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Provost Lauren Robel's letter to students

May 29, 2020

Dear Students,

This will not be your typical welcome-back-to-campus letter. I will address a number of practical issues, like calendars, schedules, courses, and housing. But I need to talk to you right up front about what we will need from you in order to welcome you back to campus and to keep our campus open for the residential experience we all cherish.

Defining Moments

Every generation has its defining challenge. For my father’s generation, it was World War II. For my generation, it was civil rights and Vietnam. For other recent generations in the United States, it has been 9/11, or the wars in the Middle East, or the expansion of civil rights to broader groups of citizens. Defining challenges are disruptive and character-forming. And the toughest thing about a generation’s defining challenge is that it chooses us. We don’t choose it.

For your generation, the global pandemic is a defining challenge. If you have just finished high school, it disrupted your graduation, your final performances, your high school athletics, and countless other events that mark the transition to the next step in your lives. It has made the choice of a college more complicated than ever, as universities have worked to sort out what can safely happen in the fall. If you are a continuing student, it quite literally ripped you away from the campus in March, brought you home early from study abroad, and made your planned internships and summer jobs disappear. It has disrupted your families’ lives in ways small and large. It disrupted your ability to see your friends and the people about whom you care most. And for some of you, it has imposed illness, loss, and grief.

It also pulled from you a level of grit, determination, and resilience that you might not have known you had. It pushed you to think about what you owe to the people around you, and to people you don’t even know. It taught you in profound ways what uncertainty looks like, and how important it is to be able to live with and follow closely scientific complexity. It has challenged you to discuss life-altering and complicated events with people whose views differ strongly. In other words, it is forming your character. And unlike any of the other defining moments since World War II, you have largely all shared this together.

In order to bring you back to campus, I need to call on every bit of that character now.

How do we come together?

Our campus is one of America’s great research universities, committed to bringing that experience into the classroom. We believe in residential education because relationships among faculty, staff, and students catalyze intensive and powerful learning. Students come from around the world to work with our faculty, and we are honored to have you here.

You are living in communities that are in various stages of lifting the restrictions that were required by the public health crisis that has claimed 100,000 American lives. At the same time, a college campus is not like where you live. To bring our campus back to life in the fall semester, we will assemble tens of thousands of people from across the country and around the world, and you will all have to travel to get here. You will have come from areas with almost no detectable virus, and from cities and countries that have weathered large outbreaks. In addition, public health authorities are concerned about the possibility of a second wave of COVID outbreaks that might correspond with flu season, which typically peaks between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Those two points—moments when the campus reassembles, and flu season—both carry particular risks for a college campus. They have shaped how Indiana University Bloomington is approaching the next academic year.

What are we doing?

To make the decision on whether we could have you back in light of those two virus-related challenges, we asked the Dean of the IU School of Medicine, the country’s largest medical school, to convene a distinguished public health and medical team to advise us. You can read their advice here. Here are the major implications of their recommendations:

  • We must conduct most in-person classes with 50 or fewer students so that we can fit as much of our curriculum as possible into socially-distanced classrooms. There are many ways to accomplish this. For some courses, this will likely mean online lectures followed by smaller in-person discussion and lab sessions. For others, it could mean varying groups of students attending class on different days. There are many creative approaches being evaluated. We will treat the time we have in person with you as a precious resource. To ensure that you have choices, we have created optional, additional winter sessions online that are included in your flat tuition rate. You can take more classes to advance towards your degree then, or you can take a longer break between semesters. Your choice.
  • We have increased passing periods between classes and spread them over a longer period of the day, with 80% of classes able to meet between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.
  • We have rearranged the calendar to avoid having students present during the peak of the flu season and to avoid having students all leave the campus and come back during periods of in-person instruction. That means the in-person part of your classes will end at Thanksgiving, although there may well be continued work online. And we will start the spring semester online at the usual time, reassemble in Bloomington at the beginning of February, and continue without a break until the end of the semester.
  • We will provide on-campus access to COVID-19 testing and medical monitoring for all students who are displaying any symptoms of COVID-19.
  • We have adopted stringent cleaning protocols; placed occupancy limits on the residence halls; and will be providing pick-up-and-go dining.

There is more, but we are working hard to ensure the conditions to avoid transmission.

What do you need to do?

Until we can be certain we have successfully integrated you all into the campus, and that infection rates are not going up, life on campus will look like it did in the early stages of the pandemic, and not how it looked on campus before the pandemic, or how it may look where you live now. How long we stay that way depends on the course of the virus. We are relying on you to do what the medical and public health professionals tell us we all have to do in order to open the classrooms and to keep the university open. These measures are all necessary in our special context to avoid causing you and others to get sick. If we cannot control outbreaks, we will need to close the in-person classes.

This is what it means to you. You will need to take all of the steps in the COVID-19 Healthy Hoosier Commitment that you will be receiving soon. Among those actions:

  • wear a cloth mask on campus, wash your hands frequently, and monitor your temperature;
  • observe social distancing, even in the classrooms;
  • register with the IU’s testing site;
  • promise to quarantine if you feel sick or have a temperature;
  • if you have symptoms, get evaluated for testing for COVID-19 through IU’s testing site;
  • if you test positive, cooperate with contact tracing, and isolate in accordance with our instructions;
  • avoid large gatherings.

These precautions are necessary in order to protect each other and to protect our dedicated faculty and staff members and the citizens of Bloomington. Whether we can stay together depends on the course of the virus when we are assembled.

We have worked hard to create an opportunity to bring you together to let you study all of the wonderful areas that have drawn you to us. But we also, in this extraordinary time, can use our time together to think carefully and fully about what we owe to each other, in this and other situations; to put this crisis in the context of other crises that other generations have been asked to face, and learn how those generations did so; and to talk together openly and with respect about the many issues this experience has raised. We need you to show up with your very best selves, and commit to this community, to each other, and to us in order to make any of this happen.

What are your choices?

You might have personal reasons to want to stay home right now and continue your education from there. We understand and are here for you, and you will have the option to take your IU classes online and continue progress toward your degree remotely. There will be lots to choose from at Indiana University Bloomington right now.

You will want to think carefully about what it means to come back to campus, and decide if this is what you want. If you do, and if you come, we will do everything we can to keep going, and you will be all in with doing that as well.

What does the future hold?

Every generational challenge brings uncertainty. For my parents, it was unclear for several years whether they would have the blessing of a shared future. My father left his new wife weeks after they married, flew air raids every day from England over Germany, survived being shot down and wounded, and spent over two years in a prison camp. He came home, and his new marriage lasted for 45 years, until his death. He and my mother raised four children whose lives, on a slightly different turn of events in the air over Germany, might never have occurred.

Like my parents’ generation, you are operating on the faith of a shared future you cannot fully see. For you, that hoped-for future includes a full campus life, with all of the lively elements that go with it. To get to that future, we have to commit to each other in every way we can to ensure we are healthy and ready.

Hoosiers do that. I look forward to seeing you, here or virtually, in the fall.

Yours,

Lauren Robel
Executive Vice President and Provost
Val Nolan Professor of Law
Indiana University Bloomington