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<p>An aerial view of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, including the Waikīkī skyline.</p>
<h6>Albert Jiang / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

An aerial view of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, including the Waikīkī skyline.

Albert Jiang / The Daily Princetonian

Amid outrage from Hawaiʻi residents, plans for college ‘bubble’ popped

Editor’s Note: On August 17, one day after this story was published, The U Experience announced it would host its program at the Waterstone Resort & Marina in Boca Raton, FL.

Last week, two Princeton alumni garnered national attention for plans to create two ‘bubble’ campuses in Hawaiʻi and Arkansas, just as the University announced that all fall instruction would be remote

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After widespread backlash from local Hawaiʻi residents, the alumni’s business idea, titled ‘The U Experience,’ will no longer come to fruition at either property.

Lane Russell ’18 and Adam Bragg ’16 started The U Experience in response to many colleges’ decisions to conduct fully virtual fall semesters. They planned to house about 150 college students, who would take classes online in a ‘bubble’ hotel, where they could “come to live out the college experience with total peace of mind,” according to the company’s website.

On a page that has since been removed, Russell and Bragg touted two hotel “campuses" at Hawaiʻi’s Park Shore Waikīkī and Arkansas’ Graduate Fayetteville.

Their project was featured in Business Insider on Aug. 7, and Russell appeared on CNN the next day. “Our value being here is giving the students an opportunity to work with other students and to live out that traditional college experience,“ Russell told CNN’s Michael Smerconish. Their self-professed goal was to “unbundle” the current system, separating education from experience.

“Think Harvard education meets University of Hawaii campus,’” their website reads.

The Waikīkī location was advertised as “everything that a mainland college could never offer,” a “luxurious island resort experience” available at the cost of $15,000 for three months, from Sept. 1 to Nov. 26. While students took online classes through their colleges, The U Experience touted events such as day trips to private islands, beachfront sports, DJ’d pool parties, and hiking excursions to Diamond Head. 

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The website did not mention that some of those experiences would not be possible under current state guidelines, given the state-wide closure of parks and beaches amid rising COVID-19 case counts. 

The Arkansas location — situated in the “tallest building in Fayetteville” — promised the “best of nature and culture” in the American South, with a price tag of $12,000. The U Experience described “breathtaking views off into the nearby Ozarks” and opportunities to visit Crystal Bridge and “make art in the incredibly instagrammable campus interior.”

As the program turned heads, vocal opposition arose from Hawaiʻi residents, many of whom raised concerns about the health and safety of the communities hosting the resort campuses. These concerns would mount over the next several days, pushing the co-founders to put a pause on their plans. 

Outrage and opposition

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On the same day Russell appeared on CNN, a seven-member team of Hawaiʻi residents published a Change.org petition titled “Stop Bringing Nonresident Students to Hawaiʻi During a Pandemic,” which garnered over 11,000 signatures in just three days.

The petition came in the midst of triple-digit increases in case counts in the state and rapidly filling intensive care units at Oʻahu hospitals. That week, Hawaiʻi reported — and continues to report — the highest Effective Reproduction Number (Rt), a measure of the number of people that can be infected by a single individual, in the nation. On Aug. 13, Hawaiʻi reported a record-breaking number of new cases amid reports of four of Oʻahu’s major intensive care units nearing capacity.

Russell and Bragg saw The U Experience as an “alternative to tourism that emphasizes safety while still bringing much needed resources to the local economy.” Despite the organization’s promises to locally source needs, hire from the community, and partner with local professionals and artists, the petition’s signatories voiced concerns over the harm the project could cause to Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.  

“In the event that the students who arrive to enter these programs test positive for COVID-19, the already overcrowded medical facilities and the front-line workers on Oʻahu and Maui will be put at an even greater risk,” the petition read. 

The petition cited an offering similar to The U Experience, titled “A Semester At the Sea,” which would host students at the Kāʻanapali Ocean Inn on the island of Maui.

“We were concerned given that the community didn’t have any opportunity to give input for these two projects,” the authors of the petition wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. “After creating the petition, we received a wave of support. This reflects the great concern of local residents regarding the health risks these projects pose.”

According to Lexi Figueroa, who helped write the petition, the authors also received an outpouring of support from non-residents, including University alumni, who expressed opposition to The U Experience, citing the “selfish, irresponsible, and disrespectful nature of this project.”

“We only have 340 ICU beds to service the entire population of Oʻahu,” the team behind the petition wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “A single outbreak in a The U Experience ‘bubble’ would deplete nearly half of our health resources.” In total, Oʻahu has a population of nearly one million. 

According to Jonah Hyman ’20, a resident of Fayetteville, Ark. — The U Experience’s second planned location — the college town, which is busy focusing on plans to reopen the University of Arkansas, hasn’t seen an organized response. But Hyman still expressed doubts about the program. 

“The COVID-19 case rate here isn’t trending down, and testing isn’t yet available for people who don’t have symptoms,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “This would probably make it harder for The U Experience to operate safely, even if its students were diligent about social distancing and mask wearing.”

A handbook initially posted to The U Experience website, since taken down for revision, listed measures that would be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students would be expected to submit results of a negative COVID-19 test prior to the start of the program and self-quarantine in their hotel rooms for 14 days upon arrival, in accordance with state mandates. Throughout the semester, students would be prohibited from leaving campus, even to “purchase goods, essential or non-essential.”

Any participant who exited the ‘bubble’ for an unapproved activity would be removed from the program, according to the document. Although Bragg and Russell did not specify exactly how they would enforce such rules, they said they did not plan on forcing students to remain in the ‘bubble’ if they chose to leave.

“The idea that we’re proposing with this is something that we as a society have accepted and embraced,” Russell said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ The co-founders pointed to the success of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) ‘bubble’ as a model for their efforts. 

“What we are doing is leaning on the structure that has already been in place and implemented and developed by a company like the NBA that has the resources and abilities to apply them,” Bragg added. 

Many, however, expressed concerns that The U Experience ‘bubble’ could not be executed properly. Russell and Bragg themselves admitted that they have no experience in hospitality, education, or travel.

According to The U Experience’s website, Russell and Bragg majored in Economics and History, respectively, at the University.

Although The U Experience listed hospitality and healthcare partnerships with Hotel Connections and Happi House Collective, the company did not provide details on local groups they would partner with to ensure students’ safety. 

“It was clear that the co-founders were ill-prepared to enact their program safely and respectfully in the timeline stated,” Kimberly Peterson ’19, a Hawaiʻi resident, wrote in an email to the 'Prince.' 

Erica Ito, a rising senior at the University of Michigan and Hawaiʻi resident, described her first reaction to news of the business venture as anger.

“I read all the articles, I’ve read a bunch of people’s posts about it,” she said. “And then I made this graphic really quickly.”

Her Instagram post — which reads, “Hawaiʻi is not your beach house ... and it’s definitely not your coronavacation destination” — has since amassed over 11,000 likes.

Peterson also posted on social media soon after hearing about the program. “Hawaiʻi is not your vacation. It is a real community that is struggling to manage this pandemic, just like the rest of the U.S.,” she wrote in an email.  

Many began voicing their concerns on the company’s Instagram and Twitter pages, as well as on Bragg and Russell’s personal accounts. Several users alleged that Russell and Bragg were intentionally censoring dissent on The U Experience’s social media pages. Peterson claimed that comments were deleted and profiles were blocked on Bragg, Russell, and The U Experience’s Instagram accounts.

By the time of publication, Russell and Bragg had not responded to repeated requests for comment regarding these claims.  

The petition also states that bringing The U Experience to Waikīkī would perpetuate a history of colonial violence and displacement of Native Hawaiians from ancestral homelands.

“Colonization and gentrification have priced Native Hawaiians and locals out of Hawaiʻi and these proposed programs exacerbate the issue,” it read. “Native Hawaiians have already experienced a cultural genocide and had their population decimated by introduced disease, and these plans disregard that history and current vulnerability of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders due to COVID-19.”

Jordan Nishina, a rising senior at Northwestern University and a Hawaiʻi resident, described Russell and Bragg’s business venture as “callous” and a “contemporary manifestation of colonialism.”

“The U Experience is a blatant disregard of moral principles as it capitalizes on and exploits the financial vulnerabilities of Hawaiʻi brought about by the pandemic and will likely result in the detriment of the community’s health,” he wrote to the ‘Prince.’

The U Experience website, however, insists the hotels would help locals. 

“In bringing together 150 intelligent, hard-working, driven students, we are creating the opportunity for our student collective to positively impact the larger surrounding community,” the “For Communities” page notes. “We recognize that we all benefit from a thriving local economy.”

‘Economic influx to a local economy’

For some critics, The U Experience sheds light on the island state’s over-dependence on tourism, “a direct result of the exoticization of Hawaiʻi” and “an immediate threat to the health of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other Hawaiʻi residents,” according to the petition. 

These financial vulnerabilities have been significant. In a state where tourism comprises more than 20 percent of the economy, a stark drop in the number of visitors has precipitated steep economic losses. 

In June, the state experienced a 98.2 percent drop in visitors, according to data released by the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority. A report compiled by Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis indicated that hotel revenue plummeted by $1 billion, or 50 percent, in the second quarter of 2020, as compared to the same period last year. Hawaiʻi’s hotel industry also saw revenue per available room decline 94.5, 91.1, and 89.3 percent in April, May, and June, respectively — considerably worse than the national average.

For Ingrid Lin, associate professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s School of Travel Industry Management (TIM), the fact that tourism represents the single largest contributor to Hawaiʻi’s economy creates an even greater impetus to develop new solutions.

“I believe this is a wake-up call for the hospitality and tourism industry,” she explained to the ‘Prince.’ “We have to find creative, innovative ways to do business. It’s no longer just real estate and expecting people to come in and fill a room.” 

The TIM department chair emphasized the need for collaboration between the hospitality, education, and healthcare industries. As an example, she pointed to designated quarantine hotels and the resort-like “postpartum centers” popular in many Asian countries. 

The U Experience’s co-founders see their company as this sort of project.

“The same way that tourism provides some kind of economic influx to a local economy, our students are doing basically the same thing but in a much safer and more controlled environment,” Russell said.

Lin praised Russell and Bragg’s innovative spirit, describing their concept as a “very creative idea,” which had the potential to boost the struggling hotel industry. However, she criticized their timing and execution.

In the midst of a global health crisis, Lin said, it is dangerous to take such risks. 

“To me, people’s health and wellbeing come first,” she said. “You have to come up with a win-win situation. It’s not all about your business. It’s about the wellbeing of the local people as well.”

Beyond potential health risks, Lin, who researches marketing and consumer experience, pointed toward The U Experience’s advertising as where they might have gone wrong. She believes that the way companies advertise Hawaiʻi often “overuses” and exoticizes Native Hawaiian culture. 

“If you promote it as [an exotic, luxury destination], just like the Princeton students are doing, that [can] upset the locals,” she explained.

She pointed to the Aulani Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina as an example of tourism in the state that does not suffer those pitfalls. During development, Walt Disney Imagineering collaborated with cultural experts and Native Hawaiian elders — or kūpuna — to ensure that the space was authentic and sensitive to Hawaiian customs and traditions.

However they proceed, Lin emphasized the importance of “very open communication” with the Native Hawaiian community — a dialogue many say has been absent. The petition authors told the ‘Prince’ they felt the program’s rushed timeline left “no time for community input.”

“During a pandemic, any tourism programs must prioritize safety and consider their impact on local communities,” they wrote in a statement. “The U Experience has failed to take these critical factors into account, and therefore is not welcome.”

Plans put on hold 

On Aug. 11, the U Experience announced that it had suspended plans with Park Shore Waikīkī and Graduate Fayetteville — just four days after the Business Insider feature.

“We would like to inform all who have been following this story that we will no longer be moving forward with either of these properties,” the announcement reads. “While we were very excited to work with these incredible hotels, we will be postponing the start date of our program until we are confident that our mission has been communicated transparently to all relevant stakeholders.”

Jim Toomey, director of the front office at the 221-room Park Shore Waikīkī, wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that he and his colleagues “currently have no contract with [The U Experience].” David Rochefort, President of Graduate Hotels, confirmed that the hotel was “in early discussions with the U Experience team regarding Graduate Fayetteville being a potential location for this new offering,” but that the plans are now on hold. 

“Graduate Fayetteville will not be part of U Experience this fall, nor will any other hotels in the Graduate Hotels portfolio,” Rochefort wrote.

Bragg and Russell declined to comment on the number of applications they have received, but indicated “a lot of interest” from students at Ivy League institutions, predominantly hailing from “large coastal cities.” 

The team is still accepting and reviewing applications. In addition, the company is revising its handbook for participants, “making sure that everything we’re doing is crystal, crystal clear.”

Bragg and Russell told the ‘Prince’ that while much of the public feedback comprised “concerns about the community,” they also received, in “private messages and emails, a ton of support from local community members, restaurants, and local businesses.” Although they have halted initial plans, Bragg and Russell said they still hope to hold The U Experience this semester at alternative hotels. 

“Most of the criticism wasn’t about the idea at all, it was about the location,” Bragg said, adding that, “one of the great things about The U Experience is that we are not location-specific.”

“We have the ability to source from hundreds of hotels in all 50 states to really pinpoint the community we can help the most, and where we will be accepted and embraced,” Bragg continued. 

The impetus behind the idea, Russell and Bragg said, was two-fold. The first was preventing what they see as an impending mental health crisis. 

“We think we are coming up on one of the biggest mental health crises in history,” Russell told the ‘Prince.’ “We think that it’s not going to be shown now, but when you have 10 million kids or more being sent home, pulled from their social networks, and their social support groups, and placed into isolation, that puts them at risk of having to go through months of increased amount of social pressures.”

The second was addressing the nationwide rise in student debt. In recent years, continuous increases in college tuition have made higher education “inaccessible and unsustainable in its current form.”

The U Experience co-founders aim to disrupt higher education by “unbundling” the components of education, experience, and credentials. Once such decoupling occurs, they reason, “education can drop back down in price.”

“Our dream is to make a college education accessible to everyone, regardless of income,” The U Experience website reads. “When the price of an education is bid up by those who are willing to pay anything for the credentials and experience, this is impossible.” 

When asked to defend the cost of their program in light of their desire to make college education more accessible, Russell likened the venture to electric carmaker Tesla. The company’s first model, the 2008 Tesla Roadster, was something “almost nobody could afford … except for a very privileged few.”

“But that ultimately led to the Model 3 and the proliferation of electric vehicles across other brands, because they’ve proven it was possible to do so,” he said. “We’re trying to make the idea of an unbundled college experience attractive and interesting to people.”

While the co-founders acknowledged that The U Experience might not be available to many students immediately, they encouraged others to build upon their model in the future. 

“What The U Experience really represents is something in the long run,” Russell said. “It is not just a playground for wealthy people. It is something that is meant to prove that this can exist so that everyone has access to it.”

The donation page on the website, he added, was set up in order to fund opportunities for students who would not otherwise be able to afford them. While not currently accepting donations, the page lays out a plan for a need-based scholarship fund and attempts to “get a sense of how much interest” exists for such a program.

“We want to have the most diverse campus possible and hear voices from all backgrounds,” Russell continued. “It’s not going to be possible if we’re only accepting students who can afford the price tag.” The co-founders also pointed out that a price tag of $12,000 or $15,000 per term is “similar” to the cost of room and board at a typical college. 

For the 2019-2020 academic year, room and board fees at the University were approximately $17,000.

In recent years, free online learning platforms such as Coursera, OpenCourseWare, and EdX, as well as free online classes offered by MIT, have grown in popularity. The co-founders hope The U Experience will allow students to “take on those much cheaper alternative educational options, without having to compromise on having a community of friends and a network of people in your field of study.”

“Ideally, in the very near future, students will have alternative options for education that are just as feasible and reputable as things like the current university system,” Russell said, explaining that he hopes students will begin accepting credentialed online learning programs as a feasible replacement in lieu of a “costly four-year university.” 

The U Experience’s cohort size of 150 is inspired by Dunbar’s number, which places a cognitive limit on the number of people with which any one person can sustain stable social relationships. This size, Russell said, would allow students to hold each other accountable for their actions. 

“What we’re counting on here is that a sense of actual genuine community is the thing that enforces keeping our students safe,” he stressed, “and that they feel a social desire and social pressure to do good and to be a healthy part of their community.”

Final protocols on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the hotel and how to handle potential cases are forthcoming, the co-founders said, and they are open to updates as more information becomes available. 

As of publication, The U Experience’s homepage still featured photos of poolside revelers, pictured in tropical settings.

Everybody can learn

Ito, the University of Michigan senior, explained that while growing up in Hawaiʻi, she learned about the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom, including the contemporary repercussions of its overthrow. Outsiders such as Russell and Bragg, she said, must do the same, recognizing the implications of their actions before pursuing ventures like The U Experience.

“It’s past time for people to do their part and educate themselves on the history they were not given by the education system,” Ito said. 

In their Aug. 11 update, The U Experience team maintained, “our goal is to disrupt education, not local communities.”

“[We’re] trying to lead to the good kind of disruption that is helpful to students and is helpful to societies,” Russell said. He added that they are committed to interacting with community members, and following up on messages they have received. 

“We have gotten a ton of offers from people to communicate,” he said. “We are following up on all those things.”

As long as these messages are “thoughtful and respectful and productive,” Russell believes they will present “a really valuable opportunity to work with the residents of Hawaiʻi to find something that’s agreeable to every party involved.”

Figueroa, however, told the ‘Prince’ that as of Friday, Aug. 14, neither she nor any member of the team had received a response from Russell and Bragg.

“We don’t plan to be, you know, stomping into any local communities before we have a full understanding of whether or not the local residents want us there, and in what ways we can make sure that we’re demonstrating an understanding of that local culture and making sure that everyone involved is happy about it," Russell said. 

The authors of the Hawaiʻi petition remained skeptical.

“Their claims to ‘disrupt education, not local communities’ is countered by the opposition of over 12,000 community members who have signed our petition,” they wrote in an email, adding that The U Experience’s proclamation that they are “not going anywhere” feels “threatening and reflects an inability to consider our concerns before making decisions.”

Lin, the associate professor, agreed with these sentiments. Still, she said she feels that higher education in the U.S. is overdue for change. 

“I do give them a lot of support in terms of their innovative idea,” she said of The U Experience co-founders. She maintained a hopeful tone about what the team could accomplish, if they struck the right approach. “Everybody can learn something new everyday.”

“I think the pandemic is giving us all a lesson that we need to be more open-minded and flexible,” she said. And “at the same time, a little cautious.”