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History in the Making

SLU’s president reflects on the pandemic and what lies ahead.

University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D.

A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, Saint Louis University President Dr. Fred P. Pestello coined the term “OneSLU.” It was his way of describing the way members of the SLU community were sensitive to one another’s hardships and supportive of each other during the crisis that changed the way SLU — and every institution — operated.

“I think that those who live through historical events are seldom aware of it in the moment,” he said in a message to campus in May. “It is only years after the fact upon further reflection that we realize we were part of a once-in-a-generation event.

“When historians inquire how SLU responded to this pandemic, I hope that they will discover what I have witnessed in all of us — a community that, when faced with endless opportunities to turn inward and allow fear to consume us, chose a different path,” he continued. “We chose the path of kinship, generosity and service. Upon hearing about the boundless uncertainty, suffering and moments of joy, they will see that we chose the path of responding with a resounding, ‘we feel that too.’

“Historians will not have to look long to understand the meaning of OneSLU.”

In this interview with Universitas, Pestello offers insights on decisions he led and shares his thoughts on SLU’s future in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can you discuss SLU’s general response to the health aspects of the crisis?

Like most universities, we began sharing tips with the SLU community for avoiding all viruses back in January: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, disinfect surfaces and more. As our understanding of the virus spread and evolved, so did our messaging. We also shared CDC guidelines and travel alerts as they started to become prevalent.

But one of the most important actions we took early on was talking and meeting with our Chinese students and scholars, making sure they had the support they needed as the virus was, at that point, wreaking havoc on their home country.

Of course, we also stayed in close contact with the leadership of SLU-Madrid, monitoring the situation there. The widespread outbreak in Spain meant our SLU-Madrid community was ahead of us in experiencing the impact of COVID-19. Their situation had its unique challenges due to their large number of students who are studying abroad from dozens of U.S.-based institutions, not just SLU. Their impressive response helped us as we faced the impending crisis of community spread in the U.S. (Learn more about the Madrid campus’ response to COVID-19.)

From the early days of this virus, it was clear to me how fortunate we are to have some of the world’s leading experts in infectious disease, a highly-regarded College for Public Health and Social Justice, and one of the nation’s top vaccine centers. We relied heavily on the knowledge of our faculty in these units to inform our decision making from the start — and still to this day. That faith has paid off. In July, SLU’s National Institutes of Health-funded vaccine and treatment evaluation unit became one of the first sites in the country to begin phase 3 trials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Read more about our COVID-19 research.)

In the early days of the pandemic, the situation was evolving very rapidly. What guided SLU’s leadership team as key decisions were made?

In all aspects of our work, we are led by our mission, which calls us to be in service of humanity. That meant caring first and foremost for the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff. Our other guiding principles included a focus on minimizing disruption to students’ academic success as much as possible, providing treatment to COVID-19 patients and other seriously ill individuals, and making transparency a priority. Very early on, I invited leaders from our faculty, staff and student representative groups to be included in our decision making. Their voices were important as we charted a course of action.

Keeping these principles at the forefront of our minds served us well as we were called to make many important decisions quickly, based on the best available information at that time. 

Within days, we went from extending spring break to give our faculty a week to plan for the possibility of online instruction, to suspending in-person instruction through the term. Mere days later, all non-emergency essential personnel started working from home — and they still are as we conduct this interview.

Every solution for every problem that COVID-19 delivered to us was driven by care for our community.

How did you approach the move to remote learning and the “closure” of campus?

There was a point when it became clear that moving to remote learning was our only choice. Doing so before stay-at-home orders prevented families from traveling to pick up their Billiken was key.

But the fact that the decision was obvious certainly didn’t make it any easier. It was heart-wrenching to know that we were choosing to be a “communitas ad dispersionem” — a community in dispersion.

And though the choice was clear, the details were complex. With the support and hard work of our dedicated faculty and staff, we launched remote instruction in a matter of a single week, and moved toward telemedicine options so our SLUCare practice could continue to serve  patients from their homes. (Read more about our health care practice’s move to telemedicine.) 

Processes that typically take weeks were done in days, like the purchase and launch of Zoom for our entire campus. And our faculty, many of whom had never taught an online course, adapted their syllabi and teaching methods to a digital environment in record time. (Learn more about SLU's move to distance learning during the pandemic.)

Of course, our students had to adapt, too. Like all of us, their lives were turned upside down. Because we needed to close most of our residence halls, students who could move home were asked to do so. The burden that put on our Billiken families was great, but the patience and grace they showed us is something I will never forget.

Whether they stayed on campus or went home, learning looked and felt different for our students. Some of them were navigating new challenges, trying to study in dynamic living situations with loved ones who were also working from home, and young siblings around after daycare was shuttered.

Those challenges were also present for our faculty, staff and medical providers. Suddenly, we are not just seeing our colleagues and patients during our virtual meetings. Rather, we get cameos from their children, partners and pets. It was, and in many ways continues to be, a time when we needed to lean on the grace, flexibility and goodness of every member of the SLU family.

What refunds and financial assistance did SLU offer students?

When we sent our students home in March, we announced a 50% refund for housing, dining and parking charges for the spring term. Sensitive to the financial hardships many families were facing, we processed those refunds in a matter of weeks.

We compensated student workers who couldn’t continue working on campus during the pandemic, offering grants and, when possible, opportunities to work remotely.

To this day, I am struck by the generosity we heard from families during that time. Remarkably, some students and parents asked if they could direct their refunds to those most in need. Those guiding questions led us to shift our fundraising focus and elevate our efforts to support students and employees in need. 

SLU also received aid through the federal stimulus package to benefit our students and their families. Through the CARES Act, we received $5.14 million. Half of that amount went directly to our students who need it the most based on unexpected changes and expenses. The other half helped SLU recover the nearly $10 million that we refunded for room and board.

Ultimately, we were able to connect more than 5,000 SLU students in need with about $2.8 million in aid. That includes the CARES Act funding we received and aid from our emergency relief fund. Students received an average of $600 each. 

Through the funding request process, we heard from roughly 2,300 students who reported that either they or their parents have lost their job. This devastating statistic reminds us of how important it is for SLU to continue to make decisions quickly and thoughtfully.

I want to add that we also did what we could to assist our SLUCare patients. Those efforts included launching a Neighborhood Virtual Visit program, which allows those without smartphones or home internet to hold SLUCare telehealth appointments at area churches. This program opens access to health care.

SLU has made some academic changes during the pandemic, like a test-optional admissions pilot and temporary changes to the grading system. Why were these modifications made?

Both of these were the right choices.

Our test-optional admission process for all undergraduate students was under consideration for some time, and the pandemic pushed us to move forward faster as tests like the ACT and SAT were on hold across the country. We are committed to a three-year pilot program that allows our undergraduate applicants and many graduate applicants to decide whether to submit standardized test scores. Students will be evaluated equally, and we believe this will increase access to a SLU education. 

Our grading policy change is a little different, and was temporary only for this most recent term. We gave our students the option of choosing a “pass/low pass/no pass” grading system for certain individual undergraduate courses. This gave them flexibility as they were adjusting to remote learning, and became a common practice across higher education during the spring semester.

Feedback from the SLU community led to these decisions, and I am confident both initiatives helped relieve some anxiety during these challenging times.

Commencement has been postponed until next May. What are your thoughts on moving the ceremony back a whole year?

No one loves commencement more than I do. I am heartbroken to have to postpone the opportunity to witness one of the most joyous days for our graduates and their families.

But with so many uncertainties about how we can safely gather in the months ahead, we felt that our wisest choice was to reschedule the ceremony for spring 2021 to give us ample time to prepare for an event that can more closely follow the format of our traditional commencements.

The fallout of COVID-19 has affected the financial health of all types of institutions, including higher education. And SLU is no exception. What are the implications of the pandemic on SLU’s budget?

I do not wish to sugarcoat how difficult the financial hit of COVID-19 has been for SLU, but I also feel compelled to address that the ultimate impact is unknown and will be for some time.

Before the pandemic, we were expecting to end the current fiscal year with a slight surplus thanks primarily to the turnaround of our SLUCare practice, the cost controls we have established, the success of our enrollment, and our fundraising efforts. Now, we’re facing a projected deficit due to the impact of COVID-19. The outlook for the next fiscal year is unclear and will be for some months.

Unfortunately, we have had to implement several fiscal mitigations to offset the deficits. Despite these challenges, we are committed to doing everything possible to provide a high-quality education for our students, offer first-rate patient care, keep our people employed, and minimize the financial impact on our staff and faculty in the lowest income brackets.

Although this is without a doubt a difficult moment, we have faced other substantial challenges over the course of our long history. In each of those times, our community pulled together and rose to the occasion. Because of the determination and dedication of our faculty, clinicians and staff, I am confident we will position SLU for a strong recovery and a bright future.

What efforts did the University make to continue supporting the SLU community despite distance learning, telemedicine and remote working?

We ensured that our students, faculty, clinicians and staff had access to helpful services as they adjusted to the “new normal” brought on by the pandemic. For example, our University Counseling Center used virtual appointments to support our students who were having trouble coping with the stresses brought on by the pandemic. Our Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning offered web resources for instructional continuity to support our faculty as they transitioned to online teaching. And our human resources division developed tools and online resources for staff members who were adjusting to working from home while also balancing the needs of their families.

In addition, our campus ministers and mission and identity staff found new ways to reach our community. They employed social media, livestreaming and the web to share reflections, Masses and spiritual resources. They even held a virtual “Java with the Jesuits!”

Of course, our support extended off campus, too. Many Billikens stepped up to help others during these challenging times. Our Campus Kitchen kept preparing meals, our faculty educated nurses on COVID-19, and our psychologists launched a hotline for front-line health care workers. (Read more about all these service initiatives.)

We also made empty residence halls and apartments available to SLUCare and SSM Health staff and to essential members of our SLU community who had contracted COVID-19 or had been exposed to the virus and needed to self-quarantine away from their families.

So many people went above and beyond their routine work during the pandemic. What is your message to them?

As I have said several times in the daily messages I sent to the SLU community early in the crisis, we owe enormous thanks to the dedicated health care workers who compose our SLUCare practice, SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, our Student Health and Employee Health teams, and numerous others throughout our region for all the sacrifices they continue to make to serve those they treat. These sacrifices include putting their own well-being on the line. If you speak to frontline health care workers, they will humbly say they are just doing their jobs. I continue to be in awe of their relentless spirit and tireless service.

I am deeply grateful to the essential staff who continue to serve on campus while most of us work from home. These include members of our housing staff, our public safety officers, our facilities, grounds and cleaning crews, our information technology professionals and more. I appreciate them and everyone who continues to pull together to get us through the significant disruptions we have faced.

As you noted, early on you were sending daily, sometimes even twice daily, communications to the SLU community. Why was that important?

Transparency has been a hallmark of our frequent communications with the SLU community. We did not have all of the answers, but it was our responsibility to share what we could with our community. The situation was evolving rapidly, and it made sense to try to calm fears and reduce uncertainty by sharing facts and decisions.

Sometimes our communications were logistically driven, for example about the move-out process; other times they were more thoughtful and reflective; and occasionally, they were just downright humorous to provide some much-needed levity. In every case, we did our best to respond to the needs of our community.

Can you look forward to the fall semester and discuss why face-to-face instruction is so important?

Since mid-March I have been virtually meeting with a representative group of approximately 45 University leaders, including faculty, staff, students and administrators. Over a series of thoughtful discussions, this group clearly agreed that our mission and vision are best advanced through the power of face-to-face instruction and the strong interpersonal bonds found at the center of our residential campus. This grows directly out of our faith and the charism of the Jesuit Order. Our work takes place in community, and the richest form of community is built on relationships created and sustained through face-to-face interactions.

We recognize this decision comes with tremendous responsibility on our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Several planning groups are working through all of the details on how to minimize its spread.

Details are being worked out now, but we are starting most classes nine days earlier than planned and will end face-to-face instruction prior to  Thanksgiving. This revised calendar will both reduce the risk of virus spread by not having students go home and return to campus during the term, and it will allow more in-person instruction before another potential wave of the virus hits.

Undoubtedly, this coming semester will look and feel different than any before it. There will be many changes, and there will be limits that will require us to remember that our care for one another means that we must accept these changes.

How will the pandemic change higher education?

I have never seen a transformation as profound or as rapid as what universities and health care practices have been going through since March. The impact and consequences on both the educational and the medical sides of institutions like ours are enormous.

No one yet knows what fall enrollment will look like at institutions like ours or when patient volumes will return to pre-COVID levels. No one yet knows if there will be a second wave of the virus, when it will appear and how severe it will be. And no one yet knows when a virus-ending vaccine will be readily available.

What has this time been like for you personally? Where have you been working?

I am working at home, and I must say that what was unfamiliar just a few short months ago is now familiar. 

I accept the reality of how we must now function. I am so grateful for the internet and the software that facilitates remote meetings, teaching and patient care. I do not want to imagine how much more difficult it would be to run our large and complex university without such technology.

Despite all that we can now do virtually, however, we lack that which is most important for us as humans, especially those of us who work and study at a Jesuit university — face-to-face interaction that creates the relationships that enable and facilitate our work. We are formed and nourished by these personal connections. They have always been at the center of the joy that comes from being a part of a university community. And the most essential of these relationships is that between the scholar and the pupil.

I am reminded of a morning back in January when we began our weekly cabinet leadership meeting a half-hour late so that I could meet with the students who were returning to work in our Department of Housing and Residence Life. My time with the students in the packed Sinquefield Stateroom was rejuvenating. I always draw energy from our students. I remember staying a bit long with them and arriving late to meet with my leadership team, telling my colleagues, “No offense, but I would rather have stayed with the students than have had to come here to meet with you.” And we laughed together. I dearly miss the richness and warmth of the daily face-to-face interaction — particularly with our students. I am certain all of us do. I am eager to be back together on campus in the fall.

— By Laura Geiser

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of now more than 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.