Exclusive: Dozens of college presidents have gotten COVID-19 since pandemic began

Nevada-Reno's Brian Sandoval is the latest on a lengthy list of those who are in public-facing higher ed positions.
By: | September 16, 2021
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Brian Sandoval

Since the start of the pandemic, more than two dozen college and university presidents have contracted COVID-19. The latest reported case came Wednesday when University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval announced he had tested positive for the virus. Sandoval, who said he tested negative last Thursday, attended both Nevada-Reno’s football game on Saturday and the Monday Night Football game between the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, where he lit the Al Davis torch at Allegiant Stadium before kickoff.

Sandoval, the former governor of Nevada, said he is feeling OK.

“The positive test result I received this morning and the mild symptoms I’ve experienced thus far also point to the fact that the COVID-19 vaccines are indeed doing their job,” Sandoval wrote to the campus community. “I received my COVID-19 vaccinations earlier this spring and I am so grateful I did. Breakthrough infections tend to be mild when one is vaccinated and this is exactly what I am experiencing right now. I want to use this moment to encourage all of our students, faculty and staff to continue to wear masks in indoor settings, practice social distancing whenever possible, wash your hands frequently and if you are not vaccinated, to do so as soon as you can.”

Sandoval is the third president in the past two weeks to come down with COVID-19. Harlan Sands at Cleveland State University and Brian Caputo at the College of Du Page in Illinois both tested positive and are recovering. Sands has been fairly active on social media since the announcement last week, while Caputo’s case has been reported as a mild breakthrough since he is fully vaccinated.

Though most university presidents have been vaccinated and are regularly testing, there have been breakthrough cases like Caputo’s. The threat of the more contagious delta variant continues to be cause for concern, especially for those who got vaccines early and have not received a booster shot. Several studies have shown that antibody protection wanes after 6-8 months. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration noted on Wednesday that a third dose of Pfizer/BioNTech does boost immunity. The Centers for Disease Control reported that as of Sept. 7, more than 10,000 patients with breakthrough infections have been hospitalized with COVID, including more than 2,000 who have died.

Although the majority of presidents have fared well in recovery since the start of the pandemic, others have either been hospitalized or succumbed to the virus. In January, St. Bonaventure University President Dennis DePerro, 62, died after contracting COVID-19 just before Christmas. In July, St. Augustine’s University President Dr. Irving MacPhail died from complications of the virus after he was diagnosed, felt fine for several days and then had to hospitalized and put on a ventilator. Mark Ivester, the 57-year-old president of North Georgia Technical College, and David Gipp, the 74-year-old president of United Tribes Technical Colleges, also have lost their lives to the virus.

“They said that he would recover and bring good news, and then all of a sudden it turned on a dime, and he didn’t make it,” Board of Trustees Chairman James Perry said last October after MacPhail’s passing.

The history of positive cases

Since last March, more than 20 other college and university presidents identified by University Business have contracted the virus. The most high-profile case came last October when University of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins acquired COVID-19 shortly after attending the White House Rose Garden ceremony for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The majority of the 150 in attendance were not masked or social distanced. Former President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, Republican Senators Mike Lee and Thom Tillis and former Gov. Chris Christie all tested positive after the event.

Jenkins sent this apology after images went viral on social media.

“I know many of you have read about the White House ceremony I recently attended,” he wrote. “I write to express my regret for certain choices I made that day and for failing to lead as I should have. When I arrived at the White House, a medical professional took me to an exam room to obtain a nasal swab for a rapid COVID-19 test.  I was then directed to a room with others, all fully masked, until we were notified that we had all tested negative and were told that it was safe to remove our masks.  We were then escorted to the Rose Garden, where I was seated with others who also had just been tested and received negative results.I regret my error of judgment in not wearing a mask during the ceremony and by shaking hands with a number of people in the Rose Garden.  I failed to lead by example, at a time when I’ve asked everyone else in the Notre Dame community to do so.”

One month later, after Notre Dame fans stormed the football field after a victory over Clemson, Jenkins chastised them for not adhering to COVID-19 mitigation strategies. “As exciting as last night’s victory against Clemson was, it was very disappointing to see evidence of widespread disregard of our health protocols at many gatherings over the weekend,” he wrote.

Since last March, several other prominent university leaders have tested positive, including Harvard University’s Lawrence Bacow (March 2020), former Florida State University President John Thrasher (November 2020) and Rutgers University’s Jonathan Holloway (January 2021). Several positive cases came before vaccines were available to many in the U.S. Since then, university presidents have been adamant about populations getting vaccinated.

“The benefits of COVID-19 vaccination include prevention of serious illness, hospitalization, and death from the virus,” Holloway wrote to his community upon Rutgers approving a vaccine requirement. “Broad immunization is critical to help stop the current pandemic and to protect our University community. … The importance of an effective vaccination program to make our community safer for all cannot be overstated.”

Some campuses have been unable to enforce mandates, leaving it up to populations to get vaccinated themselves. Only 45% of South Carolina’s populations are fully vaccinated, and far fewer students have gotten doses. The University of South Carolina fought for mask mandates through the summer but does not have the option to enforce a vaccine mandate because of a state ban on vaccine passports. Last November, President Bob Caslen got infected with COVID-19. Since Aug. 1, more than 1,100 students and faculty have tested positive for the virus, according to the institution’s dashboard.

Pamela Whitten, the first female president in the history of Indiana University, tested positive for the virus in late July only weeks after taking over as president. Since then, she has been very active in her new role, which has included getting IU’s population vaccinated. Readers might recall the very public fight that involved a federal judge upholding IU’s vaccine mandate in July. More than 86% of students and 91% of employees had received doses by the first week of September. Whitten told the Indiana Daily Student in an article last week: “I’m hopefully the living, walking example of why you want to be vaccinated.”

Here is a timeline look at university presidents who have tested positive for COVID-19:

SEPTEMBER 2021: Harland Sands, Cleveland State University; Brian Caputo, College of Du Page; Brian Sandoval, University of Nevada-Reno

AUGUST 2021: Robert Clark, Husson University

JULY 2021: Michael Lovell, Marquette University, Pamela Whitten, Indiana University

MARCH 2021: Elizabeth Bradley, Vassar College

JANUARY 2021: Jim Gash, Pepperdine University; Michael Benson, Coastal Carolina; Kenneth Hawkinson, Kutztown University; Jonathan Holloway, Rutgers University

DECEMBER 2020: Geoffrey Mearns, Ball State University; Daniele Struppa, Chapman University; Dennis DePerro, St. Bonaventure University*. (Also the Grand Forks Herald reported that three presidents in the state of North Dakota had tested positive, including University of North Dakota President Andrew Armacost)

NOVEMBER 2020: Bob Caslen, University of South Carolina; John Thrasher (former president), Florida State University

OCTOBER 2020: Pamela Alderman, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College; Irving MacPhail, St. Augustine’s University*; Rev. John Jenkins, University of Notre Dame

AUGUST 2020: Mark Ivester, North Georgia Technical College*

JULY 2020: Leocadia Zak, Agnes Scott College

JULY 2020: Don Killingsworth, Jacksonville State University; Jay Clune, Nicholls State University

MARCH 2020: John Garvey, Catholic University of America; Lawrence Bacow, Harvard University

*deceased