Challenges, Accepted
For UNH Chief of Police Paul Dean, the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t just the public emergency he long trained for but hoped he’d never have to face — it was also personal.
By Michelle Morrissey ’97
Jeremy Gasowski
Challenges, Accepted
For UNH Chief of Police Paul Dean, the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t just the public emergency he long trained for but hoped he’d never have to face — it was also personal.
By Michelle Morrissey ’97
Jeremy Gasowski

s UNH Police Chief Paul Dean remembers it, spring semester 2020 had gotten off to a pretty typical start, with the serious work of policing a campus of some 13,000 students punctuated by lighter moments: posting on the department’s social media account about its “Coffee with a Cop” community outreach program or alerting followers to a power outage in a dorm. The campus was busy, the buildings full of faculty, staff and students — many of whom were looking ahead to spring break and finalizing their travel plans.

But at 9:58 a.m. on Thursday, March 12, 2020, with news reports increasing about a deadly virus spreading around the globe, Dean was called to a meeting with other campus leaders to discuss how to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19 at UNH.

“That was the moment it became very real,” says Dean. While leadership had been monitoring the virus from the start, suddenly, there were decisions that needed to be made. Would students be recalled from spring break early or asked not to go at all? Would campus need to be shut down, or could classes continue in some way? There were other, broader questions, too; questions that were harder to answer: How would UNH stay safe? How long would this pandemic last?

It was one of the many leadership meetings that would take place over the subsequent 16 months and counting, as COVID-19 took hold of life not just on college campuses but everywhere. During that time, Dean, who is the director of emergency management in addition to police chief for UNH’s three campuses in Durham, Manchester and Concord, has had a tumultuous ride, balancing everything from ever-changing state and federal health and safety guidance to the logistics of remote and hybrid working to the fear — happily unrealized — of a major outbreak.

In many ways, Dean was as prepared as anyone in his position could have been: he’s served for 36 years in law enforcement, undergone extensive emergency management training and is good at a leading in a crisis.

But nothing could have prepared him for the moment the pandemic turned personal: his father, Douglas Dean, 90, died from COVID-19 complications May 29, 2020, just days after being diagnosed with the illness.

Jeremy Gasowski
Dean speaks with parents at an orientation session for the UNH Class of 2025
It was a storm the chief weathered with his family while maintaining the 24/7 composure necessary to ensure the safety and security of the UNH campuses through not just COVID, but also unrest surrounding heightened racial equality and social justice issues that touched the nation and UNH last summer — and the everyday challenges presented by a complex university system.

“Most people don’t know when they look at first-responders what’s going on in their personal lives,” says Dean. “You have to put things in a box, and I have many boxes on many shelves. When my father died, I had to put my personal grief in a box, too.”

Collective Preparedness
Dean first joined the university police department in 1985. He served until 1990, then left for a five-year stint as chief in Ashland, New Hampshire. He returned in 1995 and was appointed chief in 2011.

He says in the 10 years of his tenure as chief, some aspects of the work have remained the same, while others have changed drastically. One constant has been the focus on safety — from emergency/disaster preparedness to day-to-day security measures on campus. And of course, the impact of alcohol and drugs on the university community, and the “town-and-gown” connection between student life and Durham town residents.

What has increased in the past several years is the number of calls the department has received related to mental health — something Dean says is true for police departments nationwide. “We wear many hats, and police and fire are the people who some of these public health or societal issues fall to,” he says. “No matter when you call 911, we’re the ones who are coming.”

That shift hasn’t meant a decline in traditional enforcement duties, but it has meant an increase in “matters of the heart, people in crisis” either mentally or emotionally, Dean says. And with the onset of the pandemic, his “typical day” changed even more. Beginning in mid-March 2020, the Senior COVID Management Team of the President’s Leadership Council had daily meetings and remained in constant touch, incorporating updates from the national Centers for Disease Control and New Hampshire’s Health and Human Services Department into the university’s response plan, and getting the word out to the UNH community. As associate vice president for public safety and risk management, Dean also co-chaired the university system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with Keene State University President Melinda Treadwell. Beyond his own training, he credits the collective preparedness of the university leadership for saving the USNH schools from some of the scrambling he heard about from colleagues outside the state.

That preparedness helped action plans get put into place, and also meant UNH was a resource for other state agencies and businesses.

“When the CEO of ConvenientMD was looking for supplies, he came to us,” Dean recalls. “At one point, we were the only ones who had the PPE, masks, gloves, based on the right choices we made years ago. I was so proud that UNH was helping people in New Hampshire, to me that’s really what UNH stands for.”

“Extraordinary and Noble Service”
Marian McCord, UNH’s senior vice provost of research, outreach and engagement, was only six weeks into the job when the pandemic hit. “One of my first official acts as head of research was to shut down research,” she notes of the unusual circumstances surrounding her orientation at a new institution. She and Dean co-chaired the testing and tracing response team that would eventually create the university’s robust testing program and state-of-the-art COVID testing lab.

In her co-chair, McCord says, she found an inspirational leader in the crisis, and “a deeply caring person and someone incredibly dedicated to that job.

Paul Dean smiling with green polo on
Jeremy Gasowski
“I really admire him; he took a lot on his shoulders, and he never let anyone down,” she says. She notes that Dean was among those senior staff “pushed into extraordinary and noble service” to be able to keep UNH operating amid a global pandemic.

In turn, Dean says of McCord and his other colleagues on the leadership team and beyond, “we went through battle together.” Throughout the pandemic, there was no end of the workday aside from sleeping. Dean’s days started at 4 a.m., and by 6 a.m. a steady stream of emails typically needed attention. Weekends and holidays ceased to exist.

And while Dean jokingly notes, “this is my first pandemic,” he has the credentials to lead in exactly the kind of crisis the past 16 months have presented. Beyond his training and years of service, he has high-level FBI and Department of Homeland Security clearance and is an advisory board member at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and The United States Department of Homeland Security State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Government Coordinating Council. He also serves on the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators as an instructor in terrorism and emergency management issues. And in his role as campus police chief, he trains annually for potential emergency situations including terrorist attacks, mass casualty incidents, active shooter scenarios and even SARS or bird flu outbreak.

But leading in a crisis, even as a member of a team of leaders, requires more than tactical ability. To that end, Dean holds a Master of Science in leadership, and is a teacher — an adjunct instructor for UNH’s Homeland Security program. And while his LinkedIn page shows a follow for U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it also shows an equal interest in author and podcaster Brene Brown, who speaks on topics like vulnerability, shame and courage to sold-out audiences.

Dean with son Jonathan at his May graduation
Robert Zielinski
Dean with son Jonathan ’17, ’21JD and wife Gale ’89 at Jonathan’s May graduation from UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law. Jonathan served as student body president during his senior year at UNH and says he and his father could often be found in meetings together. “My dad has always been a leader of people. When you look at his career, he brings people together toward a common goal, and he isn’t afraid to make hard decisions.”
So does Dean believe he’s got a softer side than what some people think of when they think of a police officer? Not necessarily, he says. But he does believe that his job it to help anyone — and everyone — who might need it.

“I’m a public servant, my most important job is the person right in front of me. That’s how I was raised; I work for my team, I work for the entire campus, I work for you,” he says. Dean’s wife is a UNH alumna, youngest son Tom ’23 is a junior, and eldest Jonathan ’17 just earned his JD from UNH Law. It’s in part because of these family connections that he adds, “Listen, I love this place and what it does for people, and I love the mission. So if somebody has to call me at 2 in the morning, whether or not it’s related to public safety, at least I’m a person they can talk to. Most of the time I just listen a lot, and other times I’m helping them finding the answers or trying to sort out a problem,” he says. “It’s what needs to be done.”

Hitting home
Just two months after shutting down campus and sending all faculty, staff and students to a remote status, Dean himself confronted an even more personal and powerful dimension of the pandemic: his father’s illness and death from COVID-19.

“The very last conversation I had with my dad was on a video call on an iPad,” Dean recalls. “It was actually a great conversation; he was fine and seemed healthy at that moment. We were planning to go golfing in July.”

The next day, however, the elder Dean couldn’t open his eyes, and at the beginning of the following week, Dean’s sister Cathy called to say she didn’t think their dad was going to make it.

“I just remember saying, ‘What do you mean not going to make it?’” says Dean, recalling how quickly the virus overtook his father, a retired Marine and Korean War veteran who had made his career at a chemical company. The reality of the illness hit home when Dean got permission to see his father, who had been living in an assisted living facility in Rhode Island.

“Whenever I see the number of cases and deaths across the bottom of a TV screen — those aren’t just numbers, that’s somebody’s family — and it became my family.”
— Paul Dean
“I’m not shocked by much, and it shocked me,” he recalls. “Getting off the elevator at the facility, the entire hallway was draped in industrial plastic, nurses in full protective gear, people crying and moaning — I felt like I was in a horror movie of some kind.”

That day, he sat with his father for a long time, holding his hand and talking to him. He drove back to New Hampshire that night and then back to Rhode Island the following morning, a Friday. Realizing their father would pass soon, the Catholic family agreed they wanted a priest to deliver last rites, but because of COVID, none of the priests they knew would perform the ritual. Instead, Dean reached out to someone he knew who could help the family: former university chaplain Larry Brickner-Wood.

“I called him up at 8 o’clock at night on a Friday night, and he just said, ‘What do you need? I got you,’” says Dean, growing emotional as he recounts what would be his final few hours with his father. “He told me to hold the phone up to my father’s ear, and he gave the most beautiful sermon I’d ever heard.”

The facility staff ended visiting hours around 11 p.m. and Dean told his dad he’d be back in the morning.

Douglas Dean passed away that night.

Dean with his father, Douglas, and his sister, Cathy
Paul Dean courtesy photo
Dean with his father, Douglas, and his sister, Cathy
Like so many who have suffered such a meaningful loss, Dean channeled his grief into his work. “I knew I had to do something more with his death,” he says. “Two days later, I was thinking ‘I just lost my dad … I don’t want to see anybody else lose somebody like that.”

At work, one of the people he shared the news with was McCord, who lost a close uncle to COVID.

“Here we were two people who had lost someone, we shared this unfathomable experience of how COVID ripped people away,” she says. “We shared the perspective of how bad it can be.” And if it made them take the most conservative route when it came to discussions of safety, they both feel a sense of peace about it knowing that collectively, the decisions that were made ultimately meant the loss they felt might be avoided by other families.

“People were dying every day, and we were trying to plan out campus events. I feel like there’s just going to be a road of pain for this country, not just for UNH, when the number of people lost really hits us,” says McCord. Of her shared experience with Dean, she says that losing a family member to COVID, “changes you … it changed him.”

Dean agrees. “It’s still pretty raw,” he says. “Whenever I see the number of cases and deaths across the bottom of a TV screen — those aren’t just numbers, that’s somebody’s family — and it became my family.”

Weathering other storms
Over the summer, even as the pandemic continued to draw on his personal and professional reserves, Dean and his team took on another far-reaching crisis: social justice and racial bias on campus, and the UNH Police Department’s relationship with students.

Late last spring, on the heels of the George Floyd murder and growing national unrest, UNH president Jim Dean promised an action plan to address racial issues on campus. In September, he announced several diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, including creating a more diverse student body, faculty and staff and “an inclusive and welcoming environment for all, especially people of color.” Part of that plan has been a police department response, which grew out of working with student leaders of the Black Student Union and other groups in addition to fellow administrators.

Jeremy Gasowski
Dean’s mandate included expanding existing diversity training for his staff, purchasing body cameras for every officer and working with students and campus planners to determine which areas of campus were reporting the most bias incidents, ultimately increasing surveillance in those areas with three new cameras. Throughout the school year, he was a consistent presence at campus protests and observances. In May, he spoke at an event held during the campus Unity Week that served in part to mark the anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

But he knows there is much more that needs to be done.

“The work we have to do around diversity, equity and inclusion is not a “one and done” type of work,” he says. Indeed, Dean says the process must include his own education, noting that he’s been reading and talking to more people to better understand perspectives and experiences outside his own. “We are trying our best to be a better police department for this community.”

The new normal
Over the course of two weekends in May, UNH put on eight in-person commencements across its Durham, Manchester and Concord campuses. The Monday after the final ceremony concluded, Dean was meant to have several meetings in a row. But one by one, they all got canceled — folks had a scheduling conflict, or had work they needed to catch up on, or perhaps simply needed to unplug for an hour or two after the conclusion of such an unprecedented school year.

What was going on? Dean wondered. Was it over? Would life soon return to a pre-pandemic normal?

Hardly, but at least for moment, it feels like what Winston Churchill famously described as “the end of the beginning”: a time to reflect on lessons learned and to look ahead. There is much to plan for the coming school year, with a fully open fall semester in the works.

“We’re still in this fight,” Dean says, “but we can manage COVID-19. I have always said my two sons went to UNH, and my youngest is living on campus, and I would never ask a parent to put their children in a situation I wasn’t willing to put my kids in.” Noting that he has to be able to look someone in the eye and say it is safe to be here and really mean it, he adds, “I have felt that way and will feel that way this fall.”

Jeremy Gasowski
As for lessons learned, Dean says the most important one has been the benefit of strong relationships among leadership — on campus and beyond. “Our decades of collaborative efforts with the town of Durham, state of New Hampshire emergency services and Strafford County Public Health were put to the test,” he notes. Today, he adds, those collaborations remain the cornerstone of these groups’ collective success in addressing crisis situations.

Another lesson? “When your pandemic plan is nothing like the pandemic you’re in, you need to think on your feet.” Dean credits the depth of experience of campus leadership, faculty, staff and students for making it possible to pivot quickly to protect the community as the crisis unfolded and information changed. Many times, he says, he wonders what his father might advise, and finds himself asking him in his head: Are we doing the right thing? The answer is always, eventually, yes. The smooth transition of the fall and spring semesters, the relatively low infection rates compared to worst-case-scenario predictions, the creation of the state-of-the-art testing lab and tracing program, and the ability to remain open and operational were sure signs of success for Dean and his fellow campus leaders.

Dean at commencement by Jeremy Gasowski
Jeremy Gasowski
And in much the same manner that the gravity of pandemic was crystallized on March 12, 2020, the achievement of the university making it through the worst of the crisis was evident more than a year later, on May 23, 2021, when 2020 graduates who had been sent home 14 months earlier returned to campus for what would be the last of the spring’s commencement ceremonies.

“Seeing all the students there, and that need for closure — it was so powerful,” Dean says. “That moment said to me that all the decisions we made were the right ones.”