President Brown on BU’s Lessons Learned from the Fall, Hopes for Spring
“We are staying with what got us here and not changing substantially,” BU’s leader says
In a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation over Zoom on a recent morning, Robert A. Brown, in the midst of his 16th, and by far most challenging, year as Boston University president, talks about what he learned from the past fall semester—and what lessons he hopes can be applied to the University’s current spring session and beyond. All topics were on the table, from hybrid teaching and learning to COVID-19 testing and vaccines to the challenge of bringing more faculty and staff back to campus after a year of mostly working from home and even to whether online learning could become a permanent part of the BU culture.
He also reflected on how watching the January 6 riots at the US Capitol brought him back to the afternoon of November 22, 1963, when, as a 12-year-old boy home alone, he watched on television as the nation mourned the assassination of a president. “This was almost as troubling as that day,” he says.
With Robert A. Brown
BU Today: Let’s talk about the good and the bad today. What were you most surprised with from the fall semester?
Robert A. Brown: What we spent the summer putting together and launched in the fall was very complex, a multilayered program to repopulate our residential campus. All the work we did was for social distancing, ventilation, isolation, contact tracing, but the biggest unknown was compliance. Behavior. The most interesting thing was the student body putting together their marketing campaign [F*ck It Won’t Cut It], and their energy.
The good thing I was most surprised with was looking at the compliance of students, faculty, and staff with attestation and testing. When they look back and compare us with others, that will be a hallmark of what we did, as an urban institution. Overall, we did very, very well. The attitude of students I met over the fall was: I chose to come back, and I know I need to do this to keep safe and to keep others safe.
On the bad side, the challenge we have is this drumbeat, since August and September, of rising caseloads of COVID in the United States. As an urban environment, we are in the middle of that. That has been the bad side of this. Everyone had hoped compliance would stay high overall, and the caseload would not rise the way it has. But the truth is, to open the economy back up, we’ve got what we got.
BU Today: So does that mean everything worked so well in the fall that there doesn’t need to be much change to BU’s health and safety protocols this spring?
Robert A. Brown: I don’t want to sound overly confident. I think we put everything together reasonably well. Some parts worked really spectacularly. The unsung heroes were the contact tracing folks. The models will tell you that’s so important. Our tracing has been spectacular, how rapidly they can get the needed people into quarantine. We have the pieces in place.
The other unsung part of our program was that in our testing system, we left extra capacity, so we could be flexible. We put excess testing into different places, like clubs and sports teams. You have to be able to pivot by seeing where you might have a problem and put more testing into those parts of our community. We are staying with what got us here and not changing our program substantially.
BU Today: Does the same go for Learn from Anywhere (LfA)? Do you expect any changes or improvements?
Robert A. Brown: We expected it to be very complicated. We put it in because we knew there was a cohort of students who could not come back to campus and we wanted to help them be able to advance their education. But that means faculty members have to teach two different cohorts, live and virtual. It is very difficult. We are doing some enhancements to audio and video. We learned that audio is challenging in many rooms. It’s no surprise—it’s difficult with faculty and for students. We will try and get the technology a little better.
BU Today: You’ve talked about how important it is for BU to maintain a residential campus experience. What will be the great challenge to doing that going into spring semester?
Robert A. Brown: That’s a great question. We know so much more about compliance and how our community responds. So we have a higher confidence level going into the spring—it’s not the great unknown like when we talked back in August or September. But the infection rate is much higher now, so the biggest challenge will be going through the same efforts, but with a higher infection rate. Our biggest challenge will come in the first several months, with people inside. Back in August we had people sitting on lawns, socially distanced, talking. It’s hard to do it in down parkas. That’s the challenge at the beginning of the semester, and then hopefully as warmer weather hits, it will ease over time.
BU Today: One group I know you have a special interest in are international students. Can you talk about what you’re hearing about their interest in and ability to return this spring and in the fall?
Robert A. Brown: There are two pieces of this. There’s the COVID-related piece and the geopolitical component. Let’s talk about COVID first. Our students who are not on campus are very anxious to return here. They are sitting at home trying to figure out how to get back. The United States just put in place a testing and travel restriction, which is a step forward, it’s probably a good thing. I think as time goes on, we will see more students come back.
Our biggest challenge will come in the first several months, with people inside. Back in August we had people sitting on lawns, socially distanced, talking.
The geopolitical piece has to do with visas, and getting them processed. That’s also government-related, not just COVID. The system is crawling at this stage. I am hopeful the change in administrations will help speed up the process.
BU Today: That leads nicely to my next question. Can you talk more generally about whether international students will feel welcome to come back, not just to BU, but to the United States, after the last few years?
Hopefully the view will temper. How open are we to people coming to be educated and how open are we to people coming here to join us as immigrants? I feel very strongly we are hampering this country if we don’t allow immigrants in, talented people who want to come in and abide by our laws and democracy. If I am an international student, the attraction is coming for the education, and possibly being able to stay. If you take that second opportunity off the table, we don’t look as attractive. I think you will see a big push from corporations for immigrants. They need the talent.
BU Today: In 2020, BU created a new position, hiring Andrea Taylor (COM’68) as senior diversity officer. Can you talk about BU’s approach to diversity and inclusion, how it’s changed in recent years and what your expectations are for 2021 and beyond?
Since the fall, we have made considerable progress in creating the foundation for making our campus more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Let me describe a few projects. Since Andrea joined us in September, we’ve established the Antiracism Working Group of faculty and staff to recommend changes to policies and practices across the institution. Working with Human Resources, we launched a review of all aspects of staff careers, to make sure our practices work well when they are viewed through the DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] lens. We launched the Community Safety Advisory Group, chaired by Andrea, to better connect our public safety organizations and students, staff, and faculty. We also announced the opening of the Newbury Center for first-generation students as a considerable increase in resources available for first-generation undergraduate and graduate students.
There is a lot of work to do to build the diverse and inclusive community we envision. Two of the five pillars of our 2030 Strategic Plan focus on these issues. Work has been underway all fall to map out the implementation of our plan, which will be discussed with our Board of Trustees this spring.
BU Today: Switching gears, one area where there seemed to be problems and concern this fall was with off-campus students, maybe because they don’t feel burdened by on-campus restrictions. Can anything be done to help off-campus students?
We have always been concerned about the compliance and behavior of off-campus students. By and large, I stand by what I said: we are really happy with compliance. We had a few hiccups, but there weren’t many. The challenge we have off campus is the living environment. If we have four students living together, and one student gets coronavirus, sharing one bathroom and a kitchen means there is a high probability of disease spread. It’s not too different if you are living on Agganis Way. The difference is we can pull those on-campus students apart and put them in quarantine facilities. We offered that to infected off-campus students, but they mostly did not want to take us up on it.
BU Today: How do you respond to some of the criticism heard in the fall about the University’s decision to reopen the campus?
I’m reluctant to get into this. Just look at the data. I’m a scientist. Just look at the data. Right? What we have done did not work perfectly. But what we did stands on its own merits.
BU Today: Can you talk about faculty and staff? Will BU offer a process to accommodate those wishing to be excused from performing their jobs on campus? What about staff working from home? And who will set working from home policy—the University or individual managers and deans?
The accommodation process was put in place in summer 2020 for faculty and staff who, according to CDC guidelines, are at high risk for COVID-19. This process will not be continued once this risk abates, which will be the case as vaccinations become widespread. At this point, we have committed to this process through the spring. We are assessing how we might wish to go forward with the ability of some staff to do some of their work from home. The first step will be the development of a set of University policies. The policies must be University-wide to ensure fairness in their administration, and we will begin working on these policies this spring.
BU Today: Some colleges had real problems and outbreaks. How closely were you paying attention to other colleges, locally and nationally? Did you see any ideas or efforts that you suggested BU consider? And did you hear from other colleges about BU’s efforts?
That’s a great question. There are two parts to that. As an AAU [Association of American Universities] institution, there were a lot of discussions among those presidents. I think New England has to look back collectively, especially at the private institutions, at how well we handled the challenging fall. I would give tremendous credit to AICUM, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, and Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who is chairperson of AICUM. We collaborated like crazy going back to last April. Between that collaboration, and the Broad Institute standing up their testing, there were a lot of lessons learned. BU and Northeastern were distinguishable because we were both running our own testing facility and that gave us a level of independence.
BU Today: BU is now beginning to vaccinate people on campus. What impact will the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine have on campus and the health and safety protocols?
The vaccine is the dim light at the end of the tunnel. You can see the light now. We were pleased to announce BU as the vaccine administrator for faculty, staff, and students. If you look at the rollout and the schedule put out by the state, the reality, which is hard to say, is it will probably have no effect on the University in the spring term.
Two realizations. First, the number of people who will have had both doses of the vaccine in the spring will be small. Second, we know a lot about the vaccine’s ability to keep someone safe from COVID, but we don’t know a lot about being vaccinated and still being a transmitter of COVID. This is a big question we have to answer before we can say vaccinated people don’t have to be in our testing system or wear a mask. We’re probably a semester away from answering those questions. So the vaccine doesn’t change our plans for the spring.
BU Today: With that light at the end of the tunnel you mentioned, now that people have gotten comfortable and used to working from home, are you worried about getting people back on campus full-time? Do you expect any resistance? Or do you think there could be some permanent changes to how people work—a mixture of on campus and remote?
This is a really complicated question. I spent a lot of time over the intersession on this. The answer in my mind is to separate out two issues. COVID—when does the disease subside and it is safe to return to campus? Then there was the question many people were asking: if I changed my lifestyle, why would I go back? We’re in the business of education and research. We do education and research and service, and the vast majority of what we do is best done around people. Our institution will not work if we don’t talk to each other. We talk to people as they walk up to us, they ask us questions, we ask other people questions. We learn from human interactions that are missing, and have been missing for 10 months.
If I am an international student, the attraction is coming for the education, and possibly being able to stay. If you take that second piece off the table, we don’t look as attractive.
Doug, I know you. We’ve sat next to each other, so we can easily Zoom. But what about people who haven’t had that experience. What about hiring new people into that environment, who never had that residential component. I personally believe that will not work. We will have a lot of conversations about this.
The faculty needs to come back. Our students are here. And all the people who support the faculty and students need to come back. Then it’s a cascading effect. Which means, we’re back. Does that mean we won’t see some change? I think there might be changes, but we are in a residential university.
BU Today: Can you look ahead? What will “normal” look like in the summer? Remote? Hybrid? All in person?
All our planning around summer is around a hybrid model that doesn’t look too different from spring. We imagine we will run residential summer programs for college students using LfA. Summer probably will be a time of tremendous transition with respect to the virus, as that will be when the majority of people, especially students, will get vaccinated.
BU Today: And what about international programs? Have you thought about when students might be able to return to programs around the world?
Ugh. That gives me a headache. It has to do with international relations, travel, and visas. And how the virus is being handled around the world. Right now, the idea that New Zealand, for example, will let a bunch of our students in the country seems far-fetched—at this time they don’t let anybody in!
BU Today: OK, so then what about the fall?
Approximately normal! I don’t think we will believe it’s totally normal, because there will still be the coronavirus. People will not be talking about COVID beds at hospitals, but we still might be dealing with people not yet vaccinated. When will that change? If school age kids are not vaccinated, that creates a set of dynamics in our school season that looks like flu season all year long. It won’t be normal, but I would hope by the fall those who want to get vaccinated have been vaccinated. And we’ll have to decide about incoming students, what we expect of them with respect to vaccinations, either before they come or when they come. That’s under discussion.
BU Today: Looking ahead to a time when remote teaching and learning isn’t necessary, could you envision ways that remote learning would become a permanent part of the BU culture?
I am glad you asked that. That’s different from LfA. If you had asked me a year ago, Would you believe that every one of your faculty members would have taught remotely? I would have said you’re out of your mind. Every faculty we have, every student we have, has taken remote classes. But this is a real opportunity for us—to think about how remote learning can actually help make us a better residential university. Better may mean more flexible. By giving people the opportunity to do things that they have been restricted from doing—because we are only in-person.
I’ll give you an example. We have always thought of study abroad as limited to these windows when particular curriculums have made it possible for you to go do an internship. If you are in our Los Angeles program in [the College of Communication], you take classes in LA. Well, what if a department or program says they want to open things up by creating opportunities by having a few of our core courses taught simultaneously, both remotely and in person, so that a cadre of students could do something else at the same time, such as an internship? It’s a very different way of thinking about internships. We all know internships are more valuable later in your curriculum than earlier, because you know more. So Jean Morrison, our University provost, has a committee that’s been running for a few months, looking at all those kinds of opportunities, about how we would keep remote learning engaged to enhance the residential university.
Second thing I’d say is there is a lot of discussion with the committee about what will be our role, longer term, in online education. Will we actually expand our footprint in online learning? For online, I mean for students who we would not get to come for the residential experience. We launched our online MBA in Questrom last August—it’s doing well in attracting students. The students don’t have the profile of our normal MBA students. They are older than average, with jobs and families. They want to learn and want the credential of the MBA, but do not have the time to make the commitment to come back to a residential program. The question we’re asking ourselves is, are there other cohorts we could benefit for BU having the appropriate online program? All of this comes about because of COVID, because we have this opportunity to engage a group of faculty who a year ago I can’t imagine would have engaged in this conversation.
BU Today: It would be remiss of me not to ask you about the events of the last week in Washington and around the country. Were you watching the Capitol siege?
I was in a continuous set of meetings, and I was popping in on the CNN website as I could and watched it unfold episodically. In my life, I was 12 when John F. Kennedy was killed, I was ill, running a fever and watching TV, home alone. And I was watching the news interrupt saying that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, and [Vice President Lyndon] Johnson was sworn in as president a few hours later. I remember watching in shock and horror as a 12-year-old having no idea what it all meant. The storming of the Capitol was almost as troubling as that day.
You grow up in a country with a long history and very, I think, well-established, thought-out form of government, with checks and balances. And all of a sudden you see a sense of fragility in our democracy. I felt that fragility as a 12-year-old when our head of state was killed. And I felt that fragility on January 6, when Congress basically could have been kidnapped. It was that close. It was deeply troubling, that part of our population thought they had a right to do that as Americans. The country is so divided that people could take that point of view and those actions.
BU Today: Two politics questions: Do you go into the Biden administration with hope and optimism for the future or more worry and fear for our future?
The answer is yes and yes. I have deep concerns about the first 100 days. Will people, as we always do, give the new administration a chance to move the country forward. We saw that four years ago. I hope that happens, and if it happens, then I am very optimistic. Everything Biden has said leads me to believe he’s a person who can help heal some of the divisions in our society. Some are deep. We won’t be done in one four-year presidency. But we have to get started.
BU Today: Also, locally, how will the loss of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to Washington impact BU’s relationship with the city, and are there any projects on the horizon you can share?
Let me just congratulate Marty. He has been a terrific friend of ours. He came in as mayor from the state legislature and was not a well-known commodity. He has been a great mayor. He has really appreciated the special role higher education and research plays in Boston. He will be a terrific labor secretary because he understands the urban complexity of our society, and he has the union background. They will have confidence in him, they’ll give him a chance. BU has a long history of being a good institutional citizen. We think of ourselves as a partner in the city. As goes the city of Boston, so goes BU. I think we can build that relationship with another mayor. Just as we built it with Marty.