By Bruce Einhorn There are difficult business trips -- and then there was the visit to Hong Kong recently by Donald A. McQuade, English professor and vice-chancellor of university relations at the University of California, Berkeley. His mission: Calm the furor caused by an earlier announcement that Berkeley was banning local students because of SARS fears.
"We obviously caused a great deal of confusion and anxiety and misunderstanding," a contrite McQuade told me at the nearly empty Luk Kwok Hotel, which usually caters to business travelers attending shows at the giant convention center nearby. These days, because of the SARS scare, the occupancy rate is running at about 12%. McQuade was leading a three-person delegation to local students, teachers, and officials to express what he called "a sense of regret about having caused that anxiety."
In early May, Berkeley announced that, in order to protect the campus from the virus, students coming from China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan wouldn't be allowed to attend the school's summer session -- regardless of whether or not they had any symptoms or had been in contact with anyone who did. For jittery Asians, the decision packed the same punch in the gut as the famous Daily News headline describing President Ford's rejection of a financial bailout of the Big Apple in the 1970s: "Ford to NYC: Drop Dead."
INTOLERANT LIBERALS? No other major American university has taken such a drastic step. With European trade shows barring Hong Kong visitors and Middle Eastern governments not even allowing them visas, the move by Berkeley -- long a bastion of liberal thinking -- deepened the feeling that the world was treating Hong Kong as a giant leper colony. The stunning ban drew a rebuke from the World Health Organization -- and complaints of discrimination from Asian-Americans.
Within a few days, Berkeley officials realized that they had a major problem on their hands. "We could have handled the communication of the policy better than we did," McQuade told me. "No question about that." The university reversed itself and decided to allow some students from the three, SARS-afflicted regions.
Even after backing down, Berkeley officials insist they did nothing wrong. McQuade bristled when I used the word "panic" to describe what Berkeley had done. "As a professor of English, I don't use that word," he replied. "If Berkeley erred, we erred on the side of caution."
To explain the rationale behind the policy, McQuade brought to Hong Kong a Berkeley colleague, Professor Arthur L. Reingold, head of the epidemiology division at the university's school of public health. Reingold told me that it made complete sense to bar the students. "If you have hundreds of students coming from SARS areas, some percentage would have fever and symptoms within days," he said. "Even if there were no SARS in the world, some people have symptoms of respiratory infections."
SAFETY FIRST. That wouldn't mean they have SARS, of course. And the chances that one of the 600 students expected to arive at Berkeley from China would have the virus were tiny: In Hong Kong, a city of almost 7 million people, only 1,700 people have come down with the illness. But Reingold said the university would need to treat any respiratory infection as a possible case. "In the context of SARS," he said, "it would be foolish in the extreme not to be prepared."
And why would it be so hard for Berkeley to be prepared? "You need to be able to put someone like that in a private room with separate ventilation and toilet," he said. On the crowded Berkeley campus, that's no easy feat. Moreover, "you need to monitor them regularly and get them food," said Reingold, who added: "It takes organizing."
Now, Berkeley officials have realized they need to make that effort. "At the time the policy was announced, it wasn't clear that space was available," says McQuade. Soon after, as he put it, "the campus was able to identify space," thanks to "an elaborate logistical shifting of people." Instead of barring all summer students from Greater China, the university will allow at least 250 to attend, and perhaps more. "We are trying to find ways to accommodate as many students as possible," said McQuade.
WHY ONLY ASIA? Some critics wondered why the university had banned students from only Asia and not Canada, even though Toronto still has a SARS problem. The answer, according to McQuade, is that the university was following the list of SARS hot spots provided by the Centers for Disease Control. Noted McQuade: "Toronto wasn't on the CDC list."
Much of the criticism is unfair, said Reingold. Because the university's summer session starts in late May, "Berkeley has had to deal with this before anyone else," he said. Other schools "are just waking up to the fact that they have a lot of work to do."
Still, no other school said it was closing its doors to students coming from Greater China. McQuade will need to work hard to overcome the damage to Berkeley's image. Perhaps he needs to be a more frequent visitor to Hong Kong. If nothing else, that would at least help the troubled Luk Kwok Hotel boost its occupancy rate. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online