A sign at San Diego State University reminds students to wear masks and practice social distancing. Courtesy SDSU

By Peter C. Herman

The news keeps getting worse.

There are now so many coronavirus cases at SDSU that they “put the region at risk of becoming the first county in California to drop a level in the state’s reopening system.” Without the SDSU numbers, the county’s rate is 6.0 (meaning, 6 cases per 100,000 persons); the SDSU cases push the positivity rate up to 7.9, well above the 7.0 threshold for California’s most restrictive shutdown level.

SDSU now has more infected students than any other college or university in California. The county wants to exclude SDSU from the COVID-19 totals to prevent a shutdown; Gov. Gavin Newsom said no because “You can’t isolate, as if on an island, a campus community that is part of a larger community.”

This is a major crisis, with SDSU potentially responsible for untold millions in economic losses if the county has to shut down again. But SDSU’s president, Adela de la Torre, is nowhere to be seen.

When infections started to spike at the end of August, the San Diego Union-Tribune repeatedly asked President de la Torre for comment. But the President refused to speak with them:

SDSU President Adela de la Torre could not be reached Monday for comment. She has declined several previous requests from the Union-Tribune to discuss the situation, including SDSU’s decision to let 2,600 students live in dorms.

When cases hit 400 a week later, the Union-Tribune once more asked for comment. The response was a masterpiece of evasion: “Campus officials were said to be unavailable to discuss the trends beyond the university’s short written statement.”

As cases continued to spiral upward, SDSU’s communications people decided that they needed to be more proactive about trying to control the narrative. So, on Tuesday they held a Zoom news conference. In addition to two public relations people, the university was represented by J. Luke Wood, vice president for student affairs and campus diversity; Eyal Oren, professor of epidemiology; and Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, director of the Institute of Public Health.

All students who live in university housing will be tested. Others will be randomly tested, and everyone needs to practice social distancing, wear masks, and avoid parties. The university has also hired a security company to enforce the rules. A few students face sanctions, up to and including expulsion for not following the rules.

Of course, no SDSU briefing would be complete without a healthy dollop of self-praise: “What we have announced today is really a testament to our ability to adapt and to adapt quickly,” said Wood.

Notably missing: President Adela de la Torre.

Then on Wednesday, after the news broke about how SDSU’s numbers might plunge the county back into lockdown, Wood and Andrea Dooley, associate vice president for student affairs, joined the county’s coronavirus briefing to explain SDSU’s response.

Again, no President.

De la Torre’s public silence on SDSU and COVID-19 starkly contrasts with how other university leaders have dealt with this crisis. Faced with a similar outbreak at the University of Arizona, President Robert Robbins spoke with the press, expressing deep displeasure with the students who are not following the rules. University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen held a virtual townhall meeting to discuss the university’s response. The College of William and Mary’s president, Katherine Rowe, appeared on 60 Minutes. So did Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Linda LeMura, president of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY, moved into a student neighborhood, and, along with her provost, knocked on the door of student residences to make sure everyone was safe.

SDSU’s president is not shy about publicity when it suits her purposes. In April, 2019, she arranged for an inauguration ceremony that cost $165,000 and featured her image plastered all over the campus. Last August, de la Torre participated in a televised groundbreaking ceremony for the new stadium in Mission Valley. She has frequently spoken about the university’s new strategic plan and SDSU’s new (grammatically challenged) motto: “We rise we defy.”

But when it comes to the pandemic, de la Torre has restricted herself to emails co-signed by her and other campus leaders. She has yet to appear before reporters, as other university presidents have done, to answer hard questions.

And there are a number of hard questions:

  • Why did the university bring back students to campus in the first place, when an outbreak was obviously a possibility?
  • What safeguards did the university have in the dorms to ensure compliance?
  • Why has the university not consulted with SDSU’s Viral Information Institute?
  • How is the university to control the behavior of students who do not live on campus?
  • The pandemic has resulted in a $67 million budget gap this year, so why is now the time to transfer $30 million from campus reserves to pay for “capital development” in Mission Valley?
  • Wouldn’t the $30 million be better spent on, say, hiring nurses to staff the dorms 24/7?
  • Or mitigating the budget shortfall so that fewer classes would be cancelled, and fewer staff laid off?
  • Given the depth of the budget shortfall, is now the time to sign a six-year, $7.8 million contract with the basketball coach?

In the report following her first hundred days, de la Torre asserted that she is committed to “transparent and timely communication.” Avoiding the press and delegating SDSU’s public response to subordinates in no way fulfills that promise.

We all want to know: where’s Adela?

Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).

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