Norwich University’s President Decamps to COVID-19 Front Line — a Dorm Room | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Norwich University’s President Decamps to COVID-19 Front Line — a Dorm Room

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Mark Anarumo - SCREENSHOT
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  • Mark Anarumo

The esprit de corps at Norwich University was approaching crisis in late January. The country's oldest private military college was in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak that had infected more than 80 of the roughly 1,800 cadets and civilian undergraduates on its Northfield campus. On January 25, Norwich president Mark Anarumo ordered all students to isolate in their rooms until further notice; two days later, he announced that anyone who chose to go home would receive a prorated room-and-board refund for the semester.

The Norwich student meme apparatus went into hyperdrive, skewering everything from the quality of the food, packed in to-go boxes and delivered to the residence halls, to the benumbed mental state produced by sitting in the same room for days on end.

So on January 29, with no fanfare or public announcement, Anarumo moved into an unoccupied single on the fifth floor of Wilson Hall, one of Norwich's nine cadet barracks, to show solidarity with his students and to experience for himself the cloistered monotony of quarantining in a dorm room.

"I wanted to sneak in," he said. "I didn't want it to be some kind of performative event. I just wanted to show the students that I'm with them and that I don't think I'm above what we're asking them to do." 

The stealth operation did not go quite as planned. One Wilson resident was informed a day in advance of Anarumo's arrival so that he could make a name placard for the president's door — a nugget of intelligence that this student, astonishingly, did not keep to himself. By the time Anarumo showed up with his belongings, the word had gotten all the way out. He promptly ordered 39 pizzas for the whole dormitory; then he took grocery and toiletry requests, arranged for curbside pickup at Price Chopper in Barre and, upon returning with the provisions, went door-to-door in Wilson, making deliveries. When Anarumo finally had a chance to settle into his room, a 10-by-12-foot unit featuring a twin extra-long bunk bed, a west-facing view of the Norwich soccer fields and a shared wall with one of the floor's bathrooms, he posted a typed note on his door, which began: "Yes, President Anarumo is actually living in here." 

Anarumo, 50, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who became president of Norwich last June, is no stranger to uncomfortable lodgings. "I've lived in terrible, terrible places," he said. Two years ago, when he was stationed in South Korea, he often slept in his car; he once spent several days in a literal dirt hole. During his weeklong sojourn in Wilson Hall, which concluded on February 5 when he had to travel to Colorado Springs, Colo., on university business, Anarumo said he refused any special treatment.

In fact, he proactively discouraged it: "I will be very disappointed if anyone tries to do anything different while I'm here," he wrote in the note he taped to his door. "I just want to live in this room isolation situation like the other students with ZERO special attention." 

For the duration of his stay, Anarumo ate only the thrice-daily boxed meals delivered to each dormitory by Sodexo, the university's food service contractor. He recorded short videos of himself in his room, dressed in his field uniform, offering tidbits of commentary to boost morale and help counter the narrative, amplified by the meme circuit, that Norwich had become some kind of juvenile detention center. Several students had complained on social media that they were being served undercooked food and that the portions were skimpy; a Facebook comment on one of Anarumo's videos mentioned a "frozen chicken patty with gross sauce."

In his final dispatch from Wilson Hall, Anarumo opened his Sodexo lunch box on camera to set the record straight. He proudly displayed a wrap ("very thick and very heavy, so I'll be sharing this with a floormate"), a Fruity Pebbles dessert bar ("which I probably should not eat"), a bag of garden salsa-flavored SunChips ("my favorite kind of chip — I'll probably eat these") and, with a lightning-quick eyebrow raise of spontaneous delight, a kiwi ("My first kiwi fruit in the state of Vermont!"). Around the same time, a meme, posted to the Instagram account Norwich Underground, snarkily suggested that the food mysteriously improved shortly after Anarumo's arrival in Wilson.

Unboxing his lunch for the virtual masses was presumably not listed among the official duties in Anarumo's job description. But in addition to controlling the spread of the virus on campus, his role has increasingly entailed another sort of containment strategy — the management of both the internal and external perceptions of the situation at Norwich, both in terms of the rigor of the school's prevention efforts and the condition of student life in lockdown.

To that end, he's chosen a direct and personal approach: a regular series of video updates, addressed to "the Norwich family," in which he strikes a tone both avuncular and stern. In a January 27 video message posted on Norwich's website, Anarumo referred to "significant, egregious and frankly embarrassing incidents of student misconduct" that had propelled the outbreak on campus. This misconduct, Anarumo said in the video, had resulted in "messes that no person" — by which he meant no member of the custodial staff — "should be exposed to." 

In one instance, Anarumo told Seven Days, six COVID-19-positive students threw a party in the isolation dormitory. When asked what kind of mess this gathering produced, he replied obliquely: "Excess debris." According to Daphne Larkin, a spokesperson for Norwich University, several students involved in the generation of this debris were disciplined for violating the alcohol policy, but none was dismissed.

Since the start of the semester, 17 students have been sent home for failing to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols, though Anarumo clarified that they have not been expelled. "They were simply told, 'We're in a high-risk situation, and your behavior indicates that you can't handle that right now,'" he explained. "So they'll go remote for the rest of the semester, and then they'll be welcome back again."

Over the last two weeks, the number of active positive cases at Norwich has gradually dropped from its late January peak of more than 80 to 24, which would seem to indicate that students have largely adhered to the in-room quarantine policy. By February 15, Anarumo had deemed the case count low enough to lift the in-room quarantine order and allow students to move more freely around the campus, which is now considerably less populated than it was one month ago.

Of the nearly 1,600 students who were living at Norwich at the beginning of the semester, some 400 have switched from residential to remote status; Larkin, the spokesperson, said that the cumulative total of returned room-and-board fees hasn't yet been tabulated.

But that exodus, and the costs of preserving any kind of residential experience during a pandemic, have taken a toll on the school's bottom line. "We're losing revenue, and we're spending more to maintain a safe environment," Anarumo said. "We're taking a significant financial hit this year, like most of higher ed. But we believe that we should, because it's the right thing to do." 

In fact, the financial strain seems to be relatively low on his list of worries. What disturbs Anarumo the most, he said, is the disintegration of respectful dialogue on social media, particularly among parents. As the only four-year military college in the Northeast, Norwich exists in a complicated cultural milieu, which has become even more fraught in an era of Trump-fueled COVID-19 denialism and intense political turmoil.

"The other senior military colleges are in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas, and they don't have the restrictions that we have here in Vermont," Anarumo said. Some Norwich parents believe the virus is a left-wing media scam; others have urged Anarumo to defy Gov. Phil Scott's public health mandates and operate Norwich without any restrictions. Yet another faction thinks he hasn't gone far enough in his COVID-19 precautions and that Norwich shouldn't be attempting an in-person semester at all.

"The moment my heart breaks is when I see parents arguing and attacking each other on social media about their parenting styles, about their children's worth, really, or wondering whether they even want their child to be at Norwich, just because they disagree with another parent," he said.

He worries about the mental health of Norwich students, in part because he's witnessed the toll of pandemic isolation on his younger son, a junior at Northfield High School. Anarumo's daughter, who attends college in New Jersey, contracted COVID-19 last semester; his older son, a college student in Colorado, is currently sick with a severe case of the virus. "Everyone's fighting a battle right now, and some families are under tremendous strain," Anarumo said. "It's been very, very difficult, but I'm getting paid to lead this institution. People want me to keep it going, and this place deserves every ounce of blood, sweat and tears that I have." 

Anarumo, who returned from Colorado Springs last week, is currently finishing a 14-day quarantine at the official presidential quarters, a brick Federal-style house a few blocks from the main campus. Once he has cleared his health screenings, he plans to go back to living in the dormitories. To get a more comprehensive view of the residential experience, he will live somewhere other than his single in Wilson, where he often laid awake into the wee hours, an involuntary audience to the Top 40 hits and hardcore rap music that his floormates blasted from their Bluetooth speakers while they showered on the other side of his wall.

Anarumo didn't care for most of what he heard, but one night, a song came on that caught him by surprise. "It was very beautiful, very melodic," he said. He was so moved that he got out of bed, went into the bathroom and asked the student brushing his teeth at the sink what he was playing. The song turned out to be "Circles" by Post Malone.

"If I've learned anything so far from living in the dorm," Anarumo said, "it's that I love our students, and I really like Post Malone."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Resident President | Norwich University's commander in chief decamps to COVID-19 front line — a dorm room | By chelsea edgar"

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