Columbia students need answers. Lee Bollinger delivers mumbles.

It’s a terrible time in higher education. Nobody really knows if students will be coming back on campus in the fall. They need clarity. Columbia University president Lee Bollinger’s communications aren’t providing it.

I have a college student at home right now — like every other student, mine wants to know what next fall will be like and how the rest of her academic career will evolve. (She’s not at Columbia, but her school hasn’t communicated well, either.)

We’ve passed the time for “We are all in this together” and “We’ve suffered a great shock” and all the rest of the mealy-mouthed platitudes. Students want answers. Or at worst, to know when answers will be forthcoming.

Lee Bollinger delivers sympathy and confusion — in way too many words

An alert reader sent me this email from Columbia U. president Lee Bollinger, deliver right in the middle of finals week. My translation follows each section.

Subject: Update on COVID-19

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

As one of the most perplexing and difficult semesters in memory draws to an end, I write now with some updates on the shape of the summer and the academic year to come. 

Let me just begin by expressing, once again, our genuine gratitude for the extraordinary ways in which every member of the University community has responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, first and foremost, of course, our colleagues at the Medical Center. This has been a spring for the ages, and my deepest hope is that the goodwill and collective effort manifested in this crisis will continue to sustain us in the months and years ahead. At this very moment, I am especially thinking of our graduating classes and of how our campus would ordinarily be filled with the anticipation of one of the most uplifting and magnificent academic ceremonies on the planet. Though we will all gather virtually for these milestone events, having to forego what we wish most for will only magnify the feelings of warm connection we will have in the years to come with the Class of 2020. As I plan to say on Commencement day, these strange and frightening times have most certainly deepened our collective appreciation of the University’s many vital roles in society, beginning with the search for fundamental knowledge and carried through to the care of humanity and the world. 

Translation: I promise to tell you what will happen. But first, a wordy, sappy, sloppy smooch for the health service, the graduating class, and the university community that made me the highest-paid college president in the United States.

As disjointed as this moment has come to feel, as filled as it is with deep uncertainties, we must move forward. I write first, then, about the state of our research. 

Over the last several weeks, we have developed an intricate plan for returning to laboratory research that has necessarily been suspended. Following the guidance of our public health experts, and pending the approvals from the State to ease stay-at-home orders in New York City, we will gradually allow our faculty and certain graduate students to return to their lab research sites, ensuring, most of all, of course, the safety of our community. It is our hope that this plan can be activated as early as June. Ira Katznelson has communicated the details of our schedule and the conditions to our researchers.

Translation: there are way more undergraduate student than researchers, so of course, I will write first about our research labs. There’s a plan. No one knows when it will be workable. And Ira Katznelson already told the researchers about it, but what the heck, let me add my uncertainty to the uncertainty Ira shared.

We also have been intensely focused on the general form of our next academic year. We all wish to return to in-person instruction and campus life, and our intent is to make that possible as soon as it is safe to do so. The hard fact is, however, that we just cannot predict now when that moment will arrive. Yet, we can put in place structures that maximize prospects for that outcome and offer meaningful steps along the way. Our primary goal must be to create as rich an academic experience as possible, in whatever form that will take, while preparing to bring us back together at the earliest feasible moment. No doubt social distancing techniques will be with us for some time, which, of course, complicates the logistics of the return. Taking these and other factors into account, we have made one key decision: to prepare to use the three upcoming academic terms—fall 2020, spring 2021, and summer 2021—as a unit of time in order to provide us with the greatest amount of flexibility in organizing our educational experiences. 

Translation: I have no idea what will happen. But it will happen over three academic terms.

By leveraging a longer period of time, we will be able to de-densify our campus so that all students may experience much, if not most, of their coursework in person over the arc of the three terms. While this is just the beginning of a University-wide effort to determine the specifics of the academic year, we now have the capacity to tap into the rich expertise and creativity of our University leaders and faculty to shape the substance and content of this one-time arrangement. By July 1, Ira Katznelson, our spectacular deans, and I will have more details to share about how the three terms will be composed. 

Translation: Check back on July 1. We’ll teach everything somehow. In the mean time, please be awed by my use of words like “de-densify” “rich expertise and creativity” and “spectacular deans.” You can hardly hear the students’ painful whines over my cheerleading!

May is always filled with the sense of exhilaration of admitting new classes across our schools and colleges. It is natural to wonder—and we have—how the understandable anxieties among our prospective students about how the current crisis will affect their beginnings at Columbia will in turn affect their college plans. Amid such uncertainty, it gives me great pleasure and pride to share that all we now know suggests we will welcome one of the most talented and formidable cohorts of new students this fall. As with their predecessors, these exceptional individuals will add immeasurably to the intellectual life at Columbia, perhaps even more than usual because they have already displayed a kind of courage and fortitude to maintain a steady course in the search for knowledge.

Translation: Lots of new students coming in. They have no idea what their education will consist of or how it will be delivered, but huzzah!

One can only feel a sense of humility in the face of the broad human response as we grapple with a threat as menacing as COVID-19. And one can only feel thankful for our universities and for Columbia, in particular. New York City is almost always the epicenter of crises that strike this nation, and Columbia University in the City of New York is, therefore, too. This is not exactly to be wished for, but it does create, over time, an intellectual character that is grounded in the hard realities of existence. And, on balance, inhabiting a space imbued with that character is where I would rather be. I trust that view is shared by everyone at Columbia. 

Translation: This is the truly sappy part, as you can tell because I switched from “I” to “one.”

From the President’s House, Jean and I send you our very best. 

Sincerely,

Lee C. Bollinger

Communicating in an age of uncertainty

Uncertainty is a terrifying thing, especially when it’s finals week and you’re worried if there will ever be a next semester.

There are 924 words in this email, but there are only two facts of interest to undergraduates:

  • There will be a decision on July 1.
  • The university will make use of the summer term to try to manage the COVID-19 challenge.

Everything else is sympathy, sappiness, and filler. For a student wondering what’s going on, this is not helpful. Bollinger is either out of touch with the challenges that students feel, or unable to rouse himself to address it except with platitudes about “spectacular deans” and “a space imbued with character.”

Here’s how he could have written this in a way that students would accept:

Subject: COVID-19 and the future of study at Columbia

It’s been a truly challenging semester. Thanks for hanging in there as you completed your term, and in some cases your time, at Columbia.

I wish I could tell you what is coming next, but it’s still uncertain. So here’s what I can say for sure:

– We’ll have a clear decision about the next academic year on July 1.

– We’ll make more use of the Summer 2021 academic term, so we can spread out the number of students on campus over the full academic year.

– Researchers will be slowly coming back to labs starting in June. Ira Katznelson is managing the plan for that process.

I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear, but we have to base decisions on what happens next with the virus, and that remains to be seen.

I’ll be in touch as we know more. Be well.

Of course, an academic who wrote that way would never have risen to be President of an Ivy League University, would he?

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