By Lee Manchester
Just six months After becoming president, Joel Martin had to steer the college through an existential threat: The Covid Pandemic
On July 1, 2019, Joel W. Martin took office as the 19th president of Wagner College. He and his wife, Jan, spent that summer getting to know the campus, visiting every building, basement and rooftop as they prepared for Move–In Day that August.
Classes began; fall finals ended; the winter holidays came and went … and, just as the spring semester began, troubling news reached Grymes Hill of a new virus that would devastate the world and alter the trajectory of Joel Martin’s presidency.
On November 9, as the fall semester drew to a close, we sat down with President Martin to look back at how Wagner College had responded to Covid-19 — and how we hoped to move forward in the new year.
WAGNER MAGAZINE: In January 2020, after you had been on the job as president for just six months, we started hearing about a new virus sweeping through a major Chinese city. What were your thoughts then about that news and the impact it might have on the college?
JOEL MARTIN: I don’t know that I’m a worrier by nature, but I was early to worry about the coronavirus. One Sunday morning I woke up and said, “We need to get a task force going; we need to be thinking about it, we need to be monitoring it.”
Even when that task force convened, in January, people thought, “Well, it’s just like the flu. We don’t need to be so worried about it.” But the situation evolved — and devolved — very rapidly, especially in New York City.
I asked Jeffrey Kraus, the provost, to ask the faculty to think ahead and plan to go online — theoretically, possibly, on a slim chance that we would need to do so after spring break. We asked them to submit their plans, to the best of my memory, around March 2 — and it turned out it was March 10 that I had to make the decision to say we’re going home before spring break [which began on Saturday, March 14]. [Classes were cancelled from Wednesday, March 11 for the remainder of the week.] That little bit of lead time helped our faculty get ready.
We were able to get everybody out safely without any Covid-19 cases on campus, and that was a godsend. We were able to take care of our international students; we also were able to prevent our own students and faculty from going abroad. Those were not easy decisions, and we had to make them without a lot of information. Looking back, we made the right decisions.
And then we entered into this strange hibernation/hiatus mode for March — but I was already thinking about reopening in the fall, and I drafted a proposal, a plan, that would outline the conditions under which we could do that.
I think the thing that helped us prepare for reopening was that we didn’t wait for anybody to tell us what to do or how to do it. We said, “Okay, imagine that the world is going to get to the point where it will be safe to reopen. What do we need to do now to be ready? If we wait, we won’t be able to do all the work we have to do.”
By April, we were actively planning through all these things: physical plant rehabs, dining options, academic delivery. Then on May 27, we held a big, virtual retreat with over 45 people. We went through the whole thing and involved so many different people, and it was just an extraordinary, holistic reinvention of the campus.
In particular, nobody told us that we had to administer a coronavirus test, not even the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] — we had to invent a testing protocol on our own.
WM: I would like you to talk a little bit about that testing protocol because, as I recall, you were working with one group on what appeared to be a very, very strong testing program and then, almost at the last minute, you got wind of something else that would work much better for us. Can you talk about that?
JM: I was reading all the pre-print research on the spread of the virus, and there were two really, really important reports that I got a hold of. One was from Cornell, and it was one of the earliest and best models of how the virus can spread, and it projected the number of cases that could occur given certain testing cadences and regimes.
And then there was a Yale model that came a little bit later. It had almost like an app or calculator in it; you could adjust your transmission rates, your number of people, the ambient infectivity of the area, et cetera.
I was also fortunate that, any time I had a question, I could go to Dr. [Chris] Corbo.1 He helped interpret a lot of this.
I had read an article in the New York Times about a saliva-based test at Rutgers and thought, “Well, that looks very promising.” Fortunately, we had a connection through one of our board members to somebody who was connected to that test, and I was able to get a direct conversation with the inventor. We quickly drafted a contract to use the test on our campus, and we were just about to sign it when we learned from the cicu2 about another test that had been developed by the Broad Institute,3 based at MIT and Harvard.
A bunch of us hopped on a webinar presented by the Broad. I’ll never forget seeing the scientist who runs it, and then all the people who work with him, talk about this. They described how the whole system worked, from administering the test, to getting it to their lab in Cambridge, [Mass.,] to the supply chain … they had it all worked out. And they emphasized that testing needed to be done at least weekly. I took that to the bank.
I was overjoyed. I had finally received testing guidance from somebody who knew what he was talking about. Couple that with the Yale model and the Cornell model, and you could say, “If we can run weekly testing, we can make it safer. We will never make it perfectly safe, but if you don’t go below weekly … ”
The Broad [Institute] deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom for what they did; it was almost too good to be true. This was a philanthropically driven hero coming to the rescue. Just think about the impact of that step that they took: Because of them, more than 100 colleges and universities serving tens of thousands of students were able to open this fall. Without the Broad test, only the one-percent schools could have afforded to have run an open campus, you know, because testing is a key pillar of opening a campus under these circumstances. We should get some credit for being smart enough to recognize it and grab it, taking hold of it and not letting it slip away. But they’re the ones who made it possible.
We took this very seriously, and we considered everything critically before the decision was made. I asked my team to raise their doubts, using the skills we’ve developed from the liberal arts to question what we’re doing. I wanted this to be a decision that had been tested and proved, based on science, so that’s what we did … but, ultimately, when it came down to it, I had to make the decision, and then communicate that honestly to people.
We never said there wouldn’t be [coronavirus infection] cases; we always said there would be cases on campus, that there were risks, and we described every step we were taking. We met all the CDC guidelines, and we said so — but what we didn’t say was that we also exceeded them. I knew that we had prepared the campus even better than we were claiming, you know, and that gave me confidence that we could do this.
And, of course, once you got here, you saw the students on campus and you saw how happy they were and how connected they were, and then we started to see that it actually was working really well.
They say that every success has a thousand fathers and mothers — and you know what, it’s the truth. We all did this together, and we should be very proud of it. But let’s don’t kid ourselves: It wasn’t easy, and I don’t second-guess anybody who made a different decision on another campus. I know that wasn’t easy for anyone.
WM: How are the college’s finances doing during the coronavirus crisis?
JM: It’s a huge challenge to every institution, public and private, not just us. We have had to tighten our belts, as you know. We had to furlough folks in the spring; fortunately, they were supported to a large extent by the federal government’s intervention programs. We had to cut the college’s contribution to our employee retirement accounts for one year. But the good news is that, through our careful management and our success this semester, we weathered the crisis with resilience.
Just this last week we learned that Fitch’s bond rating agency reaffirmed our credit-worthiness standing; they haven’t altered our bond rating, and that’s a significant statement. This would be a year when you expect an institution like ours to be downgraded, so that’s great news.
When we designed our reopening plan back in May, June, the goal was to identify ways that we could work on this current challenge, this current crisis, but also prepare us for being stronger afterward by making physical-plant investments that are not one-off, one-time things, but things that are useful to us in the long run. We call the plan “Emerging Stronger,” and we’ve made a lot of important investments in the campus already. You don’t do that if you’re in crisis, financially, to the point where you’re worried about the stability of the institution. That should reassure people.
At our next board meeting we’re going to be talking about the next phase of investment in the physical plant. We seriously want to build up Wagner’s strategic strengths so that we can be more competitive, generate a better reputation and bring in more revenue, because we have a lot of needs. We’d love to pay people more, have better benefits, better support for our students, our faculty and staff. To do that, you have to generate revenue.
We are very optimistic that we’re not only weathering this challenge well but will also emerge stronger from it.
WM: What do you expect for the spring semester?
JM: So far, we’ve been expecting that our best approximation would be sort of status quo — in other words, similar to what we’ve seen in the fall. It could be worse, if the virus conditions worsen in New York City, as they’re doing now; that may cause us to change our plan. On the other hand, it could be better, because this virus could wane or the vaccine could come along sooner. That’s a good reason why, for now, the placeholder is to say that we expect the status quo next spring, and we can pivot one way or the other as we need to.
I also think that I’m more optimistic today than I have been in some time, partly because of the news of the vaccines. It could really be that we get back to campus more fully, and faster, than we’ve even imagined. That gives me hope for, obviously, the end of the academic year in May, and graduation, and everything else.
1. Chris Corbo is a Wagner double alumnus, earning his bachelor’s degree in biology 2006 and his master’s in microbiology in 2008. He is also an associate professor and chairman of our Department of Biological Sciences. He is one of the people profiled later in this issue of Wagner Magazine. Corbo was recently named assistant provost for a two-year project to build Wagner’s health science programs.
2. The Council of Independent Colleges and Universities, a consortium of private colleges in New York State to which Wagner has belonged for some years.
3. See the Wall Street Journal’s Oct. 16 article about the Broad Institute at https://wagner.edu/newsroom/wsj-broad-institute-coronavirus-testing/