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Podcast: Stanford's president: college in the COVID age

Podcast: Stanford's president: college in the COVID age

TRANSCRIPT: Stanford's president: college in the COVID age

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

We need to help community members get back on their feet, and also inspire them and help them see that we can make our way through this together even though the times are so difficult.

Ian:

Hello, and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast, where you'll find extended versions of the interviews from my show on public television. Today I'll focus on the future of education and how universities plan to cope with coronavirus. The president of Stanford University, Marc Tessier-Lavigne is here to talk about it, so let's get right to it.

Announcer:

This episode of the GZERO World Podcast was made possible by Lennar, America's largest and most innovative home builder, and the number one destination for foreign residential real estate investment in the US. Learn more at www.lennargzero.com. That's L-E-N-N-A-R-G-Z-E-R-O.com.

Ian:

Deputy University President, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, wonderful to be with you, sir.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

It's wonderful to be here too, Ian, thanks very much for having me on your show.

Ian:

So not an easy job these days running a major university. What kind of leadership is it incumbent on you to show through this unprecedented time?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Well, Ian, I think like everyone around the country, the lives of our members of our community have been upended here, and so in terms of leadership, we really need to do two things. First, we need to help our community members get back on their feet and also help them move forward with their studies, with their research, with all of the activities that they want to pursue. But at the same time, we have to inspire them and help them see that we can make our way through this together, even though the times are so difficult.

Ian:

You changed course just a couple weeks ago, there was an intention to let freshman and sophomores, I guess, come to campus, and that is no longer the case. How did you weigh that decision?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Yeah, no, it was a very difficult decision, very disappointing. Our students wanted to come back, our faculty wanted to come back. There are really three major considerations that went into the decision. The first is the course of the disease locally within our community. The second is the nature of the housing for our undergraduate students. And the third is local and state health guidance. So back in early June when cases were dropping, working with our experts, we thought that we could handle having two class cohorts come back, freshman and sophomores. We couldn't have all of them. We needed to de-densify the dorms.

Our students live in communal dormitories, where it's difficult to control disease, so we needed to de-densify and also maintain hundreds of beds for quarantine and isolation, but that we thought could work given the state of the disease back in June. Dial forward two months. You know what a difference two months make and the resurgence of cases both locally and nationally made us concerned about being able to manage the health consequences of bringing the students back, but just as important, the state guidance that came out in mid-August, we think appropriately, banned gatherings, the use of common rooms and dorms, any in-person lectures in counties like ours that are on a watch list.

And so what we saw is that if we brought students back, their experience would be so impoverished, so it was really the combination of the two things, the health concerns and the fact that we couldn't deliver a good experience that made us change course and decide to go online for undergraduates.

Ian:

When you do get back to students coming to campus, what kind of infrastructure do you think is required? For example, how regular would testing have to be for the entire campus population?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

So in fact, we have invited back all of our graduate students, those who want to come back. We expect to have about 6,000 students on campus this fall, so isn't a question of when we have students coming back, we will have students coming back. Of course, we look forward to having our undergraduates come back as well.

So in terms of the precautions that you talk about, absolutely we will do significant testing on arrival, when students arrive on day one and then again on day five, with appropriate follow up for exposure notification and isolation and quarantine of any individuals who have COVID. Then ongoing surveillance testing. Our epidemiologists are modeling things, will have an adaptive approach, looking at case numbers and of course if cases go up, then we do more testing, but we set out that whole, our momentum for our students and also our community, and we are going to be implementing this as the students come back, the many thousands of students are coming back on our campus in coming weeks.

That's just part of it, of course, I should of course say we're, we have to do all the other things that you might expect to have protocols for. Social distancing, wearing face masks, regular hand washing, and also de-densifying buildings. If we look at our laboratories where our students and researchers go to do laboratory research, we've had to de-densify them. They work in shifts so that we only have one student per 250 square feet. There's unidirectional circulation through the building. All the things you need to do to really try to mitigate the risk of spread of disease.

Ian:

When it comes to behavior, and you're obviously talking about a pretty young population, even with graduate students for the most part, so much of America's comparative failings in coronavirus has been about willingness of a large scale population to take on these behaviors, whether it's social distancing, whether it's avoiding large groups, whether it's mask wearing. How do you go about enforcement of those requirements? Are these honor code violations if you find that some students are not behaving in that way? What do you do?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Well, you're absolutely right, Ian, we all have to be in this together. We all have to be looking out for one another, and that goes for every member of our community, including our students. We have protocols in place. There are state regulations. Every day when I come to campus, or others come to campus, I have to sign in with a health app. We've asked our students who live on campus to sign a contract, agreeing to abide by university and state rules.

Obviously, the major focus is on education and engaging the students. The students understand that if they want to be here, if they want to be on campus, that everybody has to do their part. I'm very proud of our students. I believe that they come in wanting to take all the appropriate steps. If there are any transgressions, our first focus is education, Ian, reminding people, appealing to the better angels of their nature. If we see gross violations, large parties, for example, then we do actually have to take steps. There's no question. And we have, in fact, we're working with our graduate students right now on defining what those steps would be sort of in an escalating way. I think it's something we have to do in partnership with our students to define this, but the students have to have skin in the game. They have to be participants in this, otherwise it's not going to be successful, and everybody wants this to be successful.

Ian:

When we get, God willing, to a vaccine that is FDA-approved, that has some efficacy, and we want to get Stanford students all back to campus, can you envisage a situation where it would be mandatory for students to have to take that vaccine if they want to come back?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

That's a great question, Ian. It's one that we are looking at right now with our health authorities, with our bioethicists on campus as well. We know that most of our students or faculty or staff will avail themselves of that. Whether it should be mandatory is a question that I think is going to be a very important one to address in coming months.

Ian:

How's the learning experience going to be for all of these undergraduate students that can't be on campus? What percentage are going to actually participate, to the extent that at this point, and how are you going to engage with them?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

So we've certainly given the option to students to take a gap year if they want, and many students have availed themselves of that opportunity. But we will have a large cohort of students in all years taking courses in the fall semester for our undergraduates, again, fully online. There are highs and lows of online learning. Maybe I can start with some of the positives. It's possible with online learning with Zoom, for example, to make more use of active learning tools. For example, the Socratic method of calling on students. It's much easier to do that if you can see their names on the screen.

It's easier for students often to break out into small groups, something that many of our faculty like to use, unless a room is set up for people to be able to move their chairs around, that can be difficult in a standard lecture theater, much easier in fact online. It's easier to have outside speakers come in and fly in for a 10-minute cameo and talk about something. So those are all positives.

On the negative side, it can be very wearing to the students, wearing to the faculty. It of course highlights inequities. People's living arrangements make a big difference. If you live with many family members in a small house where it's difficult to have privacy, that can be very difficult. If you don't have good internet access, that can be very difficult. So I think we see an exacerbation of the inequities that are present in our country in the context of learning as well. And generally we think that online learning will be a great addition to learning when we emerge from COVID, we're learning a lot about how we can use it in a very effective way, but it really doesn't substitute fully for the in-person experience.

Ian:

I wonder, as you look forward, what's your back of the envelope thinking of when Stanford gets back to status quo anti, is it a year from now, two years from now, three years from now?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

The view has to be conditioned by when we think a vaccine will be available. And there, Ian, you and your listeners and viewers of the show, I'm sure follow the news as eagerly as I do on developments with vaccines. There's a lot of promise, a lot of hope. Certainly an unprecedented worldwide effort to develop vaccines that has to be both inspiring and give us hope. When those vaccines successful, efficacious vaccines will be available, and will be available, and broadly distributed, of course, is uncertain. So it's hard for us to predict. I don't really want to make predictions, or detailed predictions. Certainly, I would hope and expect that next year will be very different from this year, that we'll be back to some semblance of normal. When in the spring or in the winter, we will be at that stage I don't know. We are planning for the disease being here, and what we want to do is put in place protocols that will enable us to get on with our work, get on with education, get on with in-person learning, even if we don't yet have a vaccine. So that's where a lot of our focus is right now.

The other thing I should say, you say, when will we get back to the status quo anti? I think the university's going to be changed by this. I don't think we're going back to the status quo anti. And maybe I can point out two areas where-

Ian:

Please.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

... that's the case. The first, this huge experiment, forced experiment in online learning and online work has, as difficult as it's been for all of us, has also shown tremendous promise in certain areas. Take telehealth. Back in January and February at the Stanford Healthcare, we have a big hospital here, we had each month about 3000 telehealth consults. Today we have three to 5,000 every day, every day three to 5,000 consults. Now, when we go back to a new normal and people are coming to the hospital, that will reduce, but I've talked to our physicians, the expectation is that maybe we'll have at least half as many. So many, many more than before, as we've learned how to do it, as we've seen how effective it can be, it's much less of a burden on individuals who would have to travel to the hospital, wait, sometimes potentially exposing themselves to disease and so forth. So it can be a great benefit.

It does go back though to this issue of inequities that we talked about a minute ago, because that only works if people have access, if they have broadband, you really need digital democracy for telehealth to work. So to reap the full benefits of that for our healthcare system requires solving a societal problem. Same with online education, although we look forward to the day when we can have education in classrooms. There are many tools that are very useful, I talked about some of them a few minutes ago, including the ability to break out into small groups. I think you're going to see many more hybrid situations, because people have learned the benefits of online education.

Ian:

It is clear that one thing that digital democracy provides is in principle, a lot more access to a lot more people, whether it's in telemedicine or it's in distance learning. It's hard to get into Stanford, right? It's incredibly competitive university, again, one of the most in the world. To what extent do you think coming out of this crisis, Stanford itself will be offering its education to a lot more young people around the world? And how do you do that, if that's the intention?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

No, that's a great question, Ian. I think there are a few elements to it. First, of course, we have to focus very strongly on the students who come to our campus. We recruit them here and we devote ourselves to them. But we're very keen to make sure that our educational offerings can benefit more than the students who can just come to Stanford. We have an online high school, for example, that existed pre-COVID, where we had a lot of learnings. We have faculty who are focused on how to make online learning most effective. They were doing that before COVID, but of course, this has been accelerated by the COVID crisis. People who study psychological aspects of it. What's the attention span of the average student? How do you have to break up the lecture or the offerings online in order to keep the attention of the student? Things that our faculty in the School of Education, in the Department of Psychology study, that kind of science of learning online is being accelerated by COVID, and we're putting a big focus on that as well right now with two goals.

The first is to really try to understand it and create tools and learnings that can be useful to anyone in the world, any university, any other institution of higher education that will want to provide offerings. And the other, of course, is to set ourselves up to deliver content to others. We've been asking ourselves where can we have the biggest impact online? And our faculty are trying to find an area where Stanford can make a particular difference.

One area of interest is for students who are in two-year colleges who have an aspiration to come to four-year colleges, we think that's a population of students that we could serve well using such online tools, but there are other populations as well. So the short answer to your question is absolutely, we're focused on that. We're focused on advancing the science of learning and making it actionable, and we're also focused on then deploying it to help other students who don't have the benefits of coming to our campus.

Ian:

Do you worry, on the other side of that, as not just Stanford, but every university around the world has to figure out how to make online and hybrid learning really work, that the incredible expense attached to the in-person Stanford experience is going to be harder to maintain that advantage, that attraction for a lot of people around the world?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

I think that we can make education much more accessible, while still highlighting the value of an in-person Stanford education. 10 years ago when the first wave of online learning happened, the MOOCs, massive open online content, people thought that this was... I think the quote was it's a tsunami that's going to wash away a higher education. And quite the contrary, what it's done is it's created very valuable tools, both for those who come to campus and for those who can't come to campus. But it hasn't lessened the interest in the in-person experience, because students get much more through the connection with their fellow students, through the personal interactions with faculty, that's more difficult to deliver if you're reaching out to thousands upon thousands of students as opposed to a smaller number of students, whether it's in person or online, I might add.

So I do think that there will continue to be a strong demand for the kind of education that Stanford can deliver.

Ian:

A lot of campuses popping up all over the world, of course, and international travel also made a lot more difficult until you have a vaccine that is available and distributed and taken globally. Do you see a lot more international direct presence for Stanford being pushed forward by what's happening with coronavirus?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Well, we already have 10 sites around the world in Asia, in Africa, South America, in Europe, for students to go and spend a semester abroad, and it's a wonderful experience. If you talk to students who have done that, they talk about it as a highlight of their university experience.

Currently, 50% of our Stanford undergraduates spends some time abroad, either the full semester or we also have some shorter opportunities for students who can't make it for a full semester. We'd like to push that number up to 75% or higher. We think that exposing our students to the rest of the world is a really vital part of their education. All of our students are going to be citizens of the world, and so it's important we feel for them to experience the outside world and to learn about the outside world. One way we do that, of course, is also by having international students on our campus.

About 12% of our undergraduates are international students. A third of our graduate students. Very important, both, so others, non-domestic students can avail themselves of the benefit of Stanford education. But also so that our students can mix and mingle with students from other countries who broaden their horizons on a day-to-day basis.

Ian:

I was also thinking about, for example, NYU opening a campus in the United Arab Emirates, we know that India has some pretty ambitious plans trying to attract the Harvards, the Yales, and Stanfords of the world to open campuses in India. The quality of the top tier students, of course, in India is absolutely extraordinary. Getting all of that talent to the US is only going to become more challenging, especially in the visa environment presently. Is that something you guys actively are thinking about right now?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Well, we've felt we've had a lot of success with these small outposts and with partnerships also with other institutions, and having students come to our campus. I think that's the path that we're going to continue to pursue. We're very eager to continue to strengthen bonds with institutions around the world, and of course, to get students around the world to know about Stanford and try to attract the very best talent to Stanford as well.

Ian:

We talked a lot about international students. You're highly aware, Stanford University right in the middle of Silicon Valley, such extraordinary advanced technologies in so many fields coming out of your campus. The technology fight between the Americans and the Chinese has led to a lot of constraints in what kind of cooperation and collaboration there can be between our two countries, both at the corporate level and also at the research level. Is that affecting Stanford yet directly? And do you believe that there needs to be some kind of cutout in terms of some of the research that's being done at Stanford, that for national security purposes, we really would not want to have, say, Chinese students having access to?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Well, Ian, first of all, we take national security concerns very seriously, of course, and certainly there's mounting evidence for and news about intellectual property theft.

We work closely with authorities to try to prevent that. We require all of our faculty and researchers to disclose any ties that they have with funding agencies in different countries, so we think it's very important that we take that very seriously. At the same time, we believe that such concerns should not bleed into targeting individuals because of their country of origin, or their nationality. We believe that one of the things that has been a great strength of our country, has made our country so strong, is the fact that we've been open to talent from abroad. I'm a little biased here since I'm an immigrant myself. I grew up in Canada and Europe, and all my education was abroad before I came here for post-doctoral work, then stayed.

But I think the history of America is a history of welcoming talent from around the world. They bring their talents, their energy, their drive to helping the common good. One of my favorite statistics is that half of the startups worth over a billion dollars were founded by immigrants to our country. So it's really vital that we maintain the appropriate balance of vigilance with respect to national security concerns, but openness to international students and scholars who come here, and we will certainly continue to support our students and our scholars in full, and support policies that thread the needle appropriately attending to both concerns.

Ian:

Given that, one of the most challenging issues, do you believe that there are areas of advanced research that Stanford is engaging in, where for national security purposes that there should actually be broad limitations on country of origin, for example?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Stanford doesn't do any classified research, just to be clear. And so all of the research that's done at Stanford is research that is done with the intent of publishing it. It's part of our ethos, and by the way, it would not be right to have students or trainees, post-doctoral fellows, work on research that could not be published because then they wouldn't be able to advance their careers. So it's really part of how we do business, and so the issue is very different in terms of the kinds of research that are done on a college campus like Stanford, compared to certain types of research that are done in other settings around the country.

Ian:

Now, I've got to ask you about sports, which the PAC-12 has already canceled their season this fall. There are a lot of other leagues have not. The President of the United States has made it very clear which side of the debate he is on personally. Do you think that any college major sports should be, football, for example, right now, should everyone have shut that down?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

It was a difficult decision, but it wasn't really a close call. If you put student athlete health first, the decision based on those considerations ended up being pretty straightforward. It's of course, heartbreaking for the students, as for student athletes as it is, this whole situation is for all of our students in so many ways. But we're very eager to get back to playing sports as soon as is safe. That's really what it amounts to.

In terms of other institutions, they're all going through the same kind of reasoning, they're looking at their own local conditions, they're making their own assessments about their ability to control disease and their assessment of the risks to their players. For us, the decision was pretty straightforward, but each of them is going to make their own decisions.

Ian:

Yeah. I guess, I'm not asking you to cast aspersions at any individual institution, but it seems pretty clear that not all of these leagues, not all these universities are making decisions looking at their health conditions in the same way. Would you say that's fair?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

I'm quite confident that in any one of these leagues that concerns about the health of student athletes are paramount. Again, I think that they're looking at many different factors and they're deriving their own conclusions.

Ian:

So Marc, I think one thing I'd like to get to before we close the interview is the opportunities that are created by crisis, right? We're never supposed to waste them. And I'm wondering where you see the biggest ways forward, not just at Stanford, but for higher education in the United States, which has been criticized in many ways for crushing student debt, has been criticized for not being as competitive in many cases as it has been historically. Also, the lack of accessibility for a lot of people that otherwise are feeling that the American dream is not applying to them.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Well, I would point to, first of all, the focus on online education and the ability to reach out to many more students. I think that there will be a democratization of higher education that will occur through that, through the ways that we discussed of universities like ours, both developing content for other students, but also reaching out to other populations. That's a first element of the equation, in terms of the impact of higher education on our community as a whole.

I do think the issues of access and affordability are very, very important as well. At Stanford, our approach has been to provide deep financial aid. Currently, students from families earning less than $150,000 a year get free tuition. Those from families earning less than $65,000 a year, get free tuition fees and room and board. And if you factor in financial aid, it turns out that Stanford is the least expensive four-year college experience for low- and middle-income students in the United States.

So we believe that these kinds of financial aid vehicles are going to be very important to continue to ensure access and affordability for a broad population. But that's just part of it, I think other colleges, many of our peers are doing the same thing. We do have to extend that, it's important for us to reach out to typically underserved populations. We have people who are very focused on reaching out to help them understand that, first of all, that Stanford exists, secondly, that yes, they can get into Stanford and that a Stanford college education is affordable for them, given our financial aid.

82% of our students graduate without any student debt whatsoever. So it's a model that we're going to continue to push internally, even as we develop tools to try to help students who don't have the benefit of coming to Stanford. It's also something that I think universities can do together. We're seeing partnerships between universities to deliver content to, again, students who don't have the opportunity to come to a college campus. And so I think you're going to see a lot of ferment further stimulated by the COVID crisis in that way.

Ian:

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President of Stanford University, thanks so much for joining me today.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne:

Thank you, Ian. It's been great to be here.

Announcer 4:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast, like what you've heard? I hope so. Come check us out at gzeromedia.com and sign up for our newsletter Signal.

Announcer 3:

This episode of the GZERO World Podcast was made possible by Lennar, America's largest and most innovative home builder, and the number one destination for foreign residential real estate investment in the US. Learn more at www.lennargzero.com. That's L-E-N-N-A-R-G-Z-E-R-O.com.

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