When Boston University students were sent home in March, many felt the weight of uncertainty about remote learning, finances and their own health as the coronavirus pandemic spread. Now, as BU plans for a Fall reopening, more questions surround the concept of a “new normal.” At the same time, renewed attention to police brutality and racial injustice in America have ignited a movement around the globe.
In an interview with The Daily Free Press Thursday, BU President Robert Brown discussed building a sense of community on a physically distanced campus; minimizing health risks for BU students, faculty and staff; and communicating to the student body about unprecedented decisions — as well as other issues that have lingered in students’ minds in recent weeks.
Read the transcript of our interview with President Brown below. Excerpts have been edited for clarity. (Skimming for quick answers to your major questions? Find the highlights bolded in red.)
How will the ‘family household’ system work?
The concept of it is to try to take on basically a geographical area, so a set of rooms, and try to have those students spend more time together geographically and also to divide up the bathroom facilities in a way that there’s more focus and less random usage of bathrooms.
The number of visitors in rooms will be small. We want students to have a space and a place where they feel less constrained by the disease, but you can’t have a lot of different people randomly coming through it, because you wouldn’t feel comfortable being without PPE under those conditions. If the door behind you opened up in a minute and someone you’ve never seen walked in, that would not feel good, would it?
The household system is really meant to duplicate kind of a family unit. I think about a residence as a neighborhood. What we need to do now is break that down one more level to people you feel comfortable with, because of the face covering business, and because of the hand washing and sanitation. You’re not going to want people walking through your room, touching your doorknobs and being inside and all that unless you know them at some level. So that’s really what the system’s designed to do.
You mentioned in a previous higher education panel that BU may use hotels to house students. How will this work?
One of the things that’s happening is that we are de-densifying our housing. There will be some rooms where we used to have triples and quads that we won’t have anymore in doing this. And we’re setting aside a fair amount of housing for what’s called ‘quarantine and isolation.’
On top of that, we have a lot of students who are going to be on campus who can’t go other places because the closing of Study Abroad and things like this. So we’re expecting, although we don’t know exactly, that we could have more students than we normally do and less beds.
So we are taking other housing, which [are] just about finalized, to move well students [into] to form households. We will not use other beds someplace else for students that are being isolated. We’ll do that on campus.
That’s why we’ll have additional housing that I can’t announce quite yet because we’re just about there. We have to get contracts signed. But there will not be a proximity problem: places we’re talking to are all very close.
Students may have chosen their housing and roommates prior to the LfA announcement. For those who chose roommates who are now staying home, will there be an option to change their housing or pick another roommate they’d like to live with?
The answer is yes, but I’m not sure how it’s going to work because the real challenge we have right now is we don’t know who’s here and who’s coming back.
And that will all start happening in the next several weeks. We’ll sort out which students are deciding to take a semester off, which students are going to learn from home, use the remote option. What we’ve tried to do is give the students as many options as they can. But the challenge with that right now is we don’t know.
And we’ve got to sort this all out in July, because move-in will be much more protracted than normal. We will be moving in most of our residential students starting probably mid-August and all through August because we can’t reproduce the kind of housing move-in weekend phenomenon. We can’t have that kind of density on campus. So we’ve got to sort all this out by early August so people know where they’re going to go.
And then, I’m sure there’s going to be a whole process, as there always are, for asking for changes. One of the questions is going to be is that as individuals pull out of the system in different places, how does that process go to backfill?
The group of people standing in the wings right now are all the Study Abroad students, because they didn’t enter the housing system lottery. They’re sitting there with no housing allocated to them at this point. They may end up being the preponderance of the people in one of the hotels. I’m not sure, but that could easily be. It’s really complicated.
Will students be responsible for any cost or fee if they must relocate to quarantine housing? Maybe students who are living in apartments and didn’t have dining plans, but they’ll need food delivered to them by Dining Services?
I haven’t heard any of that. We did all that in the Spring. We put in place the isolation-quarantine and I don’t think we charged students anything once they went into quarantine. And we helped them move.
Will students who arrive on campus late or depart early be offered prorated room and board?
That’s a good question. And we haven’t talked about that. If we decide to have the campus shut down early, of course we would do some prorating.
Right now, and we’re not thinking about having an additional charge, we will be having people come to campus early. You could have your move-in date be Aug. 20. We will have to have all our dining halls open and everything then. There’s been no discussion of a charge for that.
Will students who are quarantining or isolating ever be on the same floor as healthy students?
No. We have set aside buildings, either buildings or apartments.
Now that we will have a lot of testing, which is really important, that gives us the ability to test people who we think might have the virus. You don’t necessarily have to have them sit in quarantine for 14 days.
In the Spring, if you thought you had symptoms of the virus, you got quarantined for 14 days. Now what will happen, if you attest that you have a cough or a fever, is we’ll give you the COVID-19 tests, which you’ll be taking at some frequency. And then we will also give you a flu test and maybe even a strep throat test.
We want to judiciously use quarantine within the fact that we have the testing available. In a normal year, if someone developed the flu, we didn’t take that person and put them in quarantine. We told their roommate to just get a flu shot. That’s the kind of environment we want, that we’re going to have to use the testing to do that.
Will BU’s labs have enough COVID-19 testing capability to complete all the testing on their own?
Where we are now is at a capability of somewhere between [5,000] and 6,000 tests a day. We believe that running seven days a week is going to be ample testing. We think it’s really important. That’s why we’re doing it.
How is Student Health Services preparing for students’ return to campus?
The biggest change there is a big increase in staff. Being prepared to do a lot more flu testing, flu vaccination, strep throat and other things.
Occupational Health and Student Health are going to be responsible for the contact-tracing part of this, which is really important because that is the way you notify if someone gets COVID-19. Then you find those people who were close to them and quarantine them and test them, to keep the spread of the disease down.
One of the things about the household system, if it works, is that if a person gets sick, the person we’ll pay a lot of attention to is their roommate. But the next layer is the household. Part of that system is being able to really quickly say, ‘Okay, I know who the roommate is, I know who the household is. Now let’s talk when were they last tested.’
We’ll know when everybody’s tested, and we’ll be able to, if you imagine the app, if everything works as envisioned, we’d be able to send the whole household an app message to tell them to go get tested. That would be the hope.
Who will be expected to quarantine when they arrive on campus?
When they arrive on campus is still up in the air because of what’s going on nationally and internationally. Obviously international students, if they can get into the country, there’s already quarantine rules. One of the things that’s very complicated in the United States is these interstate quarantine rules. This is a moving target. We actually don’t know yet. But we have already looked at the breakdown of all of our student populations so that we would be able to figure it out.
How will BU enforce physical distancing measures?
We’ve got to create a student community that realizes that wearing face coverings, being attentive to social distancing are measures that are not just keeping them safe, they’re keeping everyone safe.
This can’t be a police action, it’s got to be a community that says, ‘Look, this is a reasonable set of guidelines that are set up. I’m going to do my best to obey those guides.’ You have to use reason here, not just to keep you safe, but to keep them safe.
We’ve got to create a community that, for about 100 days, sorts that out and does it. And that’s, actually, in some ways the cost of coming, the cost of being in this ‘new normal.’
Now, here will be hiccups. People will do not-so-much smart things at different times, and we’ll have to deal with that. But we don’t envision a police state created around this. I think the one element that people are going to see, with the faculty especially fixated on, is face coverings.
All of the literature and all the science around it is the biggest impact on this disease is face-covering and hand-washing. You do those two things and you knock down the probability of getting the disease substantially.
I think this is really going to be a massive community effort and the people in MarCom and the AdLab are involved about how we put up the right kind of marketing campaign for everybody to own this.
How will BU ensure students are following bathroom and laundry schedules?
Probably by other students complaining when they’re not. But having a bathroom schedule only works to some extent. We don’t have total control. You can do it by trying to set up a shower schedule that makes sense for everyone in the household, so that there’s not conflicts. You try to do the same thing with the laundries. I’d again imagine that there’ll be complaints if people are not doing it and we’ll have to go in and talk to people. But we’ll see.
Are you at all concerned about students feeling socially isolated?
Oh, very much. There are some universities that are going to single-occupancy and I think that that has two great challenges with it.
One is the social isolation, is that if you’re in this world where you’re trying to do social distancing, and you’re not having as much human interaction as you’re used to, I think that’s really isolating. And having a roommate is a good thing in that case.
The other is that if going to single-occupancy, a lot of our students would then go out and get apartments off-campus with higher density than they have on-campus, which is not good.
What’s BU going to do to prevent this social isolation?
One of the things that I hope that will come true is the app we’re talking about, which is this health app. One of the things that the health app will do is have what I call an attestation piece, that if you’re up to date on telling people your symptoms and up to date on your testing, there should be a part of the app that basically glows green. So you can imagine having a function on campus and every student’s welcome, as long as their app’s glowing green.
And that’s kind of a very interesting concept. In some ways it extends the idea of the household. You’re going into an area, still social distancing, while you’re still doing face covering. But let everybody in there that has bought into a set of community health protocols and, just because of that, they’re up to date.
We’re trying to get this done across the other universities in the area because we know that some of those events people go to will not just be us. And I think, well, I’m optimistic, I’m always optimistic, that this can work and give people an environment where they feel comfortable going to certain things. We’ve got to create that kind of comfort zone for events to keep you from being isolated.
Will faculty or staff members receive hazard pay?
How will BU deal with privacy concerns when recording lectures and discussions?
We had some of those issues in the Spring and we’re still dealing with that with respect to Zoom and the technology. There are always some lectures and some courses where there are topics to discuss that are more controversial and the faculty member is more sensitive to it. And we’re still working through that.
Will there be more leniency in grading because of the remote learning challenges?
At this time, we’re not planning to because we’re not thinking about the Fall as something that’s unpredictable. The students are going to have the options. The faculty is going to lay out what the expectations are within the system we’re using. We don’t feel we need to give the student the flexibility, the way we did in the Spring.
That’s not saying it couldn’t happen, that there couldn’t be a huge hotspot develop, and we would have to change what we’re doing. We have plans for that, but that’s not the way we’re starting the year.
Some universities have announced plans to switch to remote learning after Thanksgiving. Has BU considered any changes to its calendar?
We have a calendar committee working on this. We haven’t made an announcement. There are pros and cons to it.
Going home at Thanksgiving and not coming back has that feel of what happened in March because you’ve got to get home and get settled, and on Monday, you’re taking classes remotely. And then 10 days later you’re doing exams, and you’re going to do them all remote. All those things that happen, semester projects people have, all the team-based learning that’s going on and you’re working on with other people, all of that has this funny interruption that occurs when you go remote. Now, what people keep saying to me is, ‘Oh, we’ve done it, we know how to do it,’ but it’s still not optimal.
Now, the good news about it is it takes the tension for you out of ‘am I going to go home at Thanksgiving?’ because I really wouldn’t want you to go home at Thanksgiving and then come back because you could bring in the disease back with you. The flip side of that is since Thanksgiving is such an important American holiday, that lets you have Thanksgiving with your family and not come back. But, I’ll flip it again: if I’m an international student, I don’t care about any of that. I’ve been kicked out of my dorm before the end of the semester, and I’ve got to go all the way to Dubai, Hong Kong, wherever, and I’ve got to get situated, and now I’m going to do remote learning 12 hours out of phase again. It’s very disruptive to them.
So this is one of these decisions that’s up and down, that there’s not a right answer, but we’ll get there. We’re going to make a decision probably next week on this.
How is BU managing and mitigating faculty concerns for in-person teaching?
We’re in the middle of that process now. We’re following the CDC guidelines. And we’ve asked all those faculty who would rather not teach in person. There’s a survey that actually closes tomorrow for them on Friday. It’s been open for over a week.
We’ll probably have a number of faculty who will only teach remotely because they have medical reasons or age reasons to do that, and then there are other people that have other concerns. So we’ll work through those one by one.
The biggest single concern is the students. This is a complicated thing. The faculty are not concerned about going to the grocery store or going to the restaurant. They’re concerned whether the student body is going to follow the protocols and behaviors that’s going to make the classroom a safe environment for them. When I say these students form a kind of a compact where they say ‘we’re going to do these things,’ what they’re really doing is helping the faculty and staff stay safe because they’re more age-compromised. And thus, they’re getting the faculty into the classroom, which then makes their education better. These things are connected.
Now that we’ve announced all the protocols and we’ve said to the students we’re going to try to make them all mandatory, that then allows us to have the faculty discussion which is going on now. Another week or two, we’ll kind of have this sorted out.
Based on those faculty discussions that you’re having, could the requirements that are in place right now for a faculty member to work from home become more lenient?
Well, I can’t say at this point. One of the things we’re committed to is having the in-person residential experience. So there’s got to be a limit to the number of faculty teaching online. Because at some point, you can’t make it work. But I’m still optimistic that we’ll be able to find a way to mitigate the situation for the ones who really have concerns and offer a quality education at the same time.
For remote learning students, will the same resources be available as in-person, such as the Writing Center, the Center for Career Development and other similar programs?
The programs in those centers, yes. We’ll do a better job even than we did in the Spring because we now know how to do this for remote learners. It’s going to be hard for a student to experience what it’s like to sit in the Thurman Center and stuff, remotely. But the Thurman Center will run programs that will be offered both remotely and in person.
Is there a certain threshold or severity that would cause the Fall semester to be fully switched to remote learning?
We haven’t defined it yet quantitatively, but obviously the city and state have a role in that. We’ll have pretty clear guidance from the city and state, and then we have our own internal metrics that we’ll be using. We’re creating a dashboard, part of which will be public so people see what’s going on with respect to the University.
Will there be any restrictions on students leaving campus?
There’ll be guidance. Leaving campus, there’s no fence around it, so people are going to do what people do. We hope that people will, as I always say to them, use good judgment. But there won’t be restrictions.
There is probably going to be a travel policy for using the BU funds. There will be some programs that we normally have where students might go someplace that we now won’t do, because we think putting people on airplanes and bringing them back will generate all those complications about the quarantining. I’m not going to say a lot about that because we haven’t announced Athletics yet and Athletics is right in the mix.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been changes to federal Title IX policies. How will BU adapt its sexual assault policies to match those?
In the middle of everything else, we’re working on that. That goes into effect the middle of August, and we have no choice. It’s a law from the Department of Education.
It really is troubling because what the law does is limit Title IX to on-campus assaults and actions. That’s going to make it very complicated with the LfA students, because they will not fall under Title IX the way it’s written today, which is very wrongheaded. I think it was the wrong thing for the Department of Education to do, and everybody told them so, but they did it anyway. But we’re in the process of changing our whole Title IX process to abide by the new regulations.
More students have been sharing their sexual assault stories on platforms like Instagram with the account @campus.survivors. Has the University taken notice of these and how will it respond? Will there be more awareness and work toward decreasing sexual assault in the BU community?
I wasn’t aware of @campus.survivors until I saw your note. I think over the last few years, we’ve done a lot, and I will make sure this gets into the system, to create awareness and to create a caring community. I think all of the work we’ve done on the mandatory training, that’s all in place and that will stay. What is complicated is what is off-campus now, we’re not going to have any control over going forward.
Many students and families have had financial challenges because of COVID-19. Will more money need to be allocated toward financial aid?
I wish we just had a recession and not a disease. This year’s financial aid budget grew by over 10 percent. There’s over $30 million more allocated this year on undergraduate financial aid. And we are set up within the Financial Aid Office to handle need-based appeals.
Because international students need an F-1 visa to study in the U.S., will they need to be at the University for the start or the Fall semester? And if they do not get a visa for Fall, will it be possible to get one for the Spring?
The visa situation isn’t us, that’s the federal government. What LfA does is give them the ability to start their semester remotely and pivot if they can get a visa or come in the Spring if they can get a visa and not lose the semester. We’re in conversations with our international students, making sure they understand they have these options. We have no control of the visa situation, and this is really a Department of State issue about them starting to process the F-1 visas idea.
There’s, luckily, yet no executive order that limits them. It’s just they’re just not doing it. And part of that is this issue of people moving from one country to the other with COVID-19. And part of it is they’re just being slow.
My hope is they will start up the F-1 visa system sometime in the next month or so and that it won’t be a delay all the way to the Spring, but it could be. The more complicated answer is, how do you view it if you’re a rising freshman?
With all the added costs involved in preventing coronavirus spread on campus and the possible lost room and board revenue from students staying home, how is BU managing its budget?
We have done a lot of expense reduction. All the first things we did were not taking out functions and people. They were things like not making retirement plan contributions, not giving people raises, taking the executive team, including myself and the Provost, we all took salary cuts. That got us part of the way there.
We will make a budget adjustment, adjusting the fiscal year budget down to get into the fiscal year with expenses that make sense with what we think our revenues will be. But one of the things that is very important is that we don’t know, because it really depends on what our students do. And we won’t really know that until probably early- to mid-August, how many students are going to come back, how many are going to sit it out. One of the things we’ve held absolutely constant is student financial aid. We may increase that by a very substantial amount.
Are layoffs possible with some financial concerns?
Yeah. Another concept is furloughs. The plan is to hire them back. Although they’re not being paid by us, they continue to get the benefits. So it’s really important because it means that your health care benefits, dental benefits, all those things are still being paid for as a furloughed employee.
Does the University currently require, and will it require in the future racial competency training for staff?
One of the things that we’re trying to figure out is that when you try to form a community that understands what racism is and what marginalization and implicit bias looks like and when you make a microaggressive comment, how do you form a community that has an awareness and make it function as well as possible?
And one of the questions is, is mandating something right, or do you kind of push the community to want to do it?
That’s a discussion which I think we, in the moment where we are, the pendulum may have swung. The community was saying, ‘This is important enough that we should all do it.’ But maybe in society we’ve hit a point with racism that people say, ‘Okay, I want to be in a community that really tries not to do this and really tries to be inclusive and equitable to everybody.’ Mandating it has a different picture to it. There’s a lot of discussion that it could someday be mandated, but not right now.
Right now, the push is can you use the momentum of the moment to do it. We have modules already that are created within the EverFi system, which is the same system we use to do the sexual assault training. They’re there, and they’re for staff and faculty, not been rolled out for students, but we have it. One thing we might do is put this all out and publicize it, and see what happens, [see] who would just do it by themselves because they want to.
BU’s Dining Services provider, Aramark, has been criticized for benefiting from the prison industrial complex. Will BU cut ties with them?
I’m not fond of the fact that they do that, but I also worry with the concept that any vendor that does something someone doesn’t like that you have to get rid of the vendor, which is somewhat like some of the endowment conversations. Those kinds of conversations are ones we continually have and monitor. But right now there is not a plan to terminate Aramark because of that.
Do you have a plan for divesting from the fossil fuel industry?
We’re halfway there. Well, not halfway. We did tar, sands and coal, and we made the agreement when we put in place our Climate Action Plan, the Trustees made the decision that they weren’t ready to do it at that point and they would revisit it in five years. Actually next Spring will be the five-year date.
The Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, which is the student, faculty, staff committee that deals with these issues, started the process in April to set up the structure for the Trustees to have that discussion. The world’s at a different place than it was five years ago, and I don’t know what the Trustees will decide to do or what the recommendation will be from the committee, but I think it’ll be a very informed and interesting discussion.
Is BU financially able to match the UMOJA and Student Government fundraiser for social justice?
You know, it’s not fair to ask the question ‘are we financially able.’ We have a $2 billion endowment, so the answer is yes. The question is, is that what we should do with tuition dollars? I look at the commitments we have to diversity, equity and inclusion through undergraduate financial aid, through the Howard Thurman Center, through supporting UMOJA and other activities as the essential things we do.
It’s very hard for us as an institution to become a fund of funding, that we take dollars from you and from everyone and fund other people’s causes no matter how noble they are. I committed, personally, to the fund because I think what they did was phenomenal and I told them so. A number of other faculty and leaders contributed. But that’s different. That’s my money, not the University’s. I said yesterday we were not going to do it, and I’ve said that before, but I’m sure people will keep asking.
What’s your message to students who might not see the point in returning to campus because of all the changes that have been made to campus life?
My message to them would be: we have a great residential community of students, faculty and staff. It’s going to be different. It’ll be a new normal. It’ll still physically be the same campus, the same faculty, city and the same community. I believe it will be a superior learning environment and living environment to what you would get if you’re sitting in your basement or your room doing this.
We want them, if they come back, to be members of the community dedicated to each other’s community safety and health. I believe that everything we’re putting in place will be best in class. From the university perspective, we have done or are planning to do all the things that one would do to create that as-safe-as-possible environment, but each person is still going to have to make a decision.
When we asked the faculty what one of the most important things they thought was a factor, it’s basically how you feel the disease is progressing, how many cases are there in Massachusetts, how do you feel when you walk around. Right now in Massachusetts we’re having a couple hundred cases a day in a population of 5 million people. That’s really good. And if we continue that low all the way to getting a vaccine, I think you’re going to find people develop a kind of a mindset of ‘Well, if I do these things in that kind of environment, I feel comfortable.’
A lot of the criticisms that have come from the BU community have been regarding communication with the University. If students or faculty have concerns about the University’s policies or decisions, what do you feel is the best way for them to bring these to your attention?
They always write me. We’re probably processing 100 a day, different kinds of questions and answers. One of the things about communication that’s so complicated is that a lot of the things we don’t have the answers to. Now as things develop, we’re rolling out more pieces, but a lot of these pieces have taken an enormous amount of work by many people to get started out.
Everyone, and I know this goes all the way back to me, everyone wants to know the answer to every question, but we don’t have the answers to every question. This is going on at every university across the country. Some universities are going to say, ‘Oh we’ll just go online.’ That’s actually the easiest thing to do. What we’re trying to do is the harder thing.