The interview is available online as an audio file.
A few remarks:
A College Town. There’s a difference between a town with a college and a college town, where the college significantly affects life in the community. Whitewater is the latter, and to my mind that’s a good environment. There are many happy aspects of living in a college town.
A Pandemic’s Particular Burden on a College Town. When a city is mostly comprised of its college-student population, as Whitewater is, the interaction with students will necessarily become a source of community focus. Whenever a single demographic is large, it draws attention.
Divisions. Unfortunately, the rest of Whitewater has never been of one mind about her college-age demographic – town & gown issues have plagued the city for as long as there has been a relatively large campus.
The UW System. More each year, the direction of individual campuses is set at the System level. Whether Chancellor Watson would have brought his campus back if he had independence one will never know – no UW System chancellor has that level of autonomy.
It’s in this context that UW-Whitewater’s chancellor gave his interview.
Virtual but on Campus. Watson’s right to prioritize safety, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. There is reason, however, to doubt his claim that even virtual learners should be on campus, in dorms. (Audio, 30:00.)
While it’s easy to see how having students on campus makes money for university housing services and private landlords, the claim that UW-Whitewater students would be so distracted at home that they must be on campus is simply incredible. It’s unlikely they’re so attention-challenged as Watson has heard, and if so they are as likely to be distracted by on-campus students and away-from-home activities as by home life.
Relying on Whitewater for Conduct-Monitoring. Success of the UW-Whitewater plan relies, as Watson concedes, on compliance when students leave the campus. (Audio, 33:40.)
Residents in the Whitewater area are regrettably divided on the seriousness of this pandemic, and even whether precautions like masks are necessary. Months after this pandemic began, some residents still insist it’s a hoax, spread false claims about masks, or advance ludicrous, deluded theories that all one needs against the coronavirus is an attitude of defiance.
Every last employee of the City of Whitewater, advancing a science-based view, would yet not be enough to monitor and assure public-health compliance of thousands (students or non-students) during this pandemic. Whitewater is too small, and the obstinacy of some is too great.
It’s a shame – truly – that college-town Whitewater is divided over a matter of basic science, but she is. Too much time this last decade has been spent on grandiose aspirations for Whitewater as “beacon for business and leisure in the state of Wisconsin” (yes, really) and not enough addressing fundamental misconceptions about economics, politics, or even (as it turns out) science.
It’s possible – although greatly improbable – that this pandemic will prove mild in the fall. It’s nearly certain that whatever plans Whitewater’s chancellor advances, he’s doing so in reliance on a broader community that is too small and sadly too divided to assure public-health success.