Q&A with provost Dave Kotz ’86 and executive vice president Rick Mills

The “Rick and Dave” duo discuss COVID-19 policy, housing and the future of the College.

by Allison Wachen | 2/11/22 5:00am

courtesy

Executive vice president Rick Mills, left, and provost David Kotz, right, have headed the College’s COVID-19 response since the fall. 

Source: Courtesy of Robert Gill

This article is featured in the 2022 Winter Carnival special issue. 

Since early September of 2021, then-interim provost Dave Kotz ’86 and executive vice president Rick Mills have been in charge of Dartmouth’s COVID-19 policy and response budget in addition to their respective College administration roles. Often signing campus-wide emails with “Rick and Dave,” the pair have communicated major updates throughout the past two terms. On Jan. 31, Kotz was officially named provost by College President Phil Hanlon. A computer science professor, he previously served as the interim Provost during the 2017-2018 academic year and the associate dean for the faculty of arts and sciences. Mills has been the EVP since 2013. Prior to working at Dartmouth, he served as the executive dean for administration at Harvard Medical School.

Kotz and Mills spoke with The Dartmouth about a variety of College issues, including housing, the continuing COVID-19 response, the Lyme Road housing project, the College’s decision to appoint Kotz as provost and how Hanlon’s impending retirement in June 2023 will affect the College administration for the next year. 

Can you explain your approach to handling COVID-19 this winter term? How has your handling of COVID-19 this term differed from your approach during fall term?

RM: Could you give engineering professor Eugene Korsunskiy a shout-out? Because we approached this with the [ENGS 12, “Design Thinking”] “How might we” approach.

When we were meeting over the break, it was pretty clear that the omicron variant was coming and was more transmissible. We really decided that it was worth paying attention to the principle that we’d articulated in the fall, which was prioritizing in-person education while minimizing the chances of serious illness or disease. We knew that we were likely to see a pretty significant uptick as January wore on, but we thought it was worth doing that.

DK: A large part of our conversation toward the end of December was the anticipation that the omicron wave was going to roll over Hanover, almost regardless of what we chose to do. Omicron spreads so quickly that even with our surveillance testing, and even with isolation, we were not going to be able to prevent it from spreading on campus. The decision-making process kind of leaned more toward how do we manage this as best we can, rather than how can we stop it. Because we can’t stop it.

How has the COVID-19 case count compared to your expectations? Do you think the COVID-19 cases will continue to fluctuate in the upcoming weeks?

DK: I think it actually happened more or less the way I imagined. It was a big peak at the beginning. If you look at the numbers over the course of January, and now into February, they’re coming rapidly down. The numbers will always fluctuate. But, right now, we’re seeing a pretty steady downward trend, and I think we’ll see that right through the end of the term. That’s my best guess.

Reflecting on the term so far, what has gone better than expected and what has not gone as expected? What would you like to see improved for the spring?

DK:  I don’t know if I would say things went better than expected. But, I’ve been really impressed and pleased by the way the faculty and the students have persisted in trying to make this work — it’s really hard. I recognize that it’s a lot of extra work for the faculty and stress for the students to maintain this in-person learning experience despite the rolling set of students who are unable to come to class. Overall, we’ve had very good compliance this term with vaccination requirement testing, with masking, better than in the fall. 

RM: I think, mask-wearing, as hard as it is, is something we struggle with at Dartmouth. We certainly hear from students about not liking wearing masks and how restrictive it feels. When we talk to our peers, nobody else reports the degree of non-mask-wearing that we seem to have on our campus. That’s something that I wish could go better.

When you walk through the library, you see a lot of masks off. It’s not everybody; I’m sure from the reports that it’s a standout case. I think it feels to some of our staff and faculty like people don’t care. I don’t think that’s what the students mean or the message they’re trying to send. But, at a time when it’s hard to keep people working and motivated, it’s not great. 

What can we expect for spring term?

RM: This is where Dave says I denied his budget request for a crystal ball.

DK: Hey, I keep trying. Well, we’re actively working on our plans for spring term arrival. We don’t have anything to announce right now because we haven’t made our final decisions. We may make changes, either at the beginning of spring term or perhaps a couple of weeks in, depending on how things go. I’m hopeful — the case counts are declining fast both here and in the region and in the nation. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to relax some things in the spring, but don’t know what that will be or when. Isolating in place will continue through the spring term.

RM: Something that we’ve outright discussed in some of our Community Conversations is that it’s fairly clear with omicron that the surveillance testing that was effective in the summer and fall is much less effective now. We will not get rid of testing, but do we move in a direction where surveillance testing is elective and up to the individual? Is that something that we would get to ultimately for asymptomatic people?

DK: Opt-in voluntary testing and symptomatic testing would be the place we would end up. At some point, we may shift like we did last summer to voluntary masking. When that will be appropriate, I’m not quite sure. 

Can you explain the process of how Dartmouth picks locations to consider for housing and what factors are being prioritized with picking housing locations?

RM: We obviously factor in costs, zoning, and what sort of what units would fit where. 

If we were building a true new residence hall for core undergraduate use, Lyme Road would probably not be the location that we would pick first. But that’s a longer conversation, which I’d be glad to have with you.

When we’re thinking about flexible housing options that would allow a different kind of living situation that looks more like apartment-style and independent living, could be built relatively quickly so we can start to get renovations underway and be repurposed at the end of renovations for graduate student or other apartment type housing, that’s how Lyme Road looked like a very viable choice.

Congratulations, Provost Kotz, on your appointment. What are your immediate priorities and goals for the position?

DK: There’s a lot that the Provost is involved in, including COVID-19, but we’ve talked a lot about COVID-19. 

I have an opportunity to take a little bit of a longer viewpoint. How can we take advantage of what we’ve learned during the pandemic? There are opportunities for the positive use of these online technology tools in post-pandemic Dartmouth. I’ve often noticed that a lot of computer science students don’t want to or feel that they can’t fit in a foreign study program in some other field because they are busy taking their computer science courses: they need to take them at a certain time or in a certain sequence. If they could go and do two courses in some foreign study program and remote learn one critical major course back on campus or take the class fully virtual, then that might enable them to do those opportunities. Or they could go to an internship in California and still take a course back at Dartmouth. This is looking years ahead. 

I’m also interested in looking more globally, how can Dartmouth expand its global footprint? I mean that in several different ways: How can we bring more of the globe to Dartmouth in terms of bringing international students and scholars to Dartmouth? How can we better send Dartmouth people to the world and so forth through study abroad programs, research trips, or  December term activities?

President Hanlon recently announced that he will be stepping down from his position in June of 2023. How do you see this affecting the administration’s operations over the next year?

RM: I think the short answer is not a bit. We are running as we always have.

DK: He’s still president for another 17 months. The other business will be the search committee working on the side to select the next President; that person will be announced next winter, I suppose. I don’t know the exact timeline.

What is the best way for students to voice their concerns with the administration? How does the administration learn about student concerns and priorities?

DK: First of all, Rick and I meet regularly with a group of student leaders called the Student Liaison Group set up by the Board of Trustees. It has the Student Assembly president and vice president and their equivalents for the Graduate Student Council, the Tuck Student Council, etc. We meet with them every few weeks to just talk about all kinds of issues; last time, we discussed parking and COVID-19. 

It’s important to recognize that there are different parts of the administration: we’re not all one big lump. If you’re not sure where to start, I would work with Student Affairs to ask for them to help you or a group figure out whom in the administration should be contacted.

Students have enjoyed your concise and informative emails this term. What made you decide to sign off your emails “Rick and Dave”? 

DK: I say in all my emails, “dave,” actually lowercase. So maybe that’s where it came from? I don’t know.

RM: Working at Dartmouth is a blast, and students are the best part. I really like working with Dave. I hope he tolerates working with me. 

DK: We’re a good team. We may sign the emails, but it’s really important to note that there are several dozen other people working incredibly hard to help write those messages and make it all happen. They deserve a lot of credit.

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