THE INTERVIEW: Villanova’s Peter Donohue on leadership during the pandemic
Philadelphia Business Journal
Despite having about 5,000 students living on campus this semester, Rev. Peter Donohue says Villanova University is disquietingly … quiet.
The coronavirus pandemic has prevented student gatherings of any kind at the Catholic college in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania, so there’s “really nothing going on but academics,” said Donohue, now in his 14th year at the school’s helm.
The downtime has enabled the Augustinian priest to reflect on the role of a college president during a global pandemic — and on leadership in general — while simultaneously encouraging a community of young adults to sacrifice their individual needs to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the entire group (i.e. adhere to Covid-19 protocols). So far, his self-described stint as Villanova’s chief cheerleader has paid off with minimal confirmed coronavirus cases on campus and an otherwise uneventful start to the 2020-21 academic year.
Donohue recently spoke with The Business Journals’ Hilary Burns about how his job has changed since Covid-19 struck, and the effects the pandemic is having on college pricing and on-campus learning. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
How has your job changed in the past six months?
Every day there’s a new situation, a new challenge to encounter. The thing I’ve had probably the most difficulty with personally is the isolation factor of it. When everybody went away, I was still here. The campus became very quiet. Covid-19 has reassured us that we need each other and we need to be engaged with people. I found that the most challenging part was communicating with everybone through emails or videos.
Also, the job of a president is really to travel a lot. There’s a lot of alumni events or representing the university at various functions, and all of that came to a halt. We’ve had no events from March 15 onward and activities on campus have all been stopped. As the president of the university, you create the vision for the university. You’re the face of the university. Now I think I’ve become the cheerleader for the university. It’s about really trying to inspire people to move forward. Do the right thing. Live the right way. Follow the protocols. Be concerned about each other’s health and safety.
We had an incident at the beginning of the semester. We had 1,670 freshmen show up here. A fire alarm went off in one of the buildings so, they all left the building and were all standing outside and people started taking pictures. “The freshman class has gathered at Villanova.” And it went nationwide. And then we had a few minor gatherings as the sophomores, juniors and seniors came back. I went on this video and became like their grandfather, “You are going to behave yourselves and it’s all in your hands.”
I said, at one point, “You need to prove them wrong that we can do this.” They’ve made up shirts now that say, “Prove them wrong.” Everybody says that they’d never seen me so stern. I was just like, if we don’t do this, we will go home for the rest of the year. So they fell in line.
We’ve seen neighborhoods and towns across the country criticizing local universities for bringing students back during the pandemic. What is your response to those criticisms?
I had quite a few of our neighbors (calling). When I announced (that students were returning), there were some very concerned residents who sent me very pointed emails about the dangers to the community here. I said to them, “We’re going to do our best. We’re going to ask them to be committed to this process, and if they can’t abide by the protocols, I have no problem sending them home.” And I did send some people home at the beginning of it all because they weren’t ready for it. They didn’t want to wear masks — they wanted to come back and have normal college life again. And it couldn’t be normal college life again. I had a neighbor who actually sent us an email at the beginning of all this and wrote another one just last week saying, “When praise should be given, it’s due. Your students have been extremely well behaved. They followed the protocols. We see them all the time wearing masks, walking down the street, or exercising. And we’re grateful they’ve been able to do it.” So, I think the attitude has changed a little bit. I think if we had 300 cases of (coronavirus), that it would’ve been very different, you know?
How do you think the pandemic will impact the future of higher education?
It’s a little difficult to predict that right now. People often talk about how the business model will change. But I think one thing that at least for our community … our students really wanted to be here. There’s value for them in in-person learning. I’m not sure that model will change or that we will suddenly go to half of our courses online. I know the faculty have missed that kind of personal contact with students and getting to know them on a different level. It’s hard to get to know somebody on Zoom, particularly when you’re teaching them. We have several graduate programs and doctoral programs that are completely online, so we have faculty that are very used to doing it. But it’s difficult to say if we will offer more online classes to the undergraduate school. Will there be more of a demand for that? Possibly.
I think some schools are going to struggle financially and it’s going to be a real challenge for them. This pandemic has caused a great expense to higher education. Just the physical changes we had to make to the campus and the cost of all of that. The cost of testing is expensive. We did a lot of costs cutting to meet those demands. There were no salary raises and administrators and head coaches took salary cuts. The Augustinians reduced their stipends. We’ve stopped all construction. We were going into a new strategic plan and it was to kick off this year, and all of the costs involved in that strategic plan have been removed to put in place Covid-19 preparations. We are continuing to move forward with our diversity, equity and inclusion programming. That was really a decision I made because of what was going on in the world over the summer. We needed to be committed to that and we needed to continue to move forward to alleviate some of those injustices that people feel in their lives.
We did not change our tuition model because most of our students are here. All of our programming is still here. Our student support systems, our writing center, math center, all of those learning centers that we have are still functioning. They still have access to them. Even students at home — our counseling center is fully operational. Nothing is really changed on the campus, except the fact that some staff are working from home.
Will Covid-19 change college pricing?
It’s interesting. We just had a whole conversation about next year. What we’re worried about is next semester. Many of us believe that it’s going to be the same way (it is now). No matter what people say, there’s no vaccine that’s going to be available Nov. 4. So, we’re looking at the 2021-22 school year and we asked, “can we realistically raise the price again?” Because many people have had financial difficulty during this whole time … what do we need to do? What do we need to cut back on?
How can we continue to accelerate the price tag of this when people really don’t have the means to do it, or are out of work or their income has changed? It’s something we do look at and it’s something we do take seriously. But in many ways, it’s the cost of running the institution, too. We have faculty and staff that need to be paid. Our health benefits are the most expensive part of our operation for staff. We have close to 3,000 people working here besides the students. I tell everybody all the time, running a residential campus is like running a small town. You know, you’ve got education. You’ve got housing. You’ve got food. You’ve got utilities. You’ve got transportation and safety.
So it’s all of these things that have to be in place for residential living. It is a high cost structure, but we do have to be sensitive to the clientele that we have. “How do we continue to move forward” is a challenge and under discussion. Nothing has been determined yet. In some ways, cutting the costs doesn’t necessarily build confidence in people. It’s like, what are you cutting out that you’re able to cut the cost? So maintaining the cost right now is more of our focus. How do we maintain what we’re doing and not continue to put more burden on our families?
What’s keeping you up at night right now?
What’s tomorrow’s number (of coronavirus cases)? It’s the health and the safety of this community. I don’t want to see anybody become deathly ill from this thing, or have it affect their families in any way. We need to try and prevent that. We will get through this and be better for it.