Machtley: ‘We will lose our competitive advantage’ if colleges don’t reopen in fall

RONALD K. MACHTLEY, who is retiring June 30 after 24 years as president of Bryant University, told Providence Business News that the U.S. will lose its competitive advantage in the world if colleges do not reopen in the fall. / COURTESY BRYANT UNIVERSITY
RONALD K. MACHTLEY, who is retiring June 30 after 24 years as president of Bryant University, told Providence Business News that the U.S. will lose its competitive advantage in the world if colleges do not reopen in the fall. / COURTESY BRYANT UNIVERSITY

SMITHFIELD – As local colleges are putting together their respective reopening plans for the fall semester after having to close their campuses in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, outgoing Bryant University President Ronald K. Machtley made it clear Thursday to Providence Business News the importance of campuses reopening to students in the fall.

If colleges and universities don’t reopen, and wait until there’s a vaccine to do so, it would prove disastrous for not just the schools but also for the U.S. as a whole, he said.

“Is there a risk [in reopening]? Yes. But you have to do what is reasonably prudent because if we don’t open the schools in this country, we will lose our competitive advantage in the world. That is a critical aspect of this,” said Machtley, who is retiring June 30 from Bryant after 24 years as its president.

Machtley shares the same sentiment as Brown University President Christina H. Paxson, who in late April wrote an op-ed in The New York Times stating that colleges reopening in the fall should be a priority. The loss of revenue if colleges do not reopen in the fall would be “catastrophic,” she said at the time, and could force the closure of many institutions.

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Machtley, though, sees the problem being even bigger if colleges don’t reopen in the fall. He said colleges and universities in both Rhode Island and across the country are “our engine” for the country’s future growth. That same engine also drives the country’s research and science, he said.

“The reason China has a Bryant school over there [in Zhuhai] is they want to learn how to teach how we teach, entrepreneurial insight. We [the U.S.] are the envy of the world when it comes to higher education,” Machtley said. “You shut these institutions down, the United States will very quickly lose its prestigious position in industry, as well as research and science.

“If we don’t open our colleges and universities, we’ll have to lay everybody off, try to restart our colleges and universities a year from now when we get a vaccine and that would be a disaster.”

Bryant, which was among the first to close its campuses this spring, is one of several colleges locally that has recently announced its plans on how it will reopen in the fall. As part of its plan, Bryant has acquired testing machines to frequently check students’ health while on campus and get results within 45 minutes to see if a student has tested positive for COVID-19, Machtley said.

Machtley also said Bryant will have a residence hall strictly to be used to isolate COVID-19-positive students. Plus, the university ordered 4,000 thermometers and 100 special thermometers that will be strategically checking students’ temperatures all over the campus, Machtley said.

“The testing process will be critical,” Machtley said. “If someone shows up with symptoms, you [have] got to be able to test them right away. Otherwise, if they had to go back and live in a residential setting and going to class and have many contacts without knowing [they have COVID-19], it could be a disaster and it could spread very quickly, as we’ve seen in nursing homes.”

Machtley said there’s “no guarantee” that COVID-19 will be avoided at Bryant once classes restart because it’s “impossible” for students to constantly live in a bubble. But, the university is doing “everything practical” to monitor and respond to any health emergency that may arise, he said.

Even before the pandemic, there were “serious questions” as to how colleges could survive, Machtley said, because cost structures were “outstripping” the ability of people to pay and there’s been a steady demographic decline in high school graduates. Now, Machtley said, this situation has allowed colleges to look at “different models” to see how to deliver education in the future.

He also said it is “clear” that students ages 17 to 21 are “not geared” to take college courses at home.

“They need socialization and maturation,” he said. “They need the experience of an adult in front of them and helping them. Most online courses are successful with adult learners and nontraditional learners. We have to figure out how do we teach 17- to 21-year-olds in a way that is going to be affordable for the future.”

Machtley said colleges have to figure out how to slow down the internal rate of inflation because college costs are increasing by 3% to 4% faster than the consumer price index. Bryant, like several other colleges, will also offer hybrid classes where technology will be set up for students to take courses either in person or online. Mixing some online with the in-class personal experience will offer colleges an opportunity to reduce its costs, Machtley said.

“Every school has been trying to figure out how could we reduce our costs and change nothing. It doesn’t work,” he said. “You have to change some basic concepts in your model if we’re going to slow the growth of expense.”

Plus, Machtley said, only so much can be done in educating students online – which Bryant and all other colleges had to switch to this spring due to the pandemic forcing the campuses to close. He said a recent survey came out that said 77% of parents surveyed said that they were not going to pay full tuition as posted by residential colleges simply to have online education.

“If you don’t have that personal, in-the-seat experience, with all of the co-curricular activities, then the financial model doesn’t work,” Machtley said.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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