This report was written by Walker Bragman and Andrew Perez.
Back in April, with the COVID-19 pandemic peaking in New York, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels made headlines with a letter suggesting that his school should reopen in the fall.
“It is a huge and daunting problem, but the Purdue way has always been to tackle problems, not hide from them,” Daniels wrote.
Daniels followed up with an op-ed in the Washington Post the next month, outlining steps the school planned to take. Purdue would social distance and “forgo the concerts, convocations, and social occasions that ordinarily enliven campus life,” he promised, and “a panel of scientists and clinicians” would guide its actions. Daniels even testified before the Senate that he was confident in his school’s ability to reopen safely.
But while Daniels was publicly expressing confidence in Purdue’s safety plans, the university was busy lobbying Congress on “institutional liability during pandemic response,” records show. Purdue was among many schools working in Washington to inoculate themselves from COVID-related lawsuits as they geared up to reopen their campuses in the face of the historic threat posed by the highly contagious virus.
A TMI review of lobbying records found at least a dozen schools -- some of which are taxpayer-funded -- and four higher education industry trade groups have lobbied for coronavirus liability protections in Washington this year. A new national front group led by veteran Republican operatives is campaigning for liability protections as well, warning of “frivolous lawsuits.”
The moves to reopen schools and the concurrent push for protection from lawsuits are happening as college towns have experienced significant COVID outbreaks.
“Learning or Lawsuits”
Colleges and universities across the country have been exploring a number of avenues to get liability immunity. Some, like Bates College and the University of New Hampshire, have pushed students to sign liability waivers. Others have turned to state governments -- with some success. North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law a bill shielding colleges from any lawsuits seeking tuition reimbursements after schools were forced to close earlier this year due to the pandemic.
Then, there are schools directly lobbying the federal government on COVID liability protections, They include: Purdue, Case Western University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, The New School, Michigan State University, Southern Methodist University, Syracuse University, Temple University, Penn State University, University of Kansas, Clemson University, and University of Southern Florida.
University-linked trade groups like the Council of Graduate Schools, The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, and the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, which represents fraternities and sororities nationwide, have also lobbied on liability issues related to COVID-19.
A new nonprofit called Building America’s Future recently launched a campaign, called ProtectUS, urging Congress to provide liability protections to businesses and colleges.
“America, we need to get back on our feet -- which means safely reopening college campuses,” one video put out by the group says. “But frivolous lawsuits are threatening colleges' ability to do so. Learning or lawsuits. The answer is easy. Tell Congress to pass liability reform.”
The ProtectUS campaign was announced in June by a public affairs firm, Pathway Public Affairs. Phil Cox, a partner at the firm, previously led the Republican Governors Association and currently serves on the board of directors of the Senate Leadership Fund, a party-aligned super PAC that’s raised $132 million this election cycle to elect GOP Senate candidates. The campaign declined to disclose its funders to Politico.
Building America’s Future released a polling memo in June stating that “protecting local hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, police, firefighters, colleges and universities from being sued due to coronavirus all achieve support from over two-thirds of voters.”
However, the heavy-handed language employed in the survey seemed designed to elicit a specific result: Respondents were asked whether they support “protecting colleges and universities from liability and lawsuits -- if they follow CDC and state guidelines -- so they can focus on re-opening their campuses and spending funds on students and not on lawsuits.”
Former Trump White House deputy counsel Stefan Passantino incorporated Building America’s Future in Virginia, according to state records.
What’s At Stake
The push to reopen higher learning institutions has come in part from the federal government. In July, President Trump called for universities and colleges to reopen in the fall, and several states have begun doing just that.
But the biggest motivation is financial. Schools around the country have lost millions of dollars since the COVID-19 pandemic hit from canceled events, including college sporting events, refunds for student dining and housing, and a decline in elective medical procedures at university hospitals.
In the month of March, California’s university system lost $558 million. Syracuse University alone lost $35 million in unexpected expenses within the first three months of the pandemic. While certain schools have pushed to increase tuition costs, it is no substitute for reopening.
Of the 12 schools TMI identified lobbying on liability issues in Washington, 11 of them -- all but MSU -- are in the process of reopening with in-person classes and all have promised additional safety precautions to minimize the risk of infection.
Case Western, for example, is planning for 60 percent of classes this fall to be taught in-person. At USF, which started its fall semester last week, 59 percent of classes are taking on “some in-person component.”
The New School is reopening in accordance with guidelines put out by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. SMU, meanwhile, sent out a letter to students, emphasizing the need to take “individual responsibility for our ability to complete and enjoy the fall semester on campus.”
“I Believe You Mean It”
Last month, Daniels sent a similar back-to-school message to Purdue students promising expensive new projects and policies to minimize risk, and challenging them to adhere to safety protocols:
There are those who scoff that it simply cannot be done. Most of those asserting that point directly at students, declaring them -- you -- unwilling or incapable of the sacrifice necessary to protect others. I don’t believe that, at least not about Boilermakers. But I can’t prove it.
You can. In choosing the on-campus and not the online option, you have stated your readiness to live by the Protect Purdue Pledge and its very specific demands: monitoring yourself for any symptoms, adhering to the hygienic, social distance, and masking requirements, and holding others accountable for doing likewise. I believe you mean it and can stick to it.
If you do, we are highly likely to make it through, and not repeat the wrenching spring experience of stopping school in mid-semester. But that literally depends on the choices all of us make.
Nice as that all sounds, preventing the spread of coronavirus is difficult -- especially in settings where kids are supposed to make friends and have fun, while living and studying in dense communities. As of Sunday, 250 Purdue students and 15 employees had tested positive for COVID.
Earlier this month, a number of videos of maskless students at college parties went viral. Penn State, one of the taxpayer-funded schools lobbying in D.C. for a liability shield, recently suspended two fraternities for hosting parties, one of which was described as a “maskless social.”
The New York Times reported on Sunday that COVID cases have exploded in counties where students comprise at least 10 percent of the population.
Last week, SUNY Oneonta announced that it was sending students home for the remainder of the fall semester, after being open for just 10 days, due to 389 students testing positive for the virus. Late last month, Temple University announced a two-week pause on in-person classes after 103 active cases were found.
Since in-person classes started on August 19, the University of Alabama system, which recently made headlines after instructing some professors not to disclose COVID cases, has reported more than 2,000 new COVID cases.
When in-person classes began at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, four virus clusters broke out. Faced with rising case numbers, administrators announced that all undergraduate learning would be done remotely and occupancy at residence halls would be cut down.
Discontent is growing on reopening campuses. At UNC Chapel Hill, last month, students and faculty participated in a “die-in” to protest the school’s in-person classes.
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