O-Rings, Groupthink and Campus Reopenings

College officials figuring out how to bring students back to campus resemble the Challenger engineers tasked with building a rocket to fit political considerations, Janet Murray argues.

August 17, 2020
 
 
Kennedy Space Center

On Jan. 28, 1986, the NASA Challenger blew up on launching. Like many Americans, I was devastated to see technology fail us so painfully and spectacularly. I followed the investigations of the disaster very closely, which showed that the original sin that led to the explosion was not the infamous O-rings, which could not withstand the cold launch temperatures.

Rather, it was the political decision to build a booster rocket in two pieces, requiring O-rings, so it could be transported from Utah, the home of the politically connected manufacturer who was awarded the contract, to Florida, where the launch took place.

I’m sure many of the Utah engineers who designed the fatal Challenger booster rocket did their jobs earnestly and capably. I’m sure none of them wanted the rocket to blow up. But as the risk of the O-rings became more apparent, something prevented them from naming the problem and thinking clearly about it. They became prisoners of groupthink, in which an organization encourages a false harmony of thought, cultivating rote channels while carefully refusing engagement with obvious realities outside their shared assumptions.

I have been reliving the heartbreak of the Challenger disaster every day for the past month as I sit in on administrative meetings at Georgia Tech and listen to my very smart, problem-solving colleagues talk about engineering solutions for resuming in-person classes on Aug. 17. They have done and are planning to do everything they can think of to address the problem of bringing students to campus, and they have the PowerPoint slides to prove it.

What all the operational planning cannot address, however, is the relentless surge in the epidemic in our area, brought on by a catastrophic failure of leadership at the national and state level. Common sense would dictate that we open remotely and bring at most a small subset of students to campus -- those who need specific lab courses, perhaps, and those whose home environment does not support learning. With a very small number of students and massive testing, and with most classes delivered remotely, it is just possible that the risks could be lowered to a reasonable level.

But the policy of Georgia Tech is not determined by common sense. It is determined by the University System of Georgia (USG), which is controlled by the Board of Regents, which is controlled by the governor of Georgia, well-known across America as the guy who opened tattoo and massage parlors as essential businesses back in May.

And now as we approach our opening date, we are experiencing a deadly spike in cases, with hospitals already under stress. After a recent visit from the president of the United States, the governor sued the mayor of Atlanta to prevent her from implementing a mandatory mask order. So the cases are going up, the state is remaining without a mandatory mask order, elementary schools in the Atlanta area are all announcing remote-only fall openings, private colleges in Atlanta are also going remote, but Georgia Tech, along with other colleges controlled by the USG, is preparing for in-person opening.

Earlier this summer concerted faculty action led to a reversal of the USG policy forbidding mandatory mask use on campuses. But the state system immediately asserted itself by compelling the system presidents to sign a letter cheerfully looking forward to in-person opening in the fall. And now as the epidemic worsens and students start moving into dorms, a feeling of fatalism has overtaken the campus.

The glaringly obvious reality the Challenger engineers could not engage with was the fact that they never should have been given the task of building a booster rocket in two pieces connected by an O-ring joint. The obvious reality, just as glaringly absent from the meetings I have been attending for the past weeks, is that no one should be assigning us the task of opening a college in the middle of a raging epidemic.

My colleagues know very well that students will arrive infected or immediately be exposed to infection. They know that the infection will spread to staff members and instructors and throughout the community. None of them expects us to be able to get through the semester without encountering conditions that will require the university to close. They all know that the point will come when many, many students, staff and faculty will be sick, and the students will be sent home to become vectors of infection for their families and distant communities.

But in meeting after meeting, they focus only on operational problems that fit neatly into memos and PowerPoints and engineering fixes. They know that opening will lead to disaster, but they do not allow themselves to think that they should do something to confront the actual problem, which lies in the forbidden realm of political and moral action.

Right now, groupthink makes it unsayable, and all but unthinkable, for those of us attending the endless administrative task forces and ramp-up committees and town hall meetings to advocate questioning the authority of the USG, even though we know they are ignoring science and recklessly endangering young and old, on and off campuses across the state. The same is true on other campuses throughout the state, and in other state systems and recklessly led private colleges across the country. When objections to opening are brought up, they are swallowed up by the grim, inexorable bureaucratic process, lulling everyone into anxious submission.

But if we allowed ourselves to be in touch with the reality that lies outside the comforting platitudes of administrative life, what would be unthinkable is that we would continue to make active plans to risk the health and safety of our community and the scientific integrity of Georgia Tech by pretending that it is appropriate to open up the campus in the middle of a raging epidemic.

Bio

Janet H. Murray is professor and associate dean for research at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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