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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Q&A: Monaco outlines possible return in fall, reflects on turbulent year

Tufts University President Anthony Monaco poses for a portrait in front of Ballou Hall on April 30, 2019.

Bookended by a string of consecutive incidents of hate and a disruptive pandemic, the 2019–20 academic year witnessed significant changes to Tufts' campus. University President Anthony Monaco joined the Daily via Zoom to discuss these developments and more. 

The Tufts Daily (TD): What were some of the significant issues, accomplishments and challenges this year before the coronavirus pandemic caused the campus to shut down?

Anthony Monaco (AM): We had a lot of new academic programs, many new graduate programs in fields such as computer engineering, global business administration, health informatics and analytics — which was very popular — human-robot interaction, and also sustainability. We also had our first undergraduate program called Tufts Civic Semester which enabled participants to engage in a semester of service before beginning their studies at Tufts. 

We also had a lot of new leaders joining us, including our new provost and senior vice president, Nadine Aubry, and three new deans, Alastair Cribb, Nadeem Karimbux and Rachel Kyte at the Cummings School, the Dental School and the Fletcher School, respectively. Another very important person in my team is Mike Howard as the executive vice president and a new chief information officer, Chris Sedore. We also had a change in leadership after the research and scholarship strategic plan was completed and Caroline Genco from the [Tufts University School of Medicine] joined us as the vice provost for research. It was certainly an interesting year to have so many new leaders that had to gel in the way they worked together and keep that dynamic momentum going but we seem to have done that very well.

We also opened up a number of renovated or new facilities: Barnum-Dana, which was offline for some time, has now come back with its new inhabitants. We also got well underway and finished at least the steel before the COVID-19 construction halted for the Joyce Cummings Center down by the MBTA stop. Our new squash facilities were completed. We had our first home match there. We also completed new solar installations on the roofs of Lewis Hall and the Science and Engineering Complex and we’re continuing plans to expand our renewable energy portfolio on the Medford/Somerville campus. 

We also enhanced our undergraduate life with all the renovations and the completion of CoHo and making that available for the first time, and renovated Miller and Houston, and as I’ve said the eight-court facility for squash.

The [School of the Museum of Fine Arts] also got some additions with a new cafe that’s helped to strengthen their community, so they have more options for food and drink during the day. At the [Tufts University School of Dental Medicine], we continue on the installation of the elevator to enhance the access, [because] as you know when they finished the new entrance to the dental school, they needed another elevator to help with the volume of patients. We understand that will be one of the first projects to be completed when things go back to action in the next couple weeks. 

We had a fantastic celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Africana Center. We had a big event here in a tent out at the back of Gifford House, and we had a lot of alumni come back who hadn’t engaged with the university even since graduation. It was wonderful to see so many people there to celebrate that important milestone. 

We renewed a number of commitments. We joined a lot of colleges and universities in an amicus brief reaffirming our commitment to DACA and undocumented students. We completed the work on the task force on student mental health, and that report put through a lot of changes and processes, policies and resources for students, and I want to thank all the students, faculty and staff who engaged with that, which was really quite a long process over almost two years.

We’re tremendously grateful also for those who helped us in the Brighter World campaign. We are now very close to the $1 billion mark of $1.5 billion, and we received a lot of funding through our annual Giving Tuesday last November and that was quite a record-breaking success.

We’ve also been able to strengthen our academic funding through the campaign. We’ve already had commitments for 47 new professorships, and 21 of those were made through a professor partnership challenge which was just coming to completion in the last year.

Lastly, one of the most noteworthy actions was the removal of the Sackler name from all the programs and facilities at the School of Medicine. We also pledged to increase our support of programs aimed at the prevention and treatment of substance abuse and addiction. These were guided by the findings of the Stern Report, which we made available to the members of our community. We’re very grateful to the many members of our community for their contributions to our discussion on this important issue. 

TD: Since campus closed in March, is there anything you wish Tufts had handled differently? Is there anything you’re particularly proud of in the way Tufts handled the pandemic?

AM: I don’t think I would say there’s anything major that I wish I had done differently, but I am also very fortunate that we had such amazing faculty, staff, alumni and friends of Tufts who stepped up to help us in this challenging time and allowed us to help others. They’ve really shown exceptional resilience and imaginative creativity and innovation in the way that we had to move to transitioning to distance learning. 

Also, I was very fortunate to have logistics expertise from our Fletcher fellows who were on campus; they really aided us in trying to change our operations to what was needed at the time. And that allowed us to make our facilities and spaces available to help our communities. It also provided a model for other universities and colleges who then were able to generously share their campuses with their first responders and medical personnel that were in their communities. 

There were always going to be small hiccups along the way, but I am very, very fortunate that we have such amazing people at Tufts who were stepping up and making sure that our students were looked after.

TD: Do you believe campus will reopen in the fall?

AM: The trajectory of how the pandemic runs its course over the summer is important in the scenarios that we’re planning for, but even if we open in September, or a month later, or in January, we still need to make detailed logistical plans on how we’re going to run residential life, how we’re going to run the work environment, including the classrooms, how we’re going to do health surveillance, how we’re going to do tests, how we’re going to isolate students who are COVID-19 positive and what’s our strategy for quarantine.

[Gov. Charlie Baker] just announced opening procedures for May 18. That’s going to be phased. We’re aligning our opening and repopulating with that phased approach, so we’re going to be starting this summer with our research labs and clinics, and then testing our procedures and protocols in those scenarios, in those work environments and those clinical environments. With students going back to get their accreditation, especially in the clinical environment, it’s important that we learn how that works on the smaller scale so that when we scale that up to September, we’ve learned from any issues that have arisen and their solutions.

On the educational side, we know that we are going to have students that are not able to get back to campus because of international travel, visa restrictions or certain health restrictions. And then we know we have many students who are eager to get back to campus to have the residential experience. We know that we will be catering to two audiences, but the majority we would like to see back on campus. For that purpose, the faculty are thinking in their departments how they will teach courses, but it will have to have some part of a hybrid model in order to cater to at least the lectures in some classes that are large, which we also may be restricted in delivering on campus — it depends on what the final guidance is. So you can see how you could spend time in the classroom in smaller groups for discussion and do that on Zoom for those who can’t come back, but the lectures for many classes may be either captured [on campus] or prepared beforehand as we did at the end of spring semester. 

I’m not saying that’s the only model we’re looking at, but that’s the model we’re preparing, because it’s what we think would be able to cater to the educational needs of all of our students. 

TD: Has the Stern report and the reaction to the decision to remove the Sackler name caused changes in how the university handles donations? Specifically, are there more structured processes for accepting donations now?

AM: We’re very committed to learning from this episode in the university’s history and to be directed by the findings of the Stern report, so we’re taking action on all of his recommendations. We’ve implemented many changes that emerged from our discussions following the Stern report and we’re doing very deep background checks on all potential major gift donors and also those we’re considering for honorary degrees — it’s a very similar process. We have created guiding principles for accepting gifts, which are going to be posted to our website, and we’ve organized a senior leadership faculty review committee that would then look at those donors and do that due diligence before we accept or go down a further path of a conversation about a gift. However, due to the COVID-19 crisis, the group has not had to have its first meeting yet, but it probably will get going in the next couple of months. 

TD: How much progress has the Responsible Investment Advisory Group (RIAG) made in evaluating Tufts’ investments in the fossil fuel industry?

AM: When we last were discussing the RIAG there was a lot of discussion about the membership, and I think we solved all those issues. Unfortunately, again, the COVID-19 crisis hit, and the investment office was all hands on deck as they watched our endowment drop. It’s now recovered partly as everyone’s has, but we didn’t think it was the right time to launch that in the middle of the crisis and expect people to focus on that singular issue. I just had a conversation with Mike Howard saying we need to get this started now that the major part of the crisis is getting easier. We might be able to get this going by the end of the summer, maybe when students are back. There will be a couple of new members because some of the student members will have graduated. We just had the conversation to reignite it.

TD: You co-wrote a statement last month that expressed disapproval over Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) winning the Office for Campus Life’s Collaboration Award, especially with respect to SJP’s support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)  movement. How do you respond to the calls from SJP and others for the administration to rescind that statement and issue an apology?

AM: I think the statement that I co-signed was very clear. We can’t endorse an award that recognizes a group whose concerning policy positions include association with the BDS movement, elements of which I view as antisemitic. So for that reason we will not be rescinding the statement. 

TD: The U.S. Department of Education earlier this month announced long-anticipated changes to Title IX regulations, and you wrote a message to the Tufts community in response on May 7. What may the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Steering Committee recommend regarding implementation, and how does Tufts plan on responding? Can you describe the first meeting?

AM: I thought it was a very good meeting, given we were discussing very disappointing changes to some areas of the guidance and regulations around sexual misconduct in educational institutions. The committee is united in trying to work through those. We have excellent legal experts, and the [Office of Equal Opportunity] has experts and professionals in sexual misconduct investigation. Both of those groups are known nationally for their expertise in this area, so they’ve already been able to analyze these changes and to parse them into how they would map to our protocols and procedures, and where we are clearly still within the guidelines and where we might have to make changes. And then committee members, including all the students who represent various constituencies on campus, are working with those professionals to change our policies and procedures accordingly. 

We did this very successfully in the first major changes when the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force was working, and the students had a major contribution to those changes. I hope this work — which is going to be split into two sub-groups, working on two of the biggest areas we need to focus on — that, in the next 100 days, we're going to be able to implement this when the students come back. It’s going to be challenging, but I am confident that we have the commitment of our staff and the students at the Steering Committee to make that happen.

TD: What are some specific areas of concern over the new Title IX regulations? 

AM: The definition of harassment is something that is different, and also how cross-examination would work. I think those are the big areas that need some work, and there are others. We’re still trying to interpret everything and understand things. [We are] talking to our colleagues from other institutions [about] how they’re interpreting this to their current policies. 

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.