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How 100+ University Presidents Worked Together to Prepare for Fall 2020

Episode 18

July 23, 2020 33 minutes


EAB’s Sally Amoruso sits down with Dr. Christine Riordan who is the president of Adelphi University and the chair of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York. Dr. Riordan describes what she’s learned through her work helping more than 100 independent colleges and universities across New York State prepare for the fall term.

She highlights the difficulties of planning and making decisions in such a fluid environment, as well as the impact of in-person vs. remote instruction on schools and the communities they serve. Finally, they talk about what collaboration between university leaders may look like beyond this fall, and why such collaboration is going to be more important than ever.

Education leaders everywhere are making fast, difficult, and bold decisions. This podcast episode is part of our Leadership Voices series, where we spotlight leaders who are meeting extraordinary challenges with vision and courage.


00:13 Matthew Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matthew Pellish, and this is Office Hours, the weekly podcast discussing higher education’s most important issues. Colleges, universities, they’ve been competing with one another for quite a long time, and I might even argue that the competition reached a fever pitch in just the last few years with schools fighting for students for research grants, fund raising dollars, athletic recruits, you name it.

00:34 MP: However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic schools were tackling these countless questions about re-opening in the fall, and many started thinking, maybe we should work together. On today’s episode, EAB’s Sally Amoruso talks with Dr. Christine Riordan, President of Adelphi University here on Long Island, and Chair of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York. Dr. Riordan is gonna walk us through her work with more than 100 schools as they prepare for this very fluid fall opening of campuses, along with ways that in-person versus remote instruction will impact not only schools and students, but also the communities they serve. They’ll talk about collaboration beyond just the fall, and why it’s more important now than ever before. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:24 Sally Amoruso: Hi, this is Sally Amoruso, Chief Partner Officer with EAB and I’m here today with Dr. Christine Riordan, President of Adelphi University in New York. Hi, Chris.

01:35 Dr. Christine Riordan: Hey Sally, how are you?

01:37 SA: I am great, how are you?

01:39 DR: I’m doing well.

01:41 SA: We are here to talk about an extraordinarily collaborative effort that Chris co-chaired through the CICU that resulted in this great document called Creating Safe and Resilient Campuses. Suggestions for re-opening and re-imagining colleges and universities in New York. And when I say this is collaborative, this is really pulling together leadership from across a number of different institutions, as well as public health and medical professionals across New York. Chris, can you tell us a little bit about how this came about.

02:20 DR: Sure, absolutely. So CICU is the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, which is the association for the more than 100 private institutions in the state of New York. And I am currently chair of that board. I was talking with our president, Mary Beth Labate, and we were just talking about the whole issue around COVID-19 and what it was gonna look like for restarting higher education. And we were brainstorming, and she said, what do you think about us forming a task force? And immediately said, that’s a great idea. We took it to our executive committee for CICU and they said, absolutely, let’s do it. So literally, within the matter of three days, I think we’ve reached out to a number of presidents and provosts around the State of New York, representing all kinds of institutions from the very small privates to the very large privates like NYU and Columbia, and Cornell, and asked people if they were interested, and we were able to form a task force very, very quickly. I co-chair the task force with Mike Kotlikoff, who is the Provost of Cornell University, and then we had representatives from across the state, from all the regions, and we also had SUNY participate as well; their provost was part of our task force.

03:42 SA: So really reached across all of the different kinds of higher ed institutions across the state.

03:48 DR: Absolutely.

03:50 SA: And what were some of the goals and objectives you had in bringing this task force together?

03:57 DR: I’m gonna give you an analogy first and then I’ll get into the goals. So when I was teaching an executive MBA program on leadership, I used to do a module on strategic thinking and strategy. And one of the exercises that I used to do is I would give… Now, these are executives who had at least 10 years of experience and were mid-30s and up, I’d give them a puzzle, and it was a child’s puzzle that was designed for 11-year-olds, but I would take away the edges of the puzzle, and I would take away the picture of the puzzle. And it was often like a black furry cat, so very similar in terms of color and pattern. And it was always interesting watching them, they dump out the puzzle pieces and then they would start trying to put it together, and they realized that they didn’t have the edges. And then some of them would come hack and ask me for what the picture looked like, and I wouldn’t give it to them. And what should have taken normally a five-minute puzzle for an adult, would generally take them 20 to 30 minutes.

04:56 DR: And I use this analogy because really in responding to COVID-19, we’re trying to solve a puzzle that doesn’t have defined edges and that doesn’t have an end picture for us. So one of the goals for this task force was to really start putting some of the edges around this puzzle and to really start trying to think through collectively and with the immense talent that we have within the State of New York, to think about how and if we could restart higher education. So we felt that by having a collective task force of the great resources that we have in our universities, that we would be able to at least come up with better strategy, with better thinking, better innovation in how we actually restart higher education.

05:46 DR: We did have some very, very specific goals associated with the task force and the project. One was of course, to ensure the safety of our students and our faculty and our staff and anybody who might be on our campuses, and to ensure that we had some parameters around that. We also knew that all of the universities and colleges within the state of New York are big economic drivers within the state, we wanted to be a part of that conversation as an industry with our state leaders and with our governors, and to make sure that they understood that as an industry within the State of New York, we had a large economic impact.

06:26 DR: So we really focused on a couple of sections. One was, a part one of the report focused on what we called the layers of safety. And using all of the public health expertise that we had at our universities as well as in medical expertise, we wanted to provide the state and the governor and his New York forward task force with what we felt was needed to safely re-open a university or a college. So how we could safely restart. The second part of the report was focused on providing all universities with questions and guidelines that they could use to tailor their own restart plans.

07:08 DR: Now, in the state of New York, we have institutions that range from 100 students all the way up to 57,000 students, and then the SUNY and CUNY systems are much larger than that. So we knew that everybody’s restart plan was gonna look different, so part two of the report that we developed was really designed for each institution to then be able to go through those questions themselves and look at it in the context of their university, and then figure out how they could and needed to restart in each of those areas.

07:42 SA: So it sounds like you were managing two separate tensions, one is the responsibility as economic drivers of your communities and the safety of your students, your faculty and your staff, and how do you manage that tension? The other is the diversity of institutions and ensuring that institutions have individual agency to figure out what’s right for them rather than having that be legislated for them, certainly with the context of what’s happening in the region. But giving them the latitude to make the right decisions for their institution. Now was that one of the reasons why you were very intentional about the diversity of participation in the collaboration?

08:25 DR: Absolutely, I think we wanted to impress upon the state as well that collectively as a group of institutions, we had a large impact, but then individually, we were all very different. And so for restart, there was not gonna be a one-size-fits-all restart plan for a university that it owned. Everyone needed to understand, that it needed to be tailored individually. And ultimately that ended up coming through the guidelines that New York State put out, allowed each institution to individually put their plan together, with some basic guidelines that are consistent across all universities, and that’s exactly what we wanted to have happen.

09:06 DR: And so, kind of managing the diversity of the institutions that we have within the state, we were very intentional with who was included on the task force. We had people from all regions, we had all sizes of institutions, we had all types of institutions. And furthermore, we held regular, it was almost weekly meetings with all of the member institutions for CICU, and then invited our counterparts from the SUNY system when they were available. So we would hold open forums to make sure that we were hearing all of the different institutions concerns and questions and really trying to make sure that it was an inclusive process throughout.

09:49 DR: And I would say even further more after the document was released, which everyone was a very thankful for because it provided them with a resource to use. CICU has continued to hold weekly meetings where we would talk about things like, how do you safely restart a residence hall, how do you safely restart dining, how are you handling classes so that the Provost and Associate Provost and deans and other leaders on campuses could be on a call and talk with other people, just to brainstorm and collaborate on how each institution was doing it and get ideas from one another.

10:28 SA: That’s terrific, and such an outgrowth of the collaboration that you started. Tell me how you brought in the public health and medical professionals? You had an advisory board I think?

10:40 DR: We did. We absolutely put some people on the task force that had medical background as well as who had a public health background. And then as we were designing part one of the report, which really were the layers of safety and the testing protocol, we explicitly went out to the top leading public health and medical experts in those areas to get their buy-in as well as their expertise, so that’s reflected in the report. We also, as an addendum, ended up sending several memos to the state, and to the governor’s office that were explicit requests around testing and other kinds of public health protocol, and we used our experts to help us with that. And we were so many great institutions in the state of New York with leading researchers, we were able to easily draw upon our faculty within our institutions.

11:42 SA: And one of the points that you made is about how local the business and the health of a population is in New York, because New York is massive and you have very regional communities. Can you talk a little bit about some of the collaboration and the work that this might have prompted with universities really leaning into their communities.

12:06 DR: Absolutely. So the way that New York actually ended up handling COVID-19 was to regionalize us. The state of New York ended up-looking at regions. So upstate New York as an example, has very few cases of COVID-19, whereas downstate, New York, where I am, Long Island was hit very hard. I also have a center in Manhattan, which was also the hardest hit and at one point was the epicenter. So I think as a state, we knew that, again, it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all per region, that in some cases, we didn’t need to keep the entire state lockdown. So the governor’s office broke everything into regions and then had some, what they call cata-metrics for everybody to pass before you could open up a region safely.

13:00 DR: As a result of the state going into regions, the institutions, the universities and colleges within those regions started collaborating as well. So upstate New York opened up very early compared with Long Island and Manhattan. And so, in Manhattan, in and about itself, has a lot of challenges. So we saw a lot of our colleges and universities collaborating in Manhattan. We in Long Island, both the public and the private institutions were collaborating pretty extensively as well, so I think by the state going with a regional model, it ended up opening the eyes for many of our colleges and universities that they’ve got a lot of partners within their regions, and it started, I think some very positive communications and collaborations that may not have otherwise happened.

13:49 SA: So what are some of the avenues for the future that you think this collaboration might lead to? In terms of institutions collaborating or collaboration with communities, in terms of housing, are there other ways that this might open up conversation?

14:07 DR: I think in my career, this single task force was by far the biggest collaboration that I’ve seen amongst a group of presidents and provosts and other leadership at universities across the state, and it came about for an unfortunate reason, but I think it ended up creating a lot of connections that may not have otherwise been made. We see a lot more conversations going on, just like I said, even the weekly meetings that are having about, “Hey, what are you doing to open the residence hall?” Or “What are you doing about Greek life? Or “What are you doing about sports?” That kind of thing. So just even knowing… I think it introduced a lot of people to each other, and then so now you have people to call. But beyond that, I think we’re all starting to see collaboration beyond re-opening and re-starting.

15:07 DR: So for example, with Adelphi, I’ve had two conversations with two universities about curricular partnerships doing 2+2 programs, 4+1 programs that were sparked from this conversation. I’ve had another meeting with another institution about maybe sharing housing at some point when we’re opening. So it did create, I think, greater synergies and opportunities for people to do it. I do think going forward, the State of New York does have a procurement system at the state level, but I do think administratively, there are some ways that we can continue to think about collaborating, and then certainly as we move forward with the roll out in the fall, I know all the institutions in each of the regions will be constantly talking about public health and the cases that are in the region, so we’ll continue to collaborate in that area as well.

16:04 SA: And that’s such a good point Chris, but this is such a dynamic situation, and so on-going conversation is going to be critical. And one of the interesting conclusions from this report is it’s not all or nothing, it’s not reopening everything or closing everything. Can you talk a little bit about the nuances and the rigor that this taskforce brought to thinking about stages?

16:29 DR: Absolutely. So it really has to do with the prevalence of cases, I think is what we came to a conclusion on, and so it’s managing the prevalence of cases. And so a lot of what we put into the front of the report and the layers of safety is that testing is essential, you have to have at least enough testing available for when you have a positive case, not if you have a positive case before, when you have a positive case. The contact tracing has to be in place. And then you have to be able to isolate those cases. And so if you’re not able to isolate the cases, then the prevalence grows. Right now we’re seeing this play out across the country, as an example, New York had no deaths yesterday, and we see all of the regions are less than 2% positive cases of those tested whereas, we’re now seeing new epicenters come up across the country and the prevalence of cases growing.

17:37 DR: So for us, and when we were setting up this report, it’s about managing that percentage of cases. And so one of the things that we have in there is, obviously, when you do have a positive case on campus, you have to be able to isolate and quarantine that person if it’s a student on campus. And then you also have to be able to do that in-depth contact tracing. And then from there, depending upon the reach, you have to then determine, are you shutting down a class? Are you shutting down a building? Or are you shutting down the university? So it’s all about testing and isolating and controlling the prevalence.

18:25 SA: So as you mentioned, many of our communities across the country are seeing surges right now, and I know a lot of university leaders are really concerned about the community spread as they’re approaching reopening campus. What are some points of advice that you would have for them as they are thinking about the August-September re-opening and trying to move forward with their plans, but also managing this dynamic situation?

18:56 DR: Yeah, I think it’s probably the biggest single issue right now. So as universities welcome students from all over the country, and I even take New York as an example, I had a parent contact me and say, “Oh, I feel much safer with my student being in New York than being in our home state, Georgia, because the cases are rising here and they’re not in New York.” For us though, as we’re welcoming students from all over the country, are you bringing a greater prevalence of positive cases to a college campus? So I think in terms of the advice is you really have to think about the testing protocol for the incoming students, you have to think about whether you asked the students to self-quarantine at home for 14 days prior to coming to campus on an honor our system, or whether you do some kind of quarantine on campus for 14 days for students that are coming from out of state or out of country. So you really have to think about that. For those students that are staying on campus, many of us were using, for example, we’re sending to their home a saliva self-test, and then once they get to campus, we’ve got some protocol that will continue to test them while they’re on campus. And there’s methodologies that you can use where you don’t have to test everybody, but you can do some periodic test.

20:34 SA: Surveillance.

20:35 DR: Mm-hmm. And then it’s really a matter of the contact tracing. And then if you see community spread, then you have to shut things down, which is what we’ve seen, I think, with some of the sports teams that have been brought back and then they they’ve had to suspend players, suspend practice for a while until they get it under control. So it’s really about quarantining, testing, surveillance and contact tracing and then trying to prevent the spread.

21:10 SA: It seems like we are learning more about this virus every week, if not every day, and one of the new theories that I know is not confirmed, but that is being floated out there is around the aerosolization, the ability for the virus to travel airborne much further than we had anticipated for longer, and certainly, we’re still trying to confirm that. But if this new type of information comes out, will this task force reconvene? How would you incorporate those new bits of information into the work that you have already done?

21:48 DR: It’s a great question, and I think we already have that mechanism in place, because we have held the weekly open forums. So as new information comes forward, whether it’s from the state or whether it’s from the federal government, CICU has been very responsive in terms of holding open forums to discuss what that guidance means. And so, I get almost a daily email from our president, that takes national as well as state guidance and then helps us interpret it. And then as needed, we will hold these open forums for our members to have discussions about what it means and how we might implement it at our institutions. One of the biggest things that we’ve all been facing has been just the educational requirements associated with many of our professional associations. So as a collective group, CICU, we do a lot of advocacy with the state, and then also when a federal issue comes up or there is some federal guidance, part of our role as a membership association is to get that out to our members and to help them understand what it means for them.

23:01 SA: Okay great. Well one of the things that I know we’ve been having conversations around is that this is likely not the last threat or risk that we encounter either as a country or for higher ed, and I wonder if there are lessons from the experience that you’ve had that can be a playbook for the future? And if so, what would be the key things that you would take from having co-chaired and led this task force that might port over into how we might address other big threats?

23:33 DR: It’s a great question. I’ll tell you a little bit of a story. I can remember when I was a dean doing planning for the bird flu in the pandemic, and in my mind it was a table top exercise, and it was something that was so far out of reach it was just… You did it, but you didn’t really internalize it as much.

24:03 SA: Right, right.

24:04 DR: And recently, I was talking with one of my faculty who was an international national public health expert. And he said, “Chris,” he goes, “I have done all of these exercises.” He goes, “I’ve been through SARS, I’ve been through MERS,” and he says, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” So I think the magnitude has really… While we plan and we were prepared kind of, it’s gone beyond the scale for what I think anybody could have expected. So in terms of how we translate a lot of this going forward from a leadership standpoint, I was very fortunate that a couple of years ago, I put in place at our university a crisis management protocol and a crisis communications protocol. This was in addition to our emergency management protocol. So in January, when we first started knowing that this was gonna impact our international students, I created a level one emergency team to start looking at it, and what it meant for the university.

25:12 SA: And who was part of that team? I’m sorry, tell us about the composition of that team?

25:16 DR: Yeah, so we have our public safety emergency management, we actually have an emergency management degree program at the university and an undergrad in grad school. The people who were involved in that are part of it. In this particular case, we brought in some of our public health faculty as part of that team.

25:33 SA: Makes sense.

25:34 DR: We have representatives from the provost office, we have representatives from the dean’s office, and representatives from the president’s office as well as the administrative offices.

25:46 SA: Got it.

25:47 DR: And for each emergency, you kind of form the team that’s needed to respond to it, and obviously a pandemic is very different than a hurricane, in the response. But we immediately put in place our protocol around communications and everything else. And I would say this to every president and every university leader is, if you don’t already have a Crisis Communications or protocol in place, then you should be doing it now. And then by February, I escalated it to a level two. And then by March, mid-March, I escalated it to a level three. And we were so much more prepared than many of our sister institutions, the communications were constant from January all the way through. And we’re still communicating, but I didn’t stop that emergency management protocol until probably about a month or two ago when we converted it to the restart team. But lessons learned is you gotta take crisis seriously, and you’ve gotta have a protocol in place. I would say doing the simulations and doing the table top exercises are really important.

27:06 SA: Right.

27:07 DR: Also getting people to really understand the seriousness of it, and to try to think out as many scenarios as you can. But like I said earlier, we’ve been solving a puzzle without the edges, and we still don’t have the final picture of what it’s gonna look like. That will be flexible as well.

27:25 SA: Right. And so much of the fall with this dynamic situation is that optionality, have you at Adelphi really been thinking about building in different avenues and optionality that you can trigger at any time, and so tell us a little bit about how you laid those out.

27:42 DR: Sure. I think many institutions have probably done this, but we have put in place four different types of classes that students can take. One is a traditional class that is in person, the second is a hybrid class, which is part online, part in person. A third is completely online, and then a fourth is what they typically call kind of a HyFlex class, which is half the class comes one week and half the class comes the following week.

28:15 SA: Got it.

28:16 DR: That it’s not quite a hybrid class, but it’s in person, but alternating groups of students that come in. Every single one of our classes has been required to be able to immediately go online if needed. So even our traditional classes are hybrid or our HyFlex classes know that at any point in time, they may have to go 100% online. So we’ve asked all of our instructors and faculty to build that into their syllabus and to plan for that in case it does occur. All of our staff positions, we have two levels of business continuity plans, one is 100% remote for every single unit on campus, and now they have put together what we call hybrid business continuity plans that’s reduced density, partial online, a partial remote and partial in-person, and that’s my different areas. So student financial services, enrollment, alumni, we all have business continuity plans for every single one of the units on campus. But everybody knows that they need to be able to go 100% remote again on a moments notice.

29:37 SA: At any moment, exactly. One question that we’ve been getting from many of our university leaders, but this does place a huge challenge on faculty, and it’s asking a lot of them in terms of the flexibility, in terms of the dual planning, really asking them to flex some muscles that they may not have developed fully, how are you thinking about supporting faculty through that process?

30:07 DR: Yeah, I think that it’s a great question, and actually, this pandemic has put a lot of stress on everyone, I would say overall, students and families and staff, and particularly in our region, where so many people have been hard hit and we had many deaths in the area as well. So I would say overall, just mentally as well as just having to flex into new areas has been a burden for everyone in the community. For our faculty, having to move in the span of two weeks from… Before going on spring break and then having to come back from spring break and being 100% remote was challenging for many of them. And so our Faculty Center for Professional Excellence work 24/7 tirelessly to help all of our faculty and those that were reaching out, giving them tips on how you conduct Zoom sessions or how you put things online, or use your… We use Moodle, which is the instructional website.

31:15 DR: And then since that time we’ve had… our Faculty Center has also been focused on and doing an online academy. And when we tapped out their capacity, we went with a third-party vendor to provide additional instruction this summer for the faculty that wanted it to learn how to more effectively do classes online. And then I would say I saw a great camaraderie among our faculty supporting one another and giving each other tips on how to do things as well. So it’s not been easy, and I think many of them learned a lot in terms of moving to online classes, I think many of them are eager to be back in person when it’s safe, and we saw a lot of creativity as well. I think about our dance faculty member who, I watched him teach dance via Zoom.


32:11 DR: He was doing the dance moves in his backyard, and then each one of his students would do the exact same dance move, it was just inspiring. And you don’t think about being able to teach dance via video, but he found a way to do it. So I give all of them a lot of credit. And give them all kinds of kudos and accolades for really doing a great job and being very, very creative.

32:39 SA: Thank you. Chris, thank you for the insights, thank you for leading this amazing effort and sharing the results of what the task force produced for other institutional leaders to tap into, really enjoyed the conversation and we’ll be continuing to see how things develop, so good luck with the summer and fall.

33:00 DR: Thanks so much, Sally. And thanks for all you do at EAB.


33:09 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us again next week when I’m joined by hired reporter Melissa Korn from The Wall Street Journal, to talk about her newly released book “Unacceptable”, which explores the Varsity Blues admission scandal, and pulls back the curtain exposing a very dark side of college admissions. For office hours with the EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.


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