Questions for the Future

Last November’s issue of Colgate Magazine arrived in mailboxes slightly later than anticipated due to, of all things, a paper shortage. This is not merely a problem experienced by our printer but an industrywide challenge, the latest in a series of supply chain difficulties triggered by the pandemic. More disruptions than the limited supply of paper occurred throughout the fall semester, most significantly with the struggles to staff the University’s operations. In a number of divisions within the University, empty positions slowed down operations and placed significant burdens on staff members who remained in understaffed areas.  

We must admit that this pandemic has affected our academic community in profound ways that go far beyond the delivery times of our publications. It has tested the boundaries of our compassion and our ability to demonstrate wisdom under extreme stress. At press time, the appearance of the omicron variant and the knowledge that this is only halfway through the Greek alphabet remind us that it is too early to say that all immediate danger has subsided. 

We have found success, however, in relying on vaccinations and masking, and we have remained operational. This has allowed our community the luxury — or the obligation — to ask, “How have we changed, what does it all mean, and what are the implications?”

There are, of course, hundreds of such questions. What follows is a brief look at four of these questions.  I cannot fully answer these now, but we must begin to think through their implications straightaway. I offer them as matters for us to consider together.

First, What Will It Mean to Work at Colgate?

What about the world of work? What does it mean to work on a campus? Through the most turbulent moments of the pandemic, New York State provided the answer to this question for Colgate and for all New York colleges and universities: All nonessential workers were to stay remote. With the reopening of the state, the University required that most employees return to campus unless there were compelling personal or medical reasons to prevent it. 

We are a residential university, and we believe that the true Colgate experience takes place when people gather together. We must be together. We gather not out of habit — because it is what we have always done — but because this is the best way to teach, learn, and discover how to be empathetic in relation with others. These interactions are not confined to the classroom but take place in residence halls, dining halls, on fields and courts, and countless other spaces up and down the Hill. Consequently, professors and students as well as support staff must be here in Hamilton. This core truth will not change. 

But as the nation and the world embrace remote work — or as people require it due to their personal situations — how will we accommodate the needs of our employees and assist in the challenges of managing their responsibilities by relying on technology as appropriate? What will it mean for our own in-person operations when central New York workers could be hired as telecommuting employees of the largest (or even smallest) enterprises in Silicon Valley?

We will always remember that Colgate is its people, and our mission is fundamentally different from that of other industries, requiring a physical presence in this beautiful place, but those who consider their own careers will have before them new options and new possibilities that we must recognize.

How Will We Teach and Learn?

The pandemic changed our perceptions of remote and asynchronous teaching. It showed us the potential of engaging across distance and time. It also underscored what cannot be done with technology. 

When the University went remote in 2020, we were already familiar with Zoom and operated an online portal for coursework among many other electronic resources. In order to support the increased demand on our network bandwidth in a remote scenario, we strengthened our physical infrastructure of nodes and cables and unleashed the full creativity of the Center for Learning, Teaching, and Research — the office that partners staff and faculty in the pursuit of best practices for the transmission of knowledge. Before long, faculty were gathering at online roundtables to present the ways in which they were using additional technology to facilitate conversations in class, from software packages that allowed students to read and mark up texts as a group to the creation of research-based podcasts and implementation of specialized grading software. Scholars and thinkers from around the world could “visit” many of our classes simply by clicking on their computers in Los Angeles, Sydney, or Nairobi. 

And still these marvels that allowed us to persevere — and even enhance learning — were not full replacements for gathering around a table in Lathrop or enjoying an informal conversation with a colleague in a hallway of the Ho Science Center. The sharing of a random thought, a sudden flash of inspiration, or a spontaneous word of support does not take place on Zoom. 

We are a residential university, and we believe that the true Colgate experience takes place when people gather together. 

These technologies, however, will not go away. Nor should they. How they will be part of learning at Colgate will be a matter before us for years to come.

How Will We Engage the World?

What does the pandemic’s change mean for Colgate’s long-standing commitment to engagement with the world? The landscape of international engagement has been utterly transformed, and that landscape continues to look unsettled. This has massive implications for our faculty as well as our students.

A college president hesitates to rank the most troubling moments of a crisis, but the overnight withdrawal of our study groups from nations around the world in 2020 will live in my memory alongside countless other concerns that we addressed in those early days of the pandemic. Ever since, our Office of Off-Campus Study has maintained relationships and the full intention to return our students to partner institutions under the guidance of Colgate faculty members as soon as it is safe and possible. When students are unable to study ecology in one country, we look for similar opportunities in another. When there is a last-minute program cancellation, we will see to it that housing and robust academic experiences continue here in Hamilton for those students on a moment’s notice. But flexibility will be required. The study group tradition will continue, but we will have to remain agile.

For faculty, the closed borders had additional implications. For a large percentage of our faculty, research requires travel to archives, laboratories, election sites, and other universities. How can we keep the richness of our faculty’s research supported — research that supports excellent teaching — when the fundamental way research is undertaken is uncertain and might be so for months to come? 

How Will We Stay Well?

What does pandemic change mean for mental health care, a growing demand on college campuses across the nation? Even prior to the pandemic, the need for mental health care services was growing. The current generation of students arriving in Hamilton is more aware of mental health issues and less reluctant to request treatment than students in prior generations. Many have engaged in treatment at home, and, much as we provide a continuation of physical care, it is important to provide a similar continuation of mental health care to ensure that our students have every chance to focus on the demands we place upon them as scholars, student-athletes, researchers, performers, and active members of a large and creative community. 

We were already in the process of increasing our capacity to address aspects of mental health when the pandemic arrived, bringing with it a significant rise in demand for already needed mental wellness services. Colgate engaged a telepsychiatry partner to assist both with the volume of requests and the diversity of our providers. We have augmented group therapy options, and we continue to make mental health a topic of conversation in outreach to students rather than simply waiting for them to go to Conant House because the thought arises organically.  

But we have a generation of students on our campus, and arriving soon, for whom the pandemic has been a significant cause for true distress. We will not completely know the impact of this crisis on our students’ well-being for years to come. But we must now find ways to support our students in a changed, and stressful, world.

The Sense of Place

We could spend many a Reunion College forum talking about all the ways in which the University has changed in light of the pandemic. And, as I noted above, the changes will take years to become fully manifested. I do think, however, that in some profound way, Colgate as a place — a place one comes to as a student or staff member, a place where scholars come to make their intellectual home, a place to which alumni return — will remain a constant. Throughout the pandemic, even as things were changing dramatically, I always felt that this sense of place, the beauty and purpose of this campus, was somehow a solid constant. I suspect this will remain true for decades to come.

In crises it is important to consider what is most important as well as what is true. That is what will be before all of us at Colgate as we continue to serve our mission and our community.