Robert Buzzanco" />
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Wednesday, October 4, 2023


GUEST COMMENTARY: Decision to reopen irrational

Tuesday morning as I came to campus, I exited Interstate 45 onto Scott Street and saw downed power lines, debris all over, dead traffic lights and the large pole with traffic lights at Holman and Scott streets in the middle of the road. Power poles were down at Alabama and Holman streets, parking lots were emptier than I’ve ever seen, there were more tree limbs and debris scattered over campus and classrooms were virtually empty.

I’m chairman of the History Department, so I arrived at the office to find messages and e-mails from at least six faculty members telling me they could not make it in to teach their classes. At least one was evacuated and is still unable to return home. Surveying this scene, one would think that some type of natural disaster had hit the Houston area.

This, of course, leads the entire UH community to ask what led UH President Renu Khator and her advisors to open up for classes today. The most common response I have heard from the people to whom I’ve spoken – the most common that would pass FCC muster, at least – was "What the hell were they thinking?"

It’s a fair question. The decision to have classes today was insensitive and dangerous, at best. Texas Southern University and Houston Community College, our nearby neighbors, had the good wisdom to hold off on reopening. Alas, our leadership did not act accordingly.

More than two-thirds of the area is still without power. Streetlights aren’t working. People lack essential goods such as water, ice, bread and milk. With the public school systems closed all week parents, students, staff and faculty alike have to tend to their children. Gas, of course, is rare, and every media outlet has echoed Houston Mayor Bill White’s message to stay off the roads. To call communication spotty is an understatement. Many of us have to deal with downed trees, some of which caused great damage, with broken glass and debris. This leads to the difficulty of contacting repair workers or contractors and making arrangements with insurance adjusters.

Amid this chaos, our new president, for whatever reason, is telling us to brave the traffic, the elements and the lack of fuel and come to campus, even as many living spaces are still not ready to be inhabited.

For what? Many students will arrive to rooms with notes attached telling them that their professors have canceled class and will have wasted time and gasoline. Many will be in classes with meager attendance. As professors, we either teach them a lesson and thus deny it to those who could not attend, or waste their time with movies or information that will have to be repeated for those who could not make it to campus.

All of us value education deeply, but we also understand that human tragedy should not be trivialized by holding classes when people are suffering so profoundly. Classes can be made up – lives, families and homes are a priority and not so easily fixed. Khator surely should understand that.

In my time here, I have seen cookie-cutter conformist presidents (Glenn Goerke, Arthur K. Smith, Jay Gogue) come and go. Khator promised something new: energy and vision. Unfortunately, the difference (or in this case, indifference) is based on style more than substance.

Someone needs to answer for this fiasco. Faculty Senate must investigate and the president should explain who she consulted and why she made this decision. Khator has not had the smoothest start here, and it’s going to become much rockier. Buzzanco, professor and chairman of the History Department, can be reached via [email protected]

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