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NYU Provost Katherine Fleming on COVID-19, DEI, and Flying Away

Written by Andrew Hermalyn on Jun 25, 2020

Related content: University, Diversity And Inclusion

Last week, I invited New York University Provost Katherine “Katy” Fleming to join 2U’s Daily Dose of Team Time (DDOTT), a company-wide call that gives 2U employees a chance to come together at the same time every weekday to check in with each other, share motivational and impactful stories, learn from one another, and have fun.

Katy and I first met in 2016. I get energized by her entrepreneurial spirit, passion for high-quality learning and student outcomes, and her kindness. I asked Katy to join DDOTT to share her thoughts on a range of topics, inclusive of COVID-19, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a well-known Nelly Furtado jingle.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of a Daily Dose of Team Time between Katy and me.

Andrew Hermalyn: You’ve been provost since 2016. What’s been the hardest period of time for you as NYU Provost?

Katy Fleming: Unquestionably, this current moment is the most difficult. In the past, we've had war presidents. I'm now the COVID provost. Pretty much nothing that I do over the arc of my time as provost will be remembered or have any relevance, aside from my ability, or relative lack of ability to help manage our way through what is an epic crisis for higher education.

Andrew Hermalyn: I can’t imagine the number of unprecedented decisions that you’re having to make right now. Is there a decision over the last three months that has been particularly difficult for you to make?

Katy Fleming: I'd say there are two. The decisions at the very beginning were the toughest because there is a really weird learning curve. You may recall that we all spent the month of February reading news about Italy, and we weren't able to realize that, in a matter of weeks, it was pretty inevitable that what was going on in Italy was going to happen to us. It was sort of the same thing with decision making at the university, and the first set of really tough decisions had to do with our study abroad programs. We have thousands of students from the university studying outside of New York in other countries, and the initial decision to bring those students home was the toughest. In retrospect, it was a complete no-brainer, but it was really, really tough.

And the other really tough one is what the fall is going to look like: What will it mean to be re-open? We've said we're going to be re-opened. That was a tough call. But what that is actually going to look like, we have no idea.

Andrew Hermalyn: Let’s talk about scale for a second. How many students are you responsible for when making a decision for the fall?

Katy Fleming: 66,000. We are the largest private university in the United States.

Andrew Hermalyn: Wow. New York is obviously one of the hardest-hit places in the world with COVID. Have you approached this challenge for fall planning in any particular way?

Katy Fleming: We have a very proactive governor in the state of New York, so we have been working very closely with Albany as well as with the city. It’s really going to be based on state guidelines that we make certain decisions. We have a plan that fits within the envelope of one possible scenario handed out by the governor’s office and then we have a plan for another possible scenario, as handed out by the governor’s office. I would say that those are the most relevant meetings that we’re having because we can’t do anything without their permission.

Andrew Hermalyn: We could talk about COVID for a very long time, but I want to switch gears to more recent events. How have you been affected by the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and have you personally learned or realized anything worth sharing with our employees?

Katy Fleming: I think that the events taking place simply underscore something that has been an embedded part of the history of this nation: completely systemic racism directed particularly towards Black Americans, although now toward many other groups as well. I think people in their daily lives sometimes allow themselves to think this has somehow gotten better or gone away or that it doesn't need to be addressed.

That isn't anything new. That is something very, very old, and I would say that the behavior of the institutions of policing and justice in this country has simply reinstated in themselves practices that existed under slavery. So for us to be acting like this is a new thing is kind of missing the mark.

What is a new thing, or at least what I hope is a new thing, is the number of people who are finally confronting the fact that something actually has to be done, and done in a really sustained and ongoing way beyond how we all feel this week or next week or next month. And I'm certainly hoping that higher education is going to be a part of that solution.

Andrew Hermalyn: Is there anything NYU is doing around racial equity that we, potentially, as a company can learn from?

Katy Fleming: I certainly wouldn't presume to be the model. But one thing that we really are trying to do is be much more aware of the ways that our own institution is full of the same kind of biases that you see played out perhaps more vividly in other institutions in society. But higher ed, I think for a long time, has thought of itself as sort of, you know, we're lefty, we're cool, we’re woke. That is a kind of insidious mindset to have because it simply means that all of the ways in which bias is enacted become more subtly embedded, and it is harder for the people who are the victims of it to find purchase in a conversation.

One thing that we are trying to do—which I'm not going to say others should learn from—is not put the burden on Black people and people of color to be the ones to constantly have the conversation. Like why should I, as a woman, be the one who says, “Hey, this is sexist.” So that I can be told that the only reason I care about it is because I'm a woman? I mean, it's like the most humiliating kind of short circuit of a conversation. So we are trying very hard to make sure that, as we put in place all sorts of programs to try and counter this and to bolster the programs we have already, we aren't assuming our Black faculty will be most interested or most responsible for running them.

I think that it's very important that all of us who are trying to take this on have that in mind. That means that a lot of people like me who are not familiar with racism in the same personal way, and don't feel as comfortable talking about it, and are inevitably going to be maladroit and say stupid and offensive things without meaning to are responsible for shouldering the weight. And, you know, if we feel a little stupid and humiliated along the way, maybe that'll just increase our empathy level. And we should be happy about that.

Andrew Hermalyn: Really valuable for you to share that. Thank you. It’s incredibly important and top of mind for all of us. You chose the song “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado to open today. Why that song?

Katy Fleming: That is the song I always put on, somewhat ironically, in my office when I want to get the hell out of this job, out of this industry, out of this city. A couple of people whose desks are close to mine, we have a practice that at just random moments someone will start blasting this song and we’ll all go out in the hall and dance around. I think all of us right now are feeling a little bit like it would be nice to just fly away from wherever it is that we are stuck. Plus, it just always makes everyone feel good.

Andrew Hermalyn: Awesome. What are you most looking forward to once quarantine is over?

Katy Fleming: Hugging my parents.

Andrew Hermalyn: Well, if that's not a way to end, I don’t know what is. Thank you so much, Katy, for joining. We value our relationship and partnership with NYU and you and your leadership. Thank you for your support, confidence, and friendship.

Katy Fleming: Thank you. You all have just been great during this with all of the support in helping us figure out how to do remote delivery better. We are very, very grateful.

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