Higher Education Webinar: Fall Semester Planning During COVID-19

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

President, Brown University


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

Christina H. Paxson, Brown University president, discusses fall semester planning as colleges and universities consider reopening their campuses during COVID-19.

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon. Thank you, Maureen. And welcome to today’s Educators Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at the Council on Foreign Relations. Today’s 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 are delighted to have Christina Paxson with us today to talk about “Fall Semester Planning During COVID-19.” Dr. Paxson is president of Brown University and professor of economics and public policy. Under her leadership at Brown, she has created and run centers and institutes that connect researchers and scholars to confront issues and areas spanning from environmental and climate studies, international public policy, and translates science and technology to find treatments and cures for disease—perfect timing here. (Laughs.) Previously, she was the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of the International and Public Affairs and Hughes-Rogers professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. She is founded and directed both the Center for Economics and Demography of Aging and the Center for Health and Wellbeing at the Woodrow Wilson School, and has been a principal investigator on research projects supported by the National Institutes of Health.

So, Dr. Paxson, it’s great to have you with us. She’s also a Council member. I should add that. You early on, April 26, published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, college campuses must reopen in the fall, this is how we do it. Something along those lines. So I thought you could talk about your thinking, it was very early on, and where you are now in looking forward to the fall and what you’re going to do at Brown University and share your planning process with everybody on the call.

PAXSON: Thank you so much, Irina. And I’m really glad to be here. I know that there’s a lot of people on this call who are at colleges and universities all around the country. So I’m really looking forward to the Q&A, and to hear what other people are doing and thinking. I do want to make one note that, you know, when you write an op-ed the editorial page editor is the one who picks the title. And you know, a lot of people read that title as saying: Brown is going to open in the fall regardless of whether or not it’s safe to do so. And that’s absolutely false. We actually haven’t made a final decision. And we’re watching the health situation really carefully. And we will not open if we can’t do it safely.

At the same time, I want to open. Our students want us to open. They are so eager to return. And so we’ve been putting a lot of effort into thinking about what that public health plan will look like, that will let us open, let us open safely for our students, for our employees, and for all of the people who live in the community around Brown University.

So I’m going to tell you a little bit about what we’re thinking. I do want to recognize, though, that there’s no single roadmap for reopening campus. Colleges and universities across the country vary so widely in terms of financial resources, sizes, and access to health care, and the level of COVID-19 infections in their locations. So, you know, it’s not a one-size-fits-all plan. But at the same time, I believe that we can share some common priorities and principles that will guide planning for reopening all of our campuses as soon as we safely can do that.

So, you know, what does this mean? And I’ve talked to many college and university presidents. I think we’re all thinking about the same things. We have vocabulary that we didn’t have four months ago. I didn’t used to know the difference between isolation and quarantine. Now I do. And the plan we’re putting together builds on really basic elements of controlling the spread of infection. They have been tried and true methods that have been known in the world of public health for literally over a century. And they are, you know: Test, figure out if people have the disease. Trace, figure out who they’ve been in contact with. And then separate. In other words, removing people who are infected or at risk of infection from everybody else. And in addition, paying really scrupulous attention to things like social distancing and hygiene.

So the plan that we’re putting together has the following features—and I’m happy to talk about any of this in more detail. The first is testing. And that means testing all students and employees as they return to campus, testing certainly all symptomatic students and employees, but also doing random testing of asymptomatic members of the community to monitor levels of infection over time. And if they start to creep up then we can have a series of actions that we take in response.

The second point is contact tracing capacity. And we’re not as far along in this as we will be in a month. This is an area of current focus. This includes both traditional contact tracing, which you really need people who are trained up to talk to people who are infected, make the calls. It’s not all technology, but on the other hand technology can really help. So we’re working closely with the state of Rhode Island on that issue as well. I talked about quarantining and isolation, so setting aside dorm rooms for that.

We’re de-densifying residence halls so that students will have single rooms and fewer students per bathroom. And also then thinking about classrooms, and libraries, and dining halls, and how they can be configured to enable social distancing. Teaching is going to be different. So we’re converting large lecture courses to flipped mode, so that students won’t have to sit packed together in big lecture halls. They can watch the lecture online. They can gather together in small recitation and problem-solving sessions with their instructor.

And then finally I would add maybe the most important part of a plan like this is to have a really robust public health education plan so that students understand what they need to do to keep themselves and their classmates and everybody else healthy. You have to have a spirit of we’re all in this together and this is a community obligation.

The final thing I would note that we’re also working with is we know that there are students who won’t be able to get back to campus. Some of them have health conditions that prevent that from being a wise thing for them to do, assuming we can open. And then there are others who will have travel restrictions or, sadly, the inability to get into the country because they are not able to get a student visa in time to come back. And so all of our courses will also be offered remotely, so that those students who can’t get back to campus won’t have to lose their place.

So let me just say a few things about why I think this is so important to focus on. And you know, I feel pretty strongly about this. If you look at what higher education does in America, you know, there are over 19 million students who were involved in an American college or university in any given year. And you know, those students, like I said, they want to come back to campus. If schools can’t take the steps to ensure that they have access to these educational opportunities, some of them—and we know this from survey data—will forgo starting college or they will delay completing their degrees. And we also know that when students delay completion, some of them never complete their degrees.

And this is something that would have a damaging effect on those people, but also the country as a whole. You know, higher education plays such an essential role in preparing young people to become productive and effective members of democratic societies, and a very important role in creating the upward mobility that we really want to see in the United States and around the world.

The second point, though, is that higher education is a really important sector in the U.S. economy. And you know, degree-granting postsecondary institutions, that we employ collectively around three million people. We spend about $600 billion contribution to the gross domestic product every year. And you know, for so many towns and cities across America, there are colleges and Universities, whether they are public or private, big or small, they’re anchor institutions. They employ people. They are some of the most stable employers. And they drive consumption of goods and services. So you know, our missions are really important to the—in the broader spectrum of the global economy.

So, you know, if colleges and universities can reopen safely, I think we’re going to need some support and some help. These public health plans that we’re mentioning are very expensive. And we’re also expecting big increases in financial need of our students. So increases in financial aid. So let me just give you a few—just a Brown-specific example to make this point. After the 2008 financial crisis Brown had to increase financial aid by about 12 percent to meet the full financial need of all enrolled students. We’re lucky. We’re (deep-lined ?) and we (meet ?) full financial need. That’s on us to do.

Now, you look at then and now, the unemployment in May, I don’t think the numbers are out yet, but it’s expected to about 20 percent. That’s more than double the maximum employment rate during the Great Recession. So, you know, we don’t know how high the financial need is going to go, but it could be significant. And, you know, my concern is we go to all this work to bring students back, and then they can’t afford to come back, especially to the colleges and universities that can’t really afford to increase their financial aid budgets.

A second point I’ll make that I think is important is that, you know, college campuses can’t reopen there’s so many institutions across the country, colleges and universities, that were in very precarious financial positions before the pandemic. And they may be unable to survive. You know, again, I know at Brown I think we’re planning a deficit next year—we’re not planning it, but we will have a deficit, even if we can reopen, of about $100 million. I used to get upset over deficits of, like, $5 million. Now it’s $100 million.

And if we can’t open, this’ll be $200 million or more. And this is all, you know, a lot of COVID-related expenses and things like that. And we’ve taken a lot of actions, like, you know, hiring freezes and no raises next year. We’ve tried really hard to avoid layoffs. But I think for a lot of schools as this goes on and if the students can’t come back, avoiding layoffs will become increasingly, increasingly difficult. So that’s another thing that we’re really—I’m focused on.

One last point before we open it to discussion: Not all colleges and universities are research universities, but many of us are. And over the past several months most research universities have kept open their laboratories that conduct research related to COVID-19. And that’s been spectacular. That was essential to do, and people are working on vaccines, and treatments, and testing methods, and making really important contributions to science. It’s very urgent and necessary work.

But in the meantime, there’s an extraordinary amount of federally funded—mainly federally funded research that is literally languishing on the bench due to the pandemic. And, you know, this is work on Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer, and sustainable energy, and you name it. And putting this research on hold really threatens the future of research and discovery in the country. We are working to reopen our labs gradually over the summer. But there—and I won’t go into all the detail—but the costs associated with reopening and restarting the research, and staffing it properly are really quite extraordinary. And so we’ll be hoping to get federal help to make that possible, because it’s so important, and it’s a major investment that the federal government has already made in our research mission.

So, you know, in the coming months we’re going to learn how health conditions continue to evolve. We are hoping to open with a three-semester model, so our campus is de-densified. But as I said, you know, we’re working really closely with the state. If we can’t open, we can’t open. But we’re going to do everything possible to give it—give it our best shot at being able to bring our students back to campus. And, you know, as I said in my piece in the New York Times recently, we have a duty to marshal our resources and our expertise and do everything we can to reopen our campuses safely.

I’ll stop there. And let’s start the discussion. Thank you so much.

FASKIANOS: Chris, thank you very much for that. That was really terrific.

So let’s go to all of you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

OK. So let’s see. We already have three questions. So Bart Ganzert, we’re starting with you.

STAFF: I think Bart is on mute.

Q: There you go. I got it. I’m Bart Ganzert. I’m at Winston-Salem State University.

I’m faculty and I work as a faculty development specialist. So when this whole situation started we had the task of looking at it from an instructional standpoint. So that first front opened and we took the point with them, and really focusing on outcomes and design as how we endured up through this point. But now we see, as you talked about in your—in your discussion of the economics of this, we see a new front that’s opened with students services. And they’re dealing with an entirely, you know, different and very challenging set of details as well. I was just wondering, have you noted any very creative ideas, aside from the general ones that you specified, any creative ideas of how we can sustain the learning community that you get in a traditional residential-style campus like we have at many of our four-year schools.

PAXSON: Just to clarify, like, if we reopen or if we can’t, or both?

Q: Both.

PAXSON: Both? (Laughs.) OK. I mean, it’s been—it’s been really interesting I think over the last three months—and I’m sure you’ve seen this at your institution—how much innovation there’s been in providing students support during this period. So just do—you know, one area that I’ve been really impressed with is the shift—rapid shift to telehealth. So we’re doing counseling and psychological services remotely. We’re doing health care remotely. There’s some cross-state issues that need to get worked out with reciprocity and the ability to do that, but you know that—online counseling and psychological services actually works really well. So that’s an area where when the students come back to campus, I think we’re going to continue it. And that’s an area of innovation that’s been really good.

Student support, you know, one of the reasons why I want to get students back to campus is because the community aspect of education is so important, especially when you have socioeconomically diverse student bodies. And you know, while we found that students’ learning outcomes were actually really good this semester, we’ve done some survey work on that, and students were satisfied with their online courses, what they miss is the community. And they miss feeling like they’re all kind of on a level playing field on campus. So you know, the work on creating a sense of community and community engagement, whether we’re remote or whether we’re in person, I think that’s central to the college experience. And we’ll be continuing to focus on that. It’s a good question.

Q: Thank you, Dr. Paxson.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go next to Pat Cain. And if you can accept the unmute prompt then we will be able to hear you.

Q: Yeah. I got it. My name is Pat Cain. I’m a law professor at Santa Clara University, which had the unfortunate experience of being an epicenter for the California pandemic.

And we are pretty much closed now and don’t know where we’re going. The president and provost have put together seven working groups. They’re called resilience and recovery teams. And I’m on the legal guidance team. And so I know some of the work that’s being done. But the law school is separate. I know you don’t have this problem at Brown. But the point is, the law school is scheduled to start August the 10th. The rest of the campus is not going to start until six weeks later. So we have a special problem.

And one of the things I’m interested in is communication, especially communication with the students, especially communication with those who have been accepted but are weighing whether or not to come. I mean, I fear that a lot of first-year law students will defer. I’m not sure that’s smart, given the fact that many will, and we’re going to need lawyers in three years. So that may be against their best interests. I wonder about what your communication plans are for students, also for employees and faculty. There are a lot of people here who feel a little bit out of the loop.

PAXSON: Yeah. You know, it’s a really great point. And one thing that I’ve wondered during this pandemic, and I’m sure many of you have had a similar experience, is: Given that everybody’s separated, communications is now so much more important than it used to be. And because people, I think, are—you know, this is about really hard times, not just because of the pandemic but everything else that’s happening in the country. And during times like this people are distracted. They don’t really hear what you say the first time, so you have to communicate in many different ways.

With the students, what we’ve done is actually with our undergraduates we did a recent survey that, boy, I’ve never seen students have such a high response rate on a survey. But we basically walked through the different scenarios that we were planning. Sort of the normal, three-semester model, and then the remote model. And asked them: What would you want to do in each of these scenarios? Would you want to come to campus? Would you want to defer? Would you want to work online? And from that, what we learned was that our students really do want to come back. If we’re remote, I think about half of them would not want to continue with remote learning. They would want to take a gap year, which is—which is, you know, not that surprising. But if we are open, students will almost all come back, if they can get here. And that’s—the international issue is a big problem.

Communication with faculty, I think there’s a lot of anxiety, where people are, like, I have to get into a classroom with a bunch of students? How is this going to work? And so we’re—you know, we’re reassuring people that no one is going to be forced to put themselves in danger. That’s just not right to do. And this is true also with our other employees, from our dining service and, you know, public safety workers through the faculty. So that, you know, there will be opportunities for our faculty to teach online in this flipped model and have less contact or even no contact with students, if that is necessary.

But the communication is hard, you know, because you send out the emails, and you have the Zoom meetings, and then you get a bunch of questions that are, like, wait, I said that. OK, I have to say it again. That’s fine. So overcommunication is something I would strongly recommend.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go next to Theresa Sabonis-Helf.

Q: Thank you. I’m Theresa Sabonis-Helf. And I’m at the National War College and I’m also at Georgetown University.

And you mentioned that, you know, sort of the chief determinant of your strategy has to do with what the state—what your state will approve. Here in Washington, D.C. we’re kind of caught between two states and one nonstate entity. But one of the concerns that I’ve heard a lot about from the academic community is there’s a fear that while administrations of different universities decide what they want to do, faculties—and in the places that are unionized faculty unions—are waiting till there is a decision to signal what they want to demand in terms of safety and liability in support of the faculties.

So in terms of dealing with your faculty constituency, how is Brown thinking about liability? And how are you soliciting candid input from the faculty in terms of their own willingness or non-willingness to show up?

PAXSON: Mmm hmm. Yeah, that’s a good question. We don’t have unionized faculty. We have some unionized staff. And, you know, again, this is part of the communication, kind of bringing them into the conversation sooner rather than later, it seems like a good thing to do. You know, we have a lot of our unionized staff are still working because they’re essential workers. And we do have some things running. And that communication has been good.

You know, with the faculty and the liability issue, the staff liability issue, I think we have to be really clear to everybody that we’re going to follow CDC guidelines, we’re going to follow the state guidelines. And if people feel like it’s risky for them to come to work, they need to come and talk to us about it, and we’ll figure out a way around it. That may be harder in a unionized faculty environment. So I don’t know.

There’s a lot of discussion out there on, you know, a lot of universities have been requesting at the federal level and possibly the state level some liability protection. And you know, none of us want to be bad employers or, you know, put people in harm’s way. But I think it is reasonable to say, you know, in the middle of a pandemic even if you follow all the guidelines, even if you do everything perfectly people may get ill. And helping—you know, getting some protection against that I think would be a useful thing.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go next to Steven Koltai.

Q: Hi, there. It’s Steven Koltai. And I’m in the Entrepreneurship Center of MIT. I wanted to ask about more labs and research facilities. We have at the Institute continued to have many critical labs open, and running, and staffed throughout all of this, even now. And I’m wondering if that is also true at Brown, particularly in the biomedical area. And whether you have developed any policies that are unique to labs, especially some of the wet labs.

PAXSON: Mmm hmm. So that’s a good—that’s a good question. And, yes, I mean, I think like most universities anything that was related to COVID could keep running. So we had, you know, people in the biological sciences who’ve been doing some great work, and even in engineering they were developing new ways to make ventilators, and things like that. So all of that stayed running. That actually gave us a good opportunity to kind of put in place the safety guidelines that will now be expanded because we’re going to be opening up—plan to open up all the labs over the next few months.

But, you know, again, it’s the basics. It’s social distancing in labs. It’s masks. It’s making sure that there are—you know, the ability to keep things clean is there. Bathrooms are a big deal. I’ve never spoken to people so much about bathrooms in my life. And, you know, things like how many people can be in an elevator, how do you have doors that can open without you having to use your hands? The thing that struck me about this that is just a bigger issue is, you know, universities—and MIT is a great example—we’re, like, small or even mid-sized cities. We do everything. We have machine shops. We have labs. We have dining. We have facilities. We have public spaces.

And so the planning that goes into each and every one of those—and laboratories is a great example—has to be tailored and customized. This is painstaking work. I’ve heard, by the way, that MIT is doing it very well. So—and I know that they’ve instituted some pretty widescale testing for people who are coming back to labs, which is—which is what we’re also going to be doing some of.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Nan Keohane.

Q: Hi.

PAXSON: Hi, Nan.

Q: Hey. I am a former colleague of Chris Paxson’s at the Woodrow Wilson School, and before that a university president. And I’m delighted to hear your very thoughtful discussion of what we should be doing these days. I wanted to ask you about another reason to open in the fall if we can, in whatever form, which is that not being at home gives people access to ways of being serious about their studying and doing it easily that many people do not have if they have to work from home. So this spring, for example, there have been people who have been trying to take the online courses in crowded apartments with very uneven access. Thinking about the inequalities in our country.

And so one of the great advantages of being on campus, even if you’re distanced, is then you have space and facilities to do your work online, even if some of the classes are offered online instead of in person. And also, people around you are studying or having discussion groups, or whatever. So the whole ambiance is different. I think that makes an enormous difference for serious work and completion. It would seem to me that is something to take into account, even although, as you say, there are many problems and potential costs.


PAXSON: Right. Right. No, I couldn’t agree with you more. You know, we, like—and I know Princeton has done the same thing, and many other universities, we’ve had a group of students who stayed on campus, either because they were international students who couldn’t travel home or, for large number of students, who just had homes that were unsafe for them to go to for different reasons, and not—you know, dysfunctional families, and places where the learning environment could not have worked.

And you know, those students have actually done really well this semester and were glad to be able to stay. I think there are more students who didn’t request to stay but who really would have benefited from it because they were—you know, I think we all have this imagined, you know, vision of the student learning from home, and sitting in their bedroom with the private laptop, or their desk, and they’re, you know, earphones on, and they’re working. And for a lot of students, that’s just not the reality. And we know students learn from each other. So I think on equity grounds is really important to bring people back.

FASKIANOS: Thanks. Let’s go to Cory Krupp.

Q: Thank you. I’m Cory Krupp from Duke University. I work in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

And we have a number of programs that are really focused on international development. Students, practitioners. And we’re really concerned about their ability to come back and to enter our program. We have a big cohort that wants to come back, but they’ve told us for international students really being in the U.S. is a big part of the whole educational experience. So I’m just wondering if you have heard of any movement on reopening the consulates or if there’s anything we as a group can be doing to try to get them reopened.

PAXSON: This, I think, is a really difficult political issue. And I don’t want to get too political on here but, you know, the fact is the embassies are not processing visas. So new students who haven’t gotten a visa yet or students who are returning, they have trouble getting back. It’s a huge, huge problem. And I think, you know, this is going to be hardest for Chinese students. And, you know, our university, like many, has many fabulous Chinese students. We want them back.

You know, the conversations I’ve had with people in Washington say that this issue is going to—is especially complicated because it’s wrapped up in reelection issues. And you know, what I think is probably the—you know, talk to your members of Congress. Get business leaders to talk to members of Congress. These aren’t really congressional issues, but I think Congress can exert some pressure. But it’s a really difficult policy issue right now. And I worry for the future of the United States and its ability to be the leading magnet for fantastic international students and scholars. So it’s very disturbing. I wish I had an answer for you that was more optimistic.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to John Elliot.

Q: John Elliott from the University of Connecticut. You’ve talked about reducing density as a key factor when you bring students back to campus. And I haven’t heard as much talk about air handling and air filtering, because if you have students in classrooms for long periods of time, virus spreads. Are you thinking at all about air handling and control?

PAXSON: You know, there has been discussion about that. I have to confess, this is not an area that I am—I know as much about, and what the potential is to do more air—you know, control of air. But, you know, I think what our strategy is, is to keep the density in big spaces low enough that that shouldn’t be as much of an issue. And, you know, we’ll see how that works. But it hasn’t been an area of my focus, no.

FASKIANOS: Do you have a plan of what is the largest number of students you are going to have in one space?

PAXSON: Yeah. It depends on the size of the space. So, you know, what you want is you want people to be at least six feet apart.


PAXSON: So you know, and it’s kind of scary. Our registrar went through all group classroom spaces and said, OK, you know, we’ve just—if we do this, we’ve just reduced classroom space by about 65-70 percent, right? Because you really—it’s not just every third seat. It’s every third row. It’s staggering students. And so, you know, we’re getting creative. I think, again, the large classes are going to be flipped. So the lecturer gets watched online and then you have small breakout sessions. But we’re also looking at, you know, nobody really knows what’s going to be the future of athletics in the fall.

We may have a lot of athletics facility space that can be repurposed for teaching and learning. And that’s big, open space. That’s great. So we’re all—you know, it’s actually interesting how much people are scrambling, and innovating, and trying to identify spaces that will work. But dining is another huge issue. And again, you know, a lot of guidance is coming out for restaurants. That’s appropriate guidance for a dining hall, which is de-densify the dining hall, and have barriers between people, and things like that. So we’re thinking about all of it.

The one thing on testing that I actually think is really interesting, and this is an area I’ve been focusing a lot of attention recently, is, you know, right now the testing technology is changing and evolving really, really quickly. And that’s great. The test we’re planning on using this summer may not be the test that we use in the fall. They may be better. And hopefully they’ll be cheaper.

And people are actually—the air handling question got me thinking about this—some schools are starting to work on wastewater testing. So they actually test whether there is any infection in an entire building—say, a dormitory—by testing wastewater that’s leaving the building. And so that’s something else we’re exploring right now to do, because the idea is, you know, you want to keep infection levels really low. And you want to find it as soon as it emerges . And then you want to pounce on it and address it. And that’s how you prevent spread in the community. So a lot of innovation. It’s fascinating.

FASKIANOS: Yeah. Thank you. Let’s go to Rob Lalka next.

Q: Thanks, Irina. Dr. Paxson, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments today. And the next one’s—the next question is something that’s going to be a tough one to answer, I’m sure. I’m a professor here at Tulane University in New Orleans and run the entrepreneurship innovation center. And as I look at all of the protests across the country I think especially about the inequities that we experienced post-Katrina that you’ve done quite a bit of research, and thank you for that, especially around the idea that there is really no post to the post-traumatic stress disorder of Katrina, because there was not end to it. It just kept going.

And I see that being a continued issue with this, especially as, you know, people can’t get home to their families because they don’t have the economic means to. And yet, they are being disproportionately affected, especially people of color. And so I’m wondering if you can address both the socioeconomic and the racial inequities, and how do we help our students understand that—both students who may be going through it personally, and also students who may be educated about it.

PAXSON: Yeah. That—I mean, that’s such a good question. And I know, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about that, and especially over the past week. I think, you know, seeing the racial disparities in mortality rates in the pandemic have been bad enough. To see what’s happened in the past week has just been really devastating for many members of our community. So, you know, what we’re doing right now is probably what you’re doing at Tulane, just a lot of reaching out and talking to different groups of people, and writing to the community, and, you know, letting people know that we hear them and we understand the pain that they’re in right now, and that it’s genuine pain.

What we’re planning for the fall for our students, whether they are here in person or not, is a series of probably courses and conversations that would also be made available to alumni and others in our community to really learn about the issues. We’re educational institutions, and that’s—you know, it’s our obligation that young people coming into school understand the issues. So you know, it’s interesting. We have—like many colleges, we have a summer reading. And all of the incoming students have to read the same thing, and then at orientation a lot of it is around talking about whatever the reading is.

And even before the COVID pandemic the decision had been made to have our incoming students read something called The Report on Slavery and Justice, which was a report that was commissioned at Brown by a Ruth Simmons, my predecessor, when she was president, that really dug into the history of slavery in New England and the ties between slavery and the university, and also what—the legacy of that time and how it persisted today.

So in a way, that gives us this great entrée into helping talk about these issues, and also developing some real action plans to address some of the racial disparities in our town of Providence Rhode Island. So we don’t have all the answers. You know, it’s a lot of listening and a lot of thinking and planning about what we can do to—that will be more than just talking, that will be meaningful action. So if you have ideas, I’d love to know what you’re thinking about.

Maybe he’s muted again.

FASKIANOS: He muted. Rob, do you have anything to add?


Q: Woof. I mean, I think that you’re exactly right about creating a forum where both alumni and students can engage. I think that’s really powerful because being able to ensure that students have role models for people who are a little further along in their careers and are still grappling with these issues is really important. So that’s something we’ve been doing with my center at Tulane, is setting up conversations. Again, we’re focused on entrepreneurship, so usually it’s between investors and students. But we’ve been giving them information to—on both sides to encourage those conversations, because those are mentorship relationships just as much as they are anything else. And so I think that’s a really helpful thought. The university more broadly certainly has a bunch of plans that are above my paygrade for the fall. But it’s something I’m really just deeply concerned about, and I want to make sure we get right as educators.

PAXSON: Right. Right. Thank you.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Pearl Robinson. And you can hit the unmute prompt, Pearl, that should be on your—there you go.

Q: OK. So, first of all, actually I’m from New Orleans. So it was interesting to hear that question. And my question is actually related to this one, though not as deep as the previous. We’re going to return to campus with—you know, I’m watching all these demonstrations and people are out there putting their lives on the line to try to get the country to deal with issues that we haven’t dealt with. I see this as increasing the danger of, you know, just the physical danger of returning to campus, because probably more people will be sick. Are universities getting together to talk about how they’re going to address this issue?

PAXSON: Well, we haven’t—we’re thinking about it, certainly. So, you know, we’re working really, really closely with the state of Rhode Island. One of the nice things about Rhode Island is it is a very small state. So it’s kind of—you can get all the university presidents in the state in one room, and we can talk to the governor, and the head of the Department of Health. And that’s been really terrific. So and another thing that’s nice is Rhode Island actually has, the last time I looked, the highest rate of COVID testing per capita in any state in the country. So what we’re doing is tracking very closely levels of infection, rates of hospitalization, ICU rates, mortality rates.

The reason why I haven’t come out and said, yes, we’re going to open in the fall, is I need to see that as the Rhode Island economy begins to open infection rates don’t start to come up. And that we’re now in phase two. You know, if we had to backtrack to phase one I would be impossible. With the protests and we’ve—you know, it hasn’t been quite the same in Rhode Island. We had a significant protest, very great protest, over the weekend at the statehouse, and then some more recent looting that was really unfortunate. But there could be a resurgence. And if there is, we’ll see it in two weeks. And so we’re looking out for that. And, you know, hopefully if it goes up, it’ll go back down again quickly.

The thing that worries me so much is that, you know, the people who are protesting are disproportionately African American, which makes sense and I understand why people are protesting now. They have a lot to protest about. But this again—these are the exact—this is the demographic group that for a wide variety of conditions—whether it’s housing adequacy or, you know, we can talk about that for a long time—are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they become infected. So this is a major concern. It’s a public health concern. Thank you

FASKIANOS: All right. Thank you, Pearl. Let’s go now to Scott Shane.

Q: Hi. Yes. Thank you. I’m Scott Shane at Case Western Reserve University in economics and entrepreneurship. I actually have two questions, because I’ve got one on behalf of a colleague of mine who didn’t tune in. So my first question is actually whether Brown University is doing any research out of this on the methods of delivery of education, so we would learn something out of the process of using different methods of delivery as a result of this natural experiment. And then the second question is whether you have any information or insight into questions of equity between on campus and off campus students if there are activities for the students on campus, and those who can’t return obviously can’t participate in those.

PAXSON: Right. So those are both really good questions. I should say, you work at my father in law’s university. So I’ve been to Case many, many times.

So research on methods of delivery? No, we haven’t yet. I think it’s a great idea. I think going—switching to remote halfway through the semester was, frankly, such a scramble that we didn’t have time to sit back and say, huh, how can we—you know, maybe should have, but we didn’t. We didn’t design any research to go with that. We’ve done some good data collection on student satisfaction, kind of students evaluation of the effectiveness of the courses.

And I have to tell you something really fascinating, which is while we know students don’t want to be remote, ratings of effectiveness and the amount of learning in classes actually went up slightly this semester, which is kind of mind-boggling. And I think we need to figure that out, because, you know, maybe we can have the best of both worlds, which is to have students back on campus but also pick up the really good elements that actually were successful in the last six weeks.

So that’s—I think it’s a fascinating area of research. And what we’re doing this summer is now saying, OK, we’re going to prepare all of our courses for remote instruction because, one, we may need it for everybody but, two, we know that there are going to be students who can’t come back. And I’m going to take your idea and talk to my head of my teaching and learning center to see if there’s a way to embed some experiments in there. I think it’s a great idea.

You know, the equity issues, which are really essential—you know, we have this semester had a small on-campus population and an off-campus population. And I touched on the fact that for many of our lower-income students, being able to be on campus was really essential. If we wind up with a three-semester model—so only basically three-quarters of our students are back in any semester—I know you can’t really have three semesters. Every student would do two semesters, but they would be spread out over the course of the calendar year. You know, what we’re thinking a lot if how we can build community and build engagement for students when they’re not on campus in a way that does, you know, promote equity. And those plans are really in the early stages, but I think it’s an interesting challenge and it’s one that we’re all going to have to—have to face.

So, again, making sure that all of our students have just basic access. Do they have laptops? Do they have Wi-Fi? Do they have a headset so that they don’t have to have their class blasting out into a small apartment? And really listening to them and figuring out what their needs are. You know, I’ll say one thing that isn’t directly related to your question, but I think is really important. When we sent students home in March, and I’m sure many people on the line have had a similar experience. You know, first we were concerned with, you know, do students have the money to get home? So we were giving vouchers and, you know, helping students get back. And do they have books? And do they have laptops? And do they have Wi-Fi? All those things that are academically related.

Well, what’s happened as the pandemic has progressed is that families are now losing their jobs, and they’re in increasing financial distress. And now the requests that we’re getting from students are things like: I need help buying food, right? I mean, they’ve become very basic. So, you know, we’re committed to providing support to our students that we never would have provided in the past. We wouldn’t—you know, we wouldn’t have been in this situation. So and that’s part of equity too, which is really making sure that these students have the wherewithal to be great students and to have good lives.

FASKIANOS: Just a quick follow up, we still have several more questions, but have you also been surveying the faculty?

PAXSON: Yes. Yes, we have. And both formal surveying about sort of teaching and how are they thinking about their teaching next year, but also just a lot of open forums and meetings, not formal surveys. I think the qualitative and the quantitative data go together. You know, what we’re learning is, one, our faculty have been fantastic. You know, they understand that this is an unprecedented situation. They understand that we have never been challenged this way. I mean, I was joking with some faculty, the last time Brown closed was during the War of Independence. (Laughs.) So that was a long time ago. And so it’s unprecedented. They’re pitching.

I think we also know that they’re—they have valid health concerns. They’re nervous about coming back, especially older faculty. And some of them are—you know, they’re faculty because they love to be in the classroom. They love to be with students. That’s what they love doing. And for them, teaching online is simply not as rewarding. So they’re trying to balance all this. Like, I don’t want to teach online, but I’m a little bit nervous about coming back. So we’re trying to work that through with them.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Colette Mazzucelli.

Q: Thank you, Dr. Paxson. I’m from New York University. I appreciate your comments. And I was wondering if Brown University is thinking in terms of its accommodations. You know, there are going to be those who have prior conditions, those who are older than sixty-five. And yet, I think with all of these mutigenerational families, there are going to be those who are caregivers. And I’m wondering if you believe that that could be also an additional category, particularly for faculty who have older parents or who are, you know, the sole caregivers in their families. They may want to continue to teach, as you mentioned the flipped classroom, as you mentioned bringing the students to campus. But their delivery might be tailored to what they are responsible for. Is that something you might consider?

PAXSON: Yes. Absolutely. I think that’s really important. It’s important for all of our staff, all of our employees, which is, you know, people are in very different situations. You know, it’s interesting. It cuts in such different ways. I have faculty members who are parents. And, you know, this juggling of taking care of kids, homeschooling kids while you’re trying to work, is really hard. They are like, let me back into my office. I have to get away from my children, right? So there’s that.

But the serious issue that you’re raising, which is, you know, we deal with people who are—you know, they live with their elderly parents, or they have a spouse who is undergoing treatment for cancer and is immunocompromised. And you know, you just have—I think Brown is—we’re in a good spot because we’re a big, major research university. But we’re also small enough that we can kind of work with people one-on-one. I think the challenge is for the really gigantic universities is, you know, you really have to have clear policies that apply uniformly to everybody. I mean, we apply things uniformly, but the ability to really kind of work with people and figure out what’s going to work for them is a little bit harder. I don’t know how NYU is doing on that, but it—yeah.

Q: No, absolutely. It is a challenge, absolutely. Thank you. Thank you for that response.

PAXSON: You’re welcome.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Mark Klarman.

Q: Thank you, Irina. I hope you’re well. I miss seeing you in New York.

FASKIANOS: I do too.

Q: Yeah. And thank you for the talk today, Dr. Paxson. I wanted to ask a question that focuses on the assessment of student learning. And in talking to colleagues both in my school—I teach at Vanguard High School in New York—and talking to colleagues at my level and in university, we’ve all kind of identified that, sadly, we’ve been doing remote learning long enough that we’re seeing challenges and some opportunities for assessment. And I’m wondering if you’ve had a chance to give any thought or have any observations about how assessment might change in any enduring ways over—given this new reality of the remote environment.

I would just give one example, which is a friend who’s a professor of accounting is really grappling with how do I—how do I know my students are developing ensuring understandings of foundational concepts? And I know that’s different for every discipline, so.

PAXSON: Right. I think that’s a really good question. And it’s something that our digital learning and design team is thinking a lot about, and working with faculty on, which is, you know, how do you do assessments in this different world? You know, we have some experience with it because we do have some, you know, flipped remote programs for masters’ students. So those lessons can be taken into the undergraduate experience. I think where faculty struggled this semester was when they really thought that they could just do it exactly the same way remotely as they used to do it in person. And that just doesn’t work as well.

You know, I think people are being encouraged to do sort of shorter assessments at a higher frequency so that they understand whether they’re leaving people behind. And maybe that would have been good to do in person, but somehow in person just from the sense of the discussion, the looks on students’ faces, you can tell if you’re losing them. And I think that’s harder remotely. You know, some of the kind of instance that we all have to take the same test at exactly the same time, that doesn’t work when students are in time zones all around the world. So how do you do that, especially if you’re worried about cheating? And there have been some instances at different universities with issues of academic honestly during this time period. So that has to be factored in too.

So, I don’t have all the answers here, but I know that we’ve learned a lot and I think it’s got to be different types of assessment. Maybe things that would be good to continue to use when we’re all back together in person.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Khalid Azim.

Q: Hello, Dr. Paxson. So my question is about the disruption of the pipeline into colleges and universities. I’m at Columbia Business School. I wanted to know your thoughts about that, away from the international student component. You know, what disruptions do you see, you know, in the pipeline into colleges and universities, and what consequences do you see coming out of that?

PAXSON: Well, I mean, one of the tragedies of this is that there are huge disruptions in the pipeline into college, from college to graduate school, from graduate school into academia, and into jobs. And it’s—you know, when you take a generation of people and kind of put them on hold, you create a lot of just problems in the pipeline. So, you know, my biggest concern is not really a concern that I think will have that much effect on Brown and probably not Columbia, but there are a going to be a lot of students who either their colleges and universities don’t reopen, or their families just cannot afford to send them college, unless there’s something like, you know, a massive increase in Pell awards, or something like that, which I would support in a heartbeat.

And so, you know, we could have a generation of students who—where college graduation rates go down. And, you know, I’ve argued publicly that U.S. college graduation rates are falling behind our peers in other countries. We should have many more students going to college than we have and graduating from college successfully than we have. So that’s a big problem.

I am very concerned about the pipeline into graduate programs, especially those that are heavily international, and what that means for the U.S. economy down the road when, you know, these are the—these are the people who become entrepreneurs, and innovators, and academics, and who contribute so much to society when they stay in the United States after they graduate. And that’s another big pipeline issue that I’m concerned about.

FASKIANOS: There’s still several questions out there, but I think we only have time for one more. So I’m going to go to Victoria Powers. And my apologies for not getting to all of you still in queue.

Q: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. And I feel bad that I’m blocking other questioners. I am a professor, a teacher at a law school here in Columbus, Ohio. Sorry. And I have a son that will be at Brown as a Ph.D. student in the fall. So I’m very happy to be with you today.

PAXSON: What department will he be in?

Q: My question is more of a practical concern. And I’m wondering if in terms of—you mentioned wearing masks and other safety precautions, Dr. Paxson. And I’m wondering about enforcement. We’re concerned about how to ask students and faculty to observe the precautions that we all know should be in place and will be asked of them. Wearing masks, for example. Is that something that you plan to be asking faulty to enforce in some way? Or how will you be dealing with that?

PAXSON: Yes. You know, I think we’re going to have to be—if we reopen in the fall we’re going to have to be really clear about what the—what the obligations are of community members, responsibilities. You know, it’s standard practice for us to have students, you know, review the code of conduct, and sign it, and say that they will abide by it. In our current code of student conduct it says that one violation is to not obey the instructions of university officials. And I think we’re just going to have to be really clear. You know, set out rules that students can actually follow. The worst thing to do is to set out rules that are impossible.

But if you have reasonable rules that are going to protect safety, but then you made it clear that these are enforceable, and if they’re not there are going to be consequences, I think we have to do that. And that’s going to have to be a condition under which students are willing to come back to campus, and faculty and staff as well. So, you know, I don’t usually like the law and order approach, but this is health. It’s really important to get right. Irina, you’re on mute.

FASKIANOS: Yes. I need to follow my own instructions. Thank you very much. With that, we are at the end of our time. But Dr. Paxson, thank you very much for being with us today. I think you gave the group a lot to think about. And your leadership at Brown is something to follow. So thank you for all that you are doing. We really appreciate it.

PAXSON: Thank you for inviting me. And thanks, everybody, for the great questions. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: So we will be sharing the video and transcript. We’ll send a link to all of you. Please do follow us on @CFR_Academic on Twitter, and go to CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for the latest information and analysis on COVID-19, as well as a host of other regions and issues.

The next Educators Webinar will be on Thursday June 18 from 1:00-2:00 p.m. Eastern time. Mira Rapp-Hooper, who is the Schwarzman senior fellow for Asian studies at CFR and senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Tsai China Center will lead a conversation on “The Costs and Perils of American Alliances.” So I hope you all are staying safe and well during this challenging time. This week has been particularly devastating, as you said, Chris. So thank you all for being with us today. And we look forward to your continued participation in this webinar series that’s specifically designed for educators.

So thank you all.

PAXSON: Thank you.


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