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Yale 62

Yale, COVID and What About Fall 2020?
By Lee Bolman

Tip: Scroll to the bottom of this page to see classmate comments and Lee’s reply.

(Editor’s Note: After completing his Ph.D at Yale in Organizational Behavior. Lee’s career has focused on Organizations and Leadership including long stints at several U.S. universities and extensive overseas teaching and consulting. He has authored or co-authored 10 books. Spurred by the pandemic and other major changes, he and wife, Joan Gallos, are hard at work completing a revised edition of their book “Reframing Academic Leadership,” scheduled for 2021 publication. We could not have a more expert and directly involved classmate for tackling the challenges that Yale and all of Higher Education presently face. Lee and Joan are interested to read classmates’ comments of the topic, both before and after Yale’s anticipated July announcements for the 2020-2021 academic year.)


A. Whitney Griswold, Yale Art Gallery Collections


A. Whitney Griswold, Yale’s president from 1950 to 1963, held opinions that were fairly conventional at the time, but seem retrograde today. He said that immigrants to the US did not understand liberal education, that African-Americans were “beyond the pale of the liberal arts,” and that public schools were the “rotten pilings” of American education. In that context, Yale’s admissions policies in 1958 aimed for a class that was 100% male, no more than 10% Jewish, and mostly white Protestant. Admission was no problem for those with the right pedigree—if you were a legacy or a graduate of one of the elite private schools with satisfactory grades and test scores, you were almost sure to get in. Six decades later, Yale is accepting barely 6% of applicants and white males are no more than a quarter of the class. Members of the class of 1962 were blessed (O fortunati! O terque beati! ) to apply when they did, since most would have little chance of admission in today’s world, even though pedigree still helps — 12% of students admitted to the class of 2023 were legacies, and almost half came from a rarefied slice of the economic spectrum — families wealthy enough to pay the full freight ($72,100 this year for tuition, room and board).

But suppose a grandchild has been blessed with acceptance into Yale’s class of 2024. Yale, like most of the Ivy League, is in a Covid-19 hotspot. What will await a new freshman when the Fall terms opens amid a pandemic? First, she’ll have to decide whether she actually wants to start in 2020, or wait a year. She may be reluctant to risk getting seriously ill, but equally reluctant to center her first-year experience in her bedroom at home. In recent years, only about 50 of 1550 accepted freshmen have chosen to defer admission, but that number could rise this year in the face of so much uncertainty about the contours of the freshman experience.

So what will Yale do? The university has announced that the term will begin August 31, and Yale will implement some program of social distancing, but almost everything else is still to be decided. What might a pandemic campus be like? Universities across America are generating ideas. Instructors behind plastic screens like Purdue? M-W-F classes where only 1/3 of the students come to class on a given day, while the rest attend online? “Public health administrators” roving the campus carrying masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to ensure that students follow the rules as at Vanderbilt? Weekly testing for Covid-19? Take-out only in the dining halls?

Lee in Budapest. April, 2018.

Can you socially distance in residence halls that were never designed with that in mind? Would anyone want to sleep in a bottom bunk beneath a roommate who might be infected with Covid-19? Should Yale turn quads into doubles, doubles into singles, and move the overflow into some form of overflow housing? Could Yale alleviate the housing problem by following Boston University’s plan to offer students a choice of on-campus or online? If so, would Yale get even more pushback than BU from faculty wondering about their own well-being? Where will the university quarantine students who become ill? If Congress doesn’t give American universities the liability protection they’re hoping for, will Yale ask incoming students to sign waivers (as the Trump campaign has done with its rally in Tulsa)?

These are the kinds of questions that university administrators across the United States are wrestling with as they face a powerful dilemma: if they bring students to campus, they face health risks for students, faculty and staff, and legal risks for the institution, but if they don’t, many students may choose not to enroll, revenues might plummet, and budgets could go deep in the red. This is scary even for elite universities like Yale with a $30 billion endowment, and potentially devastating for more financially-vulnerable institutions.

Yale has many questions to answer. Will some or all students return to campus in the Fall? How much instruction will be in classrooms vs. online? How will Yale implement social distancing when students do return? Most of Yale’s peers are waiting until July to make final decisions, but they are offering clues that help to frame the possibilities. Harvard has announced that all undergraduate and most graduate instruction will be online in the Fall, and is currently considering three different “paths” for undergraduates, ranging from low-density (very few on campus) to medium (30-40% on campus) to high (bring almost everyone back). All paths assume frequent testing. The middle option is a likely bet — it makes residential social distancing easier, enables something resembling a traditional undergraduate experience, and offers at least some students a choice of campus or home. In a similar vein, M.I.T. has announced that it plans to bring not more than 60% of undergraduates to campus and will require students to attest to their health on a daily basis. Could Yale bring half its undergraduates to campus in the Fall, and the other half in the Spring? Or bring freshman and seniors to campus for this academic year, and keep sophomores and juniors at home? Your rising freshman grandchild, at Yale or any of its peers, would love to know.

Meanwhile, every institution is expecting rising costs and falling revenues. Even before the pandemic, a few institutions, mostly small private colleges, have succumbed to bankruptcy every year, and a fifth or more of U.S. colleges are at significant financial risk. Public institutions, which educate more than 70% of college students in the U.S., have struggled to cope with declines in public support that began before the 2008 recession and have continued since. The average state spent $1500 less per student in 2018 than in 2008, a decrease of 16% in inflation-adjusted dollars. Public universities have bridged the funding gap by increasing tuition — to the point that for the first time in history, public colleges and universities now receive more money from families and students than from state legislatures (one reason for the massive college debt problem) As the pandemic batters both family and state budgets, some state universities have already begun to institute layoffs, mandatory pay cuts and increased teaching loads.

Ecclesiastes tells us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” This is true even of pandemics. A century ago, more than half the student body on many campuses were infected with another deadly virus, the Spanish flu, which led to 675,000 deaths in the U.S., including many among healthy, young adults. Masks, social distancing, and outdoor classes were all among the methods universities employed then to combat the pandemic. Yale eliminated large gatherings, and quarantined itself from the city outside its gates. The strategy helped to keep Yale’s fatality rate far below New Haven’s, but we live in different times. As one of America’s oldest and most influential universities, Yale’s challenge is to develop a creative and persuasive approach that preserves the mission, protects health, and builds an even-stronger university for the 21st century. Will Yale be a leader, a fast follower or an also-ran?


1 This paper is based in part on research that my wife, Joan Gallos, and I are doing for a revised edition of our book for university administrators, Reframing Academic Leadership (Wiley, 2011, 2021).

2 Kabaservice, G. (1999, December). The Birth of a New Institution: How two Yale presidents and their admissions directors tore up the “old blueprint” to create a modern Yale. Yale Alumni Magazine.

3 Harvard, Princeton and Yale all discriminated against Jews for several decades in the 20th century. See Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: the hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. This was an unstated motive for broadening admissions standards beyond academic qualifications to include “character.”

4 From “Wake, wake, freshman wake,” created in the 19th century by Delta Beta Xi, a long-defunct Yale sophomore society. The second verse is: While some sadly ponder, still others will wonder, Why we their doors in silence dead pass by: But O, fortunati, O terque beati, (Oh fortunate and thrice blessed) Who hear the mystic call of Beta Xi.

5 Yes, that’s up a bit since ’62 was at Yale. Adjusting for inflation, the comparable figure for 1958-1959 was roughly $18,000.

6 The four states with the highest Covid-19 death rates at the end of May were New York (Columbia, Cornell), New Jersey (Princeton), Connecticut (Yale) and Massachusetts (Harvard). Rhode Island (Brown) was in 6th place, Pennsylvania (University of Pennsylvania) was in 9th. Rural New Hampshire (Dartmouth) in 18th place is the only Ivy League state with a death rate below the national average. This may change by the Fall: much of the northeast has been significant drops in new cases, while many states in the south and west are spiking.

We invite your comments below.

6 comments to Yale, Covid and What About Fall 2020?

  • steve howard

    Fabulous article, Lee

  • Cory Christopher T.

    Nice article indeed. With campuses closing, what does the likekly increased pressure for admission betoken for Ivys, let alone larger places?

  • Lee Bolman

    Thanks, Chris & Steve.

    On Chris’s question: the pandemic probably won’t affect Ivy admissions very much in the long term, and demand will continue to far exceed supply. At this point, it doesn’t look as if enrollment will be down dramatically this Fall, though it’s still too early to know for sure. If if is down, it will likely be up in 2021. We’ll continue to see battles over access to a very scarce, highly-valued resource. Ivy admissions slots aren’t growing as fast as demand due to growing numbers of affluent families who want a name school for their children, more people of color (particularly Latin and Asian Americans), more students from poor families, more international students, etc. The Ivies will continue to face pressures to reduce admission advantages based on wealth and legacy (and maybe athletic prowess as well.) Late in the decade, American colleges will hit a demographic cliff: a drop-off in high school graduates that will be particularly severe in the northeast and midwest. The Ivies will be fine, but more vulnerable, regional institutions will struggle.

    One other thing I didn’t mention in the piece: if new Covid-19 infections stay low in the northeast but continue to spike in the south and west (AZ, CA, FL, and TX all look scary right now), thousands of students coming east for the Fall could spark new outbreaks. A more coherent national strategy for dealing with this virus would help. Every state doing its own thing risks an on-going game of whack-a-mole.

  • Roman Weil

    I write this after a desultory review of Yale’s website information for students. The policy published there seems generous for freshman and sophomores compared to other schools I’ve looked at. Yale tells freshman and sophomores that they can come to campus for only one semester BUT that they can take leave of absence for the other semester. Contrast with, for example, Bowdoin, which has draconian leave policies. If a freshman decides to take a leave for spring semester and return in the fall, she will take a place that might otherwise go to a new freshman admit. If many do that, it will reduce the number of those admitted from the rising seniors. The admissions staff has thought about all this and, apparently doesn’t worry that this creates a problem. Or, there is something going on here that I’ve not comprehended in my cursory reading of the generous policy.

    • Roman Weil

      Roman, continuing. I thought more deeply about what I first wrote. If every Freshman from the class of 2024 decides to skip Spring term in 2021, it will not affect the number of bodies on campus in the Fall of 2021. [Let’s assume things are back to normal by then.] This, then, will not affect the numbers of admits for the Class of 2025. The members of the class of 2024 who skip spring term in 2021 will have some scrambling to do near the end of their four years, but that will be on them.

      Yale will suffer loss of tuition from the Class of 2024 to the extent those students skip Spring term in 2021, but their skipping that term will not, as I first thought, not thinking correctly, affect spaces available on campus for fall 2021.

      Yale’s policy for the Class of 2024 is still the most generous I’ve seen. Yale will suffer the lost tuition dollars to the extent those students accept the offer to skip spring term. So much of the Yale experience results from in-person interactions with bright and creative classmates that I’d advise students to skip the Spring term distance semester if they can find some productive use for that time. Few, if any, students will seek my advice.

  • Neal Freeman

    Thanks, Lee. Heuristic stuff. For those entertaining even intermittently skeptical thoughts about Yale’s leadership, take a look at Victor Ashe, who was two years behind us in New Haven, is running an independent campaign for the Yale Corporation board. (A business leader and former US Ambassador, Victor was also mayor of Knoxville, a college town, and is an acknowledged master of town-gown subtleties.) The board election process, as you know, is heavily tilted toward insider candidates. Victor needs another 2,000 signatures on his petition by October 1 to qualify for the ballot and provide a choice to alumni voters. I hope you’ll join me in signing the petition and supporting an open election.