Leading university presidents plead for drastic action

The presidents of three of the top universities in the United States have issued a joint plea to all higher education institutions and all other organisations across the nation to follow their example and take drastic action to address the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

Harvard University President Lawrence S Bacow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President L Rafael Reif and Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, writing in a joint article in the New York Times said: “The experience of other countries has shown the crucial value of making big moves as quickly as possible to ‘flatten the curve’ – to slow the rate of infection so that our hospitals and health care workers are not overwhelmed.

“Regardless of the number of cases in your community, the time to act is right now: Public health experts tell us that as a society, the steps we take this week will have an immense impact on determining whether this crisis becomes a catastrophe.”

They said as leaders of three institutions with access to public health research, they had quickly come to understand in recent weeks that “if we wanted to help protect the health of our nation, we had to take drastic action”.

Experts had advised them that to slow the spread of the virus, they must cut population density and increase social distancing on campuses.

“That meant turning university life upside down: suddenly sending virtually all of our undergraduates home; asking faculty to swiftly bring all instruction online; cancelling academic, athletic, artistic and cultural events, and nearly all in-person meetings; shutting our libraries; and asking everyone who could work remotely to do so right away.”

The disruption, though difficult, was vital and hundreds of other US institutions are taking similar steps, they said.

Many US states have ordered the gatherings to be limited in size, the closure of bars and restaurants and the shutting down of schools.

“But other communities and organisations, where the risk may still feel vague or remote, are still deciding. Based on what we are learning from our own experience, and the accelerating spread of the disease, we urge you to act quickly and boldly,” the presidents said.

Key contribution

They added that universities are making a key contribution to the fight against the novel virus, whether by helping to develop faster, cheaper testing kits or vaccines and treatments or improved ways to manage disrupted systems such as swamped hospitals.

“Our universities are making significant contributions to this public health effort,” they said. “And of course, this national emergency depends on national action, from the federal government and states, cities, communities, corporations and organisations of every size – down to every single individual.”

“Given what we have learned in these past few weeks, we are convinced that taking difficult steps now, for the public good, will mean getting back to normal in the future with fewer friends and colleagues to mourn.”

NAFSA’s conference cancelled

The growing pandemic has led NAFSA: Association of International Educators to cancel its annual conference, the biggest international education conference globally, which was due to take place on 24-29 May.

NAFSA President Ravi Shankar said the conference represents “an opportunity for our entire community to gather and explore our shared passion for creating a stronger, interconnected world. It not only brings the world together, but it also supports jobs and education around the globe, and we do not take that responsibility lightly.

“We will do everything within our power to continue to look for ways to bring international educators together, make vital connections, and continue to enhance global perspectives throughout higher education.

“The international education community faces unique, exceptional challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NAFSA leadership recognises that international educators will need an opportunity to come together during this critical time; and to that end we are exploring ways to re-envision our programme in the virtual space by offering a new series of virtual events in lieu of our traditional conference.

“Our 2020 conference theme is ‘Innovate, Influence, Impact’. In that spirit, we will innovate and find new ways to present a rich array of programming. There will be more information on these new offerings forthcoming.”

US facing overload of system

Recent research out of Imperial College London projects that preventing a massive overload of the US health care system and as many as 2.2 million deaths will require drastic restrictions on social gatherings, including work and school, for up to 18 months.

The US on 11 March suspended entry for 30 days for most non-US citizens who had travelled through the 26 countries in the European Union’s ‘Schengen Area’ in the previous 14 days. On 14 March, the US announced it would extend the restrictions to the UK and Ireland.

However, on 19 March MSNBC reported that seven states including Texas were barely responding to the pandemic, where there were no mandated bans on gatherings of any size, or state mandates for bars, restaurants or schools to close. In contrast, California on 19 March issued a state-wide order for people to stay at home.

University measures

A start-up company spun out from MIT, where on 16 March a second member of staff had tested presumptive positive for COVID-19, is now working on a paper-based test that can deliver results in under half an hour, based on technology developed at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

Elsewhere around MIT, several other research groups are working on projects that may help further scientists’ understanding of how coronaviruses are transmitted and how infection may be prevented. Their work touches on fields ranging from diagnostics and vaccine development to more traditional disease prevention measures such as social distancing and handwashing.

MIT has published a series of webinars and articles providing advice on many topics relevant to supporting online education and student welfare, from how to run webinars to how to stage a zoom classroom.

One webinar says maintaining the quality of online contact is not as simple as people think. For instance, it is important to monitor the quality of conversations that take place online, which inherently lack much of the interpersonal richness present in in-person discussions. As co-creator of the MIT Media Lab, Sandy Pentland, director of MIT Connection Science, has worked with MIT start-ups developing software tools responsive to this need.

An article on MIT’s website explains: “RIFF Analytics, for example, uses artificial intelligence to analyse online conversation dynamics and provide real-time personalised feedback to each participant: Is anybody dominating the conversation? Is discussion as inclusive as it should be?

“Cogito, which is widely used in call centres, provides similar analysis of individual voices, helping people understand when their tone is too aggressive, or if they are interrupting.

“These kinds of metrics can provide behavioural crutches in the absence of the clues we rely on during in-person communication, said Pentland, who is a co-founder of both RIFF Analytics and Cogito. If we can’t readily observe shifts in posture or tapping feet or subtle hand motions, then a computer should be our fallback interpreter.”

Stanford, which on 19 March announced that it would delay the start of its spring quarter and deliver the whole quarter online with virtual instruction in place of person-to-person contact, is supporting the provision of faculty to “transition successfully to an online teaching environment”, and the university’s teachanywhere site has a range of resources to assist with this.