Higher Education Webinar: COVID-19 Implications for Higher Education

Higher Education Webinar: COVID-19 Implications for Higher Education

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Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of American University and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, discusses COVID-19 implications for higher education, including the transition to remote learning, international student enrollment, study abroad programs, and health and financial considerations universities are facing.


Sylvia Mathews Burwell

President, American University; Former Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s Educators Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you for being with us today. Our meeting is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Sylvia Mathews Burwell with us to talk about COVID-19 implications for higher education. Sylvia Mathews Burwell is the fifteenth president of American University and the first woman to serve in this position. From 2014 to 2017, President Burwell served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. During her tenure she managed the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Food and Drug administration. She oversaw the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and led the department’s response to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. She previously served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, as chief operating officer and president of the Global Development Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and as president of the Walmart Foundation. And she currently serves on the Council on Foreign Relations board of directors.

So we’re very excited to have her with us today. She brings together so much expertise from being in government, being the head of the Health and Human Services Department, overseeing outbreaks which don’t compare to what we’re seeing now. (Laughs.) and we are so excited to have your expertise, Sylvia, to talk through the challenges as the colleges, professors, and presidents, and university leaders on this call are thinking through how they’re going to deal with the transition which we’re all going through, Zoom calls and whatnot, distance learning, and thoughts for the fall. So thank you very much. Let’s turn it over to you to talk through your thinking on all of this.

BURWELL: Irina, thank you. And thanks to the Council for having me today. I know that there are many people on this call who have a lot of expertise too, so I will keep my opening remarks limited because I’m hopeful that we can have a Zoom dialogue in terms of folks’ comments, and thoughts, and questions, which I welcome. But I think, as I said, a lot of expertise on this call that we’ll all want to hear from, including, I think, one of my colleagues, the president of Barnard. I actually just read her piece recently about homeschooling and being a university president, which I’m doing similarly. We have a ten- and twelve-year-old. So we’re all learning from each other during this time.

And I’ll also start by saying I hope that everyone on this call is staying safe and staying healthy. And for those of you who have relatives, heart goes out to those who are either ill or know those that are ill, and for those that have suffered other mortality in their family or their friends. You know, want to express sympathy to everyone because I think we all are moving on solutions and that sort of thing, but the processing of all of this is an important part of what we need to do, even if we do it in different ways.

I want to just start with a just a little bit about COVID-19, and a framing, a little bit of my HHS background, and then I’ll talk a little bit about how we have been approaching handling this at American University. So when I think about COVID-19, or any pandemic, epidemic, or infectious disease crisis one, I think, needs a framing. And we haven’t often talked about a framing that can help everybody think about the information you’re getting and think about how you think about handling this infectious disease. And it really is in three forms—prevention, detection, and response. And while COVID-19 has a path, a pandemic has a path, exactly what that path looks like can be influenced and impacted. It has a path. Thinking about those three things I think is particularly important as we—both from the beginning to the end in terms of handling what we’re doing.

As we think about the questions of getting to a better place with regard to functioning in ways that are socially distant but get us back to our economy and our regular functioning in some form, there are a couple things that I think are particularly important. And you’ve heard them from everyone, but because they are so important and so essential I think it bears repeating. And that is, as we think about the return we have to first focus on our health care systems and making sure that those health care systems can bear the burden of the cases that are coming to them. And what you want to do is create a situation where the health care system can have the cases, like we do with the flu in the wintertime, and not have to shut down other essential functions. And that’s both about the burden and the ability to handle something that’s highly transmissible, like COVID-19.

So the health-care system needs to be in a place where it can handle the cases, and it can be ready to handle a surge without getting us to the situation that we’re currently in, where everything is so shut down. And so that is a gating factor, in terms of our health-care system ability to do that. And then the other core things that I believe that we need to move to that space are we need appropriate testing, we need appropriate contact tracing, and we need appropriate isolation. This is a highly transmissible disease. As we look at some of the impacts that are socioeconomic in terms of where we’re seeing more cases, that has to do with people’s work but it also has to do in terms of this isolation issue, when you think about many of the families where we have had a posture in many cases of if you’re sick but not sick enough to be in the hospital, be at home. But home for many people is not a space where they can isolate from other family members in appropriate ways. So the isolation issue is something that will be important.

As we look at where we are today, when I checked last Tuesday there were—last Thursday. I haven’t looked at all and compared all the numbers this week. But there were twenty-five states that still had accelerating cases. And we were in a situation at that point in time where while we see cases plateauing and going down in states like New York, Louisiana, California, Washington state, the cases in those twenty-five states were making it so that still in the U.S., we weren’t seeing that plateauing and going down that we were thinking about. And that brings us to, are the states that are taking actions—are they actually meeting the conditions that the federal government has laid out, and the CDC and the administration have laid out? And I think that’s an important thing wherever you are, because I know—I think people are on this call from lots of different places—is looking at the standards that have been set in broad terms that have been announced by the administration, CDC, and seeing if your state is meeting those standards in terms of going forward.

Shifting to universities, and American University. As we started into COVID-19, we were very early to go ahead and go online and ask our students to go home to their home places. And as we did that, there really have been three principles that have been guiding our—what we’re doing and how we think about it. The first one is the health and safety of our community. And that means our American University community, our faculty, our staff, our students—all of those people. And how do we think about that? The second is, how do we continue our mission? How do we do our best against our mission learning and scholarship? And how do we make sure in this context we do that? The third one is, how do we contribute to community and the community around us? And universities uniquely actually impact the health and the economics around us. And so any solutions are going to have to integrate us.

If you think about why I moved so quickly, based on my previous background, was the fact that the university is a dense place if you’re a residential university, and also with classes and other things. And the density of universities in communities like Washington, D.C. would have had if we had outbreaks—we would have put undue burden on the health system. And so we would have contributed from a health perspective to a very difficult situation here in the District of Columbia. Additionally, when you think about universities, we are places that, in terms of the economics—American University is the fifth-largest employer, other than the U.S. government, in the District itself.

And so as we think about our actions with our employees in terms of trying to make sure that people keep employment, we’re very important to that puzzle too. We’re impacted by when schools are closed. Can our faculty, can our staff do their jobs in terms of whether they’re homeschooling their children? And so we are highly integrated into people thinking about where we are, and the reopening. And if you think about the reopening question too, most universities and colleges are actually importers of people into areas. And if you think about that from a health perspective and how people are going to think about it, it’s a pretty important part of regions thinking about how they’re going to reopen.

So those are the three areas that we focused on. I’m going to go ahead and answer a question that I think I might get, which is what are you doing in the fall? As we think about that question, like so many on this call I’m sure you all have—you know, we have the safety and health task force, we have our retention and enrollment work, and we have our workforce work, and our task force working on that. And how we’re thinking about that issue is what we want to do is find that place where the line crosses between where we have the most information we can possible have—and by most information, that’s everything from transmissibility to what our region’s economies are doing, who’s opening when, how, what are those guidelines? What do we know about testing, and how much testing can be available, and what is the right science and epidemiology around what testing you should do? So as many facts as we can have. And the point at which we can implement any changes we need to do very, very well. And we think that point in time is somewhere between May 15th and June 15th is when we plan to think about when we’re going to make that decision.

So I’m going to stop there so we can spend time on your all’s questions.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful That’s great. Thank you so much, Sylvia. Let’s go now to questions. And if you can go—click on the participants tab, and you can raise your hand, click on the icon. And then I ask that you announce yourself, and your university, and you can even say where you are. You can share your thinking too, not too long, though. But it will help give context for answers that Sylvia may be providing. So let’s go—looking now. And I am new to this, so let’s see. OK. Let’s go to Dan Caldwell, Pepperdine University.

Q: President Burwell, thank you very much for a really interesting and a comprehensive overview. I’m wondering if American University, or more broadly if any of the overall organizations related to universities, are discussing the possibility of reducing tuition for students who are obviously facing increased economic hardships now. And it would be one way for private universities, in particular, to respond to the crisis.

BURWELL: So, Dan, I think right now what people are starting with is the question of what is it going to look like in the fall? And I’m sure all universities like American University are planning for—there are kind of two different dimensions to that question. One is, I think we’re all looking at our enrollment numbers as the Inside Higher Ed and others, Chronicle, others have reported, you know, surveys showing that the average decreased enrollment people are seeing could be up to 20 percent. And so answering that question of what your enrollment looks like and answering the question of how you’re going to deliver what we do, and whether you are going to be in a residential space or not. And I think that’s the first-order question, Dan, I think we need to think through.

I think the question of affordability, which was a question that I think we all needed to be very focused on as universities and colleges before COVID-19, is just going to become more acute in the current context. And the current context has two elements to it. The question of can we deliver a residential education for undergraduates, like we historically have done, or also the question of the economic difficulties that people will be facing. I think, you know, one thing—at American University we have quite a few online degrees in the graduate area. And as we think through that, there are different pieces and parts. Our online MBA is the same price as our face-to-face MBA. But I think all of those are the elements that need to go into that, the answer, and thinking about that question.

Q: Yeah. My concern at the undergraduate level is that there will be a massive migration from private colleges to community colleges, just because of the economics.

BURWELL: And I think that’s why, as I said, this question of enrollment and how we think about that I think will become very, very important as we look at how we’re going to think about doing that. I think the other thing is any time we think about it, most of us on this call I think are tuition and fee dependent. And as, you know, I think being honest about those things, and understanding those things, and thinking about how we can function in ways that we can provide that access and affordability to higher education in this context I think is going to be one of the biggest challenges we’re all going to face.

Q: Thanks very much.

FASKIANOS: Thanks, Dan. Let’s go to Kathryn Lavelle. And Kathryn is with Case Western University.

Q: Hi. Thanks, Sylvia. And thanks for this great presentation, and for taking my question.

My question has to do with teaching. I’m here in Case Western in Cleveland, Ohio. And I have international students who’ve gone home to China, they’ve gone home to Russia. And I have concerns about the implications of online learning for these students when they are in countries that have dramatically different political systems, and dramatically different ways of sharing their thoughts about politics on the internet. So if we want to move model diplomacy online—(laughs)—and then if I’m going to teach U.S. foreign policy online in the fall, I have a lot of concerns about how I’m going to do that with students who might not physically be in the United States.

BURWELL: And, Kathryn, just so I’m clear in terms of the concerns that you’re raising, in terms of how your content could be used by other governments or the students’ access to you and your information?

Q: All of the above. How I could be perceived by foreign governments, how my students could be perceived by monitors of foreign governments, how students who are also in the class could be perceived, as these methods of communication aren’t necessarily secure. Or, the same type of environment, when we’re all in Cleveland in a group of twelve students talking about, you know Reinhold (Niebuhr’s ?) theory of whatever. I mean, it’s just a very different environment.

BURWELL: It is an extremely different environment. And I think for all of us that is a big part of the summer work. As we consider which options that we’re going to be able to do I think we’re going to have to be prepared. I mean, why you want to push the decision as long as you can is we understand—I mean, everyone understands, this is a lot of preparation and challenges for our faculty in the classroom in terms of trying to do things in different ways. And part of the planning process that at least we’re using at American University, why I asked you which it was, you can probably hear the questions you’re asking are the questions that our faculty have raised. And we’re using working groups that are broad, and we’re also using webinar systems.

So in terms of getting the questions from our faculty, our students, our parents, our staff. I did one with faculty and staff that had over a thousand people on it. So that we’re getting these questions, because I think what we’re all going to have to do is block and tackle, thing through each of the individual things. I mean, for us we had students—you know, when I said the access it’s because there were a number of our students when we went online who didn’t—who were struggling to get online. And we had to do it in a retail fashion. Some of those students didn’t have broadband. Some of those students actually didn’t have appropriate hardware in terms of—that could handle what we were trying to do. Some of those students were in countries that we needed to think through some of the questions that you were raising. And so I think right now we are all working. And this is why I think it’s important for all of us to be having the conversations and sharing in terms of best practices as we get solutions for those types of issues.

Q: OK, thanks.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Richard Hopper, president of Kennebec Valley Community College.

Q: (Off mic.)

FASKIANOS: Oh, Rick, it’s a little bit gobbled. All right. I’m going to come back to Rick. Let’s go to Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, who’s the chairman of the Department of Economics and Finance at Winston-Salem University in North Carolina.

Q: Thank you. My question has to do with the social distancing aspects. It seems to me that there’s absolutely no way any university can go back to the way it was in the fall of last year. We have to impose at last some type of social distancing. But especially at my university, which is a state university, we’re actually expecting an influx of students, because students who were at—who were at private universities are going to be coming to us. And so how do we deal with the fact that we have limited capacity, other than mass hybridization of all classes?

BURWELL: Well, I think—Zagros, I think what you have raised is one of the things that I think is where we all need to get our minds, which is until there is a vaccine the world is going to look very different in many, many places. And I think it is hard to kind of come to that, but I think the sooner that we come to how do we do the problem-solving of the specifics in each of the cases, the better that we are going to be. For instance, I like to say that before September 11, if I told everyone on this call that you would have to go through a magnetometer to go fly on a flight, that there would be thousands of TSA employees, and that you would have to go through a magnetometer, and your bag, and you’d have to take off your shoes, and you had to do all of that, you would have told me, like, that’s just not possible. It will not happen. But the conditions created something that really is a changed approach to how we fly.

And similarly, I think what you’re pointing out is we are going to have to figure out the changed approaches to how we do things like learning, how we do many, many other things during this period of time. And so what I say—you know, your question, yes. We are going to have to figure it out. There isn’t, I don’t think, some easy solution, unless we find something out about the virus that we don’t know.

Q: And to follow up on that, how do we get the money to be able to handle this type of change? Because there’s going to be—it’s going to—it’s going to certainly cost a lot more to deliver this online education, especially to train all the professors that we would need to train to go online. Because they’re going to be, like, thinking the same way that they gave us—they gave us kind of a pass this last part of this semester. They’re going to expect quality courses. That costs money. And yet, a lot of our state universities, and also the private universities, we do not have as much funds to be able to handle this. Thank you.

BURWELL: So I do not mean to be negative, and I am an optimist, and I do believe that we will work through. But I’m going to put on one of my other hats that I’m not sure Irina kind of went through, is I was the director of the Office of Management and Budget during President Obama’s time. And the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the secretary of the Treasury and the head of the Council on Economic Advisors are called the troika. These are the three people that do the modeling that are the basis for how we determine what our debt’s going to be, how we determine many, many things. We oversee the economists that do the modeling as the basis for how the executive branch of the president builds the budget. And so have spent, you know, time on that. And I’m continuing to spend time with my colleagues from both—from all administrations. When there are times like this, we all work together—you know, economists from President Bushes, forty-three, forty-one, you know, everyone works together.

And you are articulating what—the other part of what we haven’t come to, I think, realize, which is the economic situation is going to be extremely difficult. I don’t think—I understand the numbers of unemployment are high, but there are many, many places across the country, companies and institutions like ours, I think, you know, most of us—like, we all committed to get to the end of the fiscal year and keep everybody on payroll. We were hoping at the time we were making those commitments we were all trying to work on that. And we will do all the other solutions. But, you know, yesterday J. Crew declared bankruptcy already. You know, that’s a major retailer. And so the economics of this are going to be extremely tough.

And I think what we’re going to have to do is think about what we do, our core mission of scholarship and learning, in new ways. And I think that’s going to challenge us all. But it is a place where we’re going to have just think differently. Are there different ways? How do we think about this differently? How do we create—I mean, it’s—we are going to have to be much, much more nimble in thinking, and trying, and making sure that information is moving so that we can get to those best practices, because I wish I had an easy answer for your question. But you are articulating what I believe is going to be very difficult.

FASKIANOS: Let’s go next to Chris Miller, who’s at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is a former CFR military fellow.

Q: Hi. Thanks for the time this afternoon. I am affiliated with the Air Force Academy. We had our senior class present for several weeks before they graduated and departed. And so it makes me wonder, if you look at our national approach to risk management, it started off fairly binary, and it’s slowly becoming more differentiated by locality. But I’m wondering, in an education context, whether there’s a way that you could conceive of differentiating risk by vulnerability category that would allow somewhat traditional congregation of students, with distancing from staff and faculty, to sort of respect age and other conditions, because it seems like there may be some merit in at least considering that.

BURWELL: You know, Chris, because I’m in the Patriot League, my colleagues are the Naval Academy and West Point as well. So have been talking to them about how they are approaching it. And, you know, one of the things that I think your all’s ability to have control over testing, control—(laughs)—over how people move and what are the expectations. But I think, as you’re suggesting, the differentiation is part of, I think, what will happen. This is kind of moving back to my HHS hat. But this is why I come back to, you know, the testing—at least in my conversations with the academies here on the East Coast, the testing becomes very, very important, and an underpinning to do that.

And that is why having the capability to test becomes extremely important so that you prevent that spread. This spreads asymptomatically. When I was in the middle and the throes of the Ebola—which, at that point, 17 percent of college students believed that they or someone in their family was going to get Ebola. It was—the president of the United States said to me: Sylvia, this is the issue that has had more press than any other issue in my entire presidency. And it was—we were in the heat of it. And Tony Fauci and I were talking, and at that point we discussed the fact that this wasn’t even the worst. What would be worse was respiratory and passing asymptomatically. And that’s what we have now.

And so figuring out how we can do that differentiation, it really is going to be built on the backbone of the testing, the contact tracing, and the isolation. Because that’s how you get trust. And in the academy, you know, many of the folks that are instructing I think you can tell to come to work. I think many people on this call, and some of the faculty members on this call, figuring out even if you’re not in one of the differentiated categories, we have to get to the place where they feel safe. And whether that’s our staff or our faculty. And that’s what I think is going to happen through everything, is we have to. And that’s about consistency and science. We need to get to the point where we can create a situation where people can do a risk calculation that is worth taking, because right now—and part of that is getting some of the unknowns off the table.

What are actually the symptoms? As you all probably known, CDC just updated the list of the symptoms. What do we know about conditions post-COVID-19? For those who are younger, you know, what is the permanent damage? Is it or isn’t it? How do we think through those things? And that will help with that differentiation because I do believe that will be a part of how we can get back to some semblance of a new normal.

Q: Thank you very much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I am going to go to Nicole Bibbins Sedaca next, of Georgetown.

Q: Sorry, I was muted.

FASKIANOS: That’s OK, Nicole.

Q: Still working—still working my Zoom skills. Thank you so much for your time. Those of us down the road from you at Georgetown, as well as many of us on the call, are thinking about this difference between moving what we usually teach in person online versus this distinct area of online teaching. Can you speak to how you see the difference between what we’ve done this spring, which is doing our normal job in a different way, versus teaching an online course, which to me seems like a very different skill set and a very different approach to teaching.

BURWELL: I think they are very different. And I think that is a part—and I’m recalling our Winston-Salem colleague who just spoke about—like, it’s different, and it will need to be different if we do it. We did what we could, and what we should do, during this period of the spring, but it is different. For those of us who have courses and do work online, I think you know that, you know, it is different in terms of how you set out to move that content, how you have the different kinds of conversations, how you do it is actually different pedagogically in terms of that. And so there’s that part of it, that I see from being—you know, hearing from our faculty. Watching what we did to evolve the online work that we have evolved at the university before COVID-19. It was different. The tools that you need as a faculty member are different. And that’s everything from training to actually sometimes technology in terms of support that you need in terms of how do people interact, how does this work? So I think it is different.

And I see it myself in terms of everything from our children who are doing what is online learning. And they’re ten and they’re twelve, but my niece who, you know, I stay in touch with, you know, who is in college, I see what’s happening to her in terms of her assignments, how it works, what are the challenges of it. And also hearing from all of our students. I have never, and I am sure every university administrator on this call, I’ve never had so much mail, communication coming in. And it’s something that I actually monitor on a daily basis because it’s how I am learning how to think about the question that you’re asking, Nicole, in terms of what is it that we need to do. I’m hearing from our faculty, what is it we need to do? I’m hearing from our students. To try to get us to a different place. And I think this is a big lift. Which is why some universities are choosing to make decisions at an earlier time period, because it will take preparation through the summer to get us there.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: We have an online question from John Sutherlin, University of Louisiana, to talk about what steps are being made to ensure that research moves forward, and to maintain lab space, and protect testing animals, and all of that.

BURWELL: So the research part has been hard, I think and hardest for many of our folks in the sciences—in the hard—in sciences like our biology, chemistry, and that—in terms of our experience. We are fortunate that here in—where we are in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland provisions were put in that care for the animals is an essential function. And so even if we have stay at home orders, those who are going to do that kind of care to make sure that our labs can stay up and running and that that part is still occurring, we’re fortunate that that’s happened. If that’s not happening, I actually think that’s something that is a best practice that some regions and governments—this is one of the harder things about everything being different.

And that research in terms of when and how you can do it, I think we are now all at the stage where we need to start thinking through: How can we do that research in socially distanced ways? That’s part of what we’re doing. As we think about the reopening and the scale back up, how can we make sure that our faculty has that opportunity? And that’s not in all cases. I mean, some of our faculty, you know, I’m thinking of particularly faculty member who does research on coral. And so their ability to go to the places, don’t have it in D.C., you know, will be limited. And so thinking through that. So it’s going to come, I think, in pieces in terms of different types of research that folks are doing. But I think it’s going to be a challenge. It’s one of the other challenges that we’re working through.

And I think if you’re not in higher education and you’re not following this, it is, I think, sometimes hard to think through all the complexities. Like, you just brought up the animals, care for animals in labs while we’re in this kind of situation, to the fact that—you know, figuring out our dining halls. How are students going to eat? You can’t have them—you know, the dining halls are places that are usually dense. So what are you going to do? How are you going to do it? Are you going to do boxed lunch for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? And what are you going to do with all that waste? How are you—it is detail after detail for hundreds of decisions in terms of how we can bring things up. Because we are small communities. We have our mission and our function, but because people are in residence, that creates a whole ’nother set of issues and complexity.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go to Beverly Lindsay at the University of California.

Q: Good afternoon. Madam president, I am a Ph.D. graduate from American University, so I have very great memories of my international relations and classes there. I am not wearing my AU pin, but I am still an Eagle.

My question centers on the following: You were head of HHS. And I’ve spent considerable time in African and Asian countries when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was so rampant, and in West Africa Ebola. We often think of what we should be doing for emerging countries. But are there also some lessons that we might learn from those countries because they are at ground zero. I went to one university, and 25 percent of the students tested positive for AIDS. So we had to think about online—(audio break)—you have some—

FASKIANOS: Beverly, you just broke up. Can you just—we lost you at “online learning.” So if you could just ask your question, repeat it?

Q: The question is—(audio break)—

FASKIANOS: Oh, not hearing it.

Q: —the countries?

BURWELL: Can we try once more, Beverly? I apologize. I couldn’t quite hear the question.

Q: Can we learn some lessons? Are there some paradigms from these countries that are at ground zero for pandemics and epidemics that might be applicable here in the United States?

FASKIANOS: Perfect. Thanks.

BURWELL: Thanks. So one of the things that I think that the learnings—and that’s actually why I began with the framing. Because whether it is Ebola, HIV, Zika, or COVID-19, one of the things that we have learned in public health is that prevention, detection, and response. And whether that’s how we got rid of smallpox, to how we have handled the HIV crisis. And it is about the other—there are key themes, Beverly that we do learn, and we learn from the developing world as well as the developed world. The other thing is a public health crisis has to be taken on from the individual level. All of us on this call have responsibility all the way through our federal governments and the working relationships between governments around the world.

And at the national level, it is true that what your national government needs to make sure is that there are the tools for all the people up and down, and that there’s appropriate communication. Because in public health crises, and what this—we saw with HIV, and part of what created stigma, and stigma in those countries that you were talking about, is the information. And that—the information is changing. And it needs to be science-based and clear, and because it is changing, and there is uncertainty. So it’s more important than ever. And that’s one of the things that we have seen in those crises. Because what’s happening is you’re following a trajectory that isn’t—the general shape of the trajectory is known, but exactly what it looks like isn’t known. And so what you do at different points in time could change.

Additionally, with something like COVID-19, that’s so new, HIV was new at that point in time, Zika when we were doing that. Ebola, we learned so much, even though it had been around for many, many years in terms of, you know, you could find Ebola still in the eye many, many months after you thought you’d been cleared, your body had been cleared. We learned that over time. And so the science is evolving and so that communication becomes important. So those are some of the core things that I think we do need to build on and that we have learned from these efforts of fighting public health issues, from AIDS to Ebola.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Let’s go to David Noble at the University of Connecticut.

Q: Hello. Can you hear me? Yeah.


Q: So how are you? Actually, Dick Darman was an old family friend at OMB. And one of—the question has to do with the institutional bureaucracies that are our universities actually want to go back to the way they were before this. And how, as a leader in a university, do you view our global place moving forward, as opposed to trying to return to what is comfortable?

BURWELL: So when—I think probably most people on the call know that I am what is sometimes called a nontraditional—(laughs)—because I did not come historically from within higher education. But I came to higher education because I so fundamentally believe in the mission, that scholarship that one of our folks on this raised, is just so important. And the other part, the learning, what we do. The teaching, the students that come through, that moving of that knowledge to the next generation so that they can go and do great things with that knowledge. And so it’s that creation and then that movement.

And I came because I’m an optimist, though I believe fundamentally that things were changing. That the world was evolving with regard to how we think about access and affordability in higher education, and how we think about that. And so I think that higher education, we were on a trajectory of change—everything from how our students—I mean, for most of us on this call, although I don’t know because I’m not seeing people. Let me just say, for maybe half of us on this call, we studied in stacks. You know, if I say the word “stacks” to, like, our students, they’re, like, are we having a pancake night or something? You know, it’s a very different—everything was changing already. I think this accelerates some of that.

I think it also accelerates our knowledge of what works and doesn’t work. I think this accelerates us understanding there are things that online may not be able to achieve. And as we think about, you know, some of the co-curricular, or some of the outside of the classroom, and even some of the things that occur in the classroom in terms of that development and learning that students need to do. So I think we’re going to learn a lot in terms of that.

I think the other thing that I think we should all give higher ed credit for was the nimbleness. I mean, not—as you said, not always that way, not always thinking. But think about if we totaled the number of classes that went online in a one-month period, and totaled the number of faculty who’d never taught in that way—and I understand, as has been reflected, we need to move to a different and better approach, building on what we did, but if we even look at that, that was quite a bit of nimbleness.

And so what I think we need to do is capture that, build on that. We’ve shown we can be nimble. We’ve shown we can act quickly. We’ve shown we can come together and work on working on all these issues that have been raised. Let’s work them through. Let’s—you know, in the context that’s ever changing, but let’s do it. I think what we have to do is create frameworks and have optionality, because we don’t know what the virus is doing. But that’s the way that I see that we do need to move forward. And, yes, I think there are going to be changes. But I think if we get, you know, input and hear from the different pieces and parts about how do we make sure that there are core parts of what we do, and how we do it, that need to be sustained, even in different contexts?

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Hildy Teegen at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Q: Thank you very much. Appreciate the opportunity to be with you all today.

I’m wondering how you’re activating the professional and personal experiences and expertise of your faculty at AU to help advise your scenario building and your organizational planning.

BURWELL: So you know, activating the faculty as we work through—there’s what we’re working through, and then there’s what everyone is working through. Our School of Education, that teaches—7 percent of the teachers in the District of Columbia are American University graduates. And so our School of Education has already done content and work to support the community and the teachers, the public school teachers both here in the District, and anyone can use the materials we’ve targeted to try and help in our region, Maryland, D.C., and Northern Virginia, in terms of putting out that substance. And so what we’re trying to do is draw from our faculty.

Our faculty are a very important part of that have led our effort to do the transition to online, in terms of the faculty being core drivers and leaders in doing that. And so the other thing that we are trying to do is to continue to on a regular basis to have a lot of communication, and communication meaning two ways. You know, there’s explaining what we’re doing, explaining what we’re thinking, because that helps people react and give that input. In terms of people—so our School of Education, helpful in terms of this question of the movement to online, for us our public health experts are helping us think through some of those issues in terms of how we think through the health parts of this.

Our cybersecurity, our dean of our school of communications Laura DeNardis, and colleagues are working on some of the cyber issues that are new to this. That was everything from the—you know, they helped us get in front of the bombing—the Zoom bombing and that sort of thing early. So we’re trying to draw on our faculty in that way. There are two things: Drawing on their specific expertise for specific problems, but drawing on them also as we try and work through the decisions that we’re going to need to make.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Louise Pagotto, chancellor of Kapi’olani Community College in Hawaii. Aloha.

Q: Aloha to all of you, and thanks President Burwell.

I have a question. It’s related back to international students. We have a significant population of international students, specifically from Japan, Korea, and China. And we are hoping to keep them engaged and keep them connected while they’re at home. I’m wondering if you have any guidance on what are those factors to consider when delivering online instruction to Asian countries, or any foreign countries. Are there things that we need to be considering that maybe are quite different from online education within the states?

BURWELL: So interestingly I think different countries, different things. I mean, Japan, I think, and China, different in terms of how they move and allow information. And so I think there are differences in particular countries. I think there are sort of a category of countries where both some of the issues—that was, I think, the first question. I think there are a category of countries that you need to think about in terms of the questions of are the students able to get the information, the question of how that information may be used and seen. That’s, I think, one category.

I think as we’re thinking about our international students, the other thing is thinking about how do we keep them on a continuum, particularly for those that were already enrolled in your institution? I think that’s pretty important as you’re thinking through how do you help folks get to completion, what are the things that you need to change, how do you need to create flexibility nimbleness with regard to that? And for all of us, our international students probably fall into two categories—those that stayed in the U.S. and those that didn’t. And, or those that would potentially come. And in those cases, I think you also—you know, I hope we’re not going to have visa problems, but I think with regard to the processing of those things, those are other issues.

So can you get yourself safe, that people want to come? And then what are all the tactical things? And if not, if you are in a hybrid model, what are the things that you need to do in which categories of country? And I think—as I said, I think some countries are different than others.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. And we were having problems with Rick Hopper’s audio, so he just emailed it in. And his question is: How are you handling the transition to hands-on experiential learning and delivering education for technical trades, health professions, and STEM fields? And as a reminder, he’s the president of Kennebec Valley Community College.

BURWELL: Yes. So I think that it varies. You know, some of those fields—some of those fields and the arts are two of the places where I think we’re having some of the greatest complexity figuring out how you can do some of that learning in those ways. And so those are the two areas that I—you know, those areas are some of the most challenging. And American University, it’s interesting because we were on our path to open our new hall of science, to integrate and have all in one place our sciences. And so our intake this year looks like it will be up in terms of sciences, but as we were working through how to do it, it is—you know, the labs are one of the most challenging parts. And figuring out how—are there ways that we’re having people do the labs, watch the labs? Those are some of the tools that we’re using.

We do not have a medical school at AU, and we don’t have a school of nursing. So we’re focused, you know, more on our—the fields of biology and chemistry are the two places that are in that bulk. And it is a matter of the professors coming up with innovative ideas on ways that they can do this. And so—and thinking about moving things. I know actually at our—just arrived in the mail, and this is at the younger level, our twelve-year-old daughter, we just received a thing that she is supposed to do to, you know, try and do one of the things she’s supposed to do in the science spaces. And so figuring it out. But it comes to one of the questions that was raised earlier, which is: This becomes costly in terms of how some of these things can get done.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Diana Newton with Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

Q: Hello, President Burwell. This is a voice from your past. It’s Diana Helweg Newton. So nice to talk to you again and reminisce about our days in the West Wing in the Clinton administration.

But my question is, for residential schools so much of the fall reopening plans are predicated on adequate testing. And I’d just like to draw on your public health background and ask if you can share any understanding of when you think adequate testing might actually be available?

BURWELL: Diana, I wish—and this is a place where I’m not close enough to know and understand what the critical path issues are. I mean, I think we have to move away from the current type of testing, which is a type of testing that needs to be sent to a lab to be processed, because that’s—you know, in terms of the real time that we’re going to need to create the safety and the ability to function we’re going to need different kinds of testing, and ability to do that. And so there’s, one, the science of do you have a test that can basically work like the strep test works, you know, when you go to have a strep test where it is very fast and can be processed. I won’t go through the science, which is a PCR. But that’s what we need to go to.

And right now, there are some steps that we need to be taking as a nation. If you think about the cost of the economy being in its current state, it’s worth a lot of money to scale the kind of testing that can get us back to a place where we can function. And so right now we should be going ahead and figuring out how we get the manufacturing capacity. If that’s about those little sticks that something has to go on, let’s get them produced. If it’s about the swabs, even before we have it, because that is one of the things that we’re going to need to do. We need to put in place the production capability for the vaccines right now.

And right now, there are different candidate that have different science, so they have different bases. But we should as a nation, I believe, go ahead and invest in the testing right now. Investing in—even before we have that technology. Because that’s when you’re going to be able to scale. And so what we need to do is understand what are going to be the critical path issues to that? I believe—you know, it’s the same thing with the contact tracing. We just need to decide, are we going to, like, use—you know, have some system that takes the unemployed and makes them contact tracers, and creates that system? Are we going to use the federally qualified health centers as a means of the backbone for contact tracing? What are we going to use? Are we going to—you know, City Year needs to be converted. All City Year volunteers now becomes contact tracers. So you build out that ability and capability to do it.

And so the testing, I don’t know when we’re going to get to that capacity because I’m not sure—I’m not close enough in to understand what has been the critical path issue, and where the science is. In conversations that I’ve had with some that are closer, they believe that it is within two months that we will get to that kind of testing. But if that’s so, then, boy, we should really be thinking about how to scale that. And that scaling really does need to be national. The idea that—you know, we’re trying to figure it out here in D.C., and you’re figuring it out in Texas, and, you know, we have folks from South Carolina, and Winston-Salem. It’s like, we don’t all want to be fighting over the resources, and we shouldn’t. We should be able to figure out as a nation how to produce this. We can produce it. We should be able to. And I believe that we can. And let’s just answer the questions of what are the critical path issues to getting there. And let’s understand how many tests we need. Those are the pieces. And that’s an epidemiological, you know, more science question. And then, like, how do we get the manufacturing done?

Q: All right. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: I just want to apologize. There are so many questions in queue. So I’m just forewarning you that we’re not going to get to all of you. I am sorry. And we will have to convene again. So just, I appreciate your forbearance.

Let’s go to Cory Leonard with Brigham Young University in Utah.

Q: Hello, President Burwell. Thank you very much. This may be a second- or third-order question, but I’d be interested in your thoughts about impacts or thinking about international education. Obviously, travel is very limited, we understand all of that. But in thinking through all these myriad of organizational and teaching issues on campus, what are your thoughts about impacts on study abroads, exchanges, as well as, you know, prestigious international scholarships, like Fulbrights and those?

BURWELL: We’ve already run into it with our students. We have a number—we have a huge number of Fulbrights this year. We have Borens. We have everything. And so we’re running into it. And right now, running into it in the form of can people delay, you know, in terms of the travel portion of it, and how to work with the different scholarship entities on thinking through that question. So we have not come to a long-term solution in terms of those fellowships and scholarships. We are working with our—you know, this is—this is what—you know, one of these issues comes up, you try and get the best minds around it to try and work the solutions, to talk to your colleagues at other institutions to get that solution. So we don’t have one yet. It’s temporal, is more what I would say now.

The other thing for American University, 67 percent of our students study abroad. And so the second part of this is a real challenge for us, because we consider that an important part of the experience that an undergraduate has at American University. So we are trying to work through—and a little bit of this has to do with the timing. That’s—you know, I think all of us are waiting to see, how long do we think we’re going to be in a situation where the travel will be a problem? And if we are going to be in that for a longer period of time, what are the interim solutions that we can do. So Cory, don’t have answers yet. On our radar. Working through.

FASKIANOS: I’m going to go to Meena Bose with Hofstra University. And please be quick because we have a hard stop at 2:00. (Laughs.)

Q: OK. Follow up on the testing question, President Burwell. You’ve said that that needs to be a national effort. Could you say a few words about the administration of testing? One thing that I think all of us are wrestling with as we look at what the fall will bring, should testing be implemented in doctors’ offices, at schools, at the state level? How do we—I’m just trying to picture, would someone be at classroom doors? Would this be done once a week? How do—how can—we know the need to have the tests, and then how can we safely put them into—put them to use so we can try to reopen?

BURWELL: So I think it has to do with the tests—the kind of tests that we have and can produce. So we know that it was tested and FDA has approved a test that you mail back and forth. So, you know, we’ve kind of gotten to that stage. So you can actually do your own swabbing, basically. And so we know that. That was something that was tested out in Seattle in the Washington state area, and FDA has approved that. And so the answer to your question, I think, has to do with some of the science around the tests. But I also think that what we have to do, it’s epidemiologically defined.

And I bet our colleague who was on here before at the Air Force Academy, I think they have done it, because I think they determined that—you know, the academies I think are determining we have to test everyone, faculty, staff, students. We do it once. And then I think epidemiologists are helping us understand, how would you randomly test and what percentage of your population do you need to randomly test on a regular basis to increase the likelihood that you would catch it? And so I think these are—some of these are mathematical problems. And you can do the mathematical problem. But the math has to be attached to people’s comfort enough that they’ll act upon it.

And so I actually think you start with the question of the math, and you’re asking do we do it, do other do it? I think you get it—this is where—it’s like a lot of things that I believe in health care. Get everybody to the top of their license. And if you can get to a place where these tests can be administered by any of us on this call, great. We should be administering it, in terms of how you’re going to scale the capacity to do it. And so can the science get you to a place where you can—you or I can do the test? You know, that’s what you probably want to get to. And then figuring out a way that you can do it in a measurable way, that you’re meeting the standards of the science to create the safety that you need. And so understanding that real focus on the testing and knowledge about the testing becomes an incredibly important part of the solution space for each of us as universities.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful.

Sylvia, thank you very much for being with us today. We really appreciate it. It’s really been a pleasure and we’ve enjoyed hearing your insights with all of your different hats. It’s really been incredible. So thank you very much. And thanks to all of you. Again, my apologies for not getting to you. There are so many raised hands, I really do apologize. It’s hard looking at all of them. Please follow Sylvia Burwell Mathews at @SylviaBurwell.

You can email us if you have further suggestions of things you want us to cover, but our next Educators Webinar that we’ve scheduled for sure is on Tuesday May 19, from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. Eastern time with Richard Haass, president of CFR. And he’ll lead a conversation on his new book, The World: A Brief Introduction. So we hope you’ll join us for that. Again, I encourage you to follow @CFR_Academic on Twitter, to visit CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for all of our analysis and insights into COVID-19, as well as in many, many other areas. And I hope you all will stay safe and well. And we all need to bring our best thinking to how we deal with this pandemic. So—

BURWELL: Thank you all. As I said, many experts bringing up—you know, I wish we had more. We’re kind of at a stage where questions are outnumbering answers at this point. But that is a part of getting to the right path. So thank you a..

FASKIANOS: Thank you.


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