COVID-19 and Higher Education: A Q&A with Howard Marchitello, Dean of Rutgers University—Camden

Earlier this year most colleges and universities shuttered and moved to virtual classes. Dormitories closed, study abroad programs were canceled, and graduation moved online. 

For many college students, campus closures created significant challenges. Some don’t have personal access to the technology needed to engage in virtual courses. Others don’t have a home to go to or a way to get food outside of their dorm. And after such a significant disruption, some first-generation and lower-income students may not make it back when schools finally reopen.

Howard Marchitello, Dean of Rutgers University—CamdenI recently spoke with Howard Marchitello, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University—Camden to get a sense of how the school is responding to the crisis and meeting students’ needs. (Full disclosure: My colleague Max Marchitello is Dean Marchitello’s son.)

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

COVID-19 moved from a potential problem to a full-blown pandemic fairly quickly from mid-February into March. What were your initial reactions and concerns when it became clear that Rutgers would need to close its campuses? 

While we knew the Coronavirus would be an issue, it wasn’t immediately clear how big of an issue it would be. But once we knew we needed to take drastic measures, there was shock and disbelief across the campus, since we have never encountered anything of this magnitude before. Chief among my many worries was how we would keep everybody together, even as we dispersed students and faculty back to their homes. And sending folks home was not as straightforward as it sounds, because some of our residential students don’t have homes to go to. This was a big concern. 

How did you help those students who couldn’t go home once the campus closed? 

We had more than 100 students who had to stay on campus: international students who couldn’t go home and students who didn’t have a home. These students were able to live on campus. And since Camden is a bit of a food desert, we coordinated with the corporation that provides dining services to provide meals. We had a contingent of staff, some from the dining halls and some who had been reassigned from other areas, delivering meals to the residence halls. Nearly half these students have since found housing options in the city or surrounding areas, and the remaining 50 students are still living on our campus. We continue to provide dining services for them, as well as other supports, including our food pantry and our Wellness Center [a comprehensive health center], which has remained open and serving students throughout the semester.

What structures, if any, did Rutgers—Camden have in place to help sustain student connections with the university and with each other? 

A couple of years ago, we built a unit at the Chancellor’s level dedicated to ensuring academic success for our students. We hired a Vice Chancellor and staff to manage that office. This unit has proven to be instrumental in helping to manage our COVID response. We added additional functions to that unit in order to create a coherent shop to help support students during this crisis. As an example, we built a comprehensive email campaign to reach students. Our team of success coaches makes phone calls to every single undergraduate in the college in order to troubleshoot issues they may be encountering, to provide additional advising, and to help students feel connected to the campus. We’re also creating online opportunities for students to congregate and ask questions or just to see each other.

We’ve been doing our best to be proactive in our outreach to students and the community. We want to reach out to them first, rather than waiting to try and solve their issues if they decide, or even know, that they can come to us.

Rutgers—Camden is a commuter campus that serves a lot of first-generation students. How have you confronted the challenge of providing services and classes virtually to students who may face access barriers or other challenges?  

Our IT team was able to provide laptops to students without access to the necessary hardware and software to continue their education virtually. But then there’s the problem of internet access. For a while when public places were still open, students were encouraged to go to Starbucks or another place with internet. Also the campus libraries stayed open for a while. That changed a few weeks later when the governor closed all the non-essential businesses. So we had to try to figure out ways to help students who didn’t have internet access. Fortunately Comcast stepped up and opened a huge number of hotspots in and around the city that were free during the crisis. And both Comcast and Verizon made internet essentials available for a small fee. 

To complicate the issue of internet access further, we have students who live in halfway houses. And as a part of their adjudication, they are not allowed access to the internet. So we had to find a way to negotiate with the judiciary to allow these students, under supervision, internet access a certain number of hours per day. I don’t know that it is enough hours per day, but it’s the most we could get for them. 

Many students, I imagine, are worried about their grades and credits, and how this pandemic will affect their post-graduation plans. How are you thinking about that? 

That issue is very real. Just this morning, a student emailed me at 2 a.m. explaining the challenges that he’s facing, which include homelessness, as well as a family member who has been diagnosed with Coronavirus. His focus has been on trying to keep himself and his family together. And, understandably, his studies have suffered. He’s sure he’s not going to be successful this semester and wanted to know what can be done to help him.

So we’re giving students who, for very legitimate reasons, can’t be as successful as they’d like with their classes, the option of opting out of a letter grade and taking a Pass/Fail result for some or all of their courses. We’ve never done that before. And, in fact, the university allows students to make that determination even after they received their final grades. So they can look at their record from spring semester and decide if they want to keep the letter grade or opt for Pass/Fail. 

If students have to withdraw from the university, how are you thinking about getting them back so this isn’t the end of their education path?

I think the answer is to maintain contact. We hope the exit is just temporary, and we are staying in contact to make clear that we’re still concerned. We will help students understand that they’re not being severed from the school.

I think we need to do a better job so that students who are exiting — again hopefully temporarily — are attended to by both the student support offices as well as by the academic side of things. 

What has given you hope through all this? 

I marvel over how everyone, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, assumed that going forward we were going to maintain remote teaching and learning. But what we’re hearing back from students is that remote classes aren’t that fun. They really miss sitting in a classroom with their classmates.

When that information started coming back to us, we were all caught off guard because the expectation was that students would take to this like fish to water. But it turns out that they’re missing interaction with each other and with their faculty. This is probably surprising to them just as much as it is to me. That gives me hope that we’re not going to have a fundamental change in the nature of higher education — I think we’ll fine tune it. We’ll make adjustments. We’ll learn and be more efficient on the other side of this. Online and remote teaching will be part of what we do, but it’s not going to be what we do.