Dear Union College Community,
What a year it has been for all of us.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic I have asserted repeatedly that we would emerge even stronger than before. Today, I am more confident than ever. Why? Look at what we accomplished over the past year together: nothing less than reinventing a 226-year institution to operate remotely for a term, and then in a hybrid mode for a year, during a global pandemic.
But our goal this year was not simply to survive the pandemic, but to find new and creative ways to thrive. Our accomplishments are directly attributable to the simple fact that everyone at Union sacrificed this year in ways large and small, but also that we all focused on the big picture. Thank you.
A feeling of joy
As we have completed the academic year and held not one but two in-person commencements, I can’t help but notice feelings of joy and relief across our community. Thanks to a combination of hard work and more favorable COVID guidelines, our beautiful campus came alive with outdoor activities this spring. Pride Fest, Taiko drumming, Shakti dance, Lobsterfest and numerous other events were reminders that we are approaching normal. There were impromptu gatherings at picnic tables, fire pits and Adirondack chairs. And it was a pleasure this spring to cheer our student athletes as they returned to intercollegiate competition.
This video provides a small window into the appreciation expressed by members of our community who benefited from all of our hard work and determination.
Recognizing achievement and commitment
In this extraordinary year, our faculty continue to play leadership roles in advancing their fields. To name a couple recent distinctions, Shena McAuliffe, assistant professor of English, received the Pushcart Prize for her essay, "Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure," one of 16 essays in her collection, Glass, Light, Electricity. Mark Dallas, associate professor of political science and Asian studies and director of Asian studies, has received a prestigious one-year fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations to examine the globally integrated 5G telecommunications ecosystems and the changes to U.S.-China relations over technology, such as in semiconductors.
In May, five faculty members – all women – were granted tenure and promoted to associate professor by the College’s Board of Trustees: Ellen Gasparovic, Mathematics, Jennifer Mitchell ’04, English and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Nelia Mann, Physics and Astronomy, Laini Nemett, Visual Arts, Heather Watson, Physics and Astronomy. These exceptional teachers and renowned and nationally recognized scholars and artists in their fields will now be long-term members of our Union community.
We honored students in two traditional – though still virtual – events: Prize Day and Steinmetz Symposium. I was proud to present the Daggett and Bailey Prizes to Sarah Vanasse '21 and Ty Eddington '21, respectively. These two student leaders have made immense contributions to the intellectual and social life of Union. Without an in-person Steinmetz, we were treated to a pair of synchronous webinars. One focused on race, power and privilege. The other was a research seminar on nanomaterials in memory of Prof. Michael Hagerman, a popular champion of undergraduate research who sadly passed away in December. For our employees, we recognized their years of service in a creative and fun project that brought treats and lawn signs to their homes and offices.
Exploring challenging issues
At a time when our nation is reckoning with racial, social and economic injustice, our community has been engaging over these and other challenging issues. Through programs like our Forum on Constructive Engagement and Congress to Campus, we have explored police reform, racial justice, voter participation, gun control, activism and student leadership.
Last year, I announced the Presidential Initiative on Race, Power and Privilege to find ongoing, purposeful and diverse opportunities for our community to move toward positive change. Though there is much to do, we have made significant progress. We have a four-member Diversity Leadership Team to create a broad-based approach to enhancing diversity and inclusion. A committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is assessing and implementing initiatives aimed at building a more inclusive campus culture. A History and Symbols Committee is examining how our spaces, symbols and monuments reflect who we are. The committee, senior staff and trustees have endorsed a proposal to restore and relocate the Idol, an ancient Chinese statue. In consultation with student leaders, another object will be selected over the summer and installed to allow the painting tradition to continue. There will be additional programming in the fall addressing the Idol and its history at Union.
Among many events organized by our Office of Title IX, Sexual Assault Awareness Month under the theme of “U & Me” and a year-long partnership with student leaders to create the “Eliminate the X” series, were reminders that all members of the Union community have a responsibility to avert and eradicate sexual violence and harassment.
The road ahead
Our Feigenbaum Forum on Innovation and Creativity this spring focused on lessons learned in higher education’s response to the pandemic and what these forced experiments tell us about what can work in the future. Planning for Multiple Tomorrows (PMT21), a working group of students, faculty and staff, surveyed the campus community, looked at emerging trends, and offered recommendations to senior staff on how Union can shift to become a more flexible, agile and enjoyable living-learning-working environment. We are already working on developing policies related to the continued use of new technologies as a complement to our residential model.
After the pandemic, Union and all of higher education will be left to face significant challenges that affect admissions, giving and budgets. To meet these challenges, last fall we launched the Administrative Excellence Project to address substantial, long-term challenges associated with the effectiveness and efficiency of our administrative processes and systems. I thank everyone who participated in this important work to identify Union’s strengths and weaknesses.
In recent days, as we have been able to relax COVID-19 restrictions and plan for the fall, we look forward to full in-person learning on campus. All members of the campus community, including temporary employees, will be required to be fully vaccinated. In addition, we will be implementing some of the lessons learned from remote work as we launch a new flexible work policy. More details will be available in the coming weeks.
Besides resuming “normal” life at our residential college, we have much to anticipate. We are planning for the Templeton Institute for Engineering and Computer Science, made possible by a generous gift of $51 million from 1980 graduates Rich and Mary Templeton. In January, the Templetons announced another $1.4 million gift to provide scholarships for women in engineering and computer science.
The Templeton Institute Planning Committee, chaired by Prof. Jennifer Currey, has been working on the scoping and planning for what will be a transformational program to promote campus-wide and community access to engineering and computer science. Composed of faculty and staff from across the College, the committee has been working in three subgroups to develop ideas around Civil/Environmental Engineering; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Programming. A search for the inaugural director is set to begin next year.
Faculty this fall will consider a new model for General Education that will include a first-year course on critical thinking, inquiry and analysis. Other courses will emphasize two areas: Race, Power and Privilege; and Global Challenges.
A new residential curriculum will provide a blueprint to help students gain competencies outside the classroom. This exciting new program aims to help students develop well-being and life skills, cross-cultural competencies, decision making skills, a sense of community involvement and an ability to reflect on their life’s journey.
Reflection and gratitude
After this year of disruption and remarkable resilience I hope you have time to relax, recharge and reflect on the amazing accomplishments we have achieved as a community and how much we have learned. I am looking forward to our return this fall with our health, full enrollment and a sound financial outlook. I am thankful to all members of the Union community who with wisdom, empathy and courage have helped us to emerge from a challenging year even stronger than before. We could not have done it without you.
David R. Harris