A report from University of Oregon researchers released Wednesday details how higher education institutions may be failing students when it comes to ensuring safety at school during the pandemic.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, students have entrusted universities to protect both their health and their educational opportunities,” UO professor emeritus Jennifer Freyd and Ph.D candidate Alexis Adams-Clark wrote in the report, published in a journal from the Public Library of Science, the peer-reviewed PLOS ONE. “However, many universities have failed to meet these expectations.”

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Adams-Clark and Freyd detail experiences of “institutional betrayal” in their report, based on research done at UO in the fall 2020 and winter 2021 academic terms.

The University of Oregon president's office in Johnson Hall. Although a study on institutional betrayal released Wednesday drew on surveys of UO students, researchers said they have no reason to believe the results would look different at other higher education institutions.

The University of Oregon president's office in Johnson Hall. Although a study on institutional betrayal released Wednesday drew on surveys of UO students, researchers said they have no reason to believe the results would look different at other higher education institutions.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

Institutional betrayal is a term describing when certain institutions harm the people who directly depend on them, for the institutions’ own gain, an area that’s been a focus of Freyd’s psychology work for some time, including the founding of her nonprofit Center for Institutional Courage.

Often, the term “institutional betrayal” has been used to describe colleges and universities mishandling sexual misconduct. In terms of the pandemic, Freyd and Adams-Clark suggest, institutional betrayal may mean holding some in-person classes, or requiring first-year students to live in on-campus residence halls with few exceptions, while COVID-19 cases rise.

Adams-Clark and Freyd both stressed that even though the research took place at UO, they have no reason to believe that the results would have looked any different at other institutions.

In fall 2020, 309 UO undergraduate students participated in the study. The study found that 67% of respondents reported at least one type of COVID-19-related institutional betrayal.

The most common types of betrayal the students reported were “creating an environment in which COVID-19 transmission was more common or seemed normal” — by emphasizing low transmission or fatality rates among college students, for example — and “creating an environment in which COVID-19 transmission seemed more likely to occur,” such as through lack of communication, lack of clear or consistent safety protocols or lack of proper safety equipment or testing.

The majority of students surveyed in the study reported experiencing at least one form of institutional betrayal at UO.

The majority of students surveyed in the study reported experiencing at least one form of institutional betrayal at UO.

PLOS ONE / OPB

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Students were least likely to report that their experiences were actively denied or that they were disciplined or punished for reporting concerns. But still 10% of students reported those experiences, “which is a concerning statistic,” the researchers said.

Adams-Clark and Freyd found that experiencing institutional betrayal comes hand-in-hand with general trauma symptoms such as depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

“Our study strongly suggests that students are not satisfied with the university’s response and feel betrayed,” Adams-Clark said in a statement. “This betrayal creates an additional threat to students’ well-being during the pandemic.”

In winter 2021, when they researchers conducted their second survey, there had been no significant COVID-19 policy changes at UO. The university continued to largely conduct remote learning. But the survey results changed slightly — with a smaller share of students reporting instances of betrayal.

About 280 students were surveyed, and 54.8% reported experiencing at least one type of institutional betrayal.

Adams-Clark and Freyd wrote that there may have been a higher rate in reports of institutional betrayal last fall because COVID-19 procedures were new. Also, by the time the researchers conducted the second survey, vaccines were starting to become available.

“By winter 2021, many students may have acclimated to these policies, and both a changing political climate and the initiation of vaccine distribution on the national level may have reduced the perception of institutional betrayal,” Adams-Clark and Freyd said.

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Opposite the idea of institutional betrayal is “institutional courage” — when an institution acts to center the needs of the people who depend on it, despite potential consequences for the institution itself.

For universities during the pandemic, the researchers said, that could look like institutional transparency about COVID-19 cases or efforts that incorporate students’ voices into university policies.

“The influence of institutional betrayal may have important implications for universities, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is contained,” the researchers wrote.

If higher education institutions continue to commit types of institutional betrayal during this pandemic, or during any other future crises, Adams-Clark and Freyd said, it could mean a negative impact on students’ academic performance as well as future enrollment or future financial contributions from alumni.

“If universities want to fulfill their promises and continue to provide a community that supports students in the long term, avoiding institutional betrayal in any context is an important first step,” they wrote.

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