Cloudy forecast at the Shore: Monmouth president ponders rules of a return to campus

Leahy wonders, ‘What is the new normal?’ And then there are questions of enrollment, funding …

By Tom Bergeron
West Long Branch | Apr 9, 2020 at 6:15 am
Editor’s Desk

Patrick Leahy rattles off the questions quickly.

“Are they going to say the students can come back, but we have to give them all single rooms?

“Are they going to say we can’t have classes with more than a dozen kids in them?”

He ponders what would happen when a student gets sick, for any reason. And then asks the toughest question: “What is the new normal?”

Leahy, the president of Monmouth University, would like nothing more than for things to be back to normal this fall.

He knows it won’t be that way. And, as he’s trying to predict budgets and enrollment — and all of the other things that used to be easily quantifiable, he realizes the COVID-19 pandemic is going to impact higher education long after we flatten the curve.

“There’s just layer after layer of complexity,” he said. “We quickly ramped up to all of these social distancing measures. I don’t think people realize that we’re going to have to ramp down from them, too. And that process is going to affect what we’re able to do.”

ROI-NJ, in its continuing coverage of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on business in New Jersey, gave extra attention to higher education this week.

(See our stories on its impact at Rowan University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, County College of Morris and Centenary University.)

We talked with Leahy, who we profiled when he took over at the school last fall, to get the view from a private institution — they seemingly are more dependent on enrollment than public schools. The hypothesis held true.

“If there’s a major swing in our enrollments, that’s going to create longer-term problems for us,” he said.

Here’s why: A freshman class that has 10% fewer students than expected creates a financial strain a university must carry for four years.

Now, here’s a catch. Leahy is not so sure he can count on the upper classes to return at the same rate as they normally would have.

“How many parents are going to going to say, ‘I don’t know if I’m comfortable sending my child back to such a large community,’” he said. “Remember, we’re close to 8,000 people when all of our faculty, staff and students are all gathered.

“They might say: ‘I’m not comfortable with that. I want to have them commute,’ which is still a revenue loss for us. Or they may have them sit out for a semester or a year until this thing really clears.

“So, there’s all that complexity, which is really hard to plan for.”

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Being a private school means you don’t get (as much) public money — and that means big problems in times like these. At least that’s the premise. Leahy doesn’t necessarily think that’s true.

“This is one of those times when I’m glad that a lot of my budget is not reliant on public funding, because I just don’t know how easily that’s going to materialize,” he said.

Monmouth’s Woodrow Wilson Hall.

The pandemic has hurt finances more in a different area: fundraising.

It’s the most important job of a school president, but it’s one Leahy said he has put on hold.

“I just don’t think it’s good form for us to go out and ask people to support the university, given the fact that their portfolios are blown up and they’ve had their own challenges with their own families,” he said. “I want to be respectful of that.”

Leahy said the school will only take donations for one thing: The President’s Relief Fund, which is available to students with real hardships. Leahy said many don’t realize a Monmouth stat that makes him proud: A third of the school qualifies for Pell grants and nearly half are first-generation college students.

“I want them to know that their university is here for them,” he said.

Leahy makes it clear: Monmouth is financially strong. Perhaps not as strong as it was just a month ago, like every other institution, but strong enough that it can survive this.

He realizes other institutions will not. And he said it won’t be a matter of public or private, but a matter of survival of the fittest.

Leahy, in fact, felt that day of reckoning was coming — especially in the Northeast, where a noticeable drop in high school students meant some institutions did not have a bright future. Their demise, he said, will only be quicken by this crisis.

“The enrollment declines and the cost of education increase — and the ability to make sure we’re making that as accessible as possible to students — were all issues,” he said. “So, I think a lot of us were bracing for that sort of industry fallout anyway. And then this hits.”

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Leahy has been a strong proponent of online learning. Last summer, he talked about a desire to have students take online courses — even if they did it from their dorm room. In what can only be seen as prescient, Leahy said he wanted his students to be ready for a work world that would increasingly be done virtually.

The sudden switch to online learning came faster than he figured. And while Leahy said students — and most teachers — have adapted, he worries what will happen if it goes past the summer session.

“Let me be candid,” he said. “I think there’s enough uncertainty around what our numbers would be if we open normally in the fall. I can’t imagine what will happen to American higher education if — from a public health perspective — we are not able to open normally in the fall and we have to go to remote instruction again.”

Which takes him back to the questions that he can’t answer.

“Would it be easier to go remote for the first month of the year? Or would it be easier to delay the opening of school for a period of time?”

If you do that, he asks, what happens to fall athletic teams?

The answers in these scenarios lie with the students, he said.

“How many families will say, ‘I’m just going to wait this out?’”

Now, it’s Monmouth that must wait and see.

Normally, schools would have their fall classes set by May 1. Now, Leahy said he — and every other university in the state — may not know until Sept. 1.

It’s why he’s trying to be proactive. Trying to play all the possibilities.

“We have to make sure that we carve out some time to be thinking about three months and six months or a year from now,” he said. “We have to, because we can’t get caught in a tough situation without having given it any consideration.”

Even if the answers are tough to come by right now.

Read ROI-NJ’s higher education series:

Read more from ROI-NJ on coronavirus: