Moving Forward Responsibly

May 20, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

Today’s inspiring and quite beautiful Commencement reminds us that with resilience and countless acts of generosity, the University has remained open and, to a surprising degree, energetic. Instruction has continued, student projects have advanced, networks have extended, measures of assistance have been enacted. Staff and faculty are working assiduously at home, often harder than ever, while others are navigating the city to protect and maintain the campus. Most notably, clinical care has courageously deepened, at no small human cost.

Moving as these achievements have been, no one would like to see anything but the return of vibrant and healthy density. During the past days, my in-box has filled with a series of significant questions that deal with this aspiration. Why is the University adopting a three-term model? How are the working groups proceeding to design the next phase as the pandemic winds down? How will the views of the larger Columbia community shape their recommendations? When can we expect more information?

The decision announced last week by President Bollinger to make flexible use of the Fall 2020, Spring 2021, and Summer 2021 terms is of pivotal significance. Many are curious about what this decision means both for the University and for their own situation.

Of course, any potential redistribution of teaching and learning across a longer arc of time generates issues that must be addressed—more on that in a moment—but this schedule for 2020-21 is designed to achieve three desirable outcomes: (1) ensure that a higher proportion of academic undertakings, especially teaching but also a wider range of intellectual and extracurricular interactions, can happen in person; (2) enhance health and safety by monitoring and controlling the speed at which we return to full campus life; and (3) advance the goal that plans being made by new and continuing students regarding the pace of their education will not be disappointed. 

Many questions follow, including these: How will courses and teaching effort be distributed across the three terms? With what combinations of virtual and face-to-face instruction? What is the appropriate sequencing of renewed campus life? How will year-long writing projects, field requirements, and patterns of summer internships be managed? 

We are a complex university. Our undergraduate colleges, and graduate and professional schools, including those offering clinical training, have a heterogeneous character and diverse needs. The three-term model thus will be implemented distinctively across these sites and within discrete programs. To this end, active consultations, discussions, and scenario planning have begun in each of our schools, and, where appropriate, across institutional lines (a key example is the active collaboration that is underway among Columbia College, SEAS, General Studies, and Barnard.)

These deliberations are being guided by questions and specifications generated by the Education Working Group, one of four currently at work to intensively plan details that will advance the human and physical renewal of our campus. Among other key matters, this group is focusing on technology innovations that can best support various forms of remote, in-person, and hybrid instruction.

As many of you know, there are three other working groups—Public Health, Facilities and Campus Life, and Research—that have begun to shape the details regarding how Columbia will be renewed responsibly. These advisory bodies, each meeting three times a week and closely sharing agendas and judgments, are systematically reviewing in real time what we most usefully can do to advance campus density safely. Public Health is providing guidance to inform the revitalization of activities within a risk matrix that is being applied by each school. Facilities is considering such basic matters as how physical facilities, from classrooms to bathrooms, can be rearranged to maximize safety. Research is steering the processes associated with a properly protected restoration of laboratory, clinical, and field investigations

These working groups report their findings and recommendations to deans and their schools and to the President’s Advisory Task Force on COVID-19 that meets almost every day to review how changes to the public health environment should condition the decisions we are taking. As much is not yet known about the rate at which we can progress, all of us with the responsibility to guide policymaking are proceeding with deliberation in a spirit of modesty.

The challenges every university faces at this moment in moving forward responsibly are intricate. Knowledge about COVID-19’s impact and future course is uneven and incomplete. It is premature to precisely project what campus life will be like at the opening of the fall term. We thus have set the start of July as a target for necessary judgments—every day brings more knowledge—but we cannot wait until then to enhance the prospects of a robust academic year. 

To that end, the active planning process will rely on consultation within our schools and with the University Senate, together with accelerated patterns of communication through regular messaging, town halls, and other means. As we renew the campus, placing safety first, we will, of course, give priority to immediate issues, but without losing sight of longer-term prospects for a university ever more alive to enlarged purposes and responsibilities. 


Looking forward,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History