A recent New York Times op-ed from Brown University President Christina Paxson says that colleges and universities "must reopen in the fall" over concerns about what long-term shutdowns would mean for universities, their students and their employees. The article was received with plenty of controversy as the country debates how and when to begin reopening schools and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Paxson about her op-ed and Brown's plans for next school year. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: You write, "most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half our revenue." Would that put you out of business?
Christina Paxson: Well, it will have different impacts on different colleges and universities, certainly. I think Brown and some other universities are a little bit better positioned to weather something like that, but there are many colleges and universities across the country, and in New England especially, that are not in that position. And for them, this is catastrophe if they can't open.
Mathieu: We've actually done a lot of reporting from our Higher Ed desk on some of the smaller schools that have already closed over the past couple of years. You say online courses would only recoup part of your loss. I want to ask you about that. Is that because they generate less revenue, they cost less for people to take or because fewer people want them?
Paxson: I think it's a combination of all three. What we're seeing is a lot of survey evidence where students are saying that if they have to do another semester a year online, they'll simply delay going to college or they will take a leave, which is bad for them educationally.
Mathieu: Can I ask what it's like around there right now? If you were planning to open in the fall, you'd already be preparing, right?
Paxson: Well, we are right now preparing to. We have multiple plans going at the same time. And obviously, if we can't open safely, we won't reopen. That's just impossible. What we're trying to do is develop plans so that, provided the pandemic cooperates and it's not really bad in the fall, we can reopen safely for our students. And I hope every college and university can do the same thing.
Mathieu: You point out as well [that] colleges are major employers. When we think about the economic impact here, there are a lot of jobs on the line.
Paxson: There are a lot of jobs, and we've seen already in this pandemic the first wave of unemployment coming from service sectors, restaurants, airlines and hotels, you name it. If colleges and universities can't open in the fall, there will most likely be a second wave of unemployment coming from the employees who simply don't have work to do if there are no students on campus. And that would be a tragedy.
Mathieu: Give us a sense of what it would look like. Let's say you open in September or maybe the end of August, whenever your year begins. I'm assuming it would not look like years past. Are you considering things like protective barriers and realigning the way classrooms work?
Paxson: Yes, all of that. So the plans that we're making, they're very detailed. And frankly, we're at the early stages [and] we have a lot of work ahead of us. But we're thinking about things like, how much density can you have in dorms? What can you do with large lectures? How do you allow [for] the social distancing that will probably still be in effect and still have a great educational experience? It's complicated, but we're working on it. I'm optimistic.
Mathieu: Well, I feel your optimism, and I'm sure you're listening to a lot of the same experts we all are, beginning with the White House's Coronavirus Task Force. Dr. Deborah Birx had said recently that social distancing will likely last through the summer, so that brings us to the beginning of the school year. Could we be in a world where there's no such thing as roommates?
Paxson: That's a possibility. Figuring out how many students you can put into a dormitory [and] whether students can room together, these are all open questions that we're working on right now. So regardless, it will look different. But the world looks different, and we're all having to adjust to this.
Mathieu: When you're the leader of Brown University and you write a column like this, I suspect you hear from a lot of people on both ends of this matter. What's the reaction been like?
Paxson: The reaction that I've received overall, especially from students, is very positive. They so want to get back to campus. They're so eager to do that. And I've heard from presidents of a lot of universities. I think there is some concern about whether universities will have the resources to do the testing, tracing and the public health measures that they'll need to do. But by and large, people are very glad that we started the conversation. I think there's been less awareness of these issues until now, and you can't solve problems unless you recognize that they exist.
Mathieu: I know Rhode Island is already talking about loosening restrictions. I believe May 9 was the date that Governor Gina Raimondo put out there earlier this week. Who are you listening to? Who would make the call, if not yourself, on whether to open in the fall?
Paxson: Well, we're working very closely with the state, obviously. And if the state regulations and policies are such that we can't open, then we can't open. But we also have a very high bar for the health of our students and our employees, and so there's independent judgment. Even if it's possible to reopen, we have to really make sure that we can do it safely. So that's our decision to make.
Mathieu: Have you assembled your own advisory board, if you will, your own focus group? Who are you talking to? Who do you trust when it comes to this?
Paxson: So I have a number of internal teams that are working on different work streams, talking a lot with the state, and then we're fortunate to have a number of alumni, Brown parents and others in our community who are very involved in the science of coronavirus and are up on the latest innovations in testing and treatment. And so I'm talking a lot to them, too.
Mathieu: I suspect [there are] other schools [and] colleges like your own who have [a] very similar amount on the line right now.
Paxson: Yes, that's right. And we're fortunate because we have a great medical school and a great school of public health, and that's another source of expertise and advice for us.
Mathieu: I'd love to ask you, lastly, if you spent much time on campus since this began, if you're still going to work, and what is it like? How eerie is it to walk around campus right now?
Paxson: So my house is two blocks south of campus. I am currently working from home, but I take my dog for a walk. My husband comes with me and we walk around campus. It's sad because it's beautiful, it's spring, the trees are blooming and it's empty. And it just doesn't feel right.