This interview with Davidson College President Carol Quillen was conducted by staff writer and former Perspectives Editor Lizzie Kane ’22 on March 20, 2020. 

How did you come to the decision to send students home? Why was Davidson later than other colleges? Who, besides yourself, was in on the decision? 

I can’t answer why Davidson was later than other colleges; I can’t answer the question about that mainly because I don’t know. I can answer the question about how we came to the decision that we did. As I tried to outline in the email I sent to campus, our priorities here are the health and well-being of the campus community and the broader community, in particular, those who are most vulnerable, and then the continuation of our core educational mission. We made the decision to move to remote instruction and to move as many students as possible off campus because we thought that was the best way to protect both of those priorities. 

Were faculty experts on disease or peer institutions or others consulted?

It was really a decision made by the leadership team at Davidson, which includes a couple of people who are nominally faculty—not specifically faculty experts—although I did sort of off the record talk to experts that I know, not necessarily at Davidson. There are some people with deep knowledge of this on the Board of Trustees.

Was there a genuine discussion about whether the college should tell students to temporarily not come back from spring break? Or did things evolve so quickly last week that that was never on the radar? 

I think it was more the latter. I think it was making decisions based on available information. We did cancel a planned spring break trip to Italy, but at the time when I was making this decision, I did not believe that telling students not to come back from spring break was the best decision to make. I think, in general, we considered every possible option and made the best decisions—almost on a day-to-day basis—given the information that we had.

How many students remain on campus at this time?

We are still nailing that down. I think a few more are going to leave. I expect it will be somewhere between 150 and 175.

In your email this morning, you wrote that campus is limited to “critical staff.” Who are these “critical staff” members?

The people that can do their work remotely have been doing that. We have people whose work can’t be done remotely who we need on campus to take care of our students. Also, some faculty are coming to campus in order to really facilitate their Zoom or however they’re meeting with our students. It’s not “critical” in the sense that these jobs are always more important. It’s just critical that we have these people on campus right now to continue operations. We need people who work in the Commons to help with food preparation. The campus police are here. The facilities team is here. Everybody who’s here working on campus is observing what we call “physical distancing.” That makes some jobs a lot harder to do, but folks are really rising to the occasion, recognizing how important that is given the absence of testing. [Physical distancing is] the best thing we can do to prevent the spread of the virus.

Again, in your email this morning, you wrote, “Everyone who can work remotely is doing so” and then you mention professors only being able to go into their classrooms and offices. Do you know how many professors are coming to campus? Are they coming to campus because they don’t have access to programs like Zoom from home, or are there other reasons?

I don’t know how many [professors] are coming to campus. I know some are coming to campus and just working in their classrooms by themselves for some technological reason. I think all faculty are prepared to work from home. I think more and more of them are starting to work solely remotely. But I couldn’t tell you how many are coming to campus. We just asked everybody to limit their presence on campus to their office, in their classroom, and then to leave when they’re done so that we are minimizing encounters between people, and everybody can practice physical distancing, which is so important right now. It makes it easier for us to keep those spaces really clean.

Are all staff still being paid in full?

The short answer to that question is we’re trying to find things for people to do that they can do either remotely or within the bounds of this safe distancing that needs to be done on campus, and, as far as I know, the answer to your question is yes, all regular employees are being paid.

And by “regular” do you mean full-time?

I’m not sure what the technical definition is of “regular,” but we may have some people that work only occasionally at Davidson who aren’t [considered regular.]  I’m not sure exactly what the definition of regular is. Anybody who has a full-time, regular position here [is being paid in full.] I can ask [Director of Human Resources] Kim Ball to define regular for you. (The Davidsonian is still waiting for clarification.)

Is there a process in place if someone on campus contracts the virus? I know the Guest House has been set up to hold people with the virus. But what if the Guest House capacity is exceeded? Do we have testing capabilities on campus right now?

Testing all over the state has been fairly limited. I expect that that will change over the next week. I just saw that Atrium Health, which is a big healthcare system in the Carolinas, has ramped up its ability to test. Once that happens, there inevitably will be many, many, many more cases diagnosed across the state. We are constantly, in this very dynamic situation that we’re in, working on how we would isolate people either who have symptoms or who are waiting for a test or who are diagnosed with the virus in a safe way on campus. Davidson’s not a hospital, so we’re not equipped to care for people who need hospitalization, obviously, but we’re mindful of the need to figure out how we would isolate people, more people than can go in the Guest House should that become necessary. We’re still sort of assessing the lay of the land: How many students are gone? How many cleaned up their rooms entirely? How many rooms still have stuff in them? Yes, of course, we’re thinking about that.

What percentage of room and board will be refunded to students and their families? How does this amount differ if you receive financial aid?

We’ll know more about how [financial aid and refunds] are going to work once I talk to the CFO later today, and [the office is] going to try to publicize those principles to everyone so that everybody understands it. I’m not sure how it will work if a student is receiving aid. I don’t think there’s a plan to refund—I don’t even know that “refund” is the right word—money that was coming from a Davidson scholarship. Obviously, we want to make sure all of our students are taken care of, but I don’t think that’s the plan.

Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Mark Johnson added in an email later: The more of your costs that were covered by aid dollars, the less that will be refunded to you. Room and board is the cost of housing and providing meals for students away from home. Refunds are being provided to students and families who personally paid for room and board. 

Do you have any updates regarding graduation?

No, not at this time. I’ve told every senior that I’ve been able to communicate with that I’m committed to creating the best, biggest commencement celebration ever at a time when we are able to do that. We’ll make a decision well in advance of May whether or not commencement will proceed as it normally does. But we haven’t made that decision yet. What I have made is a deep commitment to our seniors. When the time is right, we’ll figure out—in consultation with the class—what they want to do, what kind of weekend they want to have, and how we can make that happen for them at whatever time we can do that.

Will speakers that were scheduled to come to campus still come at a later time? What is happening with the money that is allocated to organizations like the Activities Tax Council? Will it roll over to next year?

I honestly don’t think we’ve actually thought that through yet. Like I said, as we’ve already talked about, the situation changed really quickly, and it continues to change really quickly. At this point, my goal is the health and well-being of the people who are on campus, and our staff, and our faculty, and also the broader community, which includes many, many people who are far more vulnerable to this crisis than we are, and then making sure that our students continue learning. I know a lot of our faculty have shifted the content of their classes and have made a lot of space for students to talk about what’s happening, which I think is really awesome and important. We can’t leave this health crisis at the door when we log on to Zoom. I’m really loving watching the Davidson community rise to the occasion and support one another in these powerful ways and recognize that we have a lot to learn as we’re living this. How can we learn from daily experiences that we’re having? I think that’s the focus right now, rather than the details of what’s going to happen down the road. I expect most of the speakers who were scheduled to come will come at some point. There will be money for activities, but I can’t give you the details of how it’s all going to work.

How is the campus going to adapt if most juniors cannot study abroad in the fall?

I really have a lot of confidence and faith in the creativity of the Davidson community. I know the value for our students of studying away, internationally and elsewhere. I expect that if international travel were precluded, we at Davidson would come up with amazing away experiences that are domestic or that involve some other set of experiences that we can provide for our students. I have absolute confidence in our ability to adapt to whatever the external circumstances are and create an amazing educational experience. I really don’t doubt that at all. We already have people talking about what we can do domestically. What other types of experiences could we offer? There’s a lot of commitment to making sure that the educational experiences we offer and the range of opportunities we offer our students are preparing them for leadership and service after they leave.

How are you keeping up with the news? What are the main sources you are reading?

I’m lucky in that I know some people in the field. I’ve got a couple people that send me the academic papers about the specifics of this virus, but then also just about managing global pandemics and the ways in which we can think about that and how we can support one another through it. [There are also articles asking] questions about potential treatments, how long will a vaccine take [to make], all these questions that folks are interested in. I like to learn, and I like to understand the situation as far as I can. And, recognizing that we all have very limited information at this time, it helps me to read the work of scientists who are spending 24 hours a day trying to figure this thing out. That’s what I read. I wouldn’t recommend that for everybody. But I do think it’s important to unplug from the cable news onslaught periodically and watch something else. I also think it’s important to take care of yourself and get some exercise. I do yoga or ride my spin bike or do my TRX while watching reruns of Star Trek The Next Generation. I do think it’s important for people to disconnect from [the news] periodically. I get news from people that are researching this virus mostly.