‘The game has changed’: A Q&A with Chancellor Henderson

Ken Henderson, Northeastern chancellor and senior vice president for learning, spoke with The News in a 30-minute, virtual conversation Wednesday about the closure of wellness housing, the university’s endemic approach to COVID-19 and its goals moving forward.

Below is a transcript of the full conversation.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The Huntington News: Northeastern is moving towards treating COVID-19 as an endemic instead of a pandemic. How was that decision made? What led up to Northeastern making that switch this semester?

Chancellor Ken Henderson: What has become very clear during the pandemic, and in the last six months especially, is that COVID-19 is unfortunately going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Therefore, that means that in one form or another, the virus is going to be circulating within the world’s population for at least a period of time, but probably for quite an extended period of time. And that then means that we are unlikely to actually rid the planet of COVID-19. And therefore it moves into an endemic phase — it’s a virus that we have to deal with on an ongoing basis, likely in a seasonal manner in similar ways that we actually deal with the cold and the flu, other respiratory illnesses. 


HN: How would you define “endemic”?

Henderson: A virus becomes endemic when it is going to have a consistent prevalence worldwide and it is not going to disappear in the foreseeable future. In the past, we’ve been able to deal with some, like smallpox was a pandemic, which then was actually eliminated. But then many other viruses, including some other coronaviruses, are now endemic, which means that they are constantly circulating within the population.


HN: Would you say that Northeastern is currently treating COVID-19 as an endemic or it’s moving towards treating COVID-19 as an endemic?

Henderson: We can get into the pedantic sort of nomenclature here, but the way that we’re dealing with it is we’re learning to live with it in a much more normalized fashion. I would put it [that way] rather than worrying too much about the words that surround that because you can use pandemic and endemic in terms of the current scale of the virus, like how much of it there is around. Rather than [worrying about nomenclature], it’s more talking about, how do we actually deal with the virus in our current circumstance and make sure that we are managing it appropriately.


HN: In an email to students Jan. 7, you announced the closure of wellness housing for students who test positive this semester. Students have expressed concerns about living with roommates who have tested positive for COVID-19; how would you address students’ concerns?  

I empathize with individuals who have concerns about this, but the game has changed with vaccinations and boosters in place and a less severe variant that dominates the infections.

— Ken Henderson

Henderson: The concerns are completely understandable. And really what we’re looking at — and this is not just [on] an individual level, but on the public health scale level — is a mind shift into the place where there will be a risk of infection, but the risk of severe illness is very low. And that is completely understandable, and I empathize with individuals who have concerns about this, but the game has changed with vaccinations and boosters in place and a less severe variant that dominates the infections. Two years ago, 18 months ago, it was all about trying to get transmissions down as low as possible. Now that’s just not an effective strategy because it’s such a transmissible virus. 

The current indications are somewhere between a third and a half of the U.S. population are going to have been or will be infected by Omicron by the end of February. So the ability to be able to stop that is relatively limited, and therefore we have to, as a society, sort of start to deal with that concern. 


HN: There are also students who are concerned about people who are immunocompromised or have other risk factors at play. In an email Jan. 13, you said The university is prepared to accommodate the highest risk students in rare instances.” What do those accomodations look like? What process should students expect in order to get those accommodations if necessary?

Henderson: Our number one focus throughout the whole pandemic has been safety. Safety first has been our north star, and continues to be our north star. For those individuals, be them faculty, staff, students, there are accommodations in place and flexibility in place. 

So for students that require access to that housing, they would just contact We Care, they can contact Residence Life, go through the RA if there’s a concern and then their concern would be considered through Residence Life. An example would be an immunocompromised individual whose roommate had tested positive. If that person truly is immunocompromised and at risk, then we would relocate that individual to emergency housing.


HN: Would the student who is at risk or the student who tested positive be relocated?

Henderson: It would likely be the student who was at risk that we would move. It is not wellness housing — it is emergency use housing. It would depend on the specific instance, but that’s why it’s not wellness housing. It’s not the same as what we did in the past when everyone was treated the same. It is much more tailored to the needs of the student.


HN: Is there specific housing set aside for that emergency housing if so, how many beds?

Henderson: There is specific housing set aside for that function. I don’t have the specific numbers at hand, but dozens of dozens of beds are available.


HN: In concert with the closure of wellness housing, the university moved away from delivering food to people in isolation. Why was this decision made?

Henderson: As we start to manage the pandemic in a different fashion, I think a clear issue here is about the risk reward between having a fully open, functional experience for all students — which is of course what we promise and want to deliver — versus ensuring the campus is, of course, as safe as humanly possible.

Vaccines and boosters, which we require, are now in place. We’ve got effectively a fully vaccinated and boosted community. That means that — and we know this very clearly — that the risk of severe disease is very much reduced and certainly within the demographics of the student population, the risk is very, very low of severe disease if you’re vaccinated and boosted.

You’ve got a balance between the transmissibility [of Omicron], which is really, really high, and the restrictions that we would have to put in place in order to really reduce transmission significantly, [which] would be, I think, more restrictive than the population would want.

— Ken Henderson

That has to be weighed against the restrictions that we could put in place to reduce transmission. So in the past, we would have pretty strict restrictions such as isolation housing, such as restricting access to buildings. Those restrictions have changed, as you’ve seen, over time; sometimes we increase the restrictions, and sometimes we decrease the restrictions depending on the state of the pandemic.

You’ve got a balance between the transmissibility [of Omicron], which is really, really high, and the restrictions that we would have to put in place in order to really reduce transmission significantly, [which] would be, I think, more restrictive than the population would want.

We’ve tried all the time to get a balance between having a fully open, functional normalized campus, if you like, and then the risk associated with it, and that risk continues to change. 

Another thing that’s changed significantly with time are the use of and availability of clinical treatments for COVID-19. We now have a list of different treatments for various different individuals at various stages of the disease, and therefore that also reduces the risk of hospitalization.

So when you balance all these things together, we’re reducing — again, not fully — but we’re reducing restrictions and policies as we better are able to manage the disease.


HN: Is there anything in place to make sure students who test positive are not eating in dining halls, or is it the honor system?

Henderson: As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing in place. The instructions are very clear; you’re not allowed to do that. We do expect the community to adhere to the standards that we’ve set out very clearly for them, but I’ll also say that everyone who tests positive is given very clear instructions about what they are and are not allowed to do. We expect individuals to abide by those.


HN: If there is anything the pandemic has shown us, it’s that no one knows where we are going to be in a few weeks or months. With that in mind, what are the plans for if we see a huge increase in cases? Would Northeastern ever go back online?

Henderson: First of all, we’re always ready to pivot, and we’ve done that multiple times during the pandemic. Even though it’s been a really challenging year for the community, the community has responded remarkably well — faculty, staff, students, parents, all our stakeholders, our partners — have really shown tremendous flexibility as the as the pandemic has changed and evolved from going all the way to remote [learning] back in 2020, and then coming back fully in person in the fall of 2020.

Infection rates alone — so the number of infections — is no longer the metric that we look at as the sort of dominant metric with regards to where the pandemic is at. It really narrows down to severe illness.

— Ken Henderson

We are always ready and prepared to change as the pandemic changes. We very much are hopeful that that life will come back to some form of normalcy, but we thought that last summer as well, things looked like they were on a good track. With the virus we have to respect that changes can come quickly. So, we are ready; if we need to pivot then we will do so.

Infection rates alone — so the number of infections — is no longer the metric that we look at as the dominant metric with regards to where the pandemic is at. It really narrows down to severe illness.

If that was to change, then we would pivot and change to ensure that the number one priority all the time is safety on all of our campuses. 


HN: A lot of the changes to rules and practices on campus have profound effects on student employees like resident assistants and Husky Ambassadors. We have heard from some students that they feel blindsided because they weren’t consulted in the making of these changes. Will there be any efforts to include students in conversations in the future? 

Henderson: It’s a little difficult to speak unless it’s like specifics on that question because there are so many student workers with RAs and Husky Ambassadors, etc. What we see is that a lot — and this is not an excuse — operationally how things work is in many cases the pandemic changes so quickly that we are working with experts getting outside and internal expertise in terms of how we actually deal with and best respond to the pandemic. We try to be as quick as possible, and we do try and get students’ voices in that and perhaps we have to do a better job ensuring that we capture that as we move forward. But the speed of the changes we’ve seen and the speed of the communication has been something that we’ve tried to be ahead of and sometimes that means not including all stakeholders. 

A good example of that would be with Omicron. It wasn’t a thing and then late November into December, we had to come up with plans for what we were going to do in the spring semester. We wanted to get that information out prior to the break so people could plan. We were making a lot of decisions for what was going to happen in a month’s time based on projections and the best science that we had, so sometimes that means that we move quickly. Definitely we want to capture the students’ voices whenever we can and if we need to do a better job at that then that’s good feedback for us.


HN: Living through a pandemic has some serious mental health consequences. We understand that there are groups and offices on campus to address mental health, but some students have been wondering if there are any steps being taken to promote student mental health or those offices more?

Henderson: First of all, that’s one of the reasons for the university taking a pretty positive stance about living with the virus and trying to get back to a level of normality as much as we possibly can. We recognize that students want the full college experience, and we want to deliver that as much as we possibly can, and obviously in the safest manner we can, and that will certainly help, we believe, [with mental health]. 

With regards to services for mental health: so we’ve expanded UHCS services, counseling on-ground services. There is Find@Northeastern, which I think is a fantastic resource. I really encourage students to test that out and seek out help through that resource, it’s 24/7. 

We’ve been working with student groups on campus in a really deliberate model. So Christine Civiletto, who leads UHCS as a counselor, has been really working diligently with student groups to integrate their work more broadly on campus. 

You’ve hopefully been seeing more communications on mental health, news stories on mental health, highlighting mental health for the university, on all aspects, be it in research, be it in resources. 

For those people that are on the Boston campus, we very deliberately put effort into more visibility for mental health resources on campus. So more events where representatives from UHCS are present, these associated wellness days, et cetera associated with mental health. So that we are trying to be more public around us and more visible around us.


HN: Is the university planning on providing campus offices like UHCS or the DRC any resources and training to better work with those students who are disabled or immunocompromised and might be facing extra challenges because of the pandemic?

Henderson: Yeah, absolutely. You’ve mentioned them. If there are specific issues that need to be addressed on an individual basis, then DRC is the place to go in terms of accommodation to be required and how we can deliver that. 

I’m very proud and humbled by the community’s response to faculty and our staff and all the units and how flexible and resilient our student body has been in that space. I think we’ve solved a myriad of problems that [we] couldn’t have imagined a couple of years ago, and will continue to do that. 

So students who require access or advice either through UHCS or DRC or services that are available for them. Absolutely. Also I’d like to put a shoutout for Find@Northeastern, our online mental health resource, which has been, I think, a great success and resource for many students. Individuals can use that as well for counseling services and a telehealth model.

HN: As Northeastern shifts its focus to severe illness rather than case count, are there any plans to change the university’s COVID-19 dashboard and what data is displayed there?

Henderson: We do actually have the information on hospitalizations that are there. It doesn’t change much, happily. You probably saw that we’ve had one recorded hospitalization last year, and [2,389] positives, something like that number.

I think there’s the broader question about the utility of the dashboard, because you’ve probably seen, there have been some universities that have removed the dashboard. We don’t think we’re there yet. We think that it’s actually a useful tool to tell the campus community about the prevalence. While it’s not the driving force for decision-making it is still one data point which is useful for us. So, we’ll continue to use the dashboard for the foreseeable future, but we probably won’t be adding much to it in terms of new data.


HN: You have referred to Northeastern as a fully vaccinated community. Data for vaccinations on the university’s testing dashboard hasn’t changed since September and doesn’t reflect anything about how many students have completed the booster requirement. Is there any information about how many students are in compliance? Are there any plans to add that to the dashboard?

Henderson: We should probably add that to the dashboard. We are in the compliance phase, still a little early because there is so much follow up with regards to ensuring that faculty staff students, actually not just comply with the booster requirement, but actually upload that information. So we’re in the process of doing that now, ensuring that everybody has actually uploaded their information. I can say, within the student population, the booster uptake is very, very high, so we don’t expect there to be any surprises or disappointments in that space.


HN: Now that Northeastern has the ability to teach remotely with the NUflex technology, should students and faculty still be expecting classes to be cancelled for snow days? Or should they be expecting remote classes instead?

Henderson: Right now we’re expecting if we do get snow days, we’ll have snow days. We don’t have a policy in place that’s changed from the previous policy of snow days in regards to the use of technology. We actually did have a partial snow day in Toronto this semester already. We closed, I think, for half a day.


HN: As we enter the third spring that’s affected by COVID-19, does the university have any goals for this spring, related to the pandemic or not, that you’re working on?

Henderson: Our constant goal is to deliver on our promise of an exceptional experiential education for our students, for all our students and all our campuses, and I’d say that remains our number one priority. Everything else is built around that, so as we hopefully move out of the pandemic, that’s what we hope. Then we’ll be able to resume all normal activity, and we hope that we will be in a position to be able to do that by the end of the semester. 

The other piece that we put near in terms of priority is that we have been in two years of a very different world which has limited things like travel. We’ve still been able to carry out large scale travel programs, international co-op, N.U.in program, etc. Study abroad still goes on. But we very much expect there’ll be a pent up desire from the student population to resume travel, maybe even more so than they ever have done in the past. So this is where the Northeastern network, a global system of campuses that we have, is really key. So we’re looking for a significant amount of increased programming for our student population so that they can take advantage of the global university system and experience the world and learn in context in those locations that we now are occupying.