As his 12-year tenure as president of Tufts University comes to a close, Anthony Monaco sat down with the Daily to discuss his legacy, accomplishments and hopes for the university’s future.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tufts Daily (TD): President Monaco, thank you so much. We’re so honored to be doing your end-of-year interview. The first question we had was — knowing that your time as president would be coming to a close at the end of this year — what kind of experience has the last year been for you?
Anthony Monaco (AM): It’s been an experience which I would describe as normal but not normal. We as a community went back to many in-person traditions. The Joyce Cummings Center and the opening of the Green Line featured quite prominently in our sense of coming back. There were many more events at the Cummings Center, the views were wonderful, the spaces were great for students and the ballroom as an open space for either student- or university-run events really made a difference. It was a moment of pride coming out of the pandemic that we could accomplish that. It really changed the nucleus of activity in a sense.
I would say that the TCU Senate and the events they organized really made us feel like we were back to normal, and people were interacting well. But at the same time, it’s on a backdrop of national political divide, increased gun violence, increased mental health disorders in this generation and looming climate change, which is a major challenge.
I feel that, although we’re back to normal, there’s an underlying feeling that things are not the same and that challenges have increased, which feeds back into the sense of community. The Tufts community showed its strength during the pandemic, and I hope it continues to show strength against these major challenges, because universities have a lot to offer in that realm of understanding and also thinking about how to apply understanding to help society.
I really have enjoyed this last year. It was wonderful to celebrate with students and faculty and staff at many different events, which did feel like normal. But I guess underneath is this feeling that things aren’t the same.
TD: Are you confident moving forward?
AM: I certainly am confident about the role that universities will play in rising to these challenges and the strength of community here to advance many values and principles as we rise to those challenges. But at the same time, sometimes, everyone feels that some of them are so overwhelming. It’s hard to marshal one’s optimism all the time, and I think that’s a feeling that — coming out of the pandemic — many people feel.
TD: Looking back, which accomplishments are you proudest of as president?
AM: Overall, there’s several that I’m most proud of. One is that we’ve been able to show our research potential and ability to garner interdisciplinary grants between schools, focused on important challenges. At the same time, we haven’t lost our sense of culture, the student-faculty relationship and the sense of community which we’ve built that on. It’s really important that one doesn’t pursue research at the cost of the values and community that you’ve built. You don’t want to lessen the student experience in doing so, and I think we accomplished that.
The second biggest thing I’m proud of is the increase in diversity of the student body in particular and ongoing efforts to increase the faculty diversity. What we tried to do when we saw increased diversity in applications is reflect that in the students we admitted. We increased financial aid, but we also provided support for the different backgrounds that students bring with them and their different identities through the identity centers and other support systems, through the School of Arts and Sciences and centrally as well.
When one sees such a change in your student body, that has to be reflected in the faculty, and that’s a lot of the work ahead and part of our efforts, but one must also provide the support and programming to make people feel included from day one. That’s a tall order that we will always be working on. The third is how we handled the pandemic and came out of it stronger as a community and a university.
TD: Is there anything over the last 12 years that you wish you would have done differently?
AM: I’m not one for looking back. Every time there’s a challenge, particularly one which requires you to get feedback from the community, you really do need to listen before you make a decision. I think what I’ve learned over the 12 years is how to get feedback from the community better and when to do it fully.
Sometimes, when you don’t have enough time, you’ve got a principled value decision to make for the university and all the evidence is there, it’s not time to build consensus, it’s a time to act. I would say the Sackler decision was one of those examples, where the evidence was there. Yes, there was advocacy from students particularly and other corners of the university to do something, and we worked with the trustees to make that decision, but it was not a long, drawn-out consensus-building process. It was something that we felt we had to do based on our principles and values, and learning from that experience on how we will do fundraising differently in the future and how we will look carefully at the donors and their source of funding.
TD: On the note of looking back, if you could go back 12 years and give yourself one piece of advice entering office, what would you say?
AM: I think the most difficult thing when you enter as a leader is managing the expectations of everyone in the community: the trustees, the advisers at all the schools, the faculty, the staff, the students, your colleagues in the senior team. They’re also comparing you to the previous leader and their style. You’re trying to balance those expectations with finding your own voice and using your own style of management and decision making and building evidence for decisions or changes that need to be made. That is something that every leader needs to manage in their own way.
I think one piece of advice I would give any new leader is, you need to find your own voice, but you don’t want to leave the community behind in doing so. It’s a balance between what they’re expecting of you and what style and voice you would like to have on issues from your own background and experience.
TD: And on that note, what advice have you shared with incoming President Kumar?
AM: Well, it’s interesting, one of the first things he said to me was, “I get what you’ve done here with increasing research without losing the sense of community. That’s really important to me.” So, I think he understands — coming from Johns Hopkins, which has a similar undergraduate campus but many graduate and professional schools that do important research — that the student-faculty relationship is at the core of what we do, and you build research on top of that. He understands, being the provost for six years at Hopkins, what that means. So my advice is to absolutely keep making improvements, keep Tufts on the trajectory it’s on, but don’t lose the community in the process. I think he gets that right from the start, which is nice.
TD: What do you see as the biggest issue currently facing Tufts?
AM: We talked about all the major challenges that are going on nationally and globally, the environment in which we’re working. In particular to Tufts and other universities like it, we’ve enjoyed a big increase in undergraduate applications over my tenure. It’s doubled to more than 34,000, but this is on a backdrop of national applications to colleges, which is declining quite significantly year-on-year. That is also playing out in graduate school applications, not to our professional schools, which always are very selective, but to the various master’s and doctoral programs we have.
We need to address how we’re going to be more competitive in garnering applications nationally on the backdrop of a decrease. We’ve done well at the undergraduate level, and I think we need to make sure in the future that we can do that well and provide a good student-faculty experience for our programs in graduate education. That’s been challenging for some schools, where they really are about master’s and doctoral programs. They’re not providing professional health degrees. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges as a university, but also at a time when training individuals in further degrees couldn’t be more important, particularly in the STEM subjects and other social sciences and the humanities, where they are working on social justice issues, health justice issues and some of the technical innovations which are driving change in our society.
TD: What’s next for you?
AM: I’m doing a sabbatical here, which will probably continue if it goes well. I’ll be working on the rise in mental health disorders and trying to understand a model in which that could happen, given that they’re all heritable disorders. I have been working with colleagues in evolution as well as various other departments to think about ways in which we could address this. I worked on mental health disorders at Oxford, and then I took this job and 10 years later, there hasn’t been a lot of progress on understanding because it seems the DNA doesn’t provide that heritable material for mental health disorders. During the pandemic, I went back and revisited the whole thing and provided a new model that I’m exploring with colleagues that may provide an understanding of why it’s rising, which is called epigenetics. It’s a field that’s being explored in a variety of ways.
TD: How has Tufts changed in your time here?
AM: Well, the student body has always been active and good advocates for what they want. I think what I’ve seen before the pandemic, is the activism heightened and it also was playing on the political divide in the nation. But coming out of the pandemic, the advocacy is just as strong from the students. They have a very strong TCU Senate at the moment, and there’s been a lot more constructive engagement with the administration where they’re doing pilot projects on things they would like to see changed, providing the evidence that it makes a difference and then convincing administrative staff at various programs and schools to make changes. I think that’s a very good relationship change. I felt before, it turned a little negative at times, and it wasn’t a platform for positive change; it was a platform for a lot of protest. Then the pandemic hit, and I think coming out of it, I feel optimistic that the student body is back at constructive engagement in many ways.
I feel that the sense of community has strengthened, and certainly our leadership role in civic life and civic engagement has vastly improved. We have a great new leader in Dayna Cunningham, and Alan Solomont at Tisch College really brought the programming up to a new level. This is going to be an increasingly important area for all universities in the future, and Tufts has been leading — it really does strengthen the university.
The environment is more difficult financially, healthwise and in climate change — those things really are the world we’re working in now, and I think that has definitely changed over 12 years. The height of those challenges has become apparent, that there’s very little time to act. Tufts is trying to engage on those challenges, particularly the climate change challenge, by starting new institutes and research centers going forward that are focused on these areas.
TD: In June 2020, you announced the university would take actionable steps to advance diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. The university pledged to spend $25 million on these efforts and recently doubled its initial investment to $50 million. How do you feel about the progress made thus far? And what do you hope the university accomplishes with this added funding in the coming years?
AM: I would say that the effort is community wide. I was inspired by what I heard was going on in departments and divisions by faculty and staff and students during the summer of 2020, where they were questioning their own policies and practices and questioning the way they do things and trying to root out bias and any racism that was systematic. We felt we wanted to harness that energy and we launched the initiative.
A lot of it is about trying to increase the number of faculty from diverse backgrounds, particularly in STEM subjects, thinking about pipeline programs, but also faculty development; we are following a cohort model of recruiting faculty and we need to retain the faculty we have in order to build that sense of community. That’s a big part of it.
Financial aid, of course, is part of the effort and always will be, but we’re doing well now on both diversity of applications and diversity of matriculated students. We need to backfill not only the financial aid but what I discussed earlier about support in various avenues of the university and the student experience for that change in the student body. It’s never complete, and it’s always work. It requires every member of the community; it’s not something led from the top only, and it’s not something that’s grassroots only. It needs everyone in the university to contribute to this effort.
TD: And is there anything that you didn’t get to do in your tenure that you hope President Kumar will accomplish? Any unfinished business that you’re leaving?
AM: We have a residential dorm that we’ve planned, and we’re hoping to get it approved in the first part of President Kumar’s tenure. It’s a big project and the cost went up post-pandemic for a variety of reasons. I think the students would agree that this is essential to the future of the college and the student experience; that’s something I hope he’ll be able to accomplish.
The pool needs to be replaced; it has been slowly deteriorating, and it’s not getting better with age. And we have committed funds and there’s a fundraising effort now to try to close that gap. But like the dorm, the costs have gone up. As I mentioned there is a lot of work to be done to assist some of the graduate programs to rethink their programming for the future, how they can be more competitive to garner applications from all over the country. Regarding new methods of education, hybrid programs and things that aren’t maybe traditional: I would say that that’s a piece of work that all universities are looking at, and I’m sure President Kumar will continue the work that we started over the last couple of years in that area.
TD: On that particular challenge of housing, how have you seen that change in your time here?
AM: Well, when I arrived, there was clearly a need for improvement in housing, but I didn’t want to build a shiny new dorm until we had gone through and renovated and made systematic improvements to all the older dorms. We also added community housing, which is like off-campus living but on campus with Tufts as the landlord. That has worked out well; we added 400 or so beds through that process, but that really was the setup for building a new dorm. We borrowed the money at a low interest rate and now we’ll put that money into new living space for juniors and seniors.
TD: Well, those are all of our questions, but is there anything else you’d like to share that we haven't covered?
AM: I just want to say I’ve enjoyed the Daily as a voice for the students. We’ve worked closely through our media people like Patrick Collins to have a good relationship, and I’ve certainly enjoyed reading the Daily when it’s printed and seeing it as an important voice and feedback to myself and the senior team. We do take the op-eds and the articles seriously, because it’s a serious journal and we appreciate the effort that students put into keeping it independent as a voice, but also reflecting many, many aspects of our community. So, thank you for continuing the tradition of an independent free press here at Tufts. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with you and the information it provided generally.