As September begins and, yes, the air in upstate New York starts to show a little crispness, I’m struck by what an unusual start of school this pandemic fall presents. Russell Sage students are back on campus and classes are meeting, but more are online; some students and faculty are wholly remote; most classes are hybrid combinations of in-person and distant modalities; and campus interactions are masked and socially distant. Above all, we know we are experimenting with whether this project can work and keep us safely operational through the academic year.

The first week is a mix of successes and struggles. Students seem eager to be here and cooperativewith the strictures of pandemic protocols—but not uniformly, and there are a few behavioral lapses that, while perfectly predictable, are frustrating just the same. We also know that our experiment is being played out on campuses across the state and the country—and our results will be just a small piece of a larger overall story of modified resumption of activities in the pandemic.

In that context, I gave a very different address to the faculty and staff of our college on “opening day.” Here’s an excerpt:

Welcome back to this strangest of school years, this virtual “opening day.” We embark today on a difficult adventure of providing our students a worthwhile and formative collegiate experience in the midst of a global pandemic that currently shows no signs of abating. To do this has required much preparation, creativity and flexibility exhibited by everyone here today. We are working in a new and uncertain environment as part of a society-wide experiment in being open while mitigating risk.

If I have some messages to share today, it is these four points:

  • We are rightly thinking that the education of college students is an “essential business,” something that requires of us extraordinary effort and some degree of courage mixed with prudence and caution.
  • At the heart of our enterprise are our students, who want their educational plans to advance and who are choosing an attenuated in-person experience over an entirely on-line one or a hiatus from college.
  • Every one of us is under unusual stress from the increased demands of our jobs, the uncertain and changing environment, the dangers of COVID-19, the traumatized economy, and the fraught and divisive political environment. We need to be kind and supportive to one another and share techniques for flourishing under difficult conditions.
  • We are an educational institution, and this is a profoundly educational moment—for all of us but, especially, for our students.

Reading these notes, I see that the word “education” does, as they say, a lot of work in that list. I mean three different things by “education” here:

  1. The literal subject matter of our courses. Whether we are in-person, online, hybrid or hyflex, as an institution we must be driven by our passion for and subjugation to knowledge–for faculty, our passion for and subjugation to what we teach. Our courses are not finally about us; they are about something we serve and have served since our days in graduate school. I trust that our faculty will, despite the difficulties of this time, be driven by the rich and powerful what of what we teach. Once we are in the classroom engaging genetics, or pediatric medicine, or constitutional law, or nineteenth-century literature, the masks and Plexiglas and microphones will be secondary to the primary mission that energizes us.
  2. Second is something much more mundane that I need to ask of the faculty. The success of our reopening plan depends on various things, some of which are out of our control. One of those things is the behavior of our students and their willingness to make some sacrifices to protect our health, our operations, and ultimately their experience. We are reaching out to students to educate them about behavior in multiple ways. You’ll see some of our short films on social media and on the video monitors on our campuses. We’ve held forums and orientations, with more orientations to come. We’ve modified the code of conduct to cover violations of COVID protocols. We’ve sent out newsletters through the summer and posted items on the COVID web page. A lot of the talents of our folks in communications, admissions and student life have supported this effort.

    But we need more. We need the faculty to spend some time in class talking candidly to students about what is at stake in the basic precautions — sure, the hand sanitizing, the mask-wearing, the social distancing — but also the trickier stuff: keeping a distance in social and recreational activities, forgoing parties, those super-spreader events, and staying home when sick. I need you to engage intelligently with them because you have their attention and respect. They don’t always open their emails, but (for the most part), they show up in class. Take some time at the beginning of class and at various points throughout the term to engage them in being thoughtful about these challenges—for their responsibility to others and for their self-interest in not wanting to finish the term in their bedroom at their parents’ home. That self-interest is on their minds: our students have told us that they are willing to make sacrifices so that they do not finish the term from their laptops.
  3. But there is also that other phrase: “Their responsibility to others.” That’s the third and ultimate educational point I want to stress, and this is for all of us as educators: staff, administration and faculty. The unseen pandemic is a brutal lesson in our responsibility for others and our individual vulnerability to others. We are reminded every day that individual actions, exerted collectively, can make an enormous difference. Wearing a mask in a time of contagion is one example. The collective actions of New York Strong that brought our horrific case total down are another which we have all lived through. And as I encourage our students to vote in the upcoming election, along with our Sage Votes taskforce, I’m reminded that casting a vote is also an individual action that finds its meaning in collective behavior.

This is the 100th anniversary of the passing of the nineteenth amendment that guaranteed the vote for women in the year of Russell Sage College’s first full graduating class, a class that was at Russell Sage during the Spanish Influenza, an epidemic of similar world-changing magnitude. I’m reminded of the complex and often bitter trail from the 15th to the 19th amendment (a process of fifty years), from “the right to vote will not be denied or abridged on account of race” to “the right to vote will not be denied or abridged on account of sex,” leading to a century in which Black votes were nevertheless still suppressed, often violently. We are all reminded of the power of individual action borne out in a collective by the events of Black Lives Matter and by the passing of John Lewis after a life of highly principled, nonviolent activism for voting rights. In some way, the same educational opportunity about individual responsibility and collective action underlies wearing a mask or casting a vote. We have a moment in which we and our students can perhaps see with extraordinary clarity how wrong it would be to conclude “my one action won’t make a difference.”

I hope that lesson will influence the lives of our students and that they will look back to 2020 at Russell Sage as a profound experience that taught them something valuable that they never forgot.

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