With a full Learn from Anywhere school year during the COVID-19 pandemic almost complete, many in the Boston University community are cautiously optimistic about a return to normalcy in the Fall. BU is set to require a vaccine for all students in the Fall and millions of Americans continue to be vaccinated each day.
BU President Robert Brown spoke about his hopes and current expectations for the Fall in a Zoom interview Tuesday with The Daily Free Press.
He said some restrictions and testing may stay in place towards the beginning of the semester, but added the University is still planning and making decisions. Brown also addressed the Free Laundry campaign, the sexual assault protest as well as the University’s political messaging.
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.)
Are you personally nervous about the transition to in-person learning in the fall?
No, not terribly. I follow the science real carefully, and have been for the whole pandemic and we have a great group of experts that we’re working with that have been helping us throughout the whole year. And I believe that with the vaccine penetration we’re trying to achieve in our student body and our faculty, staff we’ll be fine. We’ll be in very good shape.
Masks will probably still be part of our indoor large gatherings in the Fall, I would bet, though we’re not 100% sure right now but I think that’s probably true, at least at the beginning of the Fall as people start getting used to what it means being back together, but I’m not overly nervous about it.
Looking back at the past year, do you think there are any things BU could have done differently to better handle the circumstances of the pandemic?
If you look at the enormous efforts so many people made inside the University starting over a year ago to get us ready for the Fall and to move us through the year, I’m loath to criticize anything we did.
I always think that the biggest challenge we have, and I was meeting with student government this morning, is always communication, is making sure our communications reach all of the segments of our population, and that includes parents and alumni and everybody else.
And there were times that our communications were not perfect, but we had I think a good process for trying to rectify it, because circumstances are changing so fast. Right now the biggest challenge in communications is staying up with the city and the state and the federal government on what the regulations are that we have to operate under, and plus the availability of vaccines which is changing dramatically, it’s changing very quickly.
Learn from Anywhere is being removed in the Fall, but are there any aspects of it that may stick around? Things like online tests, recorded lectures, any of those small changes that may stick around permanently going forward?
That’s a great question. University Provost Jean Morrison put together a group all the way back in November to start answering that question. I believe that there’s a lot of lessons learned about digital content, both synchronous the way we did Learn from Anywhere, and asynchronous learning that we’ll be able to utilize and actually make our programs better.
The wholesale LfA, the way we had to do it this year because of everyone being in different places, I don’t think is one of those elements. But I can imagine there will be classes in the future, five years from now, that are taught in an LfA mode to accommodate for example students that may be in a study abroad situation or in an internship to bring cohorts of students together that could not do things without that kind of LfA model.
The really amazing position we’re in right now is we have [on the] Charles River Campus 1,500 faculty and 30,000 students who did this. And you could not ever move the University to that scale of an experiment under any other condition than the crisis we had to do it under.
The University invested a lot of money into the LfA technology in the classrooms like microphones, cameras, things like that. Are there any plans to remove those, or will those still stay in place in case they might be needed?
We’re just starting to think that through for the Fall. There definitely will be rooms that will be LfA capable because there will be some remnants of LfA. And I also think we’ve learned what rooms are really good for LFA and what kind of technology you need and ones that aren’t so good.
I don’t know that we’ve made a decision yet about, in a wholesale manner, pulling it out. That’s something we’ll probably be talking about starting in June. Remember we’re teaching Summer Session 1 and 2 in LfA. So the technology is going to be there at least in those rooms that are being used for Summer session.
What happens if BU reverses course on in-person learning for whatever reason? Is that still a small possibility, and what is the plan if that were to occur?
I think there’s a very, very small possibility that something would create a situation like we saw last March. That is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I think there’s a very, very minuscule probability that would happen again.
But we know if we had to do that for whatever condition we could pivot back to an online mode or to an LfA mode which is both in-person and distant education at the same time. The way we’re thinking about the Fall is we have the experience, we know how to do it, we could do that if necessary. But that’s not how we’re planning and going at the Fall.
In terms of the mandatory vaccine requirement that’s in place for the Fall, a process for religious exemptions was mentioned in the announcement email. Is there any fear that students may lie to obtain this exemption simply because they’re against the vaccine, and are there any safeguards that will be in place to prevent that?
Each person is going to decide, as we all do, what is religious and what is not. And we’re not in a position to try to validate that or authorize it in any way.
What I’m hoping is that everyone will understand, and I think we’re doing a good job of communicating this, is that you get vaccinated for two reasons. One is for your own safety, your own health. And the second is for the health of the people around you. And I’m hoping and I have a lot of confidence that the kind of peer pressure that comes from students around you will minimize the kind of reaction you’re talking about. But I’m not foolish enough to believe there won’t be some.
Will further restrictions be in place for those students that obtain exemptions? Will they be required to do increased testing, wear masks, all those sorts of things?
We haven’t totally made those decisions yet, we just have made the decisions about how we’ll be testing in the Fall. The downside of differentiation between vaccinated and [un]vaccinated people, if you believe people are all telling the truth, the unvaccinated people are there because of either some deeply felt religious issue or a health reason. And differentiating against them is a form of bias in the system.
So if there’s a small number of them, which we think that’s likely to be, right now there are no plans of restricting them or having them wear masks or have any more testing than anyone else. And actually, the science would say, if it’s a small number of them, it’s not necessary. It doesn’t do you any good.
The way to think about it, and this is kind of a complicated but funny way, but let’s say it’s only a couple of percent of the population. They’re not interacting with each other, they’re all out mixing with vaccinated people. So their increased transmission of the disease is actually pretty minimal.
It’s not like the one or two percent of unvaccinated people all in one place. They’re just out there amid a sea of vaccinated people, and when you’re vaccinated, the probability of them giving you the disease is very small. The most probable thing is them giving the disease to another unvaccinated person. So that’s why we’re pushing so hard to have the vast majority of our population vaccinated. That’s why we went to the mandate for students, to get into that state where the majority of everybody is vaccinated.
Does BU know at this moment exactly what testing would look like? How many locations will be available, whether the green badge system will still be in place, that sort of thing?
What I would say is I think we’re getting there. We’re real close. We now know what the frequency of testing will be at the beginning of the year. And what we’re planning now, there will not be this protracted move-in where you have to be tested multiple times before you’re clean and good to go. You’ll come, you’ll have one test if you’re vaccinated, and then you’ll be in the community.
We’re looking at testing everyone in the community, faculty, staff and students once per week. That’s where we are right now. And we’re thinking about having the same testing badging system that we’ve had before. It’ll all be done through the student electronic medical record system and through the faculty, staff EMR, which is what produces the badges. And we’re looking to have compliance on testing, as we’ve had.
One of the things that’s really important to think about [is] why you test. There are really three reasons why you test. One is testing is the only way, this is a case I made last summer, that if you have an infectious disease that’s unvaccinated in your community, to identify the people who have the disease, and get them into isolation and quarantine their close contacts to keep the disease from spreading. And that’s what we had to do in the Fall, right, and it worked.
The second reason you test is once you’re vaccinated, there’s the worry that ‘Can I still get the disease?’ because the vaccines aren’t perfect and the second [worry] is how long does the vaccine work? Does it degrade over time? And finally is the question, is there a variant that the vaccine doesn’t immunize me against? And so by doing some testing, we’re checking all those things to make sure the vaccine is still working in the community. That’s the second reason to test, and you don’t have to test that frequently to solve that one.
And then the third reason to test, which is more sociological at this point, is I actually believe it makes our community feel safer. I believe that green badge and that email that comes back and says your test is clean, was a very important part of us staying together as a community all year. Starting with that I think is a little bit like having a foundation under our feet that we understand to watch how it goes in the early Fall.
So those are three reasons you test. And the first reason will not be that important because we won’t have very many cases. The other two reasons will be important, and we’ll see how it goes, how long we have to keep doing it.
Since COVID compliance will still be a thing in the Fall, will BU continue to allow students to report non-compliance in terms of things like large gatherings?
I’m sure we will. But remember that what we believe will happen is somewhere in August the state will end the emergency order and the city will end it in the end of August, and then there will not be restrictions on gatherings. We will probably have our own rules about mask-wearing and gatherings, but there will probably be no three-foot or six-foot or density restrictions. It’ll be what people are comfortable with.
I was just talking to the student government today about how clubs and events are going to happen. We’re talking about in the Fall, we’re gonna have hockey games and basketball games and people are going to go. But they’d probably be wearing masks, at least at the beginning.
Will BU open up Agganis Arena to events like concerts in the Fall?
Yes. I don’t know that we’ll have them in the Fall because if you talk to the people that do those events, the ones that have outside groups and things like this, it usually is about a nine-month lead time. But we’re starting it back up and so we’ll see how much we can get done, but definitely by the Spring, it’ll all be up and running. It’s just a matter of lead time when booking events and things.
In WTBU’s interview recently, you mentioned a team has been set up with Provost Morrison to address the concerns of students around sexual assault on campus. Are there any plans for this team to communicate with the wider student body, and if so what form will these communications take?
I’m really not in a position to talk about that. We have set up and I think it’s a great set of meetings and conversations that [Provost Morrison] is leading with the set of students that came out of that petition, and they’ll be meeting over the summer.
I think when we get to a point where there are proposed changes we’ll make, additions to things, we will obviously communicate that. I’m not sure and I just don’t know what their plans are for talking to the wider student body during the process, but it’s ongoing, and it’s been very constructive and will continue to go through the summer.
An issue many students have complained about is BU’s Title IX office being understaffed and unhelpful to students dealing with these issues of harassment and assault. Are there any plans at this moment to address these complaints or make any changes to the office?
Those are things that are on the table in this discussion. I think there are separable issues about staffing in the way we do communications and work with victims. And those are things these discussions are trying to tease apart and decide what are the right things we can do to move that forward. And part of it is communications, part of it is the length of time to do an investigation. They are in some ways different issues. But those are on the table in these conversations.
Another topic brought up in the WTBU interview was how Warren was being considered to be renovated next as it was the next one in the “cycle.” Why specifically is there a cycle in terms of renovations and why does it take so long between projects?
Well, the way to think about this is the University has about 15 to 18 million square feet of buildings. The way to think about it, every time we build or renovate a square foot, you could put a number on it, call it $500 a square foot to $1,000 a square foot. So if you had 18 million square feet, and you were renovating half a million square feet per year, it would take you 36 years to get through the whole renovation cycle. And if you’re renovating half a million square feet per year, you’d be spending somewhere between 250 and $500 million a year.
There it is I just did it for you, I did the math. So we have a discipline about how many square feet per year we can do, depending on how much money we can put aside for renovation and renewal. A great example is this year we put aside nothing. Because of COVID, we had to take all the renovation budget to make the year work. A normal year we spend, if you look at our books, somewhere about $200 to $250 million in a year. And so then you have to be disciplined, you have a cycle. Yes, people think Warren is bad. You’re too young to remember Myles Standish [Hall] before it was renovated, you should ask people how bad Myles was. Have you been in Myles now?
I have. It’s really nice from what I’ve seen now.
Yeah, no, that’s right. It was the next one in the renovation cycle, so when I say to people, unfortunately, when you take that long renovation cycle, there’s always something new and something very old. Warren is now on that extreme [but] it actually is not physically that old, it’s about 60 years old, Myles was built in 1948 or something. No, before that 1925. So it was almost 100 years before it had been totally renovated. So we acquired it in 1949 or so. There are always buildings like that. I was at a renovation meeting this morning, because we’re going to start to get back up to start doing renovation, and it’s a never-ending cycle when you have 15 million to 18 million square feet.
The leaders of the Free Laundry campaign have mentioned multiple times throughout that campaign that they want to have a meeting with either you or Dean Elmore, but so far they’ve only spoken to Dean Elmore briefly after the Student Leaders’ lunch. Are there any plans at this moment for any members of senior leadership to meet with them?
They have given me a petition, which I have responded to. They have my response, there’s no need for a meeting. Because I’m not going to do it.
The way to think about it is free is not the right price for anything, because all free does is subsidize people that don’t need it, when the biggest need is getting financial aid in the hands of people who need the financial aid. So that argument about free doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work for the institution. The preponderance of the money we spend in the fastest-growing part of our budget is financial aid on a need basis. And there are ways, through the Dean of Students Office, if you are food insecure or you can’t pay for your laundry to go to the Dean and ask for special money. We have special money set aside.
But free doesn’t do that, what free does is have someone else pay. Free for you means somebody else paid for you to do your laundry, and free would mean, for example, that we charge tuition for the laundry. That means people who aren’t living in our housing are paying for your laundry. The other thing we could do is build the price of laundry into the room and board, but then that means you’re subsidizing the person who does a lot more laundry than somebody else. That’s why things have individual costs associated with them. So I’ve written a long email back to the group, I’m sure if you contact them they’ll give it to you, talking about this.
Another issue that’s been polarizing among students, is the University sometimes takes political stances on some issues, with the Chauvin trial most recently, or it issues communications towards students about big issues in the media. Is there a fear that some students who disagree may feel alienated?
This is probably the hardest thing for a university president. It really is. Because a university is by its nature two things. It’s a group of people who believe they’re in a community living, working, studying, collaborating in that community, and they believe the community has some set of values. At the same time, the set of values are not the same for everybody.
Every time the University speaks, or I speak, I worry exactly about that, of muting people who disagree with me. It’s a very complicated fine line. In the Chauvin case, and I think we got it relatively right, maybe not perfectly, was not so much to say ‘We believe this x or y outcome was the right outcome,’ but to say justice should be served.
If you look at when the communication came out, it came out before the verdict, not after. It really called for us to stay together as a community no matter what the verdict was. The biggest ridicule I took, actually, was from students who said that I basically had an anti-violence spin to it and that was inappropriate [and that] I should not have said that. In these positions, you’re never gonna please everyone. It’s really difficult and it was like when Ben Shapiro came to campus. He was invited by a student group to campus. Would he have been the person I would have invited? No. But the student group has a right to have a visitor, a speaker, the speaker has a right to feel safe on campus, no matter what their political position is. I know that was very hurtful to some people who Ben Shapiro says some very hurtful things about. That’s the way he is. This is a really hard subject. It really is.
What do you want or what do you hope campus to be like in the Fall and then the next year and in the future going forward?
Oh, I just want it to be back. I’ve been so proud of our students, how they’ve conducted themselves over the nine months. I want them to be able to come back and act really like college students. And to have the events and get all of our event space back online for them. Go to the Thurman Center and see it full, walk by [the BUild Lab] and see it full. You know what I mean. I want that back, and I think we’re going to get it back, it’s going to be a little different but it’s going to be a lot better than it was this year.
But you know what I’m just amazed with, when you walk on campus right now, the city of Boston has lifted the mask requirement, but if you walk around campus everybody has their mask on. Which is really phenomenal. It shows that people understand, they got it, they figured it out, that it worked and people aren’t willing to give it up yet. That also tells you that in September, it’s going to be a journey, the whole summer and the fall is going to be a journey back to hopefully something that looks more like normal.
Are there any things you want to add on your side or any questions that I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to talk about?
One of the amazing things in the University is we’ve been doing a lot of work on the Strategic Plan for the next 10 years of the University and that’s been happening simultaneously. It’s amazing that the faculty and Jean Morrison and others have been able to do that. I think the plan when you look at it, it’s really amazing because it was a plan that came … before the pandemic, before George Floyd. Looking at it now as we’ve developed it out over the last year, it really is going to be transformative for the University.
The two pillars of that plan that are really important, one is around the diversity of our student body, staff and faculty, and the second is around inclusion and community. I would really love to see [The Daily Free Press] and others start talking about what kind of community do we want to have? What does the community look like? Going back to your question about when the University speaks for people, speaks, how do we think about that whole community? Whether we’re talking about Asian-American, and African-American, international students, students in [the College of Communication], students, you know. There are so many layers of community in the University, and how do we build that? Because that’s what the focus of the plan is going to be, to really double down on the residential campus idea, which we think is very special. I actually think the last year has taught us how special residential education is, that we took it for granted. Then they took it away. And now we understand it.