PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The president of Brown University is warning of dire consequences for the nation’s colleges and universities should they have to remain closed come the fall.
Christina Paxson first outlined her concerns Sunday in an op-ed in The New York Times, later telling WPRI 12 she thinks financial losses could be a “huge problem” for higher education institutions across the country.
“Even before the coronavirus pandemic there were predictions that large numbers of universities and colleges would have to close for financial reasons in the coming decade,” Paxson said in a Zoom interview Sunday evening. “A lot of them were teetering on the brink financially, and this is the kind of thing that if a university or a small college has to go an entire semester without tuition, room and board, I don’t see how they make it.”
Paxson said Brown has already spent about $22 million on efforts to move students off campus and assist them financially during the pandemic. She expects the school will spend another $50 million to $80 million over the summer and fall.
“Of course, if the campus can’t get open, things go downhill from there,” she said.
Paxson and other members of the university’s senior administration have taken pay cuts, and she’s frozen hiring and raises. She said other cost-saving measures are being considered, but her goal is to avoid furloughs or layoffs.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand the economics of universities and colleges — why should they?” she said. “I wanted people to understand that there’s a real problem coming down the road. And we’re going to start to see it in August, September, unless we can take action now to put ourselves, all colleges, universities on a good path.”
Aside from the grim financial outlook, Paxson said she has concerns about the negative impact that continued distance learning could have on students’ college experience.
“They’re trying to learn online,” she said. “While it’s going OK, the university experience is far preferable to what we’re doing now.”
In her op-ed, Paxson said rapid testing, digital contact tracing and adequate isolation spaces are key to allowing students to return safely to campus. She also said she thinks students and staff will have to continue to wear masks and avoid large gatherings.
“I think it will be better than not returning to campus, by far, but it will be different,” she said, adding, “The truth is none of us really know whether we can or can’t yet.”
See the full interview in the video below.