I have to start by asking the question probably on most students’ minds right now—will Vassar be following the CDC and Cuomo in lifting the mask mandate for fully vaccinated people this week?
PB: We are meeting as a senior team to make decisions about masking outdoors, for instance. One of the pieces to this that we want to really keep in mind, is how to continue our approach to equity where people who are vaccinated or unvaccinated are treated similarly. So, we’re balancing that with this new freedom that if you’re vaccinated by CDC, in New York State rules, as of tomorrow, you don’t need a mask outside. So we’re still thinking it over exactly what we’ll decide there.
How did your public health background inform your leadership during this pandemic?
PB: I think being a public health professional and scholar really helped me. It allowed me to read scientific literature particularly early. It also gave me a network of other public health professionals and public health scholars that I could draw on. I have also worked in places before that were in the midst of an epidemic. I have not lived through a pandemic like COVID-19, obviously, but I have been in parts of the globe when we’ve had cholera outbreaks and whatnot. So, I kind of have confidence, we could get through it, because it was familiar to me.
However I don’t want to overrate that background, because really, nobody has seen COVID-19 before. I think all of us had to learn constantly. I just feel like I maybe had the vocabulary earlier that helped me and some experience. But, you know, along with every other college president I was learning too.
What was your strategy when designing Vassar’s approach to reopening this past fall?
PB: I would say the first part of the strategy was figuring out what the “end” in mind was. What did we want the objective to be? We knew in the fall that we wanted to be in person, on campus with as many students and faculty as we could while staying safe and healthy. Those were the biggest things. Now, we also set these goals of equity and protecting our most vulnerable. So those were really all part of defining what an ideal state would be if we could get through it. And then we looked at the current state, examining, what do we have? How many beds do we have? Can we get a hotel for isolation?
One of our main strategies was to change the culture of the college to be healthy, and to encourage students to forgo partying and forgo some of the things that would be dangerous, such as sharing drinks and whatnot. So you really have to build that from the students themselves and from the employees themselves. So VassarTogether was the mechanism to implement a more informed student body to make all these rules acceptable. And I think the CCT also implemented restorative justice responses when students didn’t uphold the guidelines. These strategies really came out of just knowing something about culture change and knowing what works in an environment like Vassar’s.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
PB: You’ll probably remember in the fall, we set out a very strict path reopening that we were hoping to follow. We probably could have been more vague on those dates, because I think people were disappointed when we couldn’t accomplish opening up as much as we wanted to within the first five weeks. That had been our hope, but we had to delay. But it’s tricky because people want you to pin dates down because they feel insecure unless you have a real plan. This is the great paradox of strategy, you know, people really want to plan because it makes them feel good. Yet plans always have to be adaptable, they always have to shift with the changing time.
I also regretted that our food delivery took a day or two to get properly delivered to the isolation and self quarantine students the day back in the fall. We ultimately used GrubHub. Fortunately, that was resolved within 24 hours. But still, you’d much rather not have that happen. So I think if we went through that again, we’d go with GrubHub right away or not necessarily GrubHub, but some delivery system right away.
I also think that our testing was every couple of weeks, and I will say that in the fall, we had a testing agency that had a very, very high cycle threshold, which means they detect even trace amounts of COVID-19. I would have gone with the testing partner we have now in the fall if I could do it again. The CDC originally defined that if you went through 30 cycles of looking at the specimen to pick up COVID-19, 30 cycles was enough — you’re done. But the lab we used in the fall went through a threshold of 45 cycles. So just imagine they’re looking 50% more often. I think we probably detected things that were there, but not infectious and probably very, very small amounts. It was state of the art, which was why we chose them, but in some ways it was too sensitive.
How key was having a closed “bubble” in keeping the school safe? Some of our peer institutions did not institute a strict “bubble” model and had similar COVID-19 case levels. Do you have any theories for why this could be?
PB: You know, it’s a great question, and we have been thinking a lot about that. I think some things put Vassar at higher risk. We definitely are in a more densely populated area compared to some peer institutions. Dutchess County had a tremendous prevalence of COVID-19, particularly in this spring semester. We also brought back 85% of our student population, which is important. We had more students back as a percentage of our overall census compared to some peer institutions.
In terms of the bubble? It’s debatable. I think that the bubble for Vassar was very important, because how would we keep people from going to New York City? It’s just so common for people to go down and in New York City, there really is a chance of higher infection there. So I do think it helped us and I would probably do that again.
Obviously students will be required to be vaccinated, but what will be your vaccination approach with employees?
PB: The standard right now is that most colleges are not requiring their employees to get vaccinated.The legal cases are not absolutely crystal clear in this area. But one of the guideposts is employees really determining whether their lack of vaccination would really put people at risk of harm or not. This is important when people are thinking about the legality of requiring employee vaccination. When you think about a lot of our employees, they’re in jobs that are not living with students, not eating with students, typically.
One of the ways to think about this is if you required it, and you had a 40 year employee who just did not want to get vaccinated, what are you gonna do? Are you really gonna fire them over that? That’s what requiring it would be. that doesn’t seem appropriate. I think we can really run campaigns and use incentive systems to encourage employee vaccination. We don’t ask people about whether they’re vaccinated, but we can run campaigns, put numbers on the dashboard. I anticipate we’ll get to 90% just doing that. And that’s really our goal.
Is there any information you can share right now about what COVID-19 social distancing protocols could look like next semester?
PB: It’s still too early to say. Yet, I have actually been working with our professional organization of colleges in New York to advocate for a whole set of protocols to the Governor. I think it looks good. Of course we are looking to maximize safety. Health is number one, but we are really looking to be able to relax guidelines. If we have 90 to 95% of our students vaccinated, can we really relax the social distancing quality and the mask fully? These are the kinds of protocols that we’re really looking for.
How has COVID-19 impacted the College financially?
PB: The college has ended up doing fine financially. Our financial models had prepared us for worse, yet they ended up being flat. This is largely because of the CARES act money and the government subsidies for our COVID-19 expenses. Some of that has also helped pay for all the extra ventilation that we put in the staffing that we added for cleaning, and of course, the testing. So on average, I would say we’re about flat. We also did better in the endowment since the stock market is up. We also ended up having 85% of our students on campus. Yet there were sacrifices that kept us from being in the hole financially.
Amanita: Yes, I just want to remind you that all of the unions agreed to give backs at the beginning of the pandemic. And the administrator and faculty had flat salaries, so they didn’t get a raise. So there were sacrifices.
PB: Yes, the senior team also all took cuts in their pay. We were able to give a one time payment to every employee because we were able to be on campus this whole semester and last semester, and the endowment did okay.
Will employees who received pay cuts have their salaries return to pre-COVID-19 levels?
PB: Yes, they’ll return to their previous salary amounts.
What about the need-blind financial aid policy? Will financial aid awards be affected by any financial losses?
PB: We don’t think so. We’re really trying really hard to steer the ship so that we can keep all the commitments that we make as a college.
What about the 4% tuition increase? How was that decision made?
PB: The tuition increase was put in place last year. We absolutely depend on tuition revenue, that is the primary source of revenue for the College. So when employees are getting two percent or three percent raises, you’ve got to be able to accommodate that cost of living increase. We do have amazing financial aid. So the tuition increase does end up hitting, not the people who have financial aid, but more of those who are paying the full bill. It was without question necessary to balance our books.
An important piece of this is comparing our tuition increase to other peer colleges. For a long time, we were increasing our tuition less than other schools. So now we’re about in line with what the increases at other school’s were. Yet we’re pretty sensitive, we don’t like to do that. But I also think that our employees really need to be encouraged and receive raises as well.
The pandemic has heightened inequity on a national and international level. As you may know, some students are organizing a tuition strike to advocate for a tuition freeze and divestment, amongst other demands. Student activists also organized the “No Fail” strike last Spring. How do you plan to address students who express that the College has not adequately addressed them during this pandemic? How do you plan to build trust among students, faculty and administration that has been lost?
PB: Those are great questions. How do you build that trust or how do you sustain trust when you can’t be in person? And it is really tough.
I think you build trust by communicating as much as you possibly can. I try to write a weekly email and meet with anybody who wants to meet. You really have to be honest and know your own values, your principles, and be honest and consistent about them. The most important thing you can do is keep your promises. That’s integrity. But the pandemic has shaken everybody’s trust in institutions and in science itself when you think about it.
I do think, actually, while some students, for sure, perhaps have broken trust, you know, I think many have not. Many students reflect and say to themselves, ‘Wow, we got through this. The institution really kept us safe all year, and got us our courses and still is writing our references and still is keeping our financial aid.’ Those are promises kept.
I also think that Vassar students are activists for sure. I’m proud of that. They’re activists now, they were before the pandemic, and they will be after the pandemic. That’s part of growing up to have a meaningful career and meaningful life.
What do you think the legacy of the school’s handling of COVID-19 will be? How will it be remembered?
PB: Well, when this started, one of the very first things I did was go back and read the history of how Vassar got through the 1918 flu — they did the exact same thing. They had a bubble. They had people tested as much as they could. They did the quarantine, they did the isolation. So I look back at that historical time and think, ‘Wow, they were amazing to get through it.’ I don’t think anyone died at Vassar, and many, many people died in that 1918 flu.
So I think that we will be the same. People will look back at this and say, ‘Wow, they really, they got through that year.’ I don’t think it’s the type of situation where you say we did everything perfectly. I expect there will be a post mortem and people say, ‘Oh, you know, they could have done this, they could have done that.’ But I do think that people will say they worked as hard as they could, they sacrificde, they had values, and they stuck to their values.
At the end of the day, you know, people stayed healthy. No one got terribly, terribly sick. That was our goal. Plus, the educational mission continued. As a college, we were really able to do something very special to get through it.