A Wild Ride

Provost Marie Lynn Miranda leads campus through the challenges of a pandemic while charting Notre Dame’s academic direction.

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

Marie Lynn Miranda Johnston Marie Lynn Miranda. Photo by Barbara Johnston

When Marie Lynn Miranda accepted the job offer in March 2020 to become Notre Dame’s next provost, she knew the University was about to shut down.

A few days later, the announcement came: In an unprecedented move, Notre Dame would not resume in-person classes after spring break because of the coronavirus pandemic. Students were instructed to travel directly home and continue their classes online, a major shift that would affect the rest of the semester.

“I knew that there was going to be this online pivot when I took the job,” says Miranda, now the University’s principal academic officer. “And then it was kind of a wild ride.”

For most people, the transition might have been akin to making a major life decision during a hurricane. But Miranda had already handled a hurricane. She was the provost at Rice University when Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in August 2017. The school’s president was abroad, leaving Miranda to lead the initial response. With extensive experience in public health and statistics, she also advised local government leaders and served as principal investigator on a regional effort to track the hurricane’s impacts on health and housing.

In 2020, dealing with crisis meant that Miranda’s immersion in Notre Dame’s response effort began long before her formal start date of July 1.

After her appointment as provost was announced in March, Miranda spent more than half her time in South Bend and much of the rest participating in discussions with the University’s leadership team through Zoom meetings and phone calls. Swept into decisions about remote learning and the shuttering of research laboratories as well as commencement, summer session and the safe return of students in the fall, she had little chance to grow gradually into her new job. One upside, she says: “I got to know a lot of people a lot more quickly than I think I otherwise would have.”

A scholar in the field of children’s environmental health, Miranda is widely recognized for her research on lead exposure. Her public health expertise was an unexpected asset as she became a central player in crafting the University’s COVID-19 plans. Statisticians, she explains, spend much of their time examining the uncertainties in a given system and determining — based on data — how much is known, what is true, what is probably true, and to what degree something is true.

“Like most scientists, I’m kind of comfortable with uncertainty,” she says. “You run an experiment and you don’t quite know how it’s going to turn out, and you have to be comfortable with either way that it turns out.”

I like to be open and transparent about decision-making,’ says Miranda, who held open office hours at LaFortune this past year.

Miranda says her tenure as Rice’s provost, from 2015 to ’19, accustomed her to the role. “And I’m really grateful that I have a public health background,” she says. “All the literature that was coming out [about COVID-19], all the numbers that were floating around and all that information is something I would be keeping track of anyway.”

Miranda is a listener and collaborator, not someone who stands on ceremony. “I want to be the first person in the room to listen and really hear what people are saying,” she says. Throughout the year, she has held open office hours in a room in   LaFortune Student Center, providing socially distanced opportunities for anyone — students, faculty or staff — to stop by and ask questions or offer feedback. “I like to be open and transparent about decision-making. I like to be consultative and hear from a lot of people,” she says. “At the same time, I’m completely capable of making a decision.”

The provost already is a familiar and approachable figure on campus, mask always in place. She appears in a video showing what to expect during drive-through campus COVID-19 testing, participates in virtual town halls about the University’s pandemic plans and taped a local TV spot encouraging area residents to sign up for the Indiana COVID-19 Registry, launched at Notre Dame with Miranda as the lead scientist on the project.

She succeeded Thomas G. Burish ’72, who stepped down last June after 15 years on the job. The fifth provost since the position was established in 1970, Miranda is the first woman and the first person of color to serve in the role.

She is also the first American-born member of an immigrant family. The Mirandas came from Goa, a small state of India and former Portuguese colony on the country’s west coast. Her parents and three brothers moved to South Bend in 1961, before Marie Lynn was born, while her father, Constancio Miranda ’62M.S., studied civil engineering on a graduate fellowship.

“My mother, and my father if he were still alive, would tell you that we decided to stay in this country because of how Notre Dame and the South Bend community received them,” Miranda explained in a story posted last fall on the University’s website. “Brown people didn’t always get a friendly reception, but the University wrapped them in a warm embrace.”

Miranda Office Hours
Office hours with the provost. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

Miranda grew up attending Catholic schools in Detroit, then went to Duke University on a full scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics and working as a student manager for the men’s basketball team under famed coach Mike Krzyzewski, who remains a mentor and friend. Named a Truman Scholar, she earned master’s and doctoral degrees in economics at Harvard University, taught first at Duke for 21 years and then at the University of Michigan before moving to Rice.

In addition to being Notre Dame’s new Charles and Jill Fischer provost, Miranda is a professor of applied and computational mathematics and statistics and continues her research as the founding director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative, a program that moved with her to Notre Dame.

She and her husband, Chris Geron, have three adult children — a son and two daughters.

One of Notre Dame’s highest profile decisions last spring was how to plan for the fall. The University announced on May 18 it would reopen in August for in-person classes, becoming one of the first universities to unveil its reopening plans.

Miranda doesn’t think back on that as “the big decision,” but rather as the “big ambitious goal” that her new boss, Rev. John I. Jenkins ’76, ’78M.A. laid out for the institution as its president.

“In order for us to reopen and start classes on August 10, there were a lot of things that we needed to do. The fact that we had that big ambitious goal to shoot for put us in a position to list out what are all of the things that we have to do and what are the timelines that we have to hit.”

Administrators were constantly revising those lists as they passed milestones on the road to reopening. Miranda says the extensive planning and safety measures account for the school’s success. The revised academic calendar shifted everything forward by a few weeks, eliminated fall break and wrapped up final exams before Thanksgiving. Built-in flexibility allowed for a two-week switch to online instruction when case numbers began climbing soon after the start of the fall semester. In the end, Notre Dame reported 1,737 positive cases across the semester, more than 1,400 of them among the undergraduates, with no deaths.

“I truly believe that being in-person last semester provided for a much richer and better educational experience for our students,” she says. “And I’m so proud of all the hard work that our faculty and our staff and our students did to make that experience possible.”

Miranda praises the faculty for its adaptability to the new circumstances: teaching in person, online and often both simultaneously. Staff members, too, exhibited an unrelenting commitment to the University’s mission, she says, many taking on new roles to keep the University going. And students stepped up to a learning environment very different from what they had come to expect.

University policy required professors to teach in person unless they were granted an accommodation based on age, an underlying health condition or other factors. Some faculty members disagreed with the policy, saying the choice should have been left to individuals. Their dissent drew national attention.

Miranda isn’t offended by the criticism; it comes with the job, she says. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, other issues would prompt disagreement. She understands that the critics want Notre Dame to improve. “So no matter what they’re saying,” she says, “that person and I share something, and that is the desire for Notre Dame to do better. We may have different ideas about how Notre Dame gets better, but we both want the same thing.”

The entire educational and research enterprise reports up through the provost, she says, and an important part of the job is listening. “It’s your responsibility,” she says of the role, “but I actually think it’s the great privilege of being provost. You have to get to know every little nook and cranny and learn about it.” The task is all the more challenging during a crisis like COVID-19, she says. To keep communication flowing, she meets with deans twice a week, consults regularly with department chairs, participates in town halls and talks with students. Along with other University leaders, she issues detailed weekly updates about infection rates, testing, new safety protocols and related matters. And she tries to respond to each email and personal contact she receives, including the critiques. “We can’t over-communicate. It’s just not possible,” she says — a lesson she learned during Hurricane Harvey. 

She’s learning new lessons, too. In retrospect, Miranda says she wishes Notre Dame had launched surveillance testing as soon as students returned last August, rather than a few weeks later, in order to reduce the threat of new outbreaks, but at the time, health experts weren’t yet urging surveillance testing.

Miranda says she’s already seen a deeper understanding of mission at Notre Dame than at any of her previous workplaces.

Supporting students who were moved into quarantine and isolation in University-leased apartments and hotel rooms presented another huge learning curve, Miranda notes. Some students reported uncomfortable delays in the provision of food and other daily necessities. Administrators acted quickly to correct the problems, she says, crediting the leadership of executive vice president Shannon Cullinan ’93.

“What became clear was we were asking our contact tracers to do too many things,” Miranda says. At first they were tracking the virus and responding to student needs. The solution divided those responsibilities between two teams.

The University further modified the academic calendar, announcing a longer-than-usual winter break and creating a winter session of virtual classes. The spring semester began February 3. Students were tested upon their return to campus, and positive cases were immediately isolated. In a January interview, Miranda said all undergraduate students would be tested once a week and about 25 percent would be tested twice a week. And in certain cases of suspected virus spread, such as in a particular residence hall or student club, the University now has the means to test groups quickly.

The pandemic will not last forever, so while coronavirus response remains an immediate focus, Miranda also is pursuing long-term aspirations for Notre Dame, including a strengthened emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. A favorite text is Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, which she considers “the single best piece of prose written in the English language.” She keeps a copy of it in her daily planner. “It always has something for me when I need it,” she says.

“On the faculty side, we’re trying to make sure that we do a better job of retaining our minority scholars and also hiring new minority scholars. We’re hoping that we net-up on faculty scholars of color this coming year,” she says. Among students, she’s committed to achieving the University’s goal to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the 2021-22 freshman class. And in January, Notre Dame launched an Initiative on Race and Resilience, an interdisciplinary program to address systemic racism and support communities of color within and beyond campus.

The new provost further aspires to fortify graduate programs, hoping to increase stipends and build better bonds of community. “For the University to reach its next level, we need to have stronger graduate programs. And stronger graduate programs are actually really good for undergraduates. It’s not a zero-sum game,” she says, explaining how such efforts work hand in hand with the perennial vision of creating the best research environment for faculty across all fields of study.

Miranda says she’s already seen a deeper understanding of mission at Notre Dame than at any of her previous workplaces, noting the University’s commitment to a distinctive Catholic identity. “It’s about having a sense of community. It’s about being serious about scholarship, because our scholarship reveals the beauty of God’s creation,” she says.

For now, the coronavirus may ironically be helping to shape a better future for Notre Dame. “We don’t want to just survive COVID and then just go back to whatever we were before,” she says. “We want to learn from COVID — and become a better institution because of what we’ve learned.”

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.