People Will Eat in Shifts’

Dorms — where students share bedrooms, bathrooms, late-night barbecue-wing orders, and hallway talks — seem among the riskiest environments for viral spread.

Michigan Technological University and the University of California at San Diego are considering eliminating triple dorm rooms, and administrators at Texas A&M in San Antonio have said they definitely will.  

At the University of Kansas, Sarah Waters, the director of student housing, said she hadn’t made any decision on triples, but is seeking to reduce the density of shared rooms and bathrooms overall. In addition, Kansas plans to set aside some housing to quarantine students who contract Covid-19. All of those plans mean Kansas expects to be able to offer on-campus housing to fewer students than in a typical year.

Some campuses may welcome back only certain swaths of students to maintain low residency levels. Cardarelli heard proposals from people on Kentucky’s planning teams to house only first-year students and seniors on campus this fall. Others argued for giving priority to professional students — those in medicine, nursing, and chemistry, for example — who need clinical experience. Cases were made, too, for fine-arts students who take studio or performance courses, for athletes who need access to training facilities, and for doctoral students nearing degree completion.

A few institutions have enough dorm space — and a small-enough student body — to offer everyone a single room, and they’ve been vocal about their rare ability to do so. They include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Florida, and Sweet Briar College, a small, private liberal-arts institution for women in rural Virginia that nearly shut down in 2015. The latter will offer single rooms at the price of doubles.

“We are a very small college sitting on 3,200 acres of jaw-dropping, beautiful campus,” said Meredith Woo, Sweet Briar’s president. “We feel that we are probably very well situated, thank God.”

Whenever students venture out of their dorms to eat, their dining-hall experience may be swifter and lonelier than they’re used to.

Several campuses plan to open their dining halls for takeout only. Sweet Briar envisions seated meals, but each two-person table will be six feet apart. At Kentucky, if dining halls are open, students may be required to wear masks when they’re not eating, and plexiglass screens could guard check-in and checkout areas, Cardarelli said. Prepackaged meals might replace buffets.

Dining-hall meals are often a big social time for students. “That will end,” said Kirby, at Rice, “and people will eat in shifts.” Students will be assigned a time to eat, and dining halls will stay open longer to accommodate staggered mealtimes.

‘Only a Piece of Paper’

It’s one thing to make rules; it’s quite another to get thousands of students to follow them.

In classrooms, that responsibility might fall to someone in a new campus role. It would be unfair to expect faculty members to police social distancing while they’re teaching, said Teniente-Matson, at Texas A&M in San Antonio. So she envisioned someone else would do it instead: a “classroom steward” who would ensure that students maintain social distancing and wear masks if they’re required to do so.

The specifics of the role are still being worked out, the president added. Stewards might sit in the back of every classroom or rove the campus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week released guidelines for reopening colleges suggesting that institutions “conduct daily health checks or ask faculty, staff, and students to conduct self-checks.” After all, social distancing on campus alone can’t choke off the virus when many students venture off campus, exposing themselves to many more people, many times a week.

At Western, Campo’s intake procedure — with its thermometer and symptoms checklist — aims to control for that. At Michigan Tech, administrators are considering another option: asking staff and faculty members to attest each day that they don’t have Covid-19 symptoms before coming to work. Perhaps they could submit online forms with the symptom pledge that would be required to activate their keycards, said Ian Repp, the assistant vice president for marketing and communications.

To thoroughly monitor for coronavirus infections on campus, institutions will want to test their community members on a regular basis. The University of California at San Diego announced plans this month to test each of the 5,000 students currently on its campus for active coronavirus infections, as a trial run for larger-scale testing in the fall. The university imagines eventually testing most of its 65,000 students, staff, and faculty every month, to try to catch outbreaks before they spread.

Jonathan M. Links, vice provost and chief risk and compliance officer at the Johns Hopkins University, envisions twice-weekly testing for everyone at his institution — which, on its main campus, in Baltimore, would total 10,000 people. How such widespread testing could be funded and conducted is still unclear, but Links and Stephen J. Gange, executive vice provost for academic affairs and an epidemiologist by training, said they anticipated testing about 4,000 people each day and delivering results 24 hours later. Eventually, they hope, tests could be self-administered and saliva-based. And, if successful, large-scale testing could serve as an alternative to physical distancing.

“If we can do enough testing, tracing, isolation, and quarantine, then we think we can have more folks in a space,” Links said. “We may or may not be able to pull it off, but we’re trying.”

Some campuses are debating whether to test for active infections or for antibodies, which indicate if someone got the new coronavirus in the past and has now recovered (or perhaps never experienced severe symptoms in the first place). Public-health guidelines generally recommend active-infection testing, in part because researchers can’t yet say whether a positive antibody-test result means a person is now immune to reinfection, although the science is evolving and promising.

Meanwhile, institutions are considering strategies to foster the deep cultural changes needed to ensure that people stick to new habits. The University of Colorado at Boulder has already begun online training that faculty and staff members will have to complete before they can return to campus, said Daniel Jones, associate vice chancellor for integrity, safety, and compliance.

Students at Boulder will have their own Covid-19 training to complete, through the campus’s Canvas learning-management system. First-year students will receive an extended version of that training, through both their residence halls and a “CU 101” course that includes modules on the epidemiology of Covid-19 and behavioral expectations to stop its spread, said Ann Schmiesing, executive vice provost for academic-resource management.

Embry-Riddle has adopted a “campus influencers” program in which student-government leaders, ROTC commanders, faculty senators, administrators, and others will ask rule flouters to put their masks back on. Administrators also plan numerous softer nudges, including posters and fliers promoting social distancing. Everyone on campus now wears a badge reminding others to stay six feet away, and the university is printing T-shirts with slogans like “Respect my wingspan.” (Embry-Riddle’s mascot is an eagle.)

“It’s one thing to write a bunch of rules and policies down,” the institution’s president, P. Barry Butler, said, “but if you don’t have people participating in the solution, it’s only a piece of paper.”

Welcome to the new normal!