Video transcript

May 22, 2020

Hi. I’m David Harris, President of Union College. It is my pleasure to provide this fourth and final update from the Planning for Multiple Tomorrows Working Group.

The PMT completed its work today. For the past month, the group has met for two hours every weekday morning. We’ve had many conversations about difficult issues, but also lighter moments between students, faculty, and staff. One of my favorite parts of each week has been our Friday meetings, where our first agenda item is sharing something that brought us joy that week, PMT or otherwise.

I am inspired by PMT members’ ability to hear one another, and our community, and to understand that there are no easy answers to this dynamic set of challenges. Importantly, PMT remained true to its charge, always keeping our overarching goals in mind: safeguarding the health and wellbeing of our campus community and surrounding communities; completing the 2020-21 year while remaining true to Union College’s core mission and vision; and ensuring the short- and long-term financial sustainability of the College. PMT’s focus has been on August 1 through next summer. There are ongoing administrative conversations about when and how we can reopen the campus to faculty and staff, given State guidelines.

The core of PMT’s work was identifying a number of scenarios, and assessing the opportunities and challenges associated with each. Critically, the PMT was able to engage in conversations that were unusually frank, constructive, deep, and broad. For example, we developed a deep understanding of the hopes and fears of students, faculty, staff, and parents through town halls, a survey, small group conversations, emails, and one-on-one conversations. We developed a broad understanding of how realizing hopes and mitigating fears is impacted by a complex set of interconnected factors, including our calendar, our mission, our facilities, our culture, our choices, and our risk tolerances. Understanding what can be rethought, even temporarily, was the subject of work within and across the five PMT subgroups, as well as through interactions with campus and external partners.

Over the coming weeks, the PMT’s deep conversations and nuanced recommendations will inform our decisions about the 2020-21 academic year. We will announce our plans by the end of June. Success will be measured by what we are able to achieve throughout the coming year. In addition to discussing these scenarios with the community as a whole and in subgroups, we will engage the existing governance and advisory bodies. Decisions will be guided by a number of factors, including:

  1. The fundamental goals established for the PMT – safety, mission, and financial sustainability.
  2. New York State’s guidance on reopening higher education. Through the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU), the College contributed to recommendations that were shared with the State. We are anticipating State guidance in early June that will affect when and how residential higher education can reopen in New York.
  3. As we and others have stated repeatedly, we cannot return to a residential model unless periodic, reliable, and rapid diagnostic and antibody testing are available for all members of our community. In addition, returning and completing each term will depend on effective contact tracing—partnering with the Schenectady County Health Department to identify individuals who may have been exposed to the virus, as well having sufficient and appropriate quarantine spaces for affected community members who cannot go home.

Last, let me say a bit about some of the scenarios we explored, and let me note that there are many ways the scenarios can be modified and combined. First:

1. We could suspend all courses until January 2021

  • As I have observed in previous messages, there is every reason to believe that the risks associated with COVID-19 will be at least as great in January as they will be in September. Even if treatment or a vaccine are identified far sooner than anticipated, it will take time to complete testing and production.
  • There is also the risk that a COVID-19 second wave will occur in late 2020, which is one of the reasons why this week, you’ve seen a number of schools announce that their changing their calendars and starting earlier so that they can complete the residential component of their fall terms by Thanksgiving.

2. We could pursue remote or online education for a term or even the whole year

  • The important distinction is that a remote term involves moving courses that were created for a face-to-face term to a virtual mode.
  • An online term means that courses were designed with the expectation that they would be conducted virtually.
  • An online term is far more consistent with our academic goals than is a remote term. With the additional planning time available to faculty for the coming fall term, in contrast to the rapid transition that occurred in March, we would be able to offer more online courses.
  • We appreciate that even a full range of exceptional online courses would not replace critical elements of a full residential experience, and so neither online nor remote are our preferred options.

3. We could pursue a phased approach that would provide all students with the opportunity to be on campus for the equivalent of three terms during the 2020-21 academic year.

  • This scenario has many versions but let me just describe two.
  • In one, some number of students are on campus for one of two compressed terms that are held during the traditional fall, winter and spring terms (i.e., Fall A, Fall B, Winter A, Winter B, Spring A, Spring B).
  • In the other version, all students are on campus for three of four terms—fall, winter, spring, summer.
  • When students are not on campus taking residential classes, they participate in some number of engaging online educational and enrichment activities. Some will be for credit, and others will help students develop competencies that are critical to realizing their full potential across multiple tomorrows.
  • Both versions have the advantage of substantially reducing the number of people on campus, thereby enabling lower density in residence halls, academic buildings, common spaces, and other facilities. They also reduce the number of people who would be impacted by any infections that occur on campus.
  • Phased approaches require that we identify engaging opportunities for students when they are not on campus, and creates challenges for students who need to be on campus for more of the academic year due to academic, athletic, or other commitments, or for whom going home during the academic year is not feasible. They could also create substantial challenges for faculty and staff who might be engaged in teaching and direct student support at more intense levels or for more of the year than is typical.

4. We could just all return to campus albeit with significant changes to behavior and operations

  • It is clear that if we can create and sustain an environment without excessive risk, returning is the preferred option for almost every member of our community.
  • The challenges are in creating and sustaining an environment where real and perceived risks are low.

We recognize there is a risk of infection in any scenario that includes returning to campus. We know that a “new normal” requiring substantial, ubiquitous social distancing and perhaps some online activities, does not align with our traditional conception of a Union experience. We also know that discomfort doesn’t mean we can’t pivot. Union will look different. Union will feel different. We will have to stretch in ways we haven’t had to previously. We’re going to need to be much more flexible no matter what we do. We’re are going to break down silos and look after and care for one another in ways that have never had such importance or gravity. We’re likely going to have to be patient for a time until all members of this community can be together on this campus. We will also have to appreciate that, in the spirit of multiple tomorrows, conditions could change this summer or even during the academic year that yet again test our ability to be flexible while never losing sight of the core mission and core values of this College. We will need to muster more wisdom, more empathy, and more courage than we perhaps thought we had.

If the many hours I have spent with the PMT and our community over the past month have taught me anything, and I can assure you they have taught me a lot, it is that empowering and hearing our students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and friends are the keys to our future success. We may be 225 years old, but we’re just getting started.

As always, have a safe and joyful day. I look forward to seeing you soon.

  • May 15, 2020

    Hello. I’m David Harris, President of Union College. It is my pleasure to provide this week’s update from the Planning for Multiple Tomorrows Working Group.

    This week we hosted four town hall meetings attended by hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and parents. We fielded our first campus community survey. The PMT continued to meet daily, and heard from campus experts during subgroup meetings. I remain encouraged by the level of interest and participation by our community. I have every confidence that we are one of the places that will identify and implement creative, effective solutions to a vexing set of challenges.

    Allow me to say a bit more about a couple of recurring points from this week’s interactions. First, the survey showed something that was already clear to us -- many in our community are experiencing significant stress. I want to say first and foremost: We hear you and recognize this is not easy. The health and financial risks associated with COVID-19, as well as uncertainty about what comes next, is unsettling for us all. I want you to know that we will announce our fall plans as soon as we can, likely by the end of June. Announcing sooner might reduce the stress associated with uncertainty, but given that information about the effects of COVID-19, the availability of high-quality testing, infection rates, disease spread, and effective ways to prevent spread continues to change on a daily basis, there is a trade-off between deciding soon and deciding well. Wicker Wellness is working with students. We encourage faculty and staff to avail themselves of our Employee Assistant Plan resources.

    Second, our community wants desperately to return to campus. The survey and town halls reinforce that most do not see online as consistent with our core mission. Online also creates substantial challenges for some students, faculty, and staff, especially those who have young children, lack a quiet work space at home, have learning differences, or cannot pursue key aspects of their jobs remotely. You want to come back, and we want to see you here. At a personal level, I am eager to resume my private game of concentration, of which I play many rounds every day as I walk across campus—seeing a person walking towards me and trying to match the face with a name, a conversation, an event we shared together. I look forward to resuming this and many other activities soon.

    Third, there is general consensus in our community that we cannot return unless it is safe to do so. That does not mean no risk of infection, but rather that the risk reasonable.

    Union must prioritize safety as part of our return to campus. The PMT is working hard every day to identify what we can do to make campus as safe as possible. We’re looking at ways to reduce the number of people on campus at any given time, and to hold classes and gatherings in spaces that enable social distancing. We’re thinking creatively about how limited use of online technologies can advance our academic mission, advance our emerging residential curriculum, and sustain community. We’re exploring options for housing and dining that will limit the spread of the virus. We’re talking with experts on ventilation as part of an effort to make the best and safest use of our facilities. We’re also discussing ways to accommodate students, faculty, and staff who are reluctant to return to campus due to their health conditionss, or those of a family member. We’re securing personal protective equipment for our community. These are but a few examples of how we will make a campus that’s safe place to pursue a residential model.

    But that is only part of what is required to create an environment that addresses understandable and legitimate safety concerns. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about driving and safety. You might think that’s odd, and you might think that I should be spending more time thinking about COVID-19 and safety—I assure you I’m thinking about that as well. But stick with me here for a minute. Driving is an activity that involves risk. We all know this, but we usually don’t think about it unless there are dangerous conditions. It is at those times that we do at least three things. First, we ask if our trip is important, or whether it could wait until conditions improve. Second, we ask if we and our vehicle are prepared for the conditions – all-wheel drive, tires with sufficient tread, windshield washer fluid, sufficient experience with the conditions. Last, we consider who else is on the road, and whether they are likely to put us at risk.

    I’d say that what we do at Union is undoubtedly worth the trip. I’m more sure of that every day, as I hear from students, faculty, and staff who want to get back to campus. I also say that we’ll do everything we can to ensure that the campus is ready for your return. The third part is a shared responsibility, and it reminds me of both the Union College Challenge and an article by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker that we discussed this week in the PMT, and that’s available on the PMT website.

    Completing the fall and the year on campus will depend on all of us becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. It will require prioritizing not only our own health and wellbeing, but also the health and wellbeing of every other member of our community. It will require wearing masks, when we might prefer not to. It will require not engaging in some group activities that have been important parts of a Union College experience. It will mean abiding by other changes. It will mean providing others in the community with reasons to trust that we are all doing our part to keep the campus safe, so that we can resume as many of our traditional activities as soon as the conditions will permit.

    We will be working hard over the coming weeks to refine our plans and share them with the community. We will also be working with our community to begin preparing now for what will be required when we return. As part of that effort we released a video today on social media with students discussing why they wear masks. Please look for additional messaging in the coming weeks, and please continue becoming comfortable with safe practices.

    As always, have a safe and joyful day. I look forward to seeing you soon.