Over half of students reported feeling ‘institutional betrayal’ at a university during the pandemic

Dive Brief: 

  • A new study links college student distress with the feeling that their institution failed to protect them from the harms of the coronavirus pandemic.  
  • University of Oregon researchers sought to identify whether student trauma was associated with institutional betrayal related to COVID-19, according to the findings, which were published in PLOS One, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal. The term institutional betrayal describes when institutions harm people who depend on them or fail to fulfill obligations to people who trust them. 
  • The findings are based on survey responses from nearly 600 students across two similar studies. More than half of students in both surveys reported that they experienced institutional betrayal from the U of Oregon’s handling of the pandemic, and this feeling was linked to trauma-related distress. The study did not establish a causal link between institutional betrayal and trauma. 

Dive Insight: 

The researchers surveyed U of Oregon students during the fall 2020 and winter 2021 semesters. The university mostly used remote learning during those time periods, but most first-year students were required to live in on-campus dormitories, and a small number of classes were held in person. 

The polls asked students several questions, including whether their institution created an environment where coronavirus transmission or safety protocol violations seemed common or normal or whether their institution made it difficult for them to share concerns about COVID-19. 

They also asked whether students were experiencing trauma symptoms  such as headaches, depressed mood or anxious thoughts  within the past two months. 

The first survey found 67% of students reported experiencing at least one type of coronavirus-related institutional betrayal. That level dipped slightly in the second survey, which found that 55% of students reported the same. Both surveys found that those feelings were linked to trauma. 

Students reported the same most common instances of institutional betrayal in both studies: creating environments “where transmission and/or safety violations seemed common or normal,” as well as “where transmission and/or safety violations seemed more likely to occur.” 

Among the least commonly reported forms of institutional betrayal  experienced by 10% of students in the first survey  were punishment for expressing concerns and denying an experience related to COVID-19 in some way.   

The researchers offered several explanations for why a lower share of students reported at least one type of institutional betrayal in the second survey. 

When the first poll was conducted in the fall of 2020, the university’s coronavirus policies were new and may have been perceived as “unsettling and insufficient,” the researchers wrote. By winter 2021, when the second poll was administered, students may have acclimated to these policies. 

The college may have also revised any flawed policies initiated in the fall of 2020, leading to fewer instances of institutional betrayal. 

However, the study has some limitations due to the surveys only polling students at one university. “As such, it is difficult to conclude how these results generalize to other universities, which may have implemented markedly different COVID-19 policies and procedures,” the authors wrote. 

The researchers theorized that colleges with stricter coronavirus mitigation measures may be less at risk of committing institutional betrayal, and their students may experience less psychological distress as a result. “However, such a conclusion is beyond the scope of the current study,” they wrote. 

Still, the findings could have important implications for the higher education sector. 

That’s because instances of institutional betrayal could have ramifications for colleges long after the pandemic subsides. Future health crises or other disasters are inevitable, and poor student outcomes are likely if institutional betrayal becomes a common response to such events, the researchers argued. 

Institutional betrayal could negatively impact students’ academic performance and identification with the university, they wrote. It could also influence student engagement with college activities, future enrollment and future donations to the institution. 

“The goal is not only to acknowledge the harm of and eliminate institutional betrayal, but to replace it with actions that center the needs of its institutional members,” they wrote.