Behavior Pledges, Empty Stadiums, and Widespread Testing
Three college leaders on what the fall will look like.
To better understand what college leaders are thinking about the fall, The Chronicle spoke to Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College; Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington; and Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University system. They discussed the cultural shift underway at their institutions, the new and expensive reality of operating amid a pandemic, and the best advice they’ve received. The interview, which you can also
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To better understand what college leaders are thinking about the fall, The Chronicle spoke to Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College; Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington; and Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University system. They discussed the cultural shift underway at their institutions, the new and expensive reality of operating amid a pandemic, and the best advice they’ve received. The interview, which you can also watch on demand, has been edited for length and clarity.
Stripling: Chancellor White, you made news when you came out and said that California State would be mostly online in the fall. I wonder if you can walk us through reaching that decision.
White: Well, we had two North Stars that guided us. One is, of course, the health, safety, and well-being not only of our students, but also of our faculty and staff and the 23 communities where our campuses are embedded. And the second North Star was to create as many opportunities as possible for students to continue to make progress to their degree.
With those as North Stars, we thought about what this pandemic looks like. We can’t change the biology of this virus. What we can do is change the behaviors that will mitigate its spread. So we’re using science and infectious-disease experts and epidemiologists to guide our decisions.
In the fall, everybody’s forecasting another huge wave, coupled with influenza, that could end up being even more catastrophic with respect to morbidity and mortality than what we just went through. So we thought about that. We decided to take the time between now and the fall to really move the entire university from a physical space to a virtual space. If by the time the fall gets here we’re able to back off a little bit, terrific. But I do anticipate, from what we know in California, that won’t be the case.
So there’s a variety of things that came together. But at the end of the day, it was to preserve as many options as possible for as many students, faculty, and staff, and that’s why we have moved in this direction.
Stripling: Do you remember a particular moment?
White: When we got into late February/early March, it became very clear that we had to pivot from how do we hang on to the past in any way we can to thinking how do we go to virtual in every place we can? And that was a cultural shift for the university, for its leaders, and for our faculty and staff. But once we realized that was the right place to put ourselves, it totally changed the conversation, and we spent a lot of time on how we were going to do that.
Stripling: “Cultural shift” is really well stated. I’m sure everyone’s going through that to some extent. There are vast differences in your institutions. President Ambar, you’re looking at what a residential experience might look like with 2,800 students, not a vast system of 460,000. Last I saw, you were still contemplating a few different scenarios. What’s going to lead you to a decision?
People are hungering for institutions and leaders to show them that they care.
Ambar: The decision point really is: Can we layer enough strategies together around health and safety for our faculty, staff, and students that will make us feel confident that we can open in the fall? We can’t prevent a case of Covid-19 on our campus, but can we be assured that we won’t have a widespread outbreak, that we could manage those cases should they be identified?
So for us, it’s been about what strategies could we put in place, and can we be ready for that. We’re considering seriously going to a three-semester system, which we haven’t done here at Oberlin, so to have a fall, spring, and summer experience where we have fewer students on campus.
All of those things are about how we de-densify our classes, our residence halls, our dining hall. We’re considering and will implement widespread testing: testing everybody when they come to campus, and then weekly testing so we can get a sense of what’s happening. And of course the types of strategies that everyone’s doing: masks, social-distancing, a social contract with our students about what it means to be on campus and to engage in behavior that prevents spreading.
It’s all those pieces that we’re thinking about. Because we’re in a place where the Covid-19 cases have not been as fast as other areas, we, I think, can make our choice in a different way than some other institutions because of where they’re located.
Stripling: The Chronicle recently ran a column by Robert Kelchen, a higher-ed scholar. The headline was something like “Colleges Are Not Reopening in the Fall,” despite what presidents are telling you.” The major point was that these announcements are loaded with so many caveats that almost render them meaningless because it depends on public-health conditions, depends on this, depends on that. And the one thing we all know is that we know nothing. What is the utility of being bullish about the idea of opening when there seems to be a pretty collective acknowledgment across higher ed that this could change very quickly?
Cauce: It’s important to get past the headlines, which make it seem like we’re all reopening, or we’re going all online. But if you look past the headlines — for example, at Cal State —they are planning to have some residential on campus. They are looking to have some students on campus doing lab courses or performance courses.
The truth is that all of us are doing some kind of hybrid. Yes, we hope to have students on campus. That is what we are planning for. We have to plan now even though we don’t know exactly where things are going to be in the future. We don’t have a choice but to plan, because we can’t make this decision overnight without planning.
Any one of our students could go entirely online if that’s what they wanted to do. It won’t be quite as rich in the sense of lab and performance courses. But we certainly are making sure that our students will have plenty of online options. We are also looking forward to being able to bring students back to dorms. They want to come back. We will be putting our dorms together in a slightly different fashion. We’re very lucky in that most of our dorms have private bathrooms for one to two students, in some cases three.
We’re using our Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation to do some modeling for us. One of the things we’re working on is our testing strategy. How many people will we be testing? How will it be different for at-risk groups than others? How will it be different for faculty than for students?
When you’re talking about editorials or headlines, etc., they focus just on our campuses. We are very aware that the best way to keep our students safe is to keep our entire community safe. So as we’re developing testing strategies for our campus, we’re also looking at testing strategies for the community at large because our students go back and forth. We have a responsibility, particularly as a big public research university with a large health-care center, both to our students, faculty, and staff, but also to our community at large.
When we are challenged to deliver what we care about and love, we find a way to do it. That’s what institutions of higher education have always done.
Stripling: It sounds like you’re really leaning on those existing resources.
Cauce: Our universities have been leading. Our scientists have become celebrities. And it has been so wonderful to see people leaning on the expertise in our universities as they’re trying to decide what activities are more risky or less risky.
White: You mentioned the word resources. Rigorous campus safety and welfare are a new and expensive reality. In the limited courses where in-person instruction is indispensable, the enrollment per section will be less. The distance between participants will be greater. The need for personal protective equipment will be prevalent. The need to sanitize and disinfect spaces and equipment between users is going to be essential. Plus the real-time testing, tracing, and surveillance.
With an economic downturn and public universities having their budgets downsized by our states, coupled with, at least for us, the decision not to raise tuition because of the 25-percent unemployment in California, the last thing we want to do is add more financial burden to our families. Financial aid remains very prevalent. But this issue of having the resources to do things in person —people have to recognize the cost of delivery is going up.
And to do things in the virtual space, the cost of delivery is going up as well, with the purchase of hardware, software, firmware, training, etc. So the idea that this is going to be a less expensive enterprise is categorically not borne out by facts.
Stripling: The American Council on Education recently wrote a letter to Congress asking for protections from liability if colleges do reopen. To what extent is that a concern, and do you think there’s wisdom in some sort of federal move to give higher education protection?
Ambar: I do think there is an important place for Congress and for federal leadership on this issue. We need some guidance about the types of strategies that we should employ and what are reasonable expectations for institutions.
Stripling: Can you take the risk of opening a campus and having a residential experience? Even with testing, contact tracing, etc., that doesn’t mean that somebody won’t get sick and sue you later. How much is that driving your decisions about whether or not to open?
Ambar: What’s driving our decision is how to do this safely. Oberlin is a historic institution. I believe our mission is important to the country, to the world. Finding a way to deliver on that mission is an important part of our work as an institution of higher education. The question is, how can we do that as safely as we possibly can? Not to diminish Covid-19, but every college president knows that we take a risk every year when we bring 18-, 19-, and 20- and 21-year-old kids to our campuses. And so we work all the time to guard against that risk. How do we create community standards? How do we put a strategy together that minimizes and mitigates against those risks?
Cauce: Our North Star has to be what is best for our students. And obviously safety is a big part of that. But this debate gets put in a way where either they are going to be on campus, where they’re going to be at risk, or they’re going to be in a little bubble at home. It’s not that simple. Of the students that we have on campus right now, and there are more than 2,000 of them, many of them are low-income students who feel safer on campus. Going home, they’d be in overcrowded settings. They may have a parent who is an essential worker who’s going back and forth.
We also have to look at student well-being. Yes, being safe from Covid is part of it, but there’s also the incredible isolation that students are experiencing, some of the mental-health consequences that we’re seeing. The way we do our best for students, and also the way that we do our best in terms of liability, is by offering lots of options, by being very transparent. This kind of either/or —either you’re taking risks on campus, or you’re entirely risk free if you’re at home, that’s not the reality.
The fact that we don’t have all the answers is not the challenge here. The challenge is, can we be flexible enough to respond to a once-in-a-century event?
Stripling: But you would grant that somebody living at home with their parents and living in a dormitory with 2,000 other students is different in terms of the way infection spreads, no?
Cauce: It all depends. For many of our students, they’re actually off campus in apartments, with three or four individuals, that are actually more cramped than some of our dorms. And in our dorms, they’re not next to 2,000 students. They are in rooms where they’re sharing a bathroom with one other student. We are also going to be asking our students to take pledges in terms of their behavior and how they are acting. Again, it’s not as simple as an either/or.
White: I agree this is complex, and variability and flexibility are key to good planning. We’ve been trying to fight back from headlines that say CSU is closed or classes are canceled, because that’s categorically not true. We have been open, and we remain open. And courses have been available, we’ve just moved much more into a virtual space. And so when students rightfully say, gosh, you’re taking away my college experience, my answer to that is that it’s going to be different in the fall. But it’s still going to be very, very good, and I’d like you to lean in and continue your progress to a degree. Because nobody can take that degree away from you, regardless of the pandemic or the economies of the future.
Stripling: What I’m hearing from everyone is that you’re going to be flexible. For people who are not comfortable with X or Y, you’re going to offer Z. I understand that. I do wonder — and maybe President Ambar can run with this — you may have employees who are essential who do not feel comfortable coming onto a campus, regardless of the protections you put in place, until a vaccine is available. That could be years away. How are you going to handle that situation?
Ambar: We’re responding to that with flexibility as well. We would try to find a way for the employee to be in a role that will allow them to work remotely. As I remind myself all the time when I don’t have the answers: Oh yeah, right, Carmen, this is a pandemic. You haven’t done this before. So the fact that we don’t have all the answers is not the challenge here. The challenge is, can we be flexible enough to respond to a once-in-a-century event? I think we can. I’ve been saying to people that it feels like we’re building institutions from the ground up in two and a half months. That’s what it feels like.
And yet I have faith. At a place like Oberlin — historic, storied institution — in two weeks we took 500 courses online. If I had tried to do that just on my own, it would have taken 10 years. When we are challenged to deliver what we care about and love, we find a way to do it. That’s what institutions of higher education have always done.
Stripling: President Cauce, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Husky football. This is one of the biggest revenue generators in the NCAA, and nobody has the answer on how to do this, but I imagine that you’re feeling pressure from alumni. I imagine there are some financial things you’ve got to consider here. How are you evaluating that?
Cauce: There’s no question that just like our entire next quarter is going to be different, things will be different in terms of football. Very few of us can envision having people in the stands. But we are looking at how we can bring our athletes back on campus because we think that we can create a safe opportunity for them. They’ve trained their entire life, and missing a season is a much bigger deal for them than it is for us. My best guess is that there will be some kind of modified play. But at this point, huge asterisk by that.
Stripling: One follow-up there: We’ve had a decades-long conversation in this country about black athletes in particular playing without being compensated at institutions like yours. Given where we are as a country right now, do you worry at all about putting players out there, in a high-contact, potentially risky situation, who might be players of color? Does that risk reinforcing some bad messaging?
Cauce: First of all, athletes will keep their full scholarships whether they decide to go back on the field or not. So if any of our athletes are in a high-risk group or feel that they’d rather not play, we are not going to pull their scholarships. I want to be very, very clear about that. Also, even though football is getting all the headlines, we would never bring football back if we’re not looking at sports more generally. We’ve got women’s volleyball. We’ve got crew. It’s absolutely critical that we don’t make this decision just in terms of the revenue sports, but that we look at all our student athletes. In terms of how do we compensate our players, we’re looking at named image and likeness and are all in favor of finding ways to more adequately have our students profit from that. How do we do that in a way that makes sense, in a way that we can manage well?
Stripling: I’d love to hear from each of you, what’s the best advice you’ve gotten over the course of the pandemic?
Ambar: The best advice I could give is that people are hungering for institutions and leaders to show them that they care, that they have heart in all of these issues, whether it’s racial injustice or thinking about our campuses. They want to see the human side of your views and your perspective.
Sometimes we can get into this rote way of being in the world that doesn’t reflect our humanity. We are all human beings on this earth trying to do somethingchallenging in a challenging moment in time. Let’s show our humanity first. People don’t expect us to be perfect. They expect to see our heart and us to do the best we can at every occasion. And when we do that, they will forgive when we get it wrong.
Stripling: Chancellor White, best advice you’ve gotten?
White: The role of the university has never been more important to keep people together and bring people together. The issue of equity is everywhere. It must remain at the top of the list of things that public and private higher education is designed to help solve in the days, weeks, and decades ahead.
STRIPLING: President Cauce?
CAUCE: It’s communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep on talking, keep the dialogue authentic, be honest, give people the best information you have, but let them know what information you don’t have. That way they can be active participants in the decision-making with you.