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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

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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