What is it like to be the 16th Head of School under these unusual circumstances?
I had to jump right into helping to plan for the upcoming year, so that made it unlike any transition I’ve had and, my guess is, unlike any transition there’s been at Andover in its history. In some ways, it’s freeing because it means that there’s no playbook for this. On the other hand, it makes it chaotic in some ways because I’ve had to jump right into big decision-making, working with the senior staff, in particular the board, on big decisions without any run-up, without any acclimation time.
As someone who has studied medicine and health policy, how do you think your experience has influenced the conversation surrounding school plans, health precautions, and community well-being?
The school has very good medical leadership. Dr. [Amy Patel, Medical Director], is just great and right on top of things, so I don’t think I added a huge amount to what was already known and what people were thinking about. I probably have a little bit more of perspective because I had helped guide the process for Grinnell in making decisions about in-person, testing, and all these variables. I was familiar with it in a different setting.
Of course, the biggest challenge is the uncertainty, and that’s true whether you have a brilliant plan or whether you have a not so brilliant plan. Everyone has to recognize that this pandemic is so extraordinary and that it’s very hard to predict what will happen next week, let alone what will happen months from now. That’s made all of us very circumspect in all of our decision-making.
At what point does Andover sacrifice the conventional academic experience for public health precautions?
We’re trying to be true to the distinctive mission of the school in the context of this pandemic. We believe that we can, in a very thoughtful, careful way, both have this different experience but still an on-campus experience while adhering to the best public-health advice… All of us are trying to take this complicated array of information about our own particular place and figure out what the right answer is. That’s just been extraordinarily challenging in that we don’t have history to go on. We have some scientific evidence guiding a lot of things, but even with the best scientific evidence that we have, we’re having to make judgment calls, and that’s true for every institution.
How do you envision the community will react to the new health procedures?
I’m hopeful that this institution will react a lot better than some institutions. The developmental stage as a [high school] student is quite different, and the relationship between the students and the institution is quite different in this setting than in the colleges and universities, which is the only experience that we know to date… There’s a much closer relationship in a lot of ways between the students and faculty and residential staff here by design because, developmentally and legally, the relationship with students is quite different here than at a university or college where individuals are independent adults in every setting. I think it makes it more likely that we’ll be able to have a successful but different experience in which we both make huge sacrifices, all of us, for the common good and are able to have a transformative educational experience and an experience that might be even more transformative because it’s happening in the context of such an extraordinary time. I think we can do it.
To the best of your knowledge, is there a possibility that all students will be sent home? How would that decision be made?
Of course, there’s a possibility that might happen… We’re going to be getting a lot of information, and we’re going to have to integrate that information constantly and ask ourselves on a regular basis, probably every day, does this new information that we have, should it lead us to do something different? That’s not that much different than, for example, taking care of a really sick patient in a hospital. I think that’s an analogy that works for me. Our society has this diagnosis, this pandemic, and we’re getting all this information: blood pressure, pulse, oxygenation, and scores of chemical tests and all these things, and we’re constantly judging that information, saying should this lead me to rethink what I’m doing? Does it tell us that something is going on that perhaps will lead us to make a different decision? Just as physicians, nurses, and health people are able to actually process and understand a lot of complicated information for very sick patients, I think we’re going to do an analogue of that at the level of public health, at the level of a population of people rather than an individual person.
How do you hope to lead Andover through this time, and why do you think good leadership is important in unusual times such as this?
In this context, what is leadership? Leadership means understanding the facts and the science. You can’t have good leadership if you don’t recognize this is fundamentally a crisis that cannot be understood without understanding the science of the pandemic. One, you have to respect the evidence and the science and understand it, and then two, you have to take that information and integrate it into the decision-making at the institutional level. How do you take that information and make a decision about what your mission is? How do you meet your mission in the context of that scientific information? Good leadership integrates that understanding of the institution and understanding of the science and helps pull together the community to respond and, particularly in this context, to respond in a way that means lots of personal sacrifice in the name of the common good.
What are you looking forward to most as Head of School?
I’m looking forward to learning about the institution. I like learning about an institution and its resources and how it meets its mission and all the distinctive things that define what it means to be a community at an institution. That’s what I’m looking forward to, just learning things, and I will be thinking about how I can have impact in some way.
One of the things I did on a whim was I ended up reading a whole series of biographies of former, what were mostly called, headmasters in England and in the United States, including the memoir of [Claude] Fuess, the former head here. That was interesting reading about these institutions. There is a whole genre of literature that is memoirs and biographies of headmasters, even to the 1800s in England. It really is fascinating. I had no idea that this genre of literature existed, but there are scores, I’m not joking, scores of biographies and memoirs and autobiographies of these former heads, so that’s one way that I have been trying to learn more about the institution.