May 27, 2020Dear Colleagues,
We took our campus apart in March. Now we begin to put it back together. Can we do so in a way that honors the academic values of Indiana University: honest debate, transparent discussion, critical thought, ethical behavior, and a belief in the power of education? In a pandemic that has become dishearteningly partisan, can we develop a vocabulary to discuss what is at stake and consider the actual alternatives we have?
Reasonable people can and do differ on our society’s multiple and often inconsistent responses to the pandemic, and I am clear that there is a range of reasonable disagreement about what IU should do. Ultimately, however, and with advice from all parts of the university, the President and the Trustees have made the considered decision to begin phasing in on-campus activities. For reasons I explain below, I agree with their determination. We now need to make decisions about how the campus will proceed.
What’s At Stake
As I see it, four broad categories are in play in considering how we move forward:
- the kind of institution we are and the difficulties, and in some cases the impossibilities, of doing our core work in a virus-induced diaspora;
- the nature of the risk posed by the virus;
- the possibilities of mitigating that risk in accordance with what is right and fair for our community; and
- the possibilities of tuning our response to take account of reasonable individual views of personal risk.
Let’s start from first principles: IU Bloomington is a particular kind of institution, one that is comparatively rare. No one in any other sector of our world does the kind of work we do at research-intensive, residentially-based universities. I believe so deeply in the mission of this kind of university that I, like many of you, have given my entire life to it. And the need to assemble is definitional for a university committed to research and residential education.
We do foundational research that advances the actual frontiers of knowledge, the kind of work on which all other advances are built. If humans solve the challenges posed by this virus, whether they be medical, social, behavioral, or equitable, it will doubtlessly be because of the foundations built within research universities. Much of what we do requires access to archives, studios, libraries, specialized equipment, collections, and laboratories—the very physical facilities that, with our classrooms, comprise a university of our kind. Without that access, much research grinds to a halt as does the education of the next generation of researchers and teachers, our graduate students. The creation of some kinds of knowledge stops altogether. The transmission of the skills necessary to create knowledge is seriously hampered. Much of what we lose is irretrievable, or retrievable only after making up for losses that might be measured in years, rather than weeks. A generation of graduate students fears losing its chance to enter the life it has worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, to achieve—the life we ourselves cherish—and they are justified in that concern.
In addition, our campus is founded on residential education. We believe in residential education because relationships among faculty, staff, and students catalyze intensive and powerful learning, for both undergraduate and graduate students. Students come from around the world to work with our faculty—particular faculty, actual individuals—and to study specific fields and disciplines that are unavailable elsewhere or available elsewhere with less quality and greater cost. The communities of learning that we create and nurture on our campus are precious, and the students who were forced from them last spring were anguished to lose them. We all were as well. For our students, however, at their stage of life, the necessary abandonment of our campus in the wake of the pandemic came with heartache and disruption that are difficult to comprehend. Students felt ripped from their community, their lives interrupted, and the lack of presence with their teachers and their classmates a horrible loss that made a frightening and anxious situation hard to bear. That loss was absolutely necessary, and universities were leaders in this country in recognizing and acting on the risks. But we need to face straightforwardly that for our students, this pandemic has been life-altering and life-defining, and a great many of them want desperately to return in some fashion. While a smaller number of students were technologically challenged in participating in class, many more were psychologically challenged by online education, and found it much more difficult to remain engaged and do their work, despite the incredible efforts of our instructors.
Beyond that, there are classes, and even whole disciplines and fields, like studio art, lab-based classes, and the performing arts, where the ability to do physical things using particular materials under supervision are at the core of advanced learning. That learning is compromised or made hugely less effective or impossible by a lack of physical presence.
So there are weighty values involved in deciding whether and how to bring our community back together again, and they are worth fighting for with every idea we can muster.
Finally, we must consider the broader context. Our state, our county, and our city are all easing the restrictions that went into place in March, in large part because we have been able to avoid the catastrophic overwhelming of our health care system that engulfed some other states. This was not just luck on Indiana’s part. Rather, many of the colleagues involved in Indiana University’s Restart Committee (the Hess Committee) were personally involved in helping Indiana’s governor and public health system think through the complicated questions that they faced. Dean Paul Halverson, of IU’s Fairbanks School of Public Health, in particular, was a leader in working closely with the state’s medical and public health officials, evaluating and organizing the data and creating the models that correctly predicted the path of the virus and successfully anticipated the needs of the hospital system. The Fairbanks School also organized the state’s first prevalence test, is involved in ongoing prevalence testing, and has been a continuous and virtuous presence in considerations about how to approach the difficult issues our state’s communities are facing, as have been the School of Public Health in Bloomington, the IU Schools of Medicine and Nursing, and our partners at IU Health, the state’s largest hospital system. I have watched these thoughtful colleagues work in the context of the university’s Executive Policy Group, on which I sit, and have been consistently impressed with the breadth of considerations—social, ethical, and behavioral, as well as medical—that inform their work.
In addition, most of higher education in Indiana has announced that it will offer some mix of residential and remote education in the fall. While we of course have to reach conclusions based on our situation, we are increasingly the outlier in our state.
So that is the broader landscape. How do we approach the path forward?
Framing the Alternatives and Planning for Life with the Virus
Let’s begin by stipulating that there is no alternative available to any of us that includes returning in August to a world that looks like it did a year ago. No set of considerations can begin without acknowledging that all of us must take regular actions to protect ourselves from the virus. Everything we do to put our university back together will involve some level of risk and some level of discomfort, which will not be uniformly borne across our community. Let’s not blink at what caused us to take the university apart in the first place. While all of medical science is focused on effective therapeutics and a vaccine, and there is promising news almost daily, most medical researchers say we cannot expect the latter in less than another year to eighteen months. Thus, we cannot take a decision today with the certainty that we can all go back to what preceded this virus in a week, a month, or even a year, if ever.
The alternatives we imagined in April, when I invited a group of 180 faculty, staff, and students to participate in 10 working groups (you can read working group reports here) to advise about how we can meet our mission of teaching, research, and service in the 2020-2021 academic year ranged from remaining dispersed indefinitely and teaching all of our courses again online, to assuming that we would be back without restriction. Those groups quickly recognized that with respect to our educational mission, the most likely scenario would involve some combination of residency and remoteness. Under the best of circumstances, we would have some students and members of our faculty and staff who could not return, for reasons related to health or family or restrictions on international travel, and for whom we would also need to plan.
Whether we could plan for any level of physical presence required as a prerequisite the best advice we could get from public health and medicine. Therefore, President McRobbie assembled a group led by Executive Vice President and Dean Jay Hess of the IU School of Medicine. That group included the deans of the two Schools of Public Health, and others at our partner IU Health. These colleagues have been deeply involved in helping our state refine its approach to the virus and the needs of our hospital systems. They made clear that comprehensive testing, coupled with some protocol for prevalence testing, is a prerequisite for any serious attempt to gain some physical purchase on any part of our mission. President McRobbie and IU Health’s CEO Dennis Murphy quickly created a comprehensive testing agreement for our entire community that uses the same protocol for our students, faculty, and staff that is used for all health care professionals in the IU Health system.
In addition, the university registrars, with the approval of the University Faculty Council, created an innovative calendar that takes us away from campus during the depths of the flu season, and meets all accreditation, Title IV (financial aid), and visa requirements. It provides flexibility for different curricular needs, and ensures that we will end all in-person instruction at Thanksgiving and not resume in-person instruction until February, to avoid dispersing and reassembling our students for holidays.
The Hess Report was released to the IU campus committees before it was released publicly, to ensure that their final reports would be able to take the report into account. In the Hess committee’s considered view, we can begin to phase in research and residential education with a long list of precautions, and with the willingness to step back away from campus if need be. In addition to pervasive testing, additional conditions for IU Bloomington include:
- a commitment to continued remote work for all who can do it to keep campus density lower than it would normally be;
- remote work for faculty and staff at higher risk of contracting or having complications from the virus or who are living with family members with such risks;
- the availability of online educational options for all students who want or need them;
- the use of the many mitigating strategies to which we are all becoming accustomed, including social distancing and masks, and others that are new, including plexiglass and barriers, with guidance from the Hess Report that the length and dose of exposure matters;
- the expectation that we will monitor carefully ourselves, and the prevalence of the virus, and be prepared to move away from our campus if appropriate.
Other groups, including Facilities Operations, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and University Purchasing, have been working on the long list of actions that would be necessary to implement the committee’s precautions: the acquisition of, and plans to distribute, PPE for all members of the campus community; the regimen of deep cleaning and the availability of cleaning materials that will be necessary; the analysis of all physical locations that could be used as classrooms, how they will look and feel with physical distancing, the technology available in those spaces; passing times between classes and limiting the direction and flow of people within buildings; how much of our curriculum we can or should fit into our existing physical space and what kinds of face-to-face educational activities should be prioritized; the myriad of questions about the residence halls, dining, transportation, and other units that support students on campus; and how we would isolate students who test positive, which is inevitable.
One group has been focused specifically on issues related to how best to meld people’s preferences and sense of security with the various modalities we have available to teach and do our other work. That group, led by Vice Provost and Grimshaw Professor of Sociology Eliza Pavalko, worked with Human Resources to assess all aspects of the experience so far with remote work through surveys of our staff and the union representatives, and worked with faculty members to provide a list of immediate next steps for a process within the College and schools to work individually with instructors to make individual and sensitive decisions about their course offerings.
There seems to be broad agreement that we should begin research activities on campus, with the appropriate precautions, next month. The Laboratory Research Committee, chaired by Vice President and Distinguished Professor Fred Cate and Vice President and Johnson Professor James Wimbush, and the campus Research Committee, Chaired by Associate Vice President and Vice Provost and Provost Professor Jeff Zaleski have a set of safety and education protocols that will make that possible with the procurement of PPE.
Facing and Meeting the Challenges Directly
The more difficult issues involve having students on campus, and for what activities, beginning in August.
Before I discuss what still needs to be done this summer, I want to deal directly with three issues that seem to me most immediately challenging in that latter context:
- Whether we can teach our students—or enough of them—to understand the enormity of the consequences of following the community-protective measures the Hess Report has outlined and how we manage the disconnect between the measures the committee tells us are necessary on campus and the lighter requirements off-campus;
- Whether teaching residentially at all is worth it under the constrained conditions of social distancing and PPE; and
- How do we manage the first few weeks around reassembling the community at the outset of the semester.
First, can we can teach our students to take seriously the consequences of failing to act responsibly, particularly when the surrounding areas will be operating under a different set of restrictions?
I begin by noting again that this is a life-defining crisis for our students. It has entirely driven them from the campus, for the most part back into their parents’ homes, where their futures are now deeply uncertain. I have seen messages that bluntly state that it is naïve or foolish to believe that we can educate our students around this virus. Of course young people on a college campus want to congregate and test boundaries, and I have also seen some criticism of the behavior of students who rode out the spring in their Bloomington rental properties, and much criticism of college students on spring break at the very outset of the pandemic. I do not consider these examples dispositive. This is because the campus has been largely physically closed and IU and our faculty and staff have not yet had the opportunity to engage in a serious effort to mount a comprehensive educational campaign directed at students, much less one that makes clear to students that the way they behave will directly affect whether we can remain physically open at all. And I will be equally blunt: We have never attempted such an educational campaign, using the full power of the faculty and staff, around anything so pressing. Some colleagues I respect deeply have already urged me to give up on residential education altogether without trying to mount such a campaign.
I will not do so. While I respect the views of those who believe this is too difficult an undertaking, I would ask in response what we owe to our students on this set of issues. Nothing in our students’ lives thus far has affected them in such a visible, direct, and life-altering way as this pandemic. The messages they are getting at the national level are confusing and contradictory. And those messages do not address the special circumstances of a residential college campus. We need to make clear that students’ access to the campus at all is something they will largely control through their behavior. We have had no reason yet, disassembled as we have been, to draw on students’ powerful feelings of care and empathy for each other, and for the faculty and staff of the campus.
We have an opportunity not only to teach students why we are approaching the issues in the way we are, but also to help them think more carefully and fully about responsibilities we owe to each other, in this and other situations; to put this crisis in the context of other crises that people their age have been asked to face and how those generations did so; and to solicit their questions and concerns about the extraordinarily confusing period they have been experiencing. We can call on their best selves, as teachers should always do. The educational possibilities of this moment are extraordinary. They are difficult, yes, but we teach students difficult concepts every single day. And we have access to all of the disciplines that could make this effort as effective as it is possible to make it. I am not ready to give up on our students and ourselves quite so quickly without enlisting the very best faculty and staff advice and knowledge we can muster.
The difference between the measures the Hess Report tells us are necessary on campus, and the ones that will be required in the community is a challenge. However, this challenge is intimately bound up with the first. Students (and all of us) learned early on that different and more stringent precautions are required in different settings (such as nursing homes or hospitals), and that understanding the reasons for requiring them on the campus and for protecting oneself in the community are part of the same larger set of educational goals.
The campus Student Life and Engagement Committee has done some terrific thinking about this set of issues, and is proposing a common commitment for all IU students focused on strategies to support community consensus around public health measures; a Canvas course to educate everyone about what this commitment involves; a website that will supplement the commitment with public health standards that might be changing rapidly; an educational approach to alleged violations focused on increasing compliance and retention of students; and other infrastructure to help the campus empower its community to respond quickly to instances in which the commitment has been disregarded. What the Student Life and Engagement Committee recommends is an utterly comprehensive effort, including families, students, faculty, staff, and our community partners.
I will convene as early as this week a group of faculty, staff, and students from every school and relevant discipline to consider both the Student Life and Engagement Committee’s report, and also how best to address this challenge through every innovative and creative way possible, using pervasive educational programming and classes that take students beyond the initial and basic issues to more complex thinking about this period in our world. I am not sanguine about the difficulty, but I am unwilling to start by assuming it insurmountable.
Second, is it worth having any residential education under conditions of social distancing?
We have learned a great deal about how to teach effectively online during the spring semester, and we have a great deal more to learn. The campus Strategic Space Utilization Committee’s analysis confirms that under conditions outlined in the Hess Report, we will need to mount a reduced in-person curriculum, choosing thoughtfully what we use the classroom for, and it is clear that many courses will remain online in the fall. It also recommends, correctly, that all courses that have in-person elements must be able to be offered both online and in person simultaneously.
The Academic Bridge Committee, in addition, makes a number of recommendations to ensure the quality of our remote learning, and to ensure that our undergraduate and graduate students who are prevented from returning or coming in the first place have online paths into their studies. Indeed, two separate committees looked at issues that are entirely online: what currently-residential academic programs might be activated online now, and how we can continue to offer the broad variety of precollege programs online to ensure that the students those programs serve also have access to them.
Given the constraints, is it worth having any residential education? Why not just go completely online and have no residential students rather than teach any courses under conditions of social distancing and PPE?
At least four considerations argue against that conclusion. First is the lack of any clear ending point for this approach. I began this letter with the reasons we value residential education. Those values have not disappeared or lessened with the pandemic, and we demonstrated this spring when protocols for protecting against infection were changing so rapidly that we could and would balance them against the utter uncertainty we faced on grounds of the health and safety of our community. But we have been told by serious thinkers that we can begin to bring students back with appropriate precautions. There is no vaccine, but there are ways to protect against infection that start with minimizing dose and length of exposure. That is what the Strategic Spaces committee, Facilities Operations, and the EOC have been working on for many weeks. Second is the difficulty, and sometimes impossibility, of completely remote teaching in some of the disciplines and professions we offer. I asked a special committee to take on these issues with the charge that we would provide any support or equipment that could reasonably be mustered to continue online if necessary. Even with deep thought and great leadership, the committee made clear that for many programs, there is no safe or educationally sound substitute for presence on campus in specialized facilities. While the safe use of those facilities is likewise daunting, it can be accomplished and there is frankly no alternative to accomplishing it except shutting down huge swaths of programs, thus delaying or even aborting students’ graduations and professional plans. And third, while teaching in a socially-distanced way with PPE may be uncomfortable and will be initially awkward, our entire lives are being conducted in that same manner for the foreseeable future. Fourth, many of our students have struggled, even with great effort on our part, without a physical learning community. For many students, particularly for those who are first-generation or challenged by financial equity issues, the lack of such a learning community might make the difference between graduating or leaving altogether.
Finally, there is the question of how to get through the first part of the great reassembling. The Hess Report has given us initial guidance on phasing in our student life, but this will require much more thought and work before August, particularly by Residential Programs and Services. That group has the Hess Report and is working on a plan to implement this part of its recommendations.
I want to close on a personal note. With apologies to many of my dearest colleagues whose passions are intense, and recognizing the heresy of my peculiarities on a Big 10 campus, those who know me well know that with the exception of a certain professional baseball team, I am the most tepid and ill-informed of sports fans. I have always found one line in our fight song curious, slightly amusing, vaguely antique: “Never daunted, we cannot falter.” And yet, for weeks, I have not been able to get it out of my head. We have been daunted, collectively, as a people by this pandemic. But we have also risen with courage and grace and ingenuity to a huge number of challenges. We kept almost all of our students on track for graduation. We did the best we could in difficult circumstances, because we care as much as it is possible to care about the work we, and only we, can do. As a university, we have not faltered.
It will be hard work to reassemble the incredibly beautiful and profoundly important institution we all care about so much and to approach with collegiality and courage and good will the inevitable disagreements and tentativeness around the steps we are facing. But the need to assemble is definitional for a university committed to research and residential education. If we can do it, we must.