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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Q&A: President Monaco addresses antiracism initiatives, COVID-19 response, retirement from position

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

The Tufts Daily sat down with University President Anthony Monaco to discuss the events of the past year.

The Tufts Daily (TD): What have been the greatest challenges and accomplishments of this school year amid the pandemic?

Anthony Monaco (AM): It’s been an unprecedented year full of challenges, some which we never could have anticipated. I think we’ve weathered the storm and pulled together to come up with solutions, and I couldn’t be prouder of the community as a result. As you know, we have a number of challenges, and also a number of wonderful accomplishments. 

Let’s start with the pandemic itself, clearly the biggest challenge of the year. Despite the countless challenges, we were able to bring back most of our students for an in-person experience and education. Although we had moments where the number of infected persons on campus grew, we were able to continue holding in-person classes, and we never had to shut down the campus as we saw elsewhere. I think the response by the university community has simply been extraordinary. Students, faculty and staff have been exceptionally resilient. They’ve shown great creativity and flexibility in dealing with the many uncertainties and changes we experienced since last spring. I know it hasn’t been easy; it has required sacrifice, it has been disappointing, particularly for our graduating seniors. But people, for the most part, have met every challenge with great commitment and understanding. I am also very proud that we have made our facilities, resources and expertise available to help our community partners in the fight against COVID-19. 

So in many ways, Tufts was a model for other universities and colleges, and we generously shared guidance and tools in a way that we should all be proud of.

The pandemic also created additional challenges. It has been a different year to be on campus, and we have been unable to gather or interact socially at the normal levels, and coming together and being in person is really part of the Tufts experience and the strength of our community. This hasn’t been available to us this year. The isolation of all members of our community from each other has really posed many mental health challenges. It has limited the way in which we can respond, in addition, to certain incidents, both here at Tufts — such as the Jumbo mask incident, for example — and beyond, nationally, with some of the very upsetting events that we have seen occur elsewhere in the country. And we’ve tried to adopt innovative ways to come together, and I think we all agree that Zoom has its advantages, but also its limitations, and a lot goes missing when you can’t assemble in person. Even with Zoom, there are challenges. We had Zoom bombings, which we experienced and about which we felt very badly for those affected, but we learned some very hard lessons from those events. 

I think we are very aware of the sense of loneliness and isolation that many members of our community are feeling, and we worked hard and continue to work hard to provide the support to our students, faculty and staff during this year. Personally, just this past weekend, I was really heartened to hear the cheers coming up from the athletic fields, as our athletic teams resumed play. To me, that was a sign of hope that we really are starting to return to some semblance of normalcy. 

Another big topic for this year, and challenge as well as accomplishment, was our anti-racism work. It brought a reckoning on issues of racial justice for our country, and Tufts took major steps towards becoming an anti-racist institution. We established workstream groups to make suggestions in several areas, and are now implementing those steps. This is important work and it will unfold over time. We are committed to it, and it will make Tufts a better, more welcoming, more accessible and more just place. 

While we are doing that work towards the future, we need to make sure we are also addressing those issues on campus today, and we have to make sure that we don’t let the racism and polarization that exists across the country and throughout the world have a place at Tufts. We’ve seen a rise in antisemitism throughout the world and on college campuses. We’ve seen a spike across the country in verbal and physical attacks on members of the Asian community. We continue to see hateful acts of racism against Blacks. Working to fight these incidents and to make sure that everyone at Tufts feels safe and is respected for who they are will be an ongoing challenge here and on campuses throughout the country for years to come. 

TD: Do you have a sense of what the fall semester will look like in terms of normalcy and in-person classes, programs, events, etcetera? 

AM: Our hope is that we'll be able to get back to as close to normal as possible in the fall, we expect to have most students back in person for classes, and we want to return to in-person clubs, organizations and events. But we are not out of the woods yet. And we won't be completely out of the woods by the fall either. We're continuing to see the virus spread throughout the country. And we also must be cautious given the threat of virus variants, which we're still learning about and which are occurring throughout the globe. So as a result, some of the measures we've had in place this year will be in place in some form next fall. And even with students being vaccinated, we envision that there will be need for some form of testing to monitor the health of our campuses, and to curtail the spread of the virus if it reemerges, especially with variants that may come back, especially next winter from other parts of the world. So, we'll expect a continued need for masking and social distancing in some situations, but the social distancing will be the thing we'll look very hard at, to get us back to some semblance of normalcy.

TD: How has Tufts sought to support its host communities of Medford and Somerville during this time, and do you think that this has been a successful relationship?

AM: I do think our relationships with Medford, Somerville, Boston and Grafton are exceptionally strong at this time. I've said it many times during the year, we have very common goals. And we're almost always able to find common ground and work out solutions whenever we have differences. One of my priorities during the pandemic was to use the university's resources to help our host communities as much as possible. When the virus was emerging last summer, I wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe calling all my fellow presidents to make their facilities and resources available to their communities. We've done that in a number of ways. 

Firstly, during the summer during the surge, we housed patients, public safety personnel and hospital employees on our campuses to help with that part of the pandemic. We designed and helped implement a pooled testing program for the Medford and Somerville public school systems that has been working extremely well and actually informed a statewide effort. We provided free individual testing for local public school teachers and student-facing personnel in the schools. We provided food security groups the ability to use our refrigeration facilities so they could meet increased demand for struggling families. We've also made emergency grants to many local nonprofits. 

We appreciate all our host communities have done for us. We've worked very closely with their public health officials, they've allowed flexibility when we needed it, they allowed us to get the Mods, for example, up and running within record time last summer. We really owe them a huge debt of gratitude for moving that along at record pace, so that we would be prepared to keep everyone in our community safe.

TD: Late last summer, there was a lot of backlash from members of the Somerville and Medford communities about the fact that Tufts was reopening and having students on campus. Have you heard anything about people's opinions changing, or if you have been in communication with any of those people who initially expressed strong doubts about us coming back?

AM: I think the strong doubts were expressed because we were bringing back students who were living both on campus and off campus. And our approach was to create the largest bubble we could of testing and protocols so that the students off campus were in the same efforts the university was making to protect not only our Tufts community, but the communities of Medford and Somerville. I think that approach turned out to be the correct approach from a public health perspective. We were able to, by including everyone in our program, keep the rates very low and limit any spread, so that it never really posed risks to the surrounding community members. I think that was where they were concerned. 

It turned out that our approach was very effective in doing what we had hoped. I think the mayors in particular appreciated that. When they saw how effective this was, they asked us to help them do the same for their K–12 schools. And that's where the pooled testing was born. And that’s really allowed them to open safely, particularly this semester, and keep the education of a whole generation of students going during this pandemic year.

TD: How do you think the workstreams, which were launched back in July, have influenced and affected the Tufts anti-racist efforts? How do you see major changes coming as a result of the reports that were released in the near future?

AM: The reports from the work streams were very encouraging. We made 180 recommendations and we committed, as a university, a minimum of $25 million over five years to make sure as many of the recommendations as possible can get enacted. Some of the changes have already been made or are in the process of being made, and others will be longer term. 

For example, the admitted undergraduate Class of 2025 is the most diverse in our history. The majority of the admitted students, domestic students in particular, are students of color, and the percentage of admitted Black students grew significantly this year. Those results are because we were very intentional about reaching out to new demographics of students and populations across the country and places where we might not be as familiar or seen as accessible. We've also backed up that work by increasing the financial aid, making it possible for students to come to Tufts, despite their limited resources. That's been a priority for me throughout my presidency, and it continues to be a focus. 

We're also focused on the faculty. We in the Tufts Medical Center have jointly applied for an NIH grant to increase recruitment and retention of faculty in the STEM fields, with increasing the diversity of those individuals.

Longer term, here are other areas that we're trying to follow up on recommendations, for example in public safety, which includes the formation of a working group charged with making further recommendations related to the arming status of campus police officers. We also are going to be increasing the use of non sworn personnel for routine services that do not require a uniformed officer, and increasing the use of mental health professionals or highly trained staff to respond to calls related to mental health matters. We're also currently in the middle of a national search for a new Executive Director of Public Safety. 

TD: Historically, we've seen Tufts presidents turn over about every 10 years. You've been here since 2011. When do you see yourself moving on? And do you know what direction we'll be going in?

AMI planned with the Board of Trustees that I would remain in my position as president through the end of the Brighter World Campaign, which is currently expected to wrap up in 2023. Sometime within that frame, I anticipate the Board will begin a new search for the next president. I will continue to lead the university in tackling important challenges ahead, such as our anti-racism work. It’s been a great honor to be the president and serve in this role. I'm grateful for every moment, and I look forward to continuing that work until I depart the university. But for now, it's at least another year or so, and then the trustees will make an announcement about another search.

TD: Another question that has been bouncing around the student body is related to your fish tank, which we are seeing a fish in today, but which often looks empty. We'd love to hear about this fish.

AM: Well, it's never empty. Dottie is the name of the fish. She's a koi fish. But she's a known mutant called ‘mirror scales.’ I had seen in an article I read about mirror fish as being a variant in koi fish and I spotted her in a tank at Petco out of about 100 other koi fish, and as a geneticist, I guess I could pick out the mutant. She's got no scales on her body, except very dramatic, shiny scales at particular points. She is alone. And the tank doesn't have much in it, but that's because she's extremely disabled and can't swim properly. She has a spinal deformity, she kind of rotates to turn and her tail is not at a normal angle to her body, so I've decided to keep the tank as a limited environment because I worry if I put things in it — and I had this fear when she did have things in the tank — she could tear a fin or damage her body by any sudden movement. But despite those issues, she's a very happy and healthy fish. I also have four other koi fish in a very large 400-gallon tank in the basement of Gifford House, but Dottie has to be in a special tank because of her disability. But we enjoy each other's company.

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