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COVID-19 thrusts college presidents into the hot seat

“This is really about the institution, and how you bring the institution and its people through something like this. That is a hugely personal and weighty issue,'' said Bob Brown, president of Boston University, outside the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering.
“This is really about the institution, and how you bring the institution and its people through something like this. That is a hugely personal and weighty issue,'' said Bob Brown, president of Boston University, outside the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The last message Tufts University president Anthony Monaco fired off before heading to bed Tuesday night wasn’t to the chairman of the university’s governing board, or to a well-heeled donor, but to Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.

The Somerville community was on edge about the return of students to campus, which they feared could bring a new surge of infections. And so Monaco, at 11:06 p.m., was reaching out again, as he has repeatedly over the last six months, to offer data and reassurance.

“Here’s one for you, 0 undergrads positive, but possibly due one soon with over 1,000 tested,” Monaco wrote.

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Traditionally, university presidents are behind-the-scenes managers and fund-raising gurus, most often seen welcoming students in the fall and sending them off with their degrees at graduation each spring. But the pandemic has thrust them into the withering glare of public scrutiny, forcing them to make agonizing choices about whether and how to reopen this fall.

The pressure to get it right couldn’t be higher: The financial implications are astronomical. Public health is at risk. And, as presidents are keenly aware, their careers are on the line.

“You’re always known for whatever happened last,” said Bob Brown, who has been president of Boston University for 15 years. “This is really about the institution, and how you bring the institution and its people through something like this. That is a hugely personal and weighty issue.”

College presidents usually spend their summers at dinners with potential donors, flying off to prestigious international conferences and welcoming dignitaries at campus events. This summer they’ve been wading through coronavirus testing data, defending fall plans on cable TV networks; and holding video conference calls with anxious parents and angry neighbors.

Many have been forced to confront some of the harshest criticisms of their careers from skeptical faculty and students, who fear their schools’ reopening plans may be driven more by flagging institutional finances than public health.

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“This one has been all — consuming to every president,” Monaco said.

Both Tufts and Boston University have stuck to their plans to bring students back to campus this fall and teach classes both in-person and online. The presidents of both institutions said they’re cautiously optimistic, given their plans to aggressively and constantly test students and employees for coronavirus and the state’s current low infection rates.

But it’s a gamble: As their peers across the country well know, the pandemic has already humbled many a confident college president once students returned.

The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which was forced to move classes online a week into the semester, last week reported nearly 1,000 coronavirus cases among students and employees. The university’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, blasted chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and his administration for failing to heed faculty and health officials’ warnings about reopening in an editorial headlined, “UNC has a cluster(expletive) on its hands.”

Guskiewicz has defended his plan, which didn’t require testing for returning students, explaining he hadn’t anticipated large student gatherings or the velocity of the spread.

The University of Notre Dame, meanwhile, had to temporarily move classes online after an unexpected surge in infections.

Pleading, “Don’t make us write obituaries,” the university’s student newspaper scolded its president, the Rev. John Jenkins, for his New York Times opinion piece last May insisting reopening campus was worth the risk.

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In a message to the Indiana Catholic campus on Friday, Jenkins acknowledged initial missteps but said the temporary clampdown had slowed the infection rate enough to reopen this week.

“The virus dealt us a blow and we stumbled,” Jenkins said, “but we steadied ourselves and now we move on.”

The number of college presidents who’ve been blaming students instead of acknowledging their reopening plans were inadequate has been disappointing, said A. David Paltiel, a professor of the Yale University School of Public Health.

“They seem to be going on the defensive real fast, and the blame shifting real fast,” said Paltiel, who’s been advising college presidents on reopening.

But college leaders are in unprecedented territory, said Judith Block McLaughlin, senior lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education who runs a seminar for new college presidents.

Previous crises, such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people, or Hurricane Katrina, which wrought havoc on New Orleans higher education institutions, were contained incidents. When the pandemic will end remains unclear, Block McLaughlin said.

In addition to safety, presidents and their top administrators must also worry about their budgets and address the racial justice issues raised by both the pandemic and the protests this summer, she said.

“I have never seen presidents as taxed and strained and overwhelmed by their work,” Block McLaughlin said. “The job is one crisis piled on top of another, and for so many there isn’t a response that will satisfy many. . . . Presidents are at the crosshairs of so many different passionate and violent feelings.”

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And the urgency of the problem has pushed more college leaders to scrap the traditional academic planning model that relies on long-term study and painstakingly building consensus. Demands to refine and rethink pour in from all sides.

Somerville Mayor Curtatone said he has been impressed by the Tufts coronavirus testing plan, but he’s still pressing Monaco to crack down on social distancing violations.

“Am I 100 percent confident? I’m not there,” Curtatone said.

Tufts has operations in Somerville and Medford.

Some BU faculty have protested the university’s recent decision not to inform them if students in their classes test positive. BU officials cited privacy concerns and the need to ensure students cooperate with contact tracing.

And when news surfaced in mid-August that Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun was potentially writing a book about his leadership during the pandemic — after he had also penned a piece in the Washington Post about the need to reopen campus — some employees and students were livid. They questioned whether Aoun had staked out an overly hardline position, one from which he could benefit financially.

“This was just the icing on the cake of frustration,” said Tim LaRock, 26, a doctoral candidate in network science at Northeastern.

Northeastern said a publisher that Aoun has worked with before had approached the president. While an outline and some initial chapters covering the events of last spring were drafted, at this point no contract has been signed and there is no plan to publish a book on this topic. The proceeds from Aoun’s last book went to Northeastern as would any future book he writes as president of the university, said Renata Nyul, a Northeastern spokeswoman.

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“We are prepared to have a successful fall with the health and well-being of our community being our top priorities,” said Nyul.

The pandemic has unleashed uncertainty and flux throughout the industry, said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.

The state’s community colleges decided earlier this summer to teach students remotely, and because their students are commuters, they aren’t panicked about losing dormitory revenue. But Eddinger said she worries about how her students, many of them working parents, will manage their classwork while caring for young children who are also learning remotely.

In addition, fall enrollment is uncertain; the financially strapped state will likely limit its contributions to the college in the coming years and online learning is poised to transform higher education even after a vaccine is found, she said.

“COVID was a crack of lightning in the night, we saw all the fissures and cracks,” Eddinger said. “COVID has so discombobulated the situation.”



Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.