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Paxson's NYT op-ed on fall reopening met with mixed reactions from Brown community

Some students, faculty applaud Paxon’s commitment to reopening campus next semester, others believe it may not be feasible or safe

President Christina Paxson P’19’s April 26 New York Times op-ed, titled “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It,” has received mixed reactions from University students and faculty.

In an interview with The Herald, Paxson explained that the op-ed was intended to “raise awareness about the problems that will emerge in higher education if colleges and universities can’t reopen” as well as “to help people understand what we would need to do in order to reopen safely.” 

Paxson was the first Ivy League president to contribute an op-ed to the New York Times regarding opening campuses in the fall, The Herald previously reported

For some University community members, the op-ed was reassuring. 

“My first reaction was one of relief that the administration was going to do as much as possible to keep Brown open in the fall, since I know other schools have already said they’re remaining virtual,” said Zack Schapire ’21.

“I was excited,” Mario Camacho ’23 said. “I’m glad (Paxson) wrote this op-ed … the entire time before it was very ambiguous. Knowing that (Paxson) has this opinion where she wants us to go back to school gave me a sense of clarity.”

Ross Cheit, professor of political science and professor of international and public affairs, was “surprised” when he first read the op-ed, as he was “getting used to the idea that it just didn’t seem very likely we would come back in person.” But he agreed with “the idea that universities should try and figure out whether there are ways we can do this” and felt that Paxson was not saying that universities have to reopen, but rather “we have to do it if we can, and we have to figure out how to do it safely.”

In the op-ed, Paxson, who is also an economist, stressed the daunting financial ramifications for many universities of failing to reopen in the fall. While Paxson’s message that reopening college campuses in the fall should be a “national priority” inspired some hope for a fall semester on College Hill others perceived the op-ed to focus too much on finances — and not enough on students’ wellbeing.

Paxson’s op-ed “is not about schools need(ing) to reopen because students find a safe haven at school or that students are not ... able to get everything out of the experience through remote learning. … It was not really about that at all,” said Shivani Nishar '20, a main organizer of the Universal Pass at Brown campaign and UCS Chair of Student Wellness. “All she really talks about in it is the financial repercussions of being closed … it’s all about the economic impact for the institution and not even the financial distress that students are experiencing.” 

Sharon Zeldin ’20 echoed Nishar’s sentiment and agreed that the op-ed was too financially focused.

“The general impression (was), ‘We have to reopen for financial reasons,’” she said. “To have the economic aspects in mind while people are dying and people are mourning, it didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth.” 

“It just sounds to me a lot of ‘How can we save our money and how can we make sure we can get our money back,’ which to me is not the important (thing) right now when you know that Brown has a 4 billion (dollar) endowment,” said Mathilde Barland ’21.

Paxson told The Herald that the University “would never prioritize finances over the health and wellbeing of students, faculty and staff.” 

“Brown is fortunate that we are relatively strong financially to many other colleges and universities, so the need to reopen is not a life or death decision for us financially,” Paxson added.  

Cheit did not feel that the op-ed was insensitive to faculty and staff, but could understand why some might feel that this short piece did not properly examine all the possible implications of reopening. As the former chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, Cheit said that Paxson “has certainly always exhibited real concern about faculty and staff.”

He pointed to the creation of the Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force, which was assembled to advise Paxson about the conditions that will affect reopening in the fall, as one way Paxson has shown concern for the health and safety of the University community. 

The task force “is going to be very public health oriented in how it views things. I think the goal is to be protective,” he said. “They care a lot about student health.”

Other students felt the op-ed showed Paxson was prepared to contain the pandemic and put forth an adequate plan of action to keep students healthy. “I’m happy with the suggestions she made with testing every student that comes and testing every few weeks, or just throughout the semester. The fact that she wants to do that … I feel a lot more safe if we were to go back during the fall,” Camacho said.

Regarding the use of Brown’s endowment, Paxson told The Herald that pulling money out of the endowment is not as simple as it may seem. “The funds that are in the endowment were given by donors for very specific purposes in mind and in the understanding that the University would steward the money so that it’s there in perpetuity,” she said.

In addition to citing financial worries, Paxson’s op-ed also highlighted the need to keep the University community safe and healthy.  

Paxson’s suggestions to contain the spread of the virus “seemed realistic for Brown in particular,” Schapire said. Suggestions in the op-ed included continuing to have large lectures take place online, holding athletic competitions without audiences, spacing out patrons in concert venues and replacing in-person social events with virtual substitutes. 

But Zeldin emphasized that it will be difficult to adapt campus life to these recommendations, because of “how crowded it is on campus, how crowded classrooms are, communal living, shared bathrooms — all of these things aren’t conducive to social isolation,” she said.

“The public health interventions (Paxson) mentioned are good … but we’re not talking about them in a vacuum, we’re talking about them on a college campus,” Nishar said. 

“Given the nature of this particular virus, I think it is really, really hard to contain an outbreak,” said Professor Richard Bungiro PhD’99, senior lecturer in molecular microbiology and immunology. “Obviously (undergrads) are young and largely healthy, but there are other people on campus who are older ... (such as) a lot of faculty and a lot of staff. And I worry about them,” Bungiro added. “I really want to come back. But I don’t want that to happen at the expense of people getting sick.” 

Nishar added that the public health measures that the op-ed discussed, such as widespread testing, will cost the University significantly. She reasoned that eventually, these measures will result in an increase in tuition that will put students under financial distress. 

But Paxson told The Herald that the public health measures “are just costs that the University has to bear.” She assumes the University would run a deficit next year, and “it would be something that we could cover through borrowing or through other needs, but we’re sorting that out right now.”

Some members of the University community also felt frustrated by the op-ed’s relatively brief mention of the challenges faced by low income students with remote learning in light of the administration’s decision not to implement a Universal Pass or mandatory S/NC grading policy.

“It just feels very hypocritical for (Paxson) to publicly seem to care about the most vulnerable students and then privately do opposite things that aren’t actually supporting these demographics,” Nishar said.

“I’m a low-income student … and I know for a fact that Brown didn’t do much to help,” Barland said, citing the decision against UPass. 

Camacho appreciated that Paxson recognized the barriers the pandemic has for the economically disadvantaged student. “Remote learning affects low-income a lot more, and being low-income I see that she cares about us,” Camacho said. “I’m just glad she acknowledged the fact that low-income students are affected the most.” 

Paxson said that the University has been “working very hard to support our students in the way that we always do, which is very individualized one-on-one support, rather than sweeping policies that affect all students.” 

A decision has not yet been made on whether Brown or other institutions of higher learning will return to campus in the fall, but the discussion is sure to continue.


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