One year in, better days on the horizon
Looking back to last March, we’ve come a long way as a community. This month marks one year since the pandemic began to have its most direct impacts on the Vanderbilt campus, upending our lives both on campus and beyond in unmeasurable ways. Importantly, the pandemic also made more visible the inequities, racial injustices and political unrest that continues to plague us.
Over the past twelve months, we were all faced with one difficult decision after another. From the beginning of the need for containing the spread of COVID-19 and through continuing societal challenges, we knew we had to keep our research and scholarship progressing, and we knew we had to continue serving our students.
At no turn did we take the easy path.
We put in the hard work to develop protocols and processes to ramp-up research again when conditions would permit, and while we innovated in real time on how to move to completely alternative virtual teaching platforms, we also tackled how to make in-person teaching as safe as possible for the fall semester and how to build on our values. Again, what we have accomplished was not the easy path. True to our One Vanderbilt spirit, we put our heads down and got to work in every corner of the university, completely reimagining how to teach and learn and how to continue discovering and creating. By focusing on our mission, we also grew stronger in addressing inclusion and belonging with critical actions. Though our work is not done, what we have accomplished matters.
The many changes needed to operate during the pandemic and to embrace our community required your countless hours of devoted effort and planning, as examples:
- Adapting instruction modalities to include both remote students and students learning in person in a physically distanced manner.
- Launching a new Public Health Command Center to establish public health safety protocols, lead university testing strategies as well as contact tracing and isolation programs.
- Reorganizing the academic calendar to meet learning objectives and accreditation standards while limiting travel and off-campus exposure risks as much as possible.
- Transitioning to a remote workforce and redeploying staff to new units to help respond to areas and activities with increased need due to the constraints of the pandemic.
- Adapting student, staff, postdoc and faculty programming to allow for community building on our residential campus even under COVID-19 safety protocols.
- Expanding and modifying mental health and wellness resources to meet the needs of students, staff, postdocs and faculty in response to the stress, anxiety and emotional challenges brought on by the pandemic and racial injustice, as well as establishing hardship funds and the Employee COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to address those with financial needs.
Offering all of our students the opportunity to return to campus for the fall semester was a massive undertaking. The collaborative commitment and hard work by so many people needs to be continually acknowledged. Diligent attention and adherence to these new methods led to no known transmissions of COVID-19 in our classrooms and research spaces during the summer and fall of 2020, giving us the ability to continue providing in-person instruction and keep research progressing through this spring 2021 semester.
I acknowledge that it was often a bumpy path that led to our accomplishments so far; however, we learned together and made adjustments along the way. Over the past year, we have all also grieved in one way or another, whether from the tragic loss of loved ones and friends, the loss of the sources of joy found in our pre-covid lives from celebrations, gatherings or travel, or simply being unable to regain a sense of normalcy. It is crucial to recognize these highly unusual stresses and be intentional with spending time on wellness and supporting our community. We owe this to ourselves and each other, given all the past 12 months have brought to bear.
With vaccine distribution ramping up, I do see better days on the horizon. I was also heartened by the perspectives that Drs. Mark Denison, Kathleen Neuzil and Barney Graham shared during this week’s Chancellor’s Lecture Series. Their leadership in battling this pandemic, and the efforts of so many other Vanderbilt alumni and current faculty, staff and students, brings further hope. I’m also very proud that we are honoring Graham, PhD’91, with this year’s Vanderbilt Distinguished Alumnus Award. He is an outstanding physician, immunologist, virologist and leader, and his contributions toward the development of COVID-19 vaccines have touched millions of people across the nation and around the world.
Our progress over this year gave us the confidence to make plans to hold in-person Commencement ceremonies in May. While the ceremonies may not look like our traditional Commencement, our ability to host an event resembling in any form that of years past will be an accomplishment in itself. Here once more, a tremendous amount of collaborative, campus-wide teamwork is now underway to take the actions needed. I am grateful to all for helping make this most cherished tradition—the manifestation of our values as a university—a reality.
Looking toward the fall, I again see every member of our community stepping up to be a leader. As announced yesterday, for the fall semester, most if not all classes will be held in person (with the exception of those degree programs normally in alternative formats). However, it is unlikely that the university will be operating fully in pre-pandemic conditions. Face masks might still be required, and physical distancing might be reduced before it is removed altogether. There may also be some new approaches deployed this past year that the university will want to adopt long term; for example, virtual town halls, office hours and even events like Open Dore on Location held by Zoom, all of which proved to be more inclusive. What I do know is that if Vanderbilt continues to work together, the process of healing and restoring this community on all levels and staying united amidst divisive pressures will continue. Together, this will further the university’s mission as a leading research university that provides an excellent residential education experience.
Again, my gratitude for your devotion over the past year to get us to the bright horizon ahead.
Susan R. Wente
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
COVID-RELATED QUICK LINKS
Faculty Return to Campus
Staff Return to Campus
Faculty Adaptive Teaching Resources
Public Health Command Center