Kira Johnson / Daily Collegian

One year of COVID at UMass: An interview with Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy

Reopening campus for the spring, student behavior, and expectations for the fall

March 13, 2021

It was exactly a year ago when Kumble Subbaswamy, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, informed his school community that campus would be closed for the remainder of the semester.

There were barely more than 100 presumptive cases of the coronavirus in Massachusetts at the time, but Gov. Charlie Baker had already declared a state of emergency and would shortly order a two-week stay at home advisory. UMass has since weathered a full transition to online education, a fall semester with limited on-campus student life and a spring semester marked by a notable case spike in its first two weeks.

One year after closing the campus, the Daily Collegian spoke with Subbaswamy about the decisions he and his administration have made as they navigated the pandemic.

The conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, touched upon his intention to reopen campus in the fall and the subsequent reversal of this plan, the return of more than 5,000 students to campus the following spring, how he has dealt with students violating the school’s health and safety guidelines and what the he expects the Fall 2021 semester to look like.

A year ago this week, there were about 100 presumptive cases in Massachusetts. Seeing the pandemic only begin to develop, here and in other states, what was weighing on your mind when you determined that students would not return to campus after spring break?

To be completely honest, until the day the governor declared a state of emergency, I and a lot of my colleagues thought that higher education was going to be largely unaffected. We knew that travel was going to be restricted and some of those things came along, and we were already taking steps to curtail study abroad and minor things like that.

When the state of emergency was announced, that’s when it hit on all of us, this is far more serious than we had been thinking it would be. It was rapidly developing. When we allowed students to go back home for spring break, we thought they would be back maybe a week later than normal, and we would resume face-to-face classes. Overall, it was a period of great uncertainty and the situation was changing from day-to-day, and we had to adjust accordingly.

Could you take me through that period on the logistical side, as you attempted to move the entire school online? What goes into bringing that many people from a campus setting into a virtual setting?

We really were very fortunate that the University of Massachusetts in general, but UMass Amherst in particular, had a history of being online. UMass Online is a 20-year-old proposition and our online MBA is world-famous. So, quite a bit of our colleges had been familiar with running online courses with our regular faculty.

Three years ago, we started talking about how we cannot continue to be available only in Amherst, where people can only come to Amherst to take classes. And so, this concept of being a “university without walls” is something that we had been talking about in more general terms anyway. The infrastructure to make the transition, the software platforms and so forth, we’d already invested in. Because of all that preparation and hard work from our faculty over spring break, we were able to make the transition, and our students adjusted accordingly.

As we moved into the spring and summer and you began to develop the original fall plan, what was your hope of what the semester would look like?

I think a lot of our focus was on in-person classes certainly for all of those who needed an in-person component. And frankly, we were also very focused on first-year student experience, because that first year is so critical in determining their path toward college success. We thought that if we brought back roughly 60 percent of what we would normally get on campus, we could accommodate these particular needs. But we knew all along that if external circumstances changed, we would have to change. And that’s sort of what happened.

Unfortunately, as you know, there was a beginning of a surge in COVID cases throughout the country as we were approaching the second week of August. Frankly, we hadn’t quite built up the testing capacity that would ensure that we would be able to test everyone twice a week. We didn’t feel as confident as we should have been that we could pull off all the necessary protocols that would ensure health and safety, given the surge already occurring in Massachusetts and elsewhere. And so, at essentially the last minute, we decided that we would go to a minimum number of students on campus. That was a big switch and it really affected a lot of people’s plans and desires. I think, in hindsight, that was — you know, you’re always trying to balance public health considerations against our academic mission. Our academic mission certainly includes mostly in-person, immersive education. And that balance is what really has really guided us throughout the year.

This was a period where Massachusetts had incredibly low cases. Do you think in hindsight, given the dip in cases and the fact that testing capacity hadn’t been built up, that you were overly optimistic about the chances of a reopened campus in the fall?

In some sense, we’re always trying to be optimistic, that is, plan for the best and prepare for the worst. No one could have predicted the surge throughout the country. Yes, it’s true that it came later to Massachusetts than elsewhere. But remember that our student body comes from all over the country and all over the world. Based on what we knew, we made the best possible decision. Of course, we know more about the progression of the virus now. Early on, we thought it was mostly spreading through touch. And then it was well, if you had social distancing, that was enough, and the particles will not propagate. Then masking became important. It’s all been evolving, and even now it’s evolving, because the new strains. It’s a brand-new virus.

Many schools that reopened in the fall didn’t have large scale testing capacity or test aggressively upon arrival. As cases spiked at some of these other schools — I’m thinking about the University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, some of these large Southern schools — was there a sense that you had avoided an unsafe situation?

Certainly, no one takes any pleasure in other people’s worries. But I think that it became pretty clear to us, as the science was developing, that aggressive testing and contact tracing was really critical in controlling the spread of the virus, because it became clear that we cannot avoid the virus. You have to be able to control it. And that’s really where our entire focus is. I think those who thought that they didn’t need to take these measures later on did have setbacks, they went into lock downs, and then came back into control.

But, even with the best laid plans, you don’t have total control. For the spring, we thought we were entirely prepared, as well as we could be, to control the spread. But the very first week, there was such an alarming surge in positive cases that we had to go into a lockdown for two weeks and bring things under control. I think there’s no guarantees, because ultimately, you’re dependent on the social behavior of 18- to 22-year-olds. And when you have large numbers, it doesn’t take very many to get us into these kinds of public health hazard situations.

I’d like to expand on that a little bit. Many of the students and faculty we interview tell us they are somewhat split. They believe that these are 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds that we’re talking about, many of whom hadn’t socialized normally in a year. But they also say that we’re a year into this thing. People should know what they are and aren’t supposed to do.

How do you respond to those in your school community, saying that reopening these dorms and bringing all these students back might have put too much trust in the hands of these students?

The first answer I would give is that the trust has actually been proven right. Even at the early stages, we had near 90 percent compliance with the rules we had established. I just think the initial missteps on the part of some of our students was they thought small gatherings were safe. There was a lot of write up about a party at one fraternity or another, as if those were super spreader events. I mean, first of all, they should not have done that. They are all really putting the whole community at risk and we took steps to suspend those fraternities. But what we found from our contact tracing was [that] it was really small groups, where people weren’t wearing masks, thinking it’s completely safe.

That’s what contributed to the spread. I think people thought that, “Well, if I’m with five friends, I don’t need to be wearing masks. Because I’m being tested, everything is fine.” I don’t think people understood how, I would call it sneaky, this virus is. We went into the lockdown. But if you look at how rapidly the positivity rate has come down week after week, we’re operating as we expected to be operating right now. We’re probably going to be reducing the risk level even one more level going forward, as soon as people understand that the warm weather doesn’t give them a free license to go into non-compliance. But I think by and large we were prepared for a surge and took steps to contain it.

Would I have wished that hadn’t happened? Obviously, yes, because it put a lot of hardship on compliant students, students who were doing what they were supposed to do. We keep emphasizing that individual behavior has an impact on the collective safety and collective comfort of our community. And, unfortunately, a small number of students were being selfish, being not good citizens of the community. Our messaging mostly has been on the positive side of encouraging student agency and student responsibility, even though all along the way, we’ve taken action on those who were not in compliance and violating the Code of Student Conduct and pandemic requirements and so forth. But now, we’ve gotten to more direct messaging about disciplinary expectations and consequences to students.

There is this very distinct, limited portion of students who have generally defied these rules at every turn and as we saw last weekend at the townhouses, in grand fashion. What more do you think can be done to dissuade even this slim portion of the student body from this type of behavior?

First and foremost, the students have to accept the responsibility.

— Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy

We know the trouble spots in town. So, trying to have more of a security presence, especially during the warm weekends. When things happen off campus, we need the full cooperation of the town and the landlords and so forth. We’re working more to impress upon them that the whole town is at risk. And so, what are the additional steps we can take jointly in order to prevent things from getting to that state in the first place? Maybe that lockdown we went into, but you know, more importantly, interim suspensions and things like that, where we’re basically saying as soon as something like this happens and you’re associated with it, you are no longer our student until we do the investigation.

Certainly, our disciplinary stance has increased. And we hope the combination of that along with working with the town, we can prevent this from happening again. One other thing about that particular party is that it was broken up very quickly. Obviously, the pictures persist, but in all likelihood, the spread of the virus was far more contained than it might have been otherwise. I commend the Amherst Police Department for the speed with which they broke it up. So far, we haven’t seen any signs of significant spread coming from that.

What was your expectation of what students would do in terms of forming bubbles or small group socialization? Did you feel that the early semester small group interactions that spread the virus were within your expectation of what would happen during the semester?

No, certainly not. One of the lessons learned is that the first week, as students came in, finished their quarantines, and then got together, we had not gotten into giving them sufficient guidance on forming social bubbles amongst themselves and staying within those bubbles and being cautious outside. I think in hindsight, we probably should have been more formal in the way we did some of that. That was one [area] where we might have done things differently to help our students understand what works and what doesn’t work.

With the spike in cases that we saw in those first 14 or so days of the semester, was that beyond your expectations of what you might see when these students came back?

Certainly, it was. And it was to the point where, if that trend had continued, it would have threatened our ability to quarantine, isolate and do contact tracing. It was already putting heavy strain on our contact tracing. We had to call upon the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to take over the contact tracing for off-campus students because the volume was just too great for us to handle both on- and off-campus. One hundred-plus cases a day, in successive days, puts a tremendous strain on quarantine and isolation and contact tracing. We just couldn’t afford even one more day of 100-plus cases, and that’s the reason for the sudden lockdown. We had to get that situation under control.

The residence halls opened in the spring with thousands more students than there were in the fall, many of whom didn’t have in-person classes and really didn’t have a direct need to be on campus academically. Why were these students invited back? What reasoning were you considering in planning the spring that said we should bring all these students back?

Let’s be very clear that UMass Amherst is an institution of immersive educational experience. We are not a commuter school; we have one of the largest residential living complexes in the country. And it’s also well known that that first-year experience of socializing into a community determines to a large part whether students successfully graduate in four years or not. We felt very strongly that, in their total educational development and social development, having at least one semester of exposure to college life — responsible college life — was essential. And that’s the reason we focused on inviting first-year students, in addition to the ones who needed to be on campus. I’m glad to say that 90-plus percent are in fact complying by those rules. And in fact, that compliance has increased now since the lockdown.

So, if the semester were ending today — in the context of what we’ve seen over the previous seven weeks — would you consider it a successful return to campus?

Look, the measure of success is that people remain largely healthy, and they complete their academic goals about making advances towards their degrees. And so by those definitions, yes, I would definitely say that it would be successful to finish today. If the same thing continues, and everyone completes their coursework and makes progress toward their degree and goes home healthy, then I think that success. We had hoped to do more socially, and I think we fell behind by a couple of weeks because of the spike. Our student affairs people had prepared a lot of activities that would have been controlled activities to help with the socialization that I talked about for first-year students especially. So that’s the only glitch, I would say in terms of our spring planning and defining success.

In August, you announced that the school had a $170 million loss in operating budget and people, correctly or not, have associated that with reopening the dorms. Was this taken into consideration in any way into the decision to reopen the residence halls?

As I said, the primary considerations are always our academic mission and public health. Really, those are the two primary factors. A tertiary factor, certainly, is the fact that a lot of our people are employed in our housing and dining [services]. These are some of our lowest-paid employees. And, yes, their livelihood and disruption to their lives, certainly is not something we would take lightly. But if that were the sole determinant, we would just simply have been operating fully. Even as it was, when we opened in the fall, we mostly sent everyone on an extended furlough in those two areas. By spring, we really felt like we had learned enough and we had all the testing and other protocols in place that we could safely accomplish our mission, which is as an immersive residential education institution, giving particularly those who need it in person classes, but also the first-year students who needed, in our opinion, to establish a cultural affiliation with the campus and with college life.

As we anticipate this fall semester, and we look ahead to what this next semester will look like, what will be the central metrics that you’ll be looking at when you determine what this fall might be like on campus?

If you look at all the signs of what’s going on with the pandemic, with vaccines being already available, and President Biden having a target of May 1 for all categories to be eligible for vaccination, and the fact that nationally and regionally the positivity rate is going down, we have every reason to believe that by September things should be mostly back to normal.

The operating assumption as we go forward in planning is to think that the pandemic will be largely under control and that we can operate, probably still masking and some other restrictions in place, but largely in-person operations as we have done pre-pandemic. We’ll plan around that, always having in mind that some isolation and quarantine facilities would have to be set aside.

Do you have a rough schedule of when you anticipate a fall plan being on the books?

We’re going to have to make announcements about what we anticipate within the next couple of weeks, because people have to make decisions. I would say, in the next three weeks or so. Fall is sufficiently far away, though, that lots of things can happen. So, I don’t anticipate that the plans will remain entirely fixed, even if we make them, but the large assumption here is that things are going to be near normal.

The one other thing that’s been left out of this return to normal has been commencement both, for the 2020 graduates and the upcoming 2021 graduates. Are there plans in place that we can look forward to for when those two classes might be in-person for graduation?

For Class of 2021, there’s a committee, including students, that has been looking at options on what can be done. They’re really looking for some way of having an in-person ceremony in parts or something like that. The real strong desire is to have some kind of an in-person celebration, in-person recognition of their achievements. Similarly, for the Class of 2020, in less than two weeks, I’m sure that there’ll be an announcement. The goal is to have an in-person ceremony specifically addressing the Class of 2020 as well, but timing is a little uncertain. But sometime in the fall is probably what’s going to happen.

No University of Massachusetts leader in your position has had to deal with a situation like this in the modern era. But unfortunately, at some point perhaps 100 years from now, one of your successors is going to see it again. What advice would you pass down to that future chancellor that you wish you knew a year ago this week?

First and foremost, flexibility. The second would be open and frequent communication and transparency. You want to bring people along. And third, even thicker skin than normal, because no one is going to be happy. Everything you do will be second-guessed, and third-guessed, and you can’t let that affect you. You’re trying to balance public health and your academic mission and you have to make the best call that you think balances that in the best possible way. There is not a single decision you make, in any circumstances, but under circumstances like this, that will go without people second-guessing and being very unhappy about it. Focus on what your responsibility is, which is to balance those two and make the best possible decision.

Will Katcher can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @will_katcher.

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