“It’s coming,” I whispered to my son. He was the second of only two people wearing masks that afternoon, the first being me, as we looked at the bucolic scene before us featuring families picnicking on the Georgetown town square, the most beautiful in Texas, and jolly wine bar patrons overflowing onto the sidewalk. “Let’s go home.”
The scene reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode I watched decades ago while home from school sick. It was now mid-June, and we had just driven 1,800 miles on a five-day road trip with three cats and a bulldog puppy to Southwestern University, where I was to serve as its new president.
I had been living in Bridgeport, Conn., a hard-luck city, when in March the governor issued a shelter-in-place order. My son, in his last few months of college, was sent home, and together we watched CNN for hours every night and checked the daily death count, becoming increasingly panicked. That all took place in the difficult spring when mail was left to sit outside for days, groceries were scrubbed with soap and water, and my son and I argued about who should go to pick up a prescription at the drugstore. “You are young and have everything ahead of you,” I told my soon-to-graduate-sans-commencement only child. “Mom, you’re old and almost in the age bracket that’s the most susceptible to the virus,” my son shot back. Toe to toe, we fought about the unseen and the deadly, determined to save each other.
In Texas, with its huge blue skies and sweltering heat, we unpacked our rental car, walked an empty campus (all summer programs had been canceled), bought a plastic kiddie pool for the puppy and swatted mosquitoes whenever we ventured outside. University staff and faculty kindly greeted us from a safe distance and were genuinely welcoming and generous. Shortly after my arrival, I sent my first letter to the university community, canceling fall football and warning that a deep budget deficit was a strong likelihood. (After telling a Mount Holyoke College colleague about my note, she wondered, only half-facetiously, if it was legal to cancel football in Texas.)
An unforgettably surreal moment, out of so many, came during my “State of the University” talk a month after our arrival as I faced a computer screen, unable to see my audience while watching the counter at the bottom of the screen flip past 100, 200, 300, 400. I was speaking to a community I hadn’t met yet about their university, and I couldn’t see their reactions. A scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey kept replaying in my head — the one when Dave begs HAL to open the pod bay doors and HAL retorts, “I’m sorry. I can’t do that, Dave.” Was anybody really out there? I hoped I looked calmer than I felt.
Weeks passed filled with afternoon and evening get-acquainted chats, arranged so I could meet faculty members, administrators, trustees, students, alumni, parents, donors and Georgetown civic leaders — all virtually, of course. I was so incredibly glad to see their faces, and, in those moments, I realized how hungry I was for community and how deeply solitary I felt living in the president’s house with my son on a closed campus.
The semester started. Students moved into the residence halls, new retention records were set, the majority of classes took place in the classroom and COVID tests were taken as often as a daily vitamin. Time ticked slowly and anxiously away, and an exhausted November finally arrived. After being tended to like a fragile seedling, the budget looked promising. A student told me that all his friends had thought for sure they would be sent home by October, and he was so grateful that they weren’t. He loved his professors and mentioned that going to class was the only normal activity he had left from “before times.” With positivity rates skyrocketing in Texas just before Thanksgiving, the campus emptied exactly according to plan, and my son and I were left with the deer, the armadillos, the squirrels and our pets.
Missing Puzzle Pieces
As I write this, the spring term is about to begin, a week later than usual, and the university is constantly refining its COVID operations after a semester’s worth of experience. For my part, I spend most of my waking moments worrying. My sense of foreboding comes from reflecting upon what currently confronts us: a global pandemic, a national recession, a fracturing of our political culture culminating with the recent violent insurrection at the nation’s Capitol and a reckoning with our tragic current and past history of racism and murder. I feel that there are puzzle pieces missing and that, in order to make sense of all this, I must find them. I haven’t yet; the ground is shifting too quickly to process the totality of what this portends for the future.
In a graduate literature course that I took eons ago, my class was assigned Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. None of my fellow classmates liked the book. I loved it. Ford preferred his original title for a war novel without war, The Saddest Story, but his publisher persuaded him that it wouldn’t sell. By the end of the novel, the character Nancy Rufford has been driven mad and can only utter, “Shuttlecocks.” Ford uses the word as a metaphor for how fate is impervious to our desires, how we exist in a chaotic world and how the notion of right and wrong and the difference between the truth and a lie have disappeared — if, indeed, they ever existed. In midst of such disorder, I consider the embroidered message President Lincoln had sewn into his jacket prophesying his vision for healing a divided America: “One Country, One Destiny.” Words pressed against his heart as he lay dying from an assassin’s bullet.
Higher education presidents are being asked right now to negotiate seismic changes within very traditional structures — we still proudly don medieval regalia — and with a paucity of outside support. The pandemic has cost higher education billions of dollars in lost revenue that can never be realized or rerouted to aid students. The imminent collapse of colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes, both public and private, has been on the horizon for decades and will become a national crisis in the immediate future. Ironically, investing in higher education right now and increasing federal and state financial aid to students just might prevent the next pandemic, but that’s not part of any national strategy.
For the past 10 months, I have repeated the words “pivot,” “flexible” and “adjust” ad nauseum. We are all trying to keep disaster at bay, trying to vanquish the invisible virus, trying to make sense of conflicting data and shifting messages, dealing with our profound grief over the devastating human loss now compounded by the injury done to American democracy. Shuttlecocks indeed.
I take comfort in knowing that over the past several months, everyone at my university has worked endlessly hard to shape a path forward that will end the year with an operational surplus and safely see us through this time of horror, convergence and re-examination. I sit in the January gloaming on my front steps watching my puppy bury another bone and wait for the students’ arrival and classes to start. A vaccine is in sight, we have much work to do as an academic community and a nation, and I hold the university’s plan for the spring semester fast in my grip.