Rice University President David Leebron Examines Challenges, Opportunities for Colleges Amid COVID-19
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In the twelfth and final webcast of its COVID-19 series, Asia Society Texas Center hosted a program on the future of universities amid COVID-19. Rice University President David W. Leebron spoke with Houston Public Media education reporter Laura Isensee on the effects of the coronavirus on colleges and universities, the ongoing decision-making process around reopening campuses in the fall, and the long-term implications of the pandemic on higher education.
The framework for the decision-making process
President Leebron described the new normal in the three months since students across the country were sent home to learn remotely, saying only 10 percent of students have remained on the Rice University campus with only 10 percent of staff coming to work in person. He indicated that Rice University has seen increased enrollment in online summer programs and good enrollment for the fall semester, which he said he hopes will take place on a reopened campus with students in residence and most classes in person.
Acknowledging that much remains unknown or uncertain around the pandemic, President Leebron said the decision-making process on whether and how to bring students back is guided by four basic principles: prioritizing the health and safety of the community, including students, faculty, staff, visitors, and the broader Houston and Texas community; following the best scientific guidance around COVID-19, particularly from the Centers for Disease Control; carrying out the mission to the best of their abilities under the circumstances; and doing everything with Rice University values of responsibility, integrity, community, and excellence.
He noted that Rice University has convened not only an internal team to address the complicated process around reopening the campus, but an external committee as well, with advice and guidance from the Texas Medical Center. President Leebron said he hopes a final decision will be made around mid-July.
Moving forward to the fall
Before addressing the specific actions and accommodations Rice University plans to implement amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns, President Leebron explained the thinking behind reopening campus. He discussed the desire students have expressed to be back on campus, noting that the university experience is much more than just classes; it is about community and connection, he said – the support network of friendship and advice built around fellow students as well as faculty and staff. He also noted that certain experiences such as labs, music, or architecture or engineering design projects are difficult to replicate online. Part of the decision-making process, he said, is trying to carry out Rice University’s mission for the students, in providing them the full experience of university.
President Leebron emphasized the university’s goal of being flexible, agile, and adaptable in response to the evolving situation. As an example, he pointed to the decision to move all classes to “dual delivery” where possible, meaning that classes would take place on campus and online simultaneously. This would also allow flexibility for students and faculty who are immune-compromised or have family members who are compromised. He also noted that all plans would include multiple backup options so the university can act quickly to return to remote learning if needed.
President Leebron also discussed the possibility of admitting international students to the university midyear — which has traditionally not been done — due to difficulties in their visa or immigration processes, and shortening the semester to end by Thanksgiving to reduce travel. He noted these are just some of the considerations being made to recognize the different challenges faced by each student, as well as trying to reduce the risks for all.
Specific guidelines for students and university life
In addressing concerns about safety around residential dorms, classrooms, and on-campus student activities, President Leebron said the priority is to first develop clear policies — and then to communicate those rules and guidelines to students so that they understand 1) what the rules are and 2) why the rules are important. He reiterated the importance of community, saying he trusts students will largely abide by the guidelines of wearing masks indoors and maintaining social distance if they believe “we owe this to ourselves and to our community.”
President Leebron said that while the university has placed a 50-person limit on gatherings, the discussion is ongoing — with input and guidance from the scientific community — on whether exceptions can be made for outdoor activities. He admitted that intercollegiate sports may face difficulties, but expressed optimism about continuing student services and activities, though they may look different. President Leebron compared university life in the fall to driving through a thunderstorm or snowstorm — you may need to drive more carefully, he said, and there may be some roads you can’t go on, but you can get from here to there. The community experience at Rice University will still be there, he said.
When asked about the longer-term implications of the pandemic on universities, President Leebron acknowledged that many institutions will face increased financial pressure due to the economic crisis. While he said that Rice University is fairly fortunate and has prioritized the delivery of services and keeping staff employed, he noted many universities will need to look carefully at how they’re structured to become more efficient and save costs where reasonable. There is a possibility that some schools may have to discontinue certain programs or research centers.
But President Leebron also addressed the opportunities in the future, expressing his excitement over the potential for greater collaboration and partnerships with universities across the globe using virtual learning spaces. Universities are likely to become more flexible and adaptable long term, providing more work from home options and offering not just classes online, but health, career, and financial services as well. According to President Leebron, the pandemic is driving universities to assess how to better support all of their students with different experiences and backgrounds as he concluded on a hopeful and optimistic message: “We will emerge from this better,” he said. “We will serve our communities better.”
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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