The Sitdown: Mantella, university leadership face growing COVID-19 community cases, lay out strategy for management


Photo courtesy of Nick Moran

The following story stems from an hour-long, Lanthorn-exclusive interview with Grand Valley State University President Philomena Mantella on Wednesday, Sept. 9. The interview, which ranged in topics, has been broken into a story series: The Sitdown. The first story in the series covers Mantella’s perspective and direction regarding COVID-19 on campus.

Sitting between rising Grand Valley State University community COVID-19 cases and a whirlwind of uncertainties, President Philomena Mantella is steadfast on one thing: “this is a daily journey,” she said. 

GVSU is moving into its third week following its fall semester plan, which takes a hybrid approach, providing students with the option for either in-person or online courses. 

The decisions made by senior leadership and the Virus Action Team among others have not come without their fair share of criticism. However, Mantella said that was expected, especially with the spread of perspectives on how to handle an unprecedented situation.

“I think you can ask any leader across the pandemic and they would tell you that the diversity of opinion on this particular issue (in-person versus online classes) on what’s right and what people should be doing and should not be doing is everywhere,” Mantella said. “So I think the dissent at some level was anticipated because we all feel that this is a situation that none of us particularly want to be in. We all wish for a different pathway and outcome, and we all see the means to getting there a little bit differently.”

Specifically looking at GVSU’s plan this semester, Mantella wanted to focus on options and individual choice. While the goal is to optimize virus containment, Mantella also acknowledged that some students aren’t suited for online education, which is another struggle with shifting all classes online.

“There’s another risk: the risk over here that students are not going to have a good experience, that students are going to fail in their learning journey because they’re not ready fully for online,” said Mantella.

As for whether or not clases will be moved entirely online at all, there is no hard-and-fast trigger for the shift. Mantella said leadership will be monitoring a range of indicators, many of which are listed on the University’s Data Dashboard. Mantella noted there is no provided weight for each metric, but the university is working on a holistic approach that considers each metric in perspective.

“The indices are sort of all taken together,” Mantella said. “We don’t think a trigger is the right approach to something this highly complex. It doesn’t mean that we’re undervaluing or devaluing the positivity metric — that’s a key metric and I want to emphasize that. We have stayed away from a single trigger because of the complexity.”

GVSU has gotten criticism for the high number of cases reported on its monitored Data Dashboard, which sits at over 460 confirmed cumulative community cases. 

“Absolutely there’s concern. We’re doing everything possible to increase testing to be sure we’re having the best opportunity for containment to be sure that we have the right containment and isolation supports and strategies, and as individuals come to campus and they come largely without testing and they get tested, you’re going to see an early growth. I think the question is can we stabilize at our seven-day average where it is.”

Part of that growth follows a Labor Day weekend spike, which Mantella said the administration considered working around to cut down on student travel. While other universities shifted their start dates to either kick classes off early or begin after Labor Day, GVSU’s calendar stayed mostly intact. 

“We debated the calendar a variety of different ways…,” Mantella said. “We were trying to make modifications to our calendar that made sense to limit travel. Did we make all that were physically possible? Probably (starting after Labor Day) would have been the best way to eliminate it rather than to try to shelter people in place over the Labor Day weekend.”

Another realm of criticism stems from Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Sanial’s role as leader of the University’s Virus Action Team. Comments online largely show concern that Sanial has swayed GVSU to take a finances-first approach in virus management, but Mantella thinks quite the opposite is true.

With Sanial’s extensive time in the Coast Guard handling crisis and operations management, she said he’s hands-down the strongest leader for the role, especially with supportive staff around him.

“I think people are unfairly tagging his finance title and suggesting that that’s somehow going to bias perspectives,” Mantella said. “He’s eminently qualified for the role…(Sanial) would never allow dollars to be the primary reason for a decision”

In aiming to contain the virus’ spread on campus, Mantella said the Virus Action Team and leadership are aiming to continue to improve on-campus testing efficiency, safety and bandwidth.

As for comments sent in an all-student email from GVSU’s Vice Provost for Student Affairs and the Director of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution that said “while many universities in the state and around the nation reverted to online learning,” they “believe our university can be the exception,” Mantella expressed some hesitation.

“It is also a wishful statement, it’s an aspirational statement that was made in that letter,” Mantella said. “It’s a bar that we’ve held up for our students and I’m hopeful, but I can’t say that I’m confident that all of our students are curtailing their behavior in order to conform with all the public health guidelines.”

In looking to change campus culture and ensure that the majority of health-conscious students influence the minority, Mantella said messaging will be key, including survey work.

“We work really hard on (communication)… If we think our plan is good and we’re not getting feedback, if we’ve got a Virus Action Team that’s able to take immediate action. What’s key is that they’re getting feedback and that feedback is broad-based.”

Leadership has also been monitoring Davidson University’s CHECK collective college dashboard, as well as a handful of universities they deem to be similar to GVSU in size, location and other factors. Above all else, GVSU will be compared to the Michigan educational ecosystem. 

“I don’t think the right answer for Grand Valley is to do what everybody else is doing,” Mantella said. “I just dont think that’s an evidence-based answer, but we are, of course, looking at other institutions. You can’t help but look at the Michigan context because that’s what we live among.”

As GVSU presses forward into the school year, Mantella said her team will be taking an approach that considers a wide range of factors. Mantella said she is confident that GVSU students are community-oriented and will be able to shift numbers in a positive direction. 

“We think the most important thing the numbers should tell us is what to do,” Mantella said. “Public perception has to be certainly understood and managed and we need to be in front of it and communicate the best we can. But the most important thing the numbers should do is drive our actions.”