Sunday, March 22, 2020 - 7:02pm
To the Rice community:
Tomorrow we begin a new chapter in our university’s history, as we temporarily move all of our courses to a remote format in response to the threat posed by the coronavirus COVID-19. With the exception of a relatively small number of students who asked to remain on campus because of international travel or other difficulties that would interfere with their remote learning, almost all of our undergraduates have left campus. Most graduate students will also be working solely from home. And it is not just our students and faculty who are dealing with this new environment, but the majority of our staff as well, with the number of our colleagues working on campus reduced by approximately 90%.
Thus I must begin with thanks. I especially want to thank the leadership and staff of our Information Technology Department and Rice Online, who were prepared with the experience and infrastructure to support this rapid transition. Our faculty stepped up quickly and with enthusiasm, including many who had never taught online before or even used technology much in their teaching. Faculty members with difficult courses to teach online, such as those in music, architecture and visual and dramatic arts or involving labs, have creatively re-envisioned their teaching to address the current circumstances.
Thanks too to our extraordinary facilities and engineering staff, RUPD, custodians and groundskeepers, who have kept the campus functioning and safe. While the library is closed, its staff is assuring that remote services remain available for researchers. Our parking staff has worked to make parking more convenient for those remaining or working on campus. Housing and dining staff have worked to house the students who remain and provide food for those on campus, and our dedicated staff in student services have been working tirelessly to meet student needs since this situation began. Our crisis management team has worked non-stop to address and coordinate responses to a myriad of issues. And the majority of our staff continues to ensure that every aspect of the university remains functioning through their work at home.
We speak often of community at Rice, and indeed community is one of our four basic values: Responsibility, Integrity, Community and Excellence. Those values are more relevant than ever. This is indeed an extraordinary transformation, probably the biggest in our history in such a brief period of time. We can be successful only if all of us do our part, if all of us take responsibility for supporting our community and maintaining our high standards of integrity and excellence.
As we begin this new chapter we can be sure of three things. First, we will encounter challenges. Although we are fortunate to already be significantly engaged in online learning, the scale and speed of this transformation has been extraordinary. Some things will go wrong, and one test of our community is the patience, flexibility and generosity we exercise with each other.
Second, circumstances will continue to change, not only requiring new responses but posing new stresses and concerns. The spread of this disease in the United States is accelerating, and more of us will be directly affected. Being confined in our homes will be a source of stress for many.
Third, the burdens do not fall on all of us equally. Some will be worried that family members will become ill, and others may have family members who do become ill, or become ill themselves. Some have returned to families and others are still on their own. Some have very comfortable spaces to work, while others are in crowded environments where there is little private space. This week, the Faculty Senate will consider adjustments in grading and other academic policies to provide needed flexibility to our students.
Our community, and the various smaller groups within our community, are important to us. That requires us to think creatively about how to sustain this community and enable every person to continue to feel part of it. For those creating online communities, especially our students, I urge you to extend your circle broadly. Many will miss intently the casual interactions — the friendly hello, the smile, the wave across campus and the shared meals — that provide a sense of belonging and welcome. Try to envision how you can extend that sense digitally.
We have faced crises together before, but this one is different. During the fiercest of hurricanes, many of our students literally huddled together. And when the danger had passed after at most a few days, we all emerged together onto to our beautiful campus to figure out how to recover. Now we cannot literally huddle together, so we must find the ways to do so virtually, and continue to support each other in our endeavors. This is especially important as this situation may last a long time.
Every day Ping and I walk through the campus. It is of course not the same without all of you — the vast majority of our students, our faculty and our staff. We are reminded that it is not the beautiful campus and our splendid buildings that make the university. It is our people. Our custodians, facilities personnel and groundskeepers who create and maintain that beauty. Our librarians and research support staff who enable our mission of discovery. Our faculty who take teaching and research to new levels of excellence and impact. And our students who give us confidence in the future of our world.
Our campus, and Ping and I, eagerly await your return. In the meantime, we stand together in this time of challenge. Just as each of us is unlikely to emerge from this with no changes in our mindset, we are also unlikely to emerge from this crisis as the same university. We have the opportunity to emerge as a better university — a university that has built an even stronger community beyond our campus, a university that has created new capabilities, a university that recognizes that our global engagements are essential to our wellbeing and a university that is more resilient than ever. Together, let us manage the present challenges while we embrace that future.