Before Samuel Stanley Jr. became a university president, he was a doctor and a medical researcher. With the spread of Coronavirus, he’s bringing that knowledge base to bear through the process of switching Michigan State University to online teaching and reaching students who no longer live and study on campus.
SCOTT POHL: When you first heard about this Corona virus outbreak, did you react as a university president or as an expert regarding viruses?
SAMUEL STANLEY JR.: I am trained in infectious disease, that's my specialty in medicine, and I think my first response was really both. When I learned of a novel Coronavirus, I was thinking to some degree, here we go again, this was the third new Corona virus to emerge in the past 20 years or so. My thought and my hope was that the same tools that had been effective in controlling the original SARS virus, that controlled the MERS virus, that those tools of identifying cases in isolation would work again in controlling the spread of infection. As disease began to spread much more rapidly than I would have thought from China, who does have the capability of really locking down tracing contacts and so on maybe better than most countries in the world, I certainly became more concerned about the impact.
Once we started to see that it was not being controlled internationally, I became much more concerned about what was happening to us, so we began meeting regularly as a group before things really took off. We talked about what we might do, and I think then as things really moved quickly, as we returned from our spring break, I think we already had some plans in place and we were ready to act.
POHL: Did other presidents reach out to you, not just because you run a big university, but because of your medical background?
STANLEY: Honestly, not so much. I think that I have had conversations with other university presidents, and particularly Mark Schlissel from the University of Michigan, about the actions our universities would be taking. We've reached a point now where there's a limited tool kit, if you will, for how you respond here. While I certainly may be in a better position than some to understand some of the risks, to understand some of the effectiveness of the things we're doing and potential effectiveness, I think all of us are kind of finding the same things that we need to do given the nature of the crisis and how it affects many of us in very much the same ways.
POHL: It's been a couple of weeks since I was on campus myself. I'm working from home; like much of the university is operating today, we're talking remotely. What's your assessment of how all this is playing out?
STANLEY: I think it's going very well in a number of areas. My compliments to the faculty and the academic staff who have really stepped up. We've been preparing ahead for this eventuality. We had groups meeting to figure out how we would make a change to remote learning. It wasn't that we started from scratch. The will of the faculty who have never taught online before to adopt the willingness of faculty who are expert in this area to start helping their colleagues learn to teach this way, and then the patience of the students who are dealing in a new way for some of them of learning.
That's not to say there's not a tremendous stress on students with this kind of change, plus everything that's going on around them, of course, stress for faculty as well for the same reasons, but people are really focusing on keeping this academic mission going. We're finding that some things we can do to increase socialization, so having to chat sometimes after the course takes place, those are ways in which students can feel less isolated and reach out to one another. We're learning a lot through this process, and I think we're getting better as we do it, but I'm sure there's still some areas where we can improve.