Rolando García had yet to meet most of the students enrolled in North Hennepin Community College this fall, so the new college president loaded nearly a dozen "welcome bags" into his Kia Optima on a recent Wednesday and set out on a delivery route.

Donning a royal blue NHCC mask, García delivered tote bags filled with T-shirts, notebooks and "all kinds of North Hennepin swag" to new students' homes. He fielded questions about the school's fall classes — about 90% of which are being taught online — and assured parents that precautions will be taken to prevent students from contracting COVID-19.

"If going to their houses makes them feel comfortable, I'm more than willing to do that because they're giving so much to try and come to us and improve their lives," said García, who took over as North Hennepin Community College president July 1. Students are "yearning for that contact."

García and other newly appointed college presidents in Minnesota are taking the helm of their schools in the midst of a pandemic that threatens the sustainability of higher education institutions and on the heels of social unrest that rocked the state after the death of George Floyd. Instead of easing into their roles, these leaders are grappling with high-stakes decisions ranging from how best to reopen their campuses this fall to how they will respond to students testing positive for COVID-19.

Such decisions are at the forefront of college planning nationwide. An American Council on Education survey of 270 college presidents in early July found that safety was the most pressing concern for the fall semester, followed by enrollment, student mental health and the long-term viability of their institutions.

"New presidents are stepping into an unprecedented leadership moment for American higher education," said Philip Rogers, senior vice president at the American Council on Education. "The tolerance for ambiguity and the need for agility will be extraordinarily high."

García left his job as president of the south campus of Broward College in Pembroke Pines, Fla., to take the reins at North Hennepin. The Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants said he was drawn to the Brooklyn Park community college because of its diverse student population: 49% are students of color, 55% are first-generation college students and 31% are age 26 or older.

Coming from a state that was "on fire" with COVID-19 cases, García said he quickly got up to speed on North Hennepin's campus safety protocols and COVID-19 monitoring plan. His main mission for the fall is keeping students, staff and faculty safe and healthy by having mostly online classes, he said.

A mostly remote semester will have its challenges. García still needs to introduce himself to students, employees and stakeholders. He also must ensure students have access to critical resources such as food banks, counselors and the technology for distance learning.

"The data indicates that … it's going to be the underserved populations of students which will be left behind because they have issues with access to all those areas," García said.

Equity and safety needs

The need to address issues of inequity and racism was front of mind for Macalester College President Suzanne Rivera when she started her job June 1. Her first day came exactly one week after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, and just days after civil unrest led to nearly 1,500 Twin Cities businesses being damaged by vandalism, fire and looting.

A transition she once thought would be "extremely smooth" became "immensely more complicated." Rivera, Macalester's first female and Latina president, readjusted her priorities to focus her immediate efforts on addressing racism and safely reopening the campus.

Soon after Floyd's death, Macalester announced the creation of a scholarship fund to recruit and support more underrepresented students of color in Minnesota. A set of "bolder" racial justice initiatives is also in the works, Rivera said.

Last month, Rivera made her toughest decision yet. The start of the semester was just a few weeks away, and daily tallies of new COVID-19 cases were not dropping. She chose to scale back Macalester's reopening, starting the semester online and limiting the number of students who can live in dormitories. It was a departure from the school's original plan to hold two-thirds of its classes in a hybrid format, which includes a mix of online and in-person instruction.

Rivera leaned on her background in bioethics in making the decision. The ethical principle of "non-maleficence" — minimizing harm — guided her decision to take more precautions while still allowing first-year and transfer students to move into dormitories.

The principle of justice, which emphasizes fairness, informed Rivera's plan to test all students twice for COVID-19 without straining state resources. Macalester acquired swabs and other testing materials from an out-of-state vendor.

Rivera added that she also brings a "mother's heart" to these tough choices. Her daughter, a junior at Brown University in Providence, R.I., is facing similar uncertainty.

"Through her, I have a greater understanding of how challenging this whole situation has been for college-age students," Rivera said.

Financial considerations

Bethel University President Ross Allen, a former Medtronic executive, is taking a calculated approach to charting the private Christian college on a path to financial sustainability. His background at the medical device company involved working with distressed entities that were struggling financially.

Allen's job at Bethel is not so different. The Arden Hills school has long grappled with declining enrollment and budget cuts. In December, the school announced it would shutter some buildings, phase out academic programs with low enrollment and cut as many as 60 staff and faculty members to help tackle a projected $11 million budget shortfall over the next three years.

Allen, who took the helm May 1, said he is optimistic further deep cuts will not be needed. He plans to tap outside expertise to help Bethel become a more effective and efficient school. And he said he will look for ways to increase affordability, so more students consider Bethel as an option.

But the college's financial health will largely depend on how long the pandemic lasts, he said. Fall enrollment of new students is down about 13% compared with last year.

The school welcomed students back to campus last week with a slew of virtual and in-person activities, including a socially distanced "movie on the lawn." The in-person experience is a focal point of Bethel's faith-driven campus community, Allen said. Even in a pandemic, "you've got to be clear who you are."

"We want people to be safe … but we also want them to be able to have the experience," he said.

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth