On May 9, Connie Book will complete her 800th day as president of Elon University. Since taking over in March 2018, she has faced numerous challenges including significant weather closures, a movement to unionize non-tenure track faculty and most recently, the mumps outbreak. Despite these, Book said she always tries to remain optimistic.
“When I was just coming into the job I went to a workshop for new presidents, and at that workshop, they asked us to make a list of things we thought would happen. And my list was all positive things,” Book said. “Many of those things have happened. But we've also had other things, and it's not so much that they're negative, it's just that they're challenging.”
However, Book and other university presidents could be facing their greatest challenge now as they work to manage large institutions during a time of uncertainty. During a pandemic that has taken the lives of over 76,000 Americans, the coronavirus, which is also known as COVID-19, has had unprecedented effects on millions of people across the country.
In an interview with Elon News Network, Book reflected on her past decisions during this pandemic, while looking forward to the potential challenges the university will face in the future.
President Book discusses past decisions
It was mid-January when Book sat with her senior staff for the first time to discuss a new virus spreading around China.
“It's interesting now to look back, but during that meeting, we were hearing for the first time even the word ‘coronavirus,’” Book said.
The administration was concerned about the safety of a group of students and two faculty members traveling around China on a Winter Term trip. With the planned itinerary avoiding Hubei province-the suspected source of the virus-Book’s team concluded students and faculty would avoid any initial impact from the virus.
Even with the virus still largely limited to China, Book was already curious about the potential effects it could have on Elon's campus.
“Do you think this coronavirus is gonna be a thing?” Book asked in that early meeting with her senior staff.
As the virus continued to spread, President Donald Trump imposed a travel restriction on Jan. 31, limiting the entry of foreign nationals, who had recently visited China, into the U.S. This decision led to Elon’s partner to suspend their Beijing program, forcing students to come home.
In February, the virus made its way to Europe and caused an outbreak of cases in the Lombardy region of Italy, which is northwest of Florence. With 21 Elon students and one faculty member based at Elon’s Florence study abroad center, it was up to Book to decide the future of the program.
“There was a moment we were going back and forth,” Book said about a meeting her team held to decide the fate of the program. “After a little bit of conversation, I asked the question, ‘Can you recommend to the students that they stay?’ So we had been talking about making a recommendation to leave, and then I asked it in the reverse.”
With no one able to make that recommendation, Elon decided to suspend its most popular study abroad program on Feb. 25. The decision was made out of concern for the soon-to-be overwhelmed health care system in Italy as well as the potential for a country-wide lockdown.
“We were worried that we might reach a point where our students in Italy would not be able to return to the United States,” Communications Manager of Global Education Shanna Van Beek said. “Should the situation progress to where students are being quarantined or restricted from returning back to the United States, that would be a very serious situation.”
For students studying in Florence, the decision felt abrupt.
“I was so mad, so upset,” Elon junior Sam Berger said. “I think it was harder for us because we had nothing to prepare us.”
At the time, Elon was one of only a handful of schools that decided to send students in Italy home, a decision that made national news. Book said that even though she was confident in her decision, it was also the toughest one she’s had to make since the pandemic began.
“I actually received some criticism about pulling the trigger too soon at that time,” Book said. “I remember that as being the moment when I knew things had changed. That was a big decision, and it was going to affect our future decisions, because I couldn't do one thing in Italy and do something different in another CDC [elevated] country.”
On March 11, as it became clear that the virus was spreading more quickly, President Book announced that the university would suspend in-class instruction and move classes online for at least two weeks following spring break.
“We were watching a few other schools go online for the rest of this semester,” Book said. “The decision was basically to see—to buy some time—to make a more informed decision.”
Book said that she tries to make data-driven decisions and avoid focusing on the fear surrounding the virus.
After pushing the final decision out for another few weeks, it was announced on March 30 that in-person instruction would be suspended for the remainder of the semester, forcing an in-person graduation ceremony to be moved to the fall.
President Book discusses current initiatives
With an empty campus, Book said she has kept to a routine of waking up early, taking a walk and checking on her mother, who has been in isolation for two months now. Instead of fundraising and traveling, Book now finds herself with significant screen time, as most of her meetings are now virtual. In the evenings her quarantine activities include reading and watching the British television series “Foyle’s War.”
Since the suspension of in-person classes, Book has created several groups to address issues relating to the coronavirus. Book invoked the Emergency Operations Center for the first time in Elon’s history in order to oversee the university’s response to COVID-19. The team is made up of about 30 individuals who represent different areas of the university working to provide general guidance.
Book said following the Emergency Operations Team meetings, the vice presidents meet to finalize decisions and provide a space for the university’s top leaders to update each other on their progress.
Book has also tasked a separate working group with enacting plans to progress campus operations once Gov. Roy Cooper lifts the stay-at-home order in North Carolina.
With numerous committees and groups, Book said she applauds the shared governance model.
“It really is a ground-up effort. In what I've been so pleased about during our response to the emerging issues around the coronavirus, is that each of our established systems have been working,” Book said.
President Book discusses future plans
While many groups are tasked with working the behind-the-scenes operations of the university, one group is specifically designated to plan a fall re-opening. The Task Force on Fall Semester 2020, chaired by President Emeritus Leo Lambert, consists of a group of 22 faculty and staff members. The task force is working to create an operational plan with the goal of students returning to campus in the fall.
“I'm confident Elon is going to be open in the fall, and we'll return to our residential model,” Book said. “It's how we do that. That, I needed a task force working on.”
The task force is expected to deliver their recommendations by the end of this month, with a public announcement expected in early June. Book said the excitement of a fall return should be cautioned with new guidelines and restrictions.
“We have to take a holistic view of what a classroom setting will look like. And we're already looking at blueprints about how can you separate these desks six feet apart and creating a classroom environment that falls within the CDC guidelines,” Book said.
Book said there is a lot of creativity involved and floated the potential reality of students wearing masks in certain settings, getting tested for COVID-19 and downloading contact tracing software on their phones, which would monitor interactions with infected individuals and notify them of their exposure.
Outside the classroom, there are other major concerns being considered including where to house sick students and how to create a touch-free food service at the campus’ dining halls.
“I had another college president tell me that colleges were like land-based cruise ships, there can be a lot of exchange of disease and infection,” Book said.
Book said Elon is now more prepared to face the effects of the coronavirus because of the university-wide mumps outbreak during the fall semester, which resulted in 13 cases.
“Our campus just ended up being a little healthier through the winter season last year because of all of that,” Book said. “So, I do predict some upsides to these precautions not just keeping us free from COVID, but also keeping us generally healthier.”
However, with new precautions, the potential for an increased demand in supplies during the fall comes at a cost. The university is already projecting a 5% budget reduction, citing the costs of housing, meal plans and study abroad return flight reimbursements. With the cancellation of several revenue sources for the university, including housing and sporting events, Book said she’s working with the board of trustees to amend the budget for next year. According to documents from the budget committee presented to faculty on April 3, some projections predict a cut of $45 to $90 million over the next three years.
While Book said she was unaware of those numbers, she said those projections will likely be exceeded when the costs of increased staffing for sanitation, different food options and other health care needs are factored in.
“We will do some tightening of our belts next year,” Book said.
Provost Aswani Volety said the university will try to keep investing in students during this time.
“First and foremost is students and student experiences.… That’s our primary focus,” Volety said. “It’s tempting to take the easy way out, but I don’t think we want to make those difficult choices if we don’t have to.”
To help offset the cost of adjusting to life after the coronavirus, Elon has received nearly $3 million in federal aid as part of the CARES Act, which provided a cumulative $6 billion to higher education institutions across the country. While half of those costs are required to be distributed to students through financial aid, Book said the other $1.5 million will help offset some of the approximately $13.5 million used to reimburse students.
“We will know precisely how much this is when all of our students finish requesting their credit,” Senior Vice President Gerald Whittington said during a recent budget forum. “Each one of the students is a special case.”
Whittington said the university has multiple scenarios planned to try to combat the negative financial impact of the virus.
“The virus is going to determine our timeline about choosing between scenarios,” Whittington said.
With a relatively small endowment sitting at nearly $256 million, according to the most recent report, Book says fall enrollment will be crucial to generating a budget.
“In the middle of all of this, you learn what is essential, right?” President Book said. “You learn, okay, we can't live without this. We have to replicate this virtually. You learn about leadership, about how you embrace change and look to the horizon about what's next.”
The hardships brought on by the coronavirus are likely to continue, as experts say the coronavirus is likely to linger. However, Book said she is focused on the future.
“I've really been focused as a leader on helping people see the horizon. We're going to get through this, and that horizon is coming,” Book said.
Kyra O’Connor and Amanda Gibson contributed to this report.