Hard Choices in a Pandemic

Published in the April 22, 2020 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.


Denise Applewhite

On Friday the 13th, I left my office in Nassau Hall and stepped into an unseasonably warm March afternoon. Groups of students laughed, talked, and posed for pictures. Casual observers might have imagined the students were enjoying carefree moments at the cusp of spring break.

In fact, though, they were saying bittersweet farewells. Many were seniors who had lost their final spring at Old Nassau. On the preceding Monday, we announced that all of Princeton’s classes were moving online. Two days later, we told all undergraduate students that they must return home to complete their studies if they were able.

The COVID-19 pandemic was changing the world with dizzying speed. A week earlier, I attended an alumni reception in Dallas, a student production of Macbeth, and two basketball games. No cases had yet appeared on campus or in the town.

The University was, however, monitoring the outbreak. We knew that diseases can spread rapidly on college campuses, where people live and study in close proximity to one another. If an epidemic infected large segments of our student body, it would overwhelm our capacity to care for the sick. We would also be unable to prevent the virus from reaching older, more vulnerable populations, including many members of the staff and faculty at Princeton and people in the surrounding community.

On March 5th, we asked our infectious disease team whether we should limit the size of crowds and events. In hindsight, such a proposal seems absurdly tame, but at the time it went beyond what most other colleges and universities had done.

Bolstered by advice from public health experts, including knowledgeable trustees, the team urged us to go further. It recommended moving to online instruction and encouraging undergraduates to return home. My first reaction was astonishment. Princeton thrives on face-to-face teaching and engagement. After hearing the case made by my colleagues, however, I reluctantly concluded that we had to act.

Our team and the experts whom it consulted told us that “community spread” had started in the United States. They said we should assume that the virus was present on our campus or would soon be. They were right: within days, we learned that two staff members might have been exposed to the virus at an off-campus event.

The experts also emphasized that the time for action was upon us. Exponential growth rates meant cases would multiply with devastating speed and impact. The earlier we moved, the more effective our actions would be and the more lives would be saved.

With heavy hearts, we moved instruction online, cancelled Ivy League athletic contests, and required undergraduates to go home if they could. Ivy League universities were among the first to make these choices. I was in touch with the other presidents throughout the week. We all hoped that we were wrong: if the pandemic eventually proved less fearsome than we anticipated, we would have celebrated.

Life in Princeton still seemed “normal” when we announced our decisions. As I finish this column ten days later, nearly the entire state of New Jersey is shuttered. Residents are advised not to leave their homes except for specified reasons, in-person instruction is unlawful, and dining at restaurants is prohibited. Even birthday parties are banned. “Normal” is no more.

Princeton’s archivist, Daniel Linke, and his colleague, April Armstrong, inform me that epidemics have ended semesters in the past. According to their research, the most recent occasion involved a typhoid outbreak in 1880, when we were still the College of New Jersey. This pandemic may be the first to cause Princeton University to end a term early.

It is not the sort of history one wants to make. All of us cherish the scholarly discoveries, the artistic performances, the athletic competitions, the memorable conversations, and the lasting friendships that happen on this campus. Grand and beautiful our buildings may be, but Princeton’s people—its students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends— are the essence of the University. I feel that always, but with keen poignancy now, when our campus is so profoundly quiet in a season that should brim with energy.

I take heart knowing that the Princeton community, wherever its members may be, remains strong in spirit, loyal to Old Nassau, and dedicated “to the nation’s service, and the service of humanity.” We are taking the steps, large and small, needed to combat this pandemic. I am especially grateful to the nurses, doctors, and others on our staff and among our alumni who are risking their own health to care for the sick.

When the time comes, our campus will roar back to life, once again a Tiger burning bright. We will find ways to celebrate the Great Class of 2020, and to renew the bonds that tie us to one another and to this University. Until then, I send my heartfelt wishes that you and your loved ones remain healthy and well in these challenging times.

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