UP CLOSE | ‘Building the plane while we fly it’: Making student policy in a time of pandemic

UP CLOSE | ‘Building the plane while we fly it’: Making student policy in a time of pandemic

After more than a year living in a world disrupted by COVID-19, administrators and student leaders reflect on how they have made student policy amid the uncertainty and challenges of the pandemic.

Published on April 16, 2021

Almost every aspect of students’ lives this year have been disrupted, made uncertain and radically changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And Yale — an institution more than three centuries old that has weathered the test of time — was not immune to those changes.

Over the past year, Yale has been faced with unique challenges as it reimagines what it means to operate a university in a time of pandemic. And nowhere do those efforts to adapt to this particular moment in time stand out more than in student policy. While much of the student policy made over this past year has been explicitly in response to the pandemic — such as twice-weekly student testing and contact tracing protocols, the switch to nearly all remote courses and the decision to only invite three classes back to campus for each semester as a means of de-densifying campus — the University has also continued to make policy that is not explicitly pandemic-related but responds to the unique circumstances brought on by COVID-19.

Although all students experience the implications of policy decisions, not many students have the opportunity to reflect on what goes into making decisions, who makes them and why. The News spoke with five administrators and five students to get a better understanding of what it has been like to craft student policy in a time of pandemic. While the purpose of making student policy — making students’ time at Yale as meaningful as possible — has not changed, the process, practices and considerations that go into crafting policy have been upended. In some decisions, students are a part of the process. In others, Yale administrators do not gather student feedback prior to announcing the decision.

“It really has been like building a plane while we fly it. Right now, we are required to adapt to challenges as they emerge and make decisions based off of the best information available at a given point in time without having the luxury of being able to see the larger picture. It is both our privilege and our honor to serve our students by trying to meet the challenges brought on by the pandemic in the best way we can, but there is no guidebook for something like this.”

—Marvin Chun, Dean of Yale College

It really has been like building a plane while we fly it,” Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun said of making policy during the public health crisis. “Right now, we are required to adapt to challenges as they emerge and make decisions based off of the best information available at a given point in time without having the luxury of being able to see the larger picture. It is both our privilege and our honor to serve our students by trying to meet the challenges brought on by the pandemic in the best way we can, but there is no guidebook for something like this.”

How student policy is made and who is involved

When it comes to policies that impact University-wide health and safety, student policy ultimately comes from the guidance of University President Peter Salovey,  University Provost Scott Strobel and University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler.

The three are guided by the Yale Public Health Committee, which is made up of Salovey’s chief of staff, the director of Yale Health, multiple public health experts and the deputy general counsel. Deans from the Yale School of Nursing, School of Medicine and School of Public Health also sit on the committee.

According to Strobel, pandemic-time decisions have been guided by science and the recommendations of public health experts, as well as directions from federal and state authorities. 

“President Salovey and I frequently meet with the deans of all the schools, heads of various administrative units, and various faculty groups, who, in turn, work closely with faculty, students, and staff across the university,” Strobel wrote to the News. “These ongoing conversations and deliberations help us ensure that university policies are crafted and implemented in ways that balance the public health considerations with our community’s education and research goals.”

For her part, Spangler told the News that, with the advice of the Public Health Committee, she is responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of public health practices that reduce the risks caused by the pandemic. In her role, Spangler makes recommendations for “related policy and operational changes to University leaders.”

Some examples of Spangler’s recommendations include those involving COVID-19 testing and campus reopening. 

While policy discussions that impact the whole University are made at the upper levels of the Yale administration, when policies concern Yale College alone, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun takes the lead. However, Chun explained that his discretion and decision-making power is highly dependent on the policy in question. For example, while decisions about the College’s academic calendar this year were made more centrally, decisions about course selection for Yale College are more within Chun’s purview.

Although Chun is often the face of Yale College policy decisions, he explained how nearly all decisions he makes are collaborative, and include input from across the university. 

“There are some things I have more control over than not, but I do almost nothing alone,” Chun said. “Everything is in consultation with others. But I definitely understand how it is viewed from the student perspective — that I am the one behind the policy since I am mainly responsible for communicating the policies. In many ways, I do represent Yale. I am in a key position to receive and share student input and feedback. I very much take that role seriously.” 

Chun explained how when it comes to decisions about public health and safety, the Public Health Committee and other members of the Yale administration have provided “a guiding light.” But while the committee, other Yale administrators or experts may recommend guidance or certain courses of action, “ultimately those policies need to be decided upon, fleshed out, funded and implemented.” That’s where the cooperation of the community comes in.

Chun cited Yale’s testing infrastructure as a “classic example” of this phenomenon. Based on public health guidance, it was necessary that Yale offer a robust COVID-19 testing infrastructure that allowed for the semiweekly testing of students and the frequent testing of faculty and staff in order to reopen as safely as possible. While the provost’s and president’s offices were behind the larger plan, bringing the plan to life and managing day-to-day operations required the involvement of several University bodies and the commitment of the whole community to abide by the plan.

At the time of publication, Yale’s COVID-19 dashboard reflects 858 positive cases from students — undergraduate, graduate and professional — faculty and staff since Aug. 1, 2020. In comparison, Harvard reports 920 positive cases since June 1, Brown reports 554 cases since August 24 and Dartmouth reports 389 positive cases since July 1.

Spangler, too, cited the COVID-19 testing and tracing program as a piece of Yale’s public health infrastructure that she is proud of.

“We owe our deepest thanks not only to the leaders who supported it but also to the public health experts who designed it; the health care, administrative and hospitality staff who implemented it; and the many students, faculty and staff who participated in it,” Spangler wrote to the News.

Navigating new academic, student life concerns

While COVID-related policy decisions often rely more heavily on guidance from public health experts, plenty of student policy has been crafted over the past year that have not been directly related to the public health aspects of the pandemic but rather responded to the challenges sparked by it. These decisions — which include policies surrounding matters such as student housing, remote learning and break days — have been made and communicated to undergraduates predominately by Chun and Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd. 

While the choice to engage in mainly remote learning and the choice to have five break days rather than a spring break were based on public health guidance and did not include many student voices, a survey was sent out to students to express preferences for what housing in the next academic year would look like.

In terms of academic policies in a time of pandemic, Chun explained that much of that happens in collaboration with Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley. He explained that the three meet nearly every day.

“We are in constant conversation about policy, about making sure that things are running smoothly,” Chun said. “A lot of the planning happens in those meetings to ensure that the University’s academic mission is at the forefront of discussion, and making sure that student learning is disrupted to the least extent possible.”

Aside from the day-to-day discussions, Chun explained that his decisions on academic policy have been guided by the academic planning committees and task forces — made up of FAS faculty members, deans and other relevant staff members — who “spent every waking moment planning for this academic year” over the past summer and have guided academic planning ever since.  According to a webpage from last May, while student representatives sat on five of the seven task forces, they did not sit on the two committees.

And in terms of student life, Boyd explained to the News how making student policy has changed during the pandemic. Whereas pre-pandemic policy making was what Boyd described as “incremental, with lots of discussions, experimental pilots and extended roll-out plans,” policies during the pandemic have had to be made quickly and within the guidelines of public health recommendations.

Boyd explained how policies such as making students eligible for room and board rebates if they left campus early and the decision to only utilize single bedrooms are examples of how they made quick decisions to meet public health standards while also easing the adverse pressures of the pandemic.

Now, her role making student policy includes addressing the unique difficulties created by the pandemic as well as responding to case-by-case student concerns, ranging from helping to support remote learners in Texas after the storms to finding a way to allow students in COVID-19 isolation housing to receive Grubhub meal deliveries. 

(David Zheng, Senior Photographer)

The values guiding decision making

When issuing recommendations for policies that impact students, Spangler told the News that her first priority as COVID-19 coordinator is “the safety of our campus and our Yale and New Haven communities.”

Chun cited the example of Yale College’s choice to eliminate spring break. He explained how he understands that few students would have preferred the current break day schedule under normal circumstances, but it was the best way to give students a break without endangering students or public health. 

Chun explained that while student feedback is useful when there are a range of options being considered, because a decision like eliminating spring break truly did not have a safe alternative, that was one of the decisions for which students were not consulted.

Despite its intentions, some students criticized the decision to designate five break days dispersed throughout the semester in lieu of a traditional spring break, citing concerns about professors continuing to schedule classes and work.

Whatever we do, we prioritize health and safety, and when tradeoffs need to be made, we favor what is safe for the community, students, faculty and staff,” Chun told the News. 

Another value guiding decision-making has been sustaining Yale’s academic mission. Chun explained that in all the decisions he makes concerning students, he tries to keep Yale’s academic mission upfront to make sure that students can continue their studies in the least disruptive and most meaningful way possible.

Both Chun and Boyd explained how supporting students is another guiding value that informs decision-making. Boyd explained that in the present circumstances, despite the fact that meeting individual student needs has become even more complex, it has become even more important for administrators to do so. 

“And then of course we are guided by trying to support our students in as many ways as we can and in a way that is as equitable and transparent as possible,” Chun said. “We never try to lose sight of doing what is fair for students and making sure that no one is uniquely disadvantaged by this situation or our decisions.”

Boyd explained that the challenge is often not determining the right policy, but rather working through the logistics of making it a reality.

Senior Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives and Communications Paul McKinley DRA ’96 — who served as the head of Saybrook College for 13 years and then became Yale College’s director of strategic communications before assuming his current role — explained that, from his vantage point, the purpose of making student policy has not changed during the pandemic, but the process and practices of doing so have.

“Protecting the health and wellbeing of our university and surrounding communities is the biggest factor that drives our decision-making. The cost of a decision is certainly a consideration, but we are grateful that it has not constrained our decisions to incur additional costs to safeguard our community.”

—Scott Strobel, University Provost

The cost of pandemic-time policy decisions

Meeting those needs, health or otherwise, costs money, though. According to Strobel, operating the University during a time of pandemic required a robust public health infrastructure that allowed the campus to reopen as safely as possible.

Protecting the health and wellbeing of our university and surrounding communities is the biggest factor that drives our decision-making,” Strobel wrote to the News. “The cost of a decision is certainly a consideration, but we are grateful that it has not constrained our decisions to incur additional costs to safeguard our community.”

Spangler noted that she has never encountered any budgetary restraints from the administration in creating public health infrastructure.

According to Strobel, the University estimates that the pandemic has cost Yale more than $325 million in lost revenue and COVID-19-related expenses so far, noting that “these costs continue to accumulate.”

Strobel explained how the cost of building a public health infrastructure that would allow the University to reopen included purchasing COVID-19 tests, setting up testing infrastructure and vaccine clinics, conducting contact tracing, purchasing personal protective equipment and enhancing cleaning of campus buildings. He noted that these outlays have cost the University over $25 million and are projected to exceed $35 million.

Strobel noted that Yale has lost over $200 million in lost revenue due to the pandemic, the largest segment of which came from lower clinical revenues due to canceled surgical procedures and other medical appointments through the School of Medicine, and a lower enrollment in Yale College this year.

Twenty-three percent of Yale College students took a leave of absence in the fall 2020 semester, as compared to the 1.4 percent of students who took a leave of absence in the fall 2019 semester. According to Chun, a little over 20 percent of students took leaves of absence in both semesters of the 2020-21 academic year, and the number was higher for students who were not allowed back on campus for parts of the year — the class of 2023 in the fall and the class of 2024 in the spring.

Although many of these costs reflect the University’s attempts to directly address the public health challenges created by the pandemic, some of them are merely a byproduct of the University’s decision to operate in a time of pandemic.

Strobel cited the continued pay of employees who are unable to work remotely but still are not coming into work, the University’s plans to buy out a number of accrued vacation days for managerial and professional staff, suspending fees for on-campus parking and expanding health care and child care benefits as examples. Policies like these comprise much of the remaining $100 million in pandemic-related expenses and lost revenue to total the $325 million. 

Strobel noted that the University “managed to mitigate the impact of these COVID-related costs thanks to cost-saving efforts by Yale’s units and thanks to revenue generated by the endowment.”

In the most recent fiscal year — the year ending June 30, 2020 — the Yale Investments Office reported that the endowment earned a 6.8 percent return, reaching a total of $31.2 billion despite the pandemic’s economic effects.

After a year upended by online classes, the University has also increased tuition by nearly four percent for the 2021-22 academic year.

Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration

In talking about how his role as Dean of Yale College has changed since the onset of the pandemic, Chun initially joked about getting less sleep. But after a pause of reflection, he told the News that the greatest difference is in the extent to which collaboration occurs. 

“The job [of dean] is always busy, but it has become even more intense than ever,” Chun told the News. “But also, it has been a lot more collaborative than ever. Our ability to manage through this crisis is so heavily dependent on everyone’s diverse expertise and creative thinking in terms of coming up with solutions for which this expertise has been useful. If I had to characterize the year, it has been deeply collaborative.”

Other administrators interviewed by the News expressed similar sentiments about how the pandemic has brought out a collaborative spirit.

Spangler emphasized that although her name goes on the weekly emails that get sent out to the community, she does not work alone. Rather, she collaborates with many others to realize the University’s goal of allowing students and faculty to pursue their academic and work-related aspirations given the risks of the pandemic. 

Boyd also noted how the challenges created by the pandemic have illuminated the degree to which different entities on campus interact in order to pass policy that is responsive to both student desires and public health requirements. 

She cited how Yale Dining and Yale Conferences and Events worked together on making sure that students in quarantine had access to meals and laundry, how her office is currently working with the Yale College Council on policies for getting exercise equipment in the residential college courtyards and how the administration is currently working with seniors to realize their primary request of walking across the stage and hearing their names read aloud at Commencement. 

The complexities of the pandemic have highlighted the degree to which so many systems interact, and the need for collaborative decision-making,” Boyd wrote to the News.

The student role in crafting policy during a pandemic 

“The pandemic saw a groundswell of student advocacy efforts. The pandemic, and the state of the world, allowed for intense and productive conversations. It’s imperative that we continue the momentum we have attained and I encourage anyone who’s interested in fighting for causes near to their hearts to do so — loudly and proudly.”

—Joaquín Lara Midkiff ’24, Disability Empowerment for Yale vice president and YCC accessibility chair and senator

While much of student policy over the past year was made on the administrative level, students have also played a pivotal role in guiding decision making and advocating for policies. 

Chun explained how it is “always [his] priority” to collect student input, gauge student feelings toward a prospective policy and try to understand how decisions may impact students. Chun looks to do so by sending out surveys and meeting with student leaders.

A main way Chun and other administrators solicit feedback is through having students sit on standing committees. For the next academic year, there are dozens of committees that students can sit on, ranging from the Investor Responsibility Committee to the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Conduct. According to YCC President Aliesa Bahri ’22, while YCC was asked to nominate students to 22 of the committees, many have their own selection process.

Bahri did not know how many students in total serve on those committees, as it varies by committee. On the website that lists standing committees, half of the 42 committees had an updated roster of members for the 2020-21 academic year. Thirteen committees listed rosters from last year or the year prior and six did not list any roster at all.

Hannah Cevasco ’24 currently sits on the Committee on Majors and the Science and Quantitative Reasoning Committee. She told the News that the Committee on Majors typically meets monthly to review departmental proposals for changes to major requirements as well as proposals for new certificates and that the Science and Quantitative Reasoning Committee meets as needed to discuss the ways in which STEM education could be bettered at Yale.

Cevasco said that she “absolutely” feels that her voice as a student is valued and taken into account on the committees. She explained how, in her experience, students on the committees are able to offer suggestions, opinions and feedback on prospective policies.

I want students to know that their input is really valuable,” Boyd said. “We can’t always say ‘yes,’ but that input is itself important, both in terms of the relationships we build and in terms of planning for future possibilities.”     

But more than just serving as sounding boards for policy at the higher levels, many student leaders have spent the last year advocating for and creating student policy themselves.

Bahri explained that, since she was elected as president at the height of the pandemic, she expected most of her tenure to be focused on “overcoming the unique challenges to undergraduate life engendered and exacerbated by COVID-19.”

She told the News how her administration’s top priority has been helping students access the resources they need to remain safe and healthy, as well as equipping them with the tools to overcome the obstacles posed by virtual learning. Equally important, Bahri talked about her commitment to facilitating community in such an isolating time.

From public health policies such as securing reimbursements for COVID-19 tests for students who are not able to get them on campus, to academic policies such as advocating for deans to be authorized to grant dean’s excuses for technical difficulties during final exams in this new remote environment, to administrative policies such as clarifying the amnesty policy to include violations of the community compact when sexual misconduct is reported, Bahri’s administration has been involved in crafting, shaping and passing student policy that respond to this unique moment in time.

This year, Bahri and YCC Vice President Reilly Johnson ’22 have met with Chun every other week.

“In many ways, being a YCC leader has been very different from previous years, but in so many ways it also has been the same,” Bahri said. “At the end of the day, regardless of our circumstances, YCC is about supporting one another through hardship and building community wherever we are. I hope that will never change no matter what the future holds.”

Logan Roberts ’23 is currently the president of the Yale First-Generation and/or Low-Income Advocacy Movement. The primary focuses of YFAM are community building and advocacy as it pertains to Yale’s FGLI population.

Roberts explained how although all students are impacted by the pandemic, the FGLI community has faced unique challenges that YFAM seeks to bring voice to and address. Over the past semester, YFAM has partnered with several student organizations to launch initiatives that will better serve the FGLI community at Yale. This includes partnering with QuestBridge to launch “Student-Faculty Mentor Circles” through which students were grouped with FGLI faculty mentors, as well as joining the Mental Health Justice Coalition at Yale, which has released a list of demands oriented towards improving and expanding Yale’s mental health resources.

“YFAM plays a critical role in crafting student policy,” Roberts wrote to the News. “There is a widely held misconception that FGLI advocacy work is primarily concerned with financial aid. It is true that sound financial aid makes up a large portion of our advocacy work, but in truth, it is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Similarly, Students Unite Now Organizer Naomi D’Arbell Bobadilla ’22 explained to the News how SUN has been fighting for the elimination of the student income contribution — the colloquial term for the student effort portion of financial aid — and better mental health care for students, topics that have become particularly salient due to the financial and health impacts of the pandemic.

While some student policy is made at only the student-level or administrative-level, D’Arbell Bobadilla explained how the administration waived the student income contribution for remote students this year as a result of student organizing and advocacy. However, she noted that Yale’s decision not to waive the student income contribution for students enrolled in-residence made “low-income students of color on campus do extra work to belong, even during a pandemic.”

Joaquín Lara Midkiff ’24, who serves as Disability Empowerment for Yale vice president and YCC accessibility chair and senator, has spent the past year engaging in advocacy work pertaining to accessibility. Through helping to get the most medically vulnerable students vaccinated to securing closed captioning on Zoom, Lara Midkiff has spent the last year trying to advocate for solutions to some of the unique challenges that the pandemic created for accessibility.

Lara Midkiff explained how the pandemic “elevated and centered conversations about accessibility” in ways that he had never seen before. Specifically, he mentioned how DEFY’s access and partnership with the administration has been unparalleled this year, allowing for many accessibility wins. 

Midkiff explained how he is “effectively in constant contact with the administration” via email, and he meets with at least one of either Chun, Student Accessibility Director Sarah Scott Chang or Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity, Access and Belonging Elizabeth Conklin two to three times a month.

The pandemic saw a groundswell of student advocacy efforts,” Lara Midkiff wrote in an email to the News. “The pandemic, and the state of the world, allowed for intense and productive conversations. It’s imperative that we continue the momentum we have attained and I encourage anyone who’s interested in fighting for causes near to their hearts to do so — loudly and proudly.”

A year of hindsight

In retrospect, knowing what he knows now, Chun explained that there are a few things he wishes could have been done differently. The first example he cited is the universal pass/fail policy that was implemented in the spring 2020 semester and sprung out of the “universal pass” movement — a student demand that advocated for all classes to give students passing grades without the possibility of failure.

The demand stemmed from the disruption of the spring 2020 semester that forced students to abruptly move home and continue their studies remotely, and it was rooted in a desire to ensure equity for students experiencing hardships due to the unusual circumstances brought on by the pandemic.

However, instead of adopting a “universal pass” policy for the semester’s grades, Chun announced a universal pass/fail policy in which the College gave students grades of either “pass” or “fail” on their transcript with no option for students to earn letter grades.

Looking back, although Chun acknowledged that the majority of the community of faculty and students supported the policy, he wishes there was a way to have done it differently. 

After a YCC survey showed 69 percent of the 4,618 student respondents supported a universal pass/fail option and a faculty vote found that 55 percent of the 537 respondents from the Yale College faculty meeting membership supported the option as well, Chun implemented the special grading policy.

“We did it because the anxiety and stress levels of students was so high, that it was needed to relieve the pressure that everyone was feeling,” Chun told the News. “But a lot of students did not want to have their grades converted to pass/fail. I wish the original plan of having a very flexible credit/D/fail option could have gained traction as opposed to a universal pass/fail. But ultimately, we listened to the community of both faculty and students.”

Another regret that Chun has — albeit something he does not think could have been done differently given the public health circumstances — is not being able to have all four classes on campus for each semester.

But overall, Chun is proud of the policies enacted in the past year. While there are a few things that, in hindsight, could have been done differently, Chun stated that he is happy that the University “definitely did many more things right than the few things that we could have done differently.”

It’s deeply impressive to think how many decisions were made that turned out to be the right ones, including sticking with our announced plans in the summer when a lot of schools were canceling and changing what they announced,” Chun said.

Similarly, Spangler expressed pride at seeing the sheer number of people and University bodies who have come together “with energy and creativity and skill” to adapt to the circumstances and run a university during a public health crisis.

While Boyd does not “yet feel like we are into the realm of hindsight” as the University is “still trying to keep up with each new twist and turn,” she expressed a deep appreciation for the hundreds of people who have been working nonstop to keep campus running.

But above all, all of the administrators who spoke to the News expressed gratitude for how the student body was able to remain resilient, adapt to the most uncertain of circumstances and come together to protect their community.

“As dean, I am just so grateful and impressed with the students,” Chun said. “You are dealing with something that no other college students have had to face, endure or adapt to. Although we certainly understand and feel sorry for the negative aspects of the pandemic, I really applaud the students for managing through this the way they have. It has been remarkable, and they have made us proud.”

Julia Bialek | julia.bialek@yale.edu

Correction, Apr. 16: An earlier version of this story said there were 24 committees for students to sit on. It it unclear exactly how many standing committees will operate next year at this time, but 42 are listed on Yale College’s website. The YCC is involved with the selection process for 22 of those committees. The story has been updated.


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