Mark La Branche, the president of Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee. (Source: Facebook)

When Martin Methodist College in the small town of Pulaski, Tennessee, considered its response to the coronavirus crisis, there were a lot of things to think about, said President Mark La Branche.

With health and safety topmost in mind, college leaders considered their responsibilities to students, staff, and the surrounding community.

The Daily Yonder’s interview with President La Branche is a quick tutorial on how rural institutions are woven into the fabric of community. Colleges are in the education business. But in towns and rural areas, their impact on the local quality of life can be substantial. Beyond the classroom, colleges employ people, support local businesses, provide food and housing, develop the region’s workforce, and create other formal and informal community-development services.

Martin Methodist is a private, four-year college founded in 1870. It has an enrollment of about 1,100. It’s located in Giles County (population approximately 30,000), a rural county that lies on the Alabama border directly south of Nashville.

This interview was conducted March 16, 2020, when the pandemic’s impact and the public response was changing rapidly. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On Preparedness

I want you to first realize that this is not the first epidemic or pandemic that we’ve faced. Since H1N1, we’ve had a pandemic policy and we have a crisis team and we’re not a large college. We’re about a thousand students. We began meeting a couple of weeks ago and we had been meeting as a pandemic committee probably every few days, and as administrators, probably every two hours. This has been such a dynamic and, inconceivably fast-moving type of thing. So, we’ve been trying to balance underreaction with overreaction, trying to make the best decisions for our students.


Campus Closures Create Special Challenges for Students from Rural Communities

On Precautions

Our first concern obviously is the health of our students, our staff and faculty. This virus itself would be considered to be high risk because of the age and/or underlying health conditions, of many of our faculty members. And so, our first decision was to set their mind at ease that they would be given the opportunity if we didn’t take courses to an all-online approach, that these at-risk faculty would be able to finish the semester behind a screen.

The next decision we made was about spring break. Do we just extend spring break a week? That would give us more time and information. And, the other thing that is clear at this point is that the testing is so far behind we don’t have a lot of confidence in the national statistics. It’s possible that a lot of people are sick but not being tested.

Our college here, we’re in a rural space, and one of the things we were hoping to be was a place for our students to go if they exhibited symptoms, a place to go and get a test. Well, that’s just not possible. We haven’t been able to set up the likely testing we need for this. So, we decided to take that week to prepare to go online and we made the decision that the rest of the semester would be taught through an online option.


On Student Housing

The next thing we had to face was on-campus residential life, and about 40 percent of our students live on campus. And, one of the things about smaller colleges like ours is that we don’t have to make broad sweeping bureaucratic decisions. We can make nuanced decisions that take into consideration the individual needs of our students. And so we took the approach that we wanted to encourage students to stay at home.

However, we’ve got international students. For them, that’s not an option. They’ll be staying on campus. We also have homeless students, and for them, it’s not an option. There’ll be staying on campus. We have students that work in the community and would lose their jobs. We want to be in a place where if a student says ‘I need to be on campus,’ they have a place to stay. So, we’re going to have some limited services and dining. Obviously, we are providing online access so that students can keep learning, stay active in their education through the internet. 

On Creative Solutions

What I’ve asked our staff to do is to consider the impact of the crisis and then let’s turn our thoughts more toward what can we do creatively to connect our students. For instance, we’ve got a preview day for recruitment coming up. We can’t hold that, but we will have a virtual preview day online. We’re thinking creatively about how to keep the community together. We haven’t made a decision about commencement yet, but if we do decide not to have a face to face commencement it will be virtual.

Now, having said all that, we are in a rural area and 60% of our students commute. Not all of them have access to broadband. So, we are going to try and make sure that library stays open. We’re going to have computer labs open for their use and we’ll take extra precaution to have plenty of disinfectants to wipe them down before usage.

Difficult Timeline

There are direct impacts to some of our short term plans. We canceled a spring break trip to Chicago for seminary visits. The other thing that comes up, understandably, is what is the college going to do about pro-rata refunds for tuition, for housing. Most large colleges, with more state or research funding, are not going to be as concerned about these kinds of business decisions. For many of our small colleges, particularly in the rural areas, they live so close to the margins. This is going have a tremendous impact. For instance, we’re under a $30 million budget, so we’ll qualify maybe for some small business relief. We’re checking our insurance to see if we have a business interruption policy. We just need some time. If this thing continues to June, we’ll have a lot of other considerations to make. Through July, and we start to worry about the long term implications.


Helping with Healthcare

We do have a clinic, and we have a nursing program that we’re really proud of. Most of the students in nursing are from here in southern middle Tennessee, and most nursing graduates go back to serve their home communities in southern middle Tennessee, which needs them badly. But we’ve asked ourselves, do we have nurse practitioners from the program that can staff a clinic for people who need treatment here on campus? And in the era of nursing education, they have student teaching and clinical examinations that are required. We have a state-of-the-art simulation lab at the college and they’re allowing clinical examinations to be accomplished in the simulation lab. The local hospitals have reached out to our student nurses, saying they need extra help right now particularly with screening incoming patients. So they’re offering our nursing students jobs, some of them who are not employed at this time. And we’re all kind of pulling together because that’s what small towns do.

Local Economy 

There are going to be some broader impacts on the local economy. We canceled some performances, some concerts. That’s not a big deal to the economy. But, if we’re not in session, that can have a broader economic impact on the local businesses, coffee shops, the places students go and hang out. Some of my concerns are about student jobs getting closed down, and who is going to cover hourly wages if someone should become sick. But many of our students work waitress and waiter jobs where their hourly wage is very small and they rely on tips. What happens to their income?

This local identity and importance are part of how we try to make the case for our school. If we weren’t here, this region would certainly be a higher education desert. Sixty percent of our students are driving in from rural places and little towns around the area. The data tells us that more than 50 percent of students will go to school within 50 miles of their home. We also know that rural students who do go away from their homes are less likely to succeed for a number of reasons….Those are the students we want to be here for, and we feel like that’s an important mission for higher education, to serve people in small towns and rural communities in need.

Gleaners of Potential

Here at Martin College, we embrace our Methodist roots. Part of that is being a social witness, to help in gleaning. I call it gleaning because I was at Louisburg College in North Carolina, a town of about 4,000 for a few years, and what I saw there was that UNC-Chapel Hill and others would come in and get the cream of the crop, what they consider to be the cream of the crop, at least. 

Now some kids that either don’t see themselves as a college student, or maybe can’t afford it or don’t have the transport, whatever the case might be – we’re gleaners of potential. And, thankfully they want to be in rural places. And so they go back into the rural communities to become teachers, nurses and business leaders. So that’s what it’s about for us. We hope that we’ll find a way to keep it going through this crisis. We have a long history. This is our 150th year, so we’ve seen all kinds of peril and yet still persist. We’re confident that we’ll find a way through it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the interview with Mark La Branche. The interview occurred on March 16, 2020.

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