Dr. Mark Anarumo describes postpandemic goals, reflects on mitigating COVID-19 in talks with NBC News, Comcast, Inside HigherEd

Dr. Mark Anarumo marked his first year as Norwich University’s president Tuesday, capping a tumultuous stint in which he steered students, faculty and staff through the coronavirus pandemic to finish both semesters with neither interruption nor shutdown.

Adhering to Vermont-mandated health and safety protocols helped Norwich mitigate a furious spike in positive COVID-19 cases (dropping it from 89 to zero) and stage in-person Commencement and Commissioning ceremonies when many other schools kept remote.

Anarumo’s move into Wilson Hall, a Corps of Cadets barracks, during January’s modified in-room quarantine drew media coverage national (The New York Times, Anderson Cooper “Full Circle,” the “EdSurge Podcast,” the business magazine Fast Company), regional (New England Cable News, The Associated Press) and local (the Seven Days alt-weekly newspaper, Burlington, Vermont, television stations WVNY-TV/WFFF-TV, Channel 22/44, WPTZ-TV, Channel 5).

On April 18, Norwich University President Dr. Mark Anarumo and several students told their pandemic story on the NBC Nightly News. On May 5, Anarumo discussed pandemic tactics with Inside HigherEd; on May 10, he spoke with Comcast Newsmakers on education and leadership.

The media coverage continued April 18, when Anarumo and several students told their pandemic story on the NBC Nightly News with Kate Snow; May 5, when Anarumo discussed pandemic tactics with the academic industry magazine Inside HigherEd and May 10, when Anarumo spoke on education and leadership on Comcast Newsmakers.

The NBC Nightly News story, which came at the 12-minute mark of a 22-minute broadcast, showed Anarumo lugging gear and clothes, including his green Vermont Militia dress uniform, into Dalrymple Hall, where he spent an April week, and walking the building’s corridors with students. Cameras also caught fatigues-clad Corps of Cadets members walking the Upper Parade Ground.

NBC reporter Catie Beck interviewed Anarumo and a student group including rising 2022 senior Faith Privett and 2021 graduate Jie Yang.

Beck called the president’s barracks stay during the in-room quarantine, which kept students confined to their rooms except to collect meals and visit the restroom, a mission to listen and learn from students.

Anarumo said the in-room quarantine was emotionally wearing and wouldn’t recur.

“It’s very unhealthy and not fair to those young men and women,” Anarumo said.  “They’re here for the social interaction; they’re here for experiential learning.”

‘I just need a hug’

Yang, a nursing major who participated in the end-of-semester pinning ceremony that marked the 2021 nursing cohort’s graduation, said he’s felt lonely during the lockdown.

“I would tell people, ‘I just need a hug right now,’” Yang said. “That’s all I need right now.”

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In an April interview with the NBC Nightly News, 2021 Norwich University graduate Jie Yang discussed the emotional toll of the January in-room quarantine on campus. (Screenshot from video/NBC.)

Privett, a political science and history major who in May represented Norwich at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s virtual Posters on the Hill conference, had shared Yang’s despair.

“It’s so difficult,” Privett said. “FaceTime can only do so much.”

On Comcast Newsmakers, reporter Jenny Johnson interviewed Anarumo in a 6-minute, 38-second segment produced by the NBC channel’s Western New England Newsmakers Team. Anarumo described his taking Norwich’s reins from now-President Emeritus Richard W. Schneider, whose 28-year stewardship and mentorship he praised.

Anarumo said the recent academic year brimmed with challenges, including maintaining public safety and fiscal stability amid escalating national political division and animosity. He said the pandemic derailed Norwich’s trademark experiential learning approach, forcing everyone to adjust.

Not only did Norwich need to maintain students’ health on campus, Anarumo said, it needed to ensure the health of the Northfield, Vermont, community and its many older residents.

“We’ve done extraordinarily well,” Anarumo told Johnson. “We’re very proud of how the university has performed. Our students have been just remarkable in a very difficult landscape.”

Facing challenges

When asked about upcoming goals, Anarumo said he hoped to make an already great university even better, a tall order as higher education is facing a shrinking pool of potential students.

The Washington Post reported in May that the number of 18-year-old prospective college students graduating from high schools has declined by an unprecedented 2.6 million, or 13% in the past decade.

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From left, 2021 Norwich University graduate Jie Yang, President Dr. Mark Anarumo and rising 2022 senior Faith Privett walk Dalrymple Hall’s corridors for recording by NBC News cameras (Screenshot from video/NBC.)

The Post further reported that this college-age demographic is forecast to drop by 11% to 15% more, beginning in the mid-2020s. This drop relates to a U.S. birthrate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said dropped 4% in 2020, the sharpest decline in nearly 50 years. (The Associated Press said about 3.6 million babies were born in the U.S. in 2020, down from about 3.75 million in 2019. In 2007, when births were booming, the AP said, the U.S. recorded 4.3 million births.)

Anarumo said U.S. demographic trends, which have shifted population westward, will further complicate efforts to attract students in Norwich’s bedrock recruiting areas, New England and the northeastern United States.

Besides helping Norwich better attract students, Anarumo said he wants to expand program offerings, especially in health sciences, artificial intelligence and leadership; internationalize campus, bringing students from abroad; and send more Norwich students abroad to study, a push Norwich was accelerating prepandemic.

Reviving initiatives

Anarumo said he hoped to revive initiatives and modernizations the pandemic sidelined.

“I think we have turned the corner,” he said, “and I look forward to getting to the next phase of the university.”

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NBC News reporter Jenny Johnson interviews Norwich University President Dr. Mark Anarumo in May for a Comcast Newsmakers web video. (Screenshot from video/Comcast Newsmakers.)

As he did with Johnson, Anarumo, who retired from the U.S. Air Force on Aug. 1, 2020, described his Norwich presidential arrival with Inside HigherEd’s Emma Whitford. He said succeeding Schneider had been daunting.

“With that level of longevity and adoration — very well-deserved adoration — it was difficult to follow that,” he said in the article, which included five first-year college presidents’ reflections on academic year 2020-21.

Anarumo said his presidency’s first year taught him about groups’ differing remote communication preferences (employees preferred emailed memos; students and parents seemed to like short, phone-recorded videos) and that COVID-19’s challenges were worse than forecast.

“I would have adhered to the most pessimistic models more aggressively,” Anarumo said of the pandemic. “I don’t think anyone expected it to be as challenging as it would be.”

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