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In NYT op-ed, Paxson says colleges ‘must reopen in the fall’

Paxson stresses national importance of reopening physical campuses for fall semester, lays out potential necessary social distancing measures

University News Editor
Sunday, April 26, 2020

Updated 4:50 p.m. April 26, 2020

In an April 26 op-ed published in the New York Times, President Christina Paxson P’19 detailed the importance of reopening college campuses in the fall, as well as the potential detriment to higher education and the national economy if they remain closed.

Paxson is the first university president in the Ivy League to contribute an op-ed to the New York Times on the topic of reopening in the fall.

The op-ed follows Paxson’s announcement of contingency planning for on- and off-campus learning models for next semester and the creation of a task force to ensure safe practices for a return to campus.

Prior to the development of a vaccine, “campus life will be different,” Paxson acknowledged. She specifically cited the possibilities that large lectures may still take place online, athletic competitions could occur without live audiences, concerts could have “patrons spaced rows apart” and social activities could take a virtual form.

But failing to reopen colleges this fall would entail deep consequences — on a personal level for students, and financially for institutions, whose revenue depends almost entirely upon twice-yearly tuition payments. For the University, “remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue,” Paxson wrote. 

The University recently moved to a base budgeting system that is “less reliant on tuition and fees,” The Herald previously reported. In February 2019, Provost Richard Locke P’18 told The Herald that the University was “much more heavily dependent on tuition and fees for its budget than our peers.” In 2020, he told The Herald that tuition and fees serve as roughly half of the University’s operating budget.

Additionally, The Herald previously reported that the University has spent over $21 million on pandemic-related costs, including room-and-board reimbursements. Locke has noted that total losses could add up to up to $60 million, accounting for students returning to campus in the fall. If students can’t board at Brown, the number could be much higher. 

For those institutions already struggling financially, the ramifications will be even more severe. “It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close,” Paxson wrote, “it’s how many.” Paxson also stressed that higher education is a positive force in the country’s economy, contributing to upward mobility and providing stable employment to millions of Americans.

With these stakes in mind, she wrote that reopening colleges should be a “national priority.”

College life is not naturally conducive to social distancing, Paxson also noted. Lecture classes, athletic events and social gatherings require close contact that could pose a threat to transmission of the virus and rapid spread across campus. But if thoughtfully implemented, a “test, trace and separate” model of prevention can be upheld while maintaining some elements of what makes learning on campus unique. 

“Cautiously optimistic,” Paxson outlined key measures that would best prepare campuses to welcome students back, in all likelihood amidst an ongoing pandemic. In order to safely reopen, college administrators must strictly implement proactive testing, contact tracing and protocol for isolation should cases arise, Paxson wrote. 

Testing for all students, whether or not they are symptomatic, must be conducted at the start of the year and throughout, she wrote.

Paxson added that traditional methods of contact tracing, which largely rely on memory and retracing steps, are not adequate given the extent of interaction and close contact that is unique to college campuses. As such, technology-driven contact tracing will provide a more accurate map of person-to-person interaction. In a college setting, this may necessitate collaboration with state health departments to roll out versions of privately-created mobile applications that have already been put to use in other states. 

Because shared facilities in normal residential halls do not suffice for purposes of isolating exposed or ill students, colleges must employ other off-campus sites such as hotel rooms. These measures must be accompanied by student cooperation in meeting protocol for social distancing and quarantine, she emphasized. 

“We can’t simply send students home and shift to remote learning every time this happens,” she wrote, reiterating the importance of proactivity in managing spread of the disease on campus.

Though it will inevitably take new forms, student participation in campus life is vital and irreplaceable, she wrote: “The fierce intellectual debates that just aren’t the same on Zoom, the research opportunities in University laboratories and libraries and the personal interactions among students with different perspectives and life experiences.” 

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  1. As an alumna, I was deeply troubled by this op-ed. While I commend Paxon for her commitment to re-opening the university, and to community health, I don’t think the solution is contact tracing via mobile tracking.

    In a recent interview with Vice, Edward Snowden warned that, in the name of fighting a pandemic, we were also “building the architecture of oppression.” We have to think long term: do we want the government, or our university tracking where we go and who we’ve been in touch with to be something that happens indefinitely? As any student of history (or Star Wars) could attest, emergency powers are dangerous.

    Furthermore, the effectiveness of these technologies has yet to be proven.

    I hope that campus can safely re-open swiftly and safely as much as anyone. But a semester, or a year lost of tuition and education, may be a price worth paying if the alternative is an encroachment on our civil liberties.

    Annika Klein ’15

  2. Hey Christina,
    I know that you don’t care, but perhaps some students, professors and administrative employees do.
    So here’s the revolution.
    Christina, embrace the change.
    Brown’s opportunity is now to:
    1) Reduce confiscatory tuition and other charges
    2) Educate millions, rather than the 1600 per class who must move to Providence
    3) Ensure that students are learning something, and
    4) Change the admissions process from “asking someone to marry you after 15 minutes’ exposure’ to getting to know students over years.

    Are you ready to embrace this, Christina? I doubt it. You were a mediocre Economics professor at Princeton. And you’re an unimaginative President of Brown.

    May you mire in mediocrity, Christina. Here’s hoping that someone with more imagination takes your position.

    John Lonergan
    Brown ’72, Harvard ’76, McKinsey consultant, VC partner, educational change agent.

    • Current Student says:

      Dear John Lonergan,

      I have no specific affection or disaffection for President Paxson. Yet, your comment compelled me to respond.

      I am sure you are aware of how disrespectful and rude you sound in this comment. And, I am also sure that you feel entitled to speak to others in this way. However, I must take this moment to remind you that speaking so rudely to others, regardless of their stature, is unacceptable and truly reflects poorly on you.

      There is no amount of titles or degrees you can sign off under your name to warrant your disrespect.

      Finally, might I suggest that you could enhance your achievements as an educational change agent if you do not talk down to the people you are trying to influence to implement these changes. As a first-generation college student, I do not deny that changes are needed in higher education. However, those changes will never be made in this manner.

      A Current Student

      • Young alum says:

        Beautiful response from the current student. As a young alum (and fellow ex-McK, mind you), I agree completely. The world doesn’t need this kind of rhetoric, John. I can’t know what Brown in 1972 would make of this post, but I’m confident saying that Brown in 2020 has no tolerance for it.

    • Some Decorum, Please says:

      Dear Mr. Lonergan,

      I think you mean, “Dr. Paxon.”

      There, I fixed your post for you.

  3. I think this is a thoughtful plan outline, but who knows what 4 or 5 months will bring, hopefully more tests, PPE, and better times. I’d be more worried about the professors and older campus staff than about the students. They are significantly more at risk, so I think the plan should also discuss how to deal with that. I’d be frighted if I were an older professor because there are quite a few irresponsible and unreliable undergrads on every campus.

  4. Christina Paxson makes clear that for Brown, money is valued over lives. What will separate Brown from Liberty University? To add to GTs concerns for the professors and staff, the population of Providence will also be put at higher risk. If Disney plans to close its parks through 2020, how can Brown Ignore the health risks?

  5. Leave Medicine To Real Doctors says:

    Ms Paxson needs someone to remind her that Columbia awarded her PhD and NOT an MD.
    She speaks as if she is a medical expert.

  6. Are students, most of whom only have to fear a cold or a few days of a fever, responsible enough to attend only virtual parties and wear masks at all times, for the sake of staff and faculty? Or will some ditch the tracking device to attend off campus parties and drink, of course without masks? Will they go get tested and move to a hotel the day before an exam because they have a mild sore throat, when their A is at risk? Will they agree to stay on campus for Thanksgiving? How many weeks in expectation will students spend in hotels, missing classes, due to illness or contact with a case? How many weeks of classes will faculty miss due to isolation or hospital stays? 2, 4, 6, more? How many faculty will die or lose their jobs due to covid-induced strokes? What about high risk students, who will have to choose to stay at home and be disadvantaged relative to their peers, or risk their own health? Won’t it all depend on spread of disease in the fall, combined with potential superspreader events in dormitory housing? Where are the models? Paxson assumes perfect testing and tracing in a very imperfect setting.
    Very irresponsible and thoughtless piece only concerned with short-term financial considerations rather than the bigger picture. Certainly Brown is not one of those institutions that would go out of business by teaching online for a bit longer.

  7. Ron Bashford says:

    The abundance of caution displayed when Paxson and her peers closed their schools a month ago seems to have evaporated. Paxson’s editorial is troubling because of what she omits: an explanation of the ethics of justifying additional deaths for the sake of protecting her and her institution’s power and prestige, which have always depended on their financial advantages. Paxson also fails to discuss scientific data. Nor does she offer any ideas to help colleges in more precarious financial circumstances, despite using them as a rhetorical prop to bolster her argument. In seeking to sway public opinion away from scientific and ethical concerns toward economic ones — and however much she claims Brown can master physical distancing and tracing — her performance here has more in common with the actions of the governor of Georgia and the President, than it does with a model of a leader using her and her institution’s privilege for the most public good. After all, in times like these, what’s a multi-billion dollar endowment really for?

  8. Since Rhode Island leads the nation in testing per capita the model of testing every student regularly would probably work well at Brown. The question is how can you segregate the students who test positive. Maybe it makes sense to have fewer students so you could have swing capacity for those who catch the virus. Good to see careful planning from Brown’s leadership.

    • Eugene Icks says:

      Of course, those students who die from the virus they contract on campus can be safely segregated in Providence cemeteries. Maybe that will alleviate the strain on university resources?

  9. Francis Han says:

    After the President Paxson’s article (apparently focusing more on the national-level challenge among US universities instead of Brown’s own) was published, the New York Times today had another story about the “test, trace and separate” idea being implemented in Rhode Island.

    The NYTimes article titled as “Rhode Island Pushes Aggressive Testing, a Move That Could Ease Reopening” (link at describes specifically what is being done in Rhode Island to make a progress in fighting against the COVID-19. And it sounds encouraging amid all the doom and gloom we hear in this difficult time.

    As a parent of a Brown student (who dearly misses the in-person interactions on campus), I would like to know more about how the Brown University leadership is currently collaborating with the local officials to implement the promising idea in order to open the campus this fall. Just floating the idea in the media wouldn’t help much. What really matters is how to turn the idea into meaningful actions fast and precisely.

    And I hope the Brown Daily Herald reports on the working relationship between Brown and the RI government soon.

    Concerned parent

  10. Brown’s president sounded a lot like our president: Campus must reopen (regardless of what the situation will look like at the time, no matter how many community lives are lost).

  11. Forever Brown says:

    In March, all president Paxon did by forcing students to vacate the campus was send a healthy young resilient student population home to their parents and grandparents. Basically, she and her family social distanced the whole university.
    I hope she is healthy.
    It’s pretty hard Not to imagine that what she had in mind was simply to protect the administration and the faculty and herself, at the expense of the families of the brown students, and in fact, the local economy. And now she stands on her soapbox and opines from the New York Times at how critical it is to get all those tuition paying students back in the fall, Especially so they can have all those “fierce intellectual debate’s” they can only be done on the Brown campus. Anyone with a shred of honesty knows that Brown is a metaphor for leftist groupthink… And the only thing fierce about campus debate is how it is fiercely one-sided.
    It is amazing the viruses that have been exposed by this pandemic.

  12. Eugene Icks says:

    The crucial question omitted by Paxson’s op-ed: what is the number of deaths, that will be caused by re-opening the campus, does she consider acceptable? Such deaths will definitely occur: either directly among students, staff, or faculty who get infected on campus, or indirectly, those infected by students, staff, and faculty who contract the virus on campus. What number of dead people is worth in-person seminars? 1,000? 100? 50?

    • Observer says:

      Rates of infection can be greatly reduced by contact tracing and quarantining the sick. This is the same method that worked in New Zealand and promoted by the CDC. RI leads the way in testing. It can work here.

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