W. Taylor Reveley III ’65 spent much of his career in higher education, with a total of about two decades in leadership roles at William & Mary, first as dean of the university’s law school and then as president. He was also a member of Princeton’s Board of Trustees for 14 years and has served on a variety of educational boards. Reveley is no stranger to guiding a school through difficult transitions, but joked he picked the right time to retire in 2018. As universities across the country are busy making plans for the fall semester as COVID-19 rages on in the United States, PAW spoke with Reveley about the complexities surrounding those decisions.
What are some of the challenges universities face when it comes to deciding what to do for the fall semester?
I think there are numerous challenges, but the first one is how to get back in operation for the fall term. Keeping people safe and how to pay for it, that is a huge challenge. The second challenge is all of the contingency planning you’ve got to do in the event something goes wrong. You’ve got to make all sorts of complex plans for circumstances that may not come to pass. That planning takes a lot of time and effort. Third, you have to figure out how to deal with a really malignant combination of reduced financial resources — for some schools radically reduced financial resources — on the one hand, and a greater need to spend money.
Special circumstances are going to exist. Most of them will be created by the pandemic, but not all of them. Some will involve other factors, for example, with greater efforts to ensure racial justice and the fact that the emotional and mental-health needs of students and other people on campus seem to be increasing fairly quickly and dramatically. Additionally, altering facilities to ensure social distancing in the labs, the dorms, the athletic facilities, etc. — it’s just going to take a lot more space. Another challenge is how you deal with the fact you may have to be providing online learning and in-class learning.
No matter what decisions are made, it’s unlikely everyone will be happy. What are some concerns related to the well-being of a university community?
I think in order to keep the institutions healthy and to keep morale up and hope going, you need to find some energy and time and creativity to be planning for the future and not simply responding to the crisis of the moment. We’ve learned a lot after what happened since March, so there are some promising paths forward. I think this is particularly important for schools that don’t have vast momentum and resources. But even for Princeton, you need to keep morale up and find engaging ways for people to delight and enjoy the experience.
Another dimension that does concern me a good bit is that presidents and senior administrators have been under really enormous pressure since March. The demands on these people’s time and energy have been relentless, and there’s no letup in sight. Summer is proving to be no time for rest and relaxation. One crucial need that boards of trustees need to keep in mind is you need to keep the senior leadership, starting with the president, alive and well. If they get really tired and burnt out, they’re going to make decisions of comparable quality.
Universities are considering various options for how to proceed with the fall semester. While the details differ, they boil down to three main options: virtual, a hybrid of virtual and in-person, or allowing everyone to return (with some exceptions). Can you talk about the pros and cons of each?
To hit the third possibility where everyone [is allowed to] return, the pros are enormous. Everyone wants to come back. Students and parents, particularly for residential campuses, understand that there’s a lot more to the college experience than simply what they get in the classroom, and they want to have that larger experience. Plus, they want the advantages of the in-person contact with faculty both in and out of class. The huge plus is the fall term would be more like normal. That’s what people want and that’s what benefits them most. The disadvantage is, what if something goes wrong? It’s a safety and health issue, and a very serious one. If you bring people back too soon, bad things can happen.
A purely online option, I think, only makes sense for the tiny subset of really wealthy schools who simply can live without [income from on-campus fees such as room and board and also students who are unlikely to return for a largely virtual option] for the term. The California public system is obviously going to try. The prime disadvantage is this option will take a lot of schools close to or over their financial brink — especially if students and their parents are upset. Certainly another disadvantage is for the workers who do grounds, in the dining halls, the dorms, etc., who may lose their jobs. The silver bullet would be if the university had enough money, wasn’t desperate for tuition, and had students, parents, faculty, and staff who are not against the online option. It’s just not realistic for most universities.
What’s feasible for a school very much depends on their individual financial circumstance. For the vast majority the hybrid model makes the most sense. It’s what people have to do to reduce numbers on campus and social distance. The con is it adds cost and a lot of complexity for planning.
One point of concern is how to enforce the measures that are put in place to combat COVID-19, as a lot of the safety guidelines — such as wearing masks and social distancing — seem at odds with a student’s typical college experience.
I think some social distancing can be pretty easily enforced — in the classroom, in the library, in the recreational facilities, athletics facilities, and in the dining halls. In some spaces, like the dorms, it’s more difficult. Although I suppose you could give everyone a single room. I think there will inevitably be a lack of social distancing among the students. That said, if they get the message that wearing a mask helps and that social distancing will help, I think they will largely do it. It’s their social responsibility to ensure they don’t hurt others. I think students will do it and believe it. For those who don’t, I think in places like higher education, that can be dealt with.
How do you go about altering the culture and messaging to promote the changes that need to be made across campuses?
That is a really significant issue. First, I would put all the rules and expectations in writing and have students sign that they read it. Two, I would create a really funny engaging cartoon or something that goes on all forms of social media that doesn’t seem to be preachy or force-feeding that gets the message across. And third, I would use peer-to-peer conversations. Upperclassmen, those who you know are converted, can talk to incoming freshmen. Use the occasion of opening rites to get the message between the ears and say we’ve got to do this. If we do it, I believe you’ll be OK. If we don’t, this experiment will fail.
Interview conducted and condensed by Carlett Spike