Reopening campus: A difficult decision for difficult times

Nichols College's president explains why all-hands-on-campus was the best decision for the institution and its students this fall.
By: | August 14, 2020
Nichols College will reopen campus later this month for the fall semester.Nichols College will reopen campus later this month for the fall semester.

On Wednesday, August 26th, Nichols College will commence classes with both students and faculty on campus.  That’s the simplest sentence in this opinion piece.  Getting to this point has been the complicated part.

The latest chapter in our saga of reopening was penned in mid-July by the faculty senate, which asked that our professors be allowed to teach from off campus during the coming semester.  That request added Nichols College to the growing list of schools at which the faculty have expressed concerns about resuming classes—or at least having to teach—on site in the coming term.

A college or university’s faculty is one of its most valuable assets and an indispensable stakeholder. As the letter pointed out, many of our professors have children and live in multi-generational homes. A number are over 50 years old. And with coronavirus cases recently ticking up in Massachusetts, their anxiety is understandable.

Their request also added complexity to an already complex problem. In my thirty years as an academic administrator, I’ve become used to balancing conflicting needs and demands of stakeholder groups, but this is one time when it’s nearly impossible to find common ground.

Students have made clear that they want an on-campus experience—in the classroom and residence halls. Parents are insisting that online classes, even synchronous Zoom classes, cannot justify full tuition, and a growing number are expecting a significant discount, or worse still, threatening to withdraw their children.

I have a responsibility to do all I can to preserve staff and faculty jobs and ensure the future of this beautiful 200+ acre campus that is normally home to 1,200 undergraduate students.

There is no easy answer. If I bring up the economics of the situation, some say I only care about the money. Yet, I have a responsibility to do all I can to preserve staff and faculty jobs and ensure the future of this beautiful 200+ acre campus that is normally home to 1,200 undergraduate students.

One thing about this pandemic is that it does not discriminate among higher education institutions. Private or public, small or large, urban or rural, largely or thinly endowed, we all have significant budget challenges this year that will impact us for years to come.

Unfortunately, some will not survive this blow. I am determined that Nichols College will not be one of them. We will emerge a little battered and bruised, but we will survive the short-term to thrive again.

So how does that determination play out in fall planning?

Our answers may sound familiar. We have invested hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the health and safety of students, faculty and staff.  We have reconfigured all classrooms for social distancing and 50% capacity. We have similarly modified the dining hall, athletic center and other buildings and common areas.

At significant expense, we are testing our entire on-campus community at least once a week, and those at higher risk (resident students and athletes) twice a week. To that end, we are working with the Broad Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is providing a testing program with a reasonable cost per test and turnaround within 48 hours for all higher education institutions in Massachusetts.

Our Human Resources department has granted medical accommodations for staff and faculty.

Some say that’s not enough, and that the only responsible thing to do is to choose remote-only instruction.

The risk to professors in the classroom is real. But the risk is also minimized, which we emphasized in a special Town Hall meeting at the end of last month. Many of our faculty have not yet seen what we’re doing in the classrooms and elsewhere to keep them safe.

Some organizations have the luxury of telling people to continue to work at home. We are a service organization that generates revenue from in-person student services. Despite any procedural disagreements, our faculty and staff have always shared a common commitment to our students. In these unprecedented times, we need to redouble our efforts on that front.

And right now, that means providing students with as full a college education as possible, with all hands on campus.

Susan West Engelkemeyer is president of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.