"We Can Do This"

Nazareth’s new leader embraces the challenges — and the opportunities — of the COVID era.

by Erich Van Dussen

Beth Paul

When she heard that Nazareth College was searching for its 10th president, Beth Paul couldn’t have known that her first months in that role would include a number of extraordinary tasks that were definitely not included in the job description.

Understandably, she wouldn’t have imagined the need to become an expert in exclusive pandemic-era administrative specialties, including reconfiguring campus and academic models to ensure student, faculty, and staff safety; clearing roadblocks to procure hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment; or closely following state and local directives that were shifting by the day.

A year ago, Paul didn’t visualize a “first 100 days” of those priorities and many more. Instead, she saw a chance to guide an already high-performing college toward an ever-brighter future.

More than anything, that’s still what she sees today.

Without flinching at the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Paul has jumped into her new job with clear-eyed positivity — fueled as much by her natural enthusiasm as by her understanding of Nazareth’s proven ability to set goals and accomplish them.

“This pandemic accentuates any community’s strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “Here at Nazareth, it’s allowing us to leverage incredible strengths that have been here all along, and make them even stronger.”

As she jumped in to lead the myriad COVID-centric changes, Paul also established a drumbeat of communications to align the temporarily remote campus community: a series of blog posts, videos, and even a podcast, covering such topics as individual responsibility in the face of COVID, the unique situations faced by Nazareth’s international students, and even her fondness for her new hometown. On the eve of students’ return to campus in August, she closed one message with a simple rallying cry: “We can do this!”

That sense of confidence has proved — to borrow from COVID itself — to be nothing short of contagious.

New Processes, New Potential

Between the January 27 announcement of Paul’s appointment and July 1, when the new leader officially succeeded outgoing president Daan Braveman, Nazareth experienced once-in-a-lifetime changes. Pandemic restrictions forced a temporary suspension of campus activities in March, as the spring 2020 semester continued via online instruction. From local partner organizations to peer colleges worldwide, no one was spared from having to cope with the coronavirus.

“All at once, everything changed. It was surreal,” Liliam Montilla ’21 recalls. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault — we knew we had to stay safe. But it was a very unusual time. I’m grateful to be back.”

The fall 2020 semester took some getting used to, Montilla says, given its necessary mix of traditional classroom-based instruction and online learning from her residence hall room. This is just one of the sweeping changes now in place to preserve the safety of the college community without compromising educational opportunity. 

Adjusting to those new protocols “wasn’t easy, and isn’t easy,” says Susan Nowak ‘77, S.S.J., professor of religious studies, “but it’s remarkable just how prepared we’ve become for this. And we haven’t stopped planning. We’re committed to doing this safely, and doing it well.

“Beth has been wonderful,” Nowak adds of Nazareth’s new president. “In the midst of this tumultuous pandemic, she has been steadfast. She sees the best in us, and that idea has become instilled in all of us in different ways.”

While Paul credits students and faculty for their adaptive spirit, she also recognizes that adaptation has benefits that transcend the here and now. For instance, the use of stronger and more versatile high-tech solutions is fulfilling short-term educational needs, and at the same time, it’s helping students become stronger and more versatile learners.

“Students and faculty aren’t only adding tools to their toolbox through all this. They’re building a greater capacity for information literacy and adaptive learning,” she says. “Our students will take those skills into their professional lives, where they’ll be in greater demand than ever.”

That lesson hasn’t been lost on Nowak, who inadvertently finds herself borrowing Paul’s contagious phrase. In a pattern that began in the earliest days of the fall semester, she relates, “I wake up and say to myself, ‘Can we do this?’

“And then I get to school, and I say, ‘Yep. We can do this.’”

An Obligation to Lead

COVID-19 wasn’t the only viral phenomenon awaiting Beth Paul when she arrived on campus. Longstanding national tensions about systemic racism and inequality reached a tipping point following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, in May. Then, in September, the Rochester community was shaken when revelations were made public concerning the March death of Daniel Prude that occurred just miles from the College.

In response to these incidents and others, individuals and institutions around the country — including members of the Nazareth community — have demanded action. They see the efforts made by the College through the years as strides in the right direction, but insist that more can and should be done.

Indeed, Paul says, initiatives such as the College’s multidisciplinary Community and Belonging Division represent past successes — while creating an obligation for Nazareth to do even more. “We should be out front,” she contends. “We should be saying, ‘Here’s what we’ve learned. Here’s what we realize we still don’t know. Here are the big questions that we’re wrestling with.’ We can’t be complacent. We have to listen, and we have to act.”

Montilla, a resident of New York City, was elected president of the Nazareth Undergraduate Association last spring. She returned to campus in August with a five-point array of short- and long-term initiatives aimed at expanding the College’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. She found an immediate audience in Paul and other Nazareth leaders — and although change hasn’t occurred overnight, she likes what she’s seen and heard so far.

“I know much of my thinking may not become real before I graduate next year,” Montilla says, “but I want to be a catalyst for the students that come after me. We can only make change happen by starting the ball rolling.”

Ideas like Liliam’s — and the expansion of the usual faculty-and-staff Summer Read project to include students and alumni in a consideration of “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi — are a step in that direction, Paul says.

“We have to keep at it,” she adds. “The events of the past few months have provided us with a new opening to act from a position of earned leadership, and raise the conversation to a new level. Given our history, that’s where we need to be.”

Looking Back to Move Ahead

While it’s fair to say that the concerns of today are top-of-mind for Paul, her confidence in Nazareth affords her a forward-looking vision: “I'm always thinking about the future, and what’s going to be there for us to work with.”

That future includes Nazareth’s 100th anniversary, right around the corner. It’s too soon to predict what 2024 will look like (four years ago, who could have foreseen 2020?), but Paul sees clear ties between our COVID era and the College’s founding — and particularly to its founders’ mission that has lost none of its relevance.

“Nazareth was born in the aftermath of the last global pandemic, which happened in 1918,” she notes. “The needs of that time led the Sisters of St. Joseph to create a college community with a specific set of values. They saw a connection between education, social justice, and community. I think it’s time to re-engage in that.”

To facilitate that re-engagement, she’s already initiated a new strategic planning process, following up on the Nazareth 2020 strategic plan that helped chart the last decade of the College’s success under Braveman. There’s plenty of work to be done, and Paul is welcoming all voices to participate in that work.

Nowak sees Paul’s keen interest in other views as a distinct asset to her presidency. During a 2019 visit to Nazareth, when Paul was still a candidate for the position she now holds, her campus tour hit some unexpected delays. “She always wanted to stop and talk to people, particularly students,” Nowak recalls. “That was when I first began to think, this is the person for us.”

With less than a year left in her undergraduate experience, Montilla says she’s excited about Nazareth’s new leader, and about Paul’s aims to help the college community remain safe — and prosper — during COVID and beyond. While expressing her confidence, she echoes that powerful four-word mantra.

“There will be struggles, of course, like there are everywhere and at any school,” she says. “But this is a perfect opportunity for us to show what we're really made of.

“We’re going to make it through this, with greatness,” Montilla adds. “We can do this.”

Freelance writer Erich Van Dussen lives in Rochester, N.Y.