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Behind the mask: The face of Bowdoin’s COVID-19 response

September 17, 2021

Reuben Schafir
The Face of the Pandemic: Mike Ranen stands tall after zero positive test results on Wednesday. Ranen discusses his work and experiences as Bowdoin's COVID-19 resource coordinator.

Mike Ranen usually starts his morning by checking the College’s COVID-19 test results around 6 a.m.. The results of those tests will dictate the course of his day.

On a good day, Ranen can balance his job as the Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Director of Residential and Student Life, as well as his role as the College’s COVID-19 Resource Coordinator.

On a bad day, the latter position can dominate his workday, and even follow him home.

Ranen arrived at Bowdoin in 2018 after a five-year tenure as an associate dean of first year students at Harvard. He accepted the position as Bowdoin’s COVID-19 Resource Coordinator in July 2020.

“I was honored. I was nervous,” Ranen said, reflecting on his transition into the role. “There was so much that we didn’t know about. How do you open? How do you run a school, even de-densified, during a pandemic? How do you make decisions? How do you weigh all the evidence when it’s changing on a daily basis?”

Surrounded by files and boxes of rapid antigen tests, Ranen explained the various challenges he confronts each day. Although guarded about certain topics, his passion is generally only tempered by relentless humility.

The emails that bombard his inbox—and chimed indiscriminately throughout our interviews—come from every imaginable source.

“There are so many questions coming in at all times from students, from faculty, from staff, from families, from community members, athletics…” Ranen said. He views himself as a hub through which those with questions and those with solutions are connected.

One of the greatest pleasures in his job, Ranen said, is collaborating across the College’s many departments. The Office of Communications and Public Affairs needs to be informed as to what signage the College needs; Facilities  Management needs to know which spaces require increased ventilation; deans and Health Services employees must be connected with students in isolation; contractors performing emergency work must be screened for COVID-19; the College’s COVID-19 protocols must be frequently reevaluated in collaboration with the Maine Center for Disease Control in the face of changing information.

When someone comes to him hoping to make an event happen, “the easy answer for everything would be no,” Ranen said. “I like trying to figure out what we can do on campus in a safe way to give our students as good of an experience as we can during a pandemic. I love the fact that things change on a daily basis, and we need to be on top of things. It’s just very interesting.”

Although Ranen saddles an enormous logistical burden, he hands much of the credit for the College’s successes to his colleagues.

As one such example, Ranen recalled a student who, after contracting COVID-19 and moving to isolation housing, realized they had forgotten a favorite stuffed animal in their room. Housekeeping had already deep-cleaned the student’s room and, after realizing the stuffed animal had ended up in the trash, nonetheless sifted through that trash, found the animal and delivered it to the student.

“It’s amazing how our staff and our faculty [support our students],” Ranen said. “Students at Bowdoin are just amazing… This has not been easy, but they’ve been wonderful to work with.”

In response to recent criticism that the College’s plan for the beginning of the year failed to adequately manage the spread of COVID-19, Ranen remained sure-footed.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said. “I think if we were more restrictive at the beginning, we also would have gotten a lot of negative feedback as well saying ‘we’re fully vaccinated.’ We knew we were going to have COVID[-19] cases—we maybe didn’t know we would have so many [cases] at once, but we knew we’d have them, and we also knew that we had a plan to deal with it … The most recent numbers have spoken [to the fact] that our plan is working.”

Although his job occasionally requires late-night deliveries to isolation housing and often demands several hours of attention in the evenings, Ranen is fortunate enough to set aside time for his family.

“My family is extremely important to me, so trying to make the time for them is essential,” he said, glancing toward framed photographs of his son and daughter, ages seven and ten. “I really try to carve out that five o’clock to eight o’clock time where I can cook dinner and spend time with them. And then after they go to bed, I’ll then have a chance to respond to the emails that I didn’t get to respond to.”

Though the hours are long and the work can be stressful, Ranen remains passionate about his work.

“It’s the most interesting professional experience of my life,” he said.

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