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Tufts University president Anthony Monaco is latest higher education leader to step down

Tufts University president Anthony Monaco.Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/file

The president of Tufts University on Monday became the latest longtime leader of a New England academic institution to announce plans to retire, following two of the most difficult years in the history of higher education.

In recent weeks and months, the veteran presidents of MIT, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, WPI, and Emmanuel College have announced they would retire or depart for new positions, as have other prominent academic leaders across the country, including Freeman Hrabowski at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and David Leebron at Rice University.

Higher education specialists, however, say it’s too simple to blame pandemic stress for the departures. Although the last two years have been unquestionably difficult, the leaders who have announced departures thus far have done so after a normal length of tenure, said Judith Block McLaughlin, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies higher education leadership and governance. Some longtime leaders postponed their departures once the pandemic hit, she said, and now feel things are steady enough for them to depart.

“This is not the same phenomenon as everybody who is throwing up their hands and saying let me out of here,” said McLaughlin, who runs an annual program for new college presidents and also advises experienced presidents. “These are more typical, expected tenures.”

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At the same time, she said, there is no question that these leaders are exhausted.

“It’s been a slog,” McLaughlin said. “They have had to spend their time making difficult decisions, many of which are controversial . . . They have been missing what presidents talk about is the joyful aspects of their jobs.”

The highest positions in higher education leadership typically turn over every 10 to 15 years, but this transition comes at an inflection point for the industry. The new generation of presidents who fill these openings will have to tackle a host of issues, including the use of online education, the changing demographics of students, the increasingly unaffordable cost of a degree, the public perception of higher education, and questions about diversity and inclusion, tenure and academic freedom.

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“It is a time when new leadership will be grappling with what could be called new questions — or maybe persistent questions, but which are being asked simultaneously with more urgency than before,” McLaughlin said.

The Tufts president, Anthony Monaco, 62, who played a key role in working with the Broad Institute to develop COVID-19 testing that enabled a return to in-person learning this fall, said he has no immediate plans for his next chapter after serving 12 years as the school’s leader. He said he hopes to continue to work to solve “societal challenges” from a new post in academia or another sector.

In an e-mail to the campus Monday morning, he thanked students, faculty, and staff for what he called “an incredible personal and professional journey.” Now, he wrote, is the time for a new leader with “a bold vision and fresh energy.”

“Tufts is an esteemed university that is poised to become even greater,” Monaco wrote.

Monaco’s announcement follows that of MIT president L. Rafael Reif, who last week announced that he will retire at the end of the year after more than a decade of service. Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, plans to step down this summer after 11 years on the job. Dartmouth College president Philip Hanlon announced last month that he will step down in June 2023 after 10 years. Laurie Leshin also recently said she will depart Worcester Polytechnic Institute this spring to become director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and vice president of Caltech. And Sister Janet Eisner plans to step down after serving as president of Emmanuel College for 43 years.

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In an interview on Sunday, Monaco said he is proud of the work that Tufts has accomplished during his tenure in the areas of climate change, health disparities, civic engagement, and mental health.

“We have been able to have a profound impact in many different areas,” he said.

Monaco said he found camaraderie during the pandemic in working with other presidents from around the region who met regularly to develop COVID protocols. Monaco was a key leader during the outbreak and helped create the COVID-19 testing program with the Broad Institute that proved pivotal in allowing universities to stay open during the pandemic.

“We [presidents] shared our anxieties and plans to overcome them,” he said. “It was really tough for a lot of leaders to manage the rising rates of positivity . . . and by being together and sharing expertise, it really helped overall in managing such a difficult situation.”

The biggest challenge for any university president, Monaco said, is trying to keep the institution focused on its long-term goals while dealing with the immediate challenges that inevitably arise. The pandemic, he said, was a prime example.

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“You’re trying to look toward the future while the external environment is changing rapidly and often unexpectedly,” he said.

A geneticist by training, Monaco ran a center for human genetics at Oxford University in the United Kingdom before becoming pro-vice-chancellor for planning and resources at Oxford in 2007.

In an e-mail to the Tufts community on Monday, Peter R. Dolan, the chairman of the university’s board of trustees, thanked Monaco on the board’s behalf “for his steadfast leadership of the university, for his dedication to Tufts, and for the clear moral compass and intellectual rigor that have guided him as president.”

Dolan credited Monaco for doubling the university’s endowment from $1.4 billion in 2011 to $2.8 billion today and nearly doubling undergraduate applications, from 17,097 for the class entering in fall 2011 to over 34,000 for the current admissions cycle. He also praised him for the 2016 acquisition of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Monaco oversaw the university during a time of profound societal upheaval. In 2019, the university removed the Sackler name from its medical school programs and facilities, an effort to distance itself from the family and its company, Purdue Pharma, which admitted to playing a key role in fueling the opioid addiction epidemic. Also in 2019, Monaco was vocal in his support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, opposing former president Donald Trump’s attempt to end it.

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Monaco said he wishes he had made greater strides toward expanding the university’s capacity to respond to the mental health needs of students.

“I’m worried that the mental health rise is not abating,” he said.

Monaco said he hoped Tufts’ next president will focus on expanding the university’s profile as a research institution. During his tenure, he said, the university developed more master’s and PhD programs. The next leader, he said, should focus on attracting more funding for research.

A. David Paltiel, professor of health policy and management at Yale School of Public Health, worked with Monaco and other college leaders in the months leading up to the reopening of campuses in the fall of 2020, as they developed a testing system that involved sending massive numbers of samples from colleges across the region to the Broad Institute in Cambridge to be processed.

Monaco was among the first college administrators to recognize that frequent, routine testing of asymptomatic people was the key to keeping campuses open, Paltiel said.

Monaco, he said, was also cognizant of his surroundings, recognizing the risks posed by the fact that Tufts is located in a residential area of Medford and Somerville.

“President Monaco totally understood that his responsibility extended beyond the Tufts campus,” Paltiel said. “His outreach efforts allayed a lot of skepticism and fear. And, thanks largely to him, the Tufts campus remained among the very safest places in Middlesex County.”