To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Post Docs
From: Clarence Lang
Date: April 6, 2020
News reports anticipate that this week will be the toughest we have witnessed yet since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to seeing a surge in confirmed cases, we are likely to experience an escalation in job layoffs, food and housing insecurity, further strains on healthcare systems and other hardships associated with the pandemic.
It remains to be seen what these accumulated crises will mean for us at Penn State. It is safe to presume, though, that as members of families, communities of friends, and professional networks spread across cities, states, and nations, we have all been personally touched in multiple ways by unfolding events. The test for our college will be to simultaneously admit our uncertainty about what is to come, lay plans for our future, and maintain all the continuity that we can in our daily administrative operations that buttress our core mission. Our dean’s office continues to take seriously the responsibility to steward 24 departments, 20 centers, more than 700 faculty members, over 300 staff employees, nearly 10,000 students, a 99 million-dollar budget, and thousands of committee alumni, volunteers, and friends. For this reason, I appreciate all that you have been doing to advance the goals of your respective units in the face of your ongoing concern and anxieties.
Because I wake up every morning thinking about how to be an effective dean, I have been especially heartened by those of you who have gone above and beyond in demonstrating the resilience of our University and modeling liberal arts principles in your social interactions. Many of you have hosted spontaneous virtual hangouts to maintain connections with your peers and lift morale; others have organized regular staff workshops, thought about how to assist emeriti faculty with picking up groceries and walking pets, traded random gifts with co-workers at each other’s doorsteps, linked students with local social services, scouted housing for incoming faculty who are still abroad, expressed worries about the particular hurdles that staff employees face while working from home, initiated conversations about the long-term welfare of our graduate students, and proposed ways to relieve teaching faculty of the disproportionate burden they have shouldered in the shift to remote teaching. The members of one of our departments, Communication Arts and Sciences, have even launched a formal mutual aid initiative to assess needs and capacities, share resources, check in on one another, and coordinate supplementary forms of support. Caregiving measures like the ones referenced above may not be comprehensive (and by design they cannot be), but they matter greatly to cultivating a humane work and living environment for students, staff, and faculty. For that I am grateful to all of you who have sought ways to lift others.
At the same time, I am motivated to consider the unique potential of the liberal arts to inform public discussion and thinking about the need for an expanded social contract that extends beyond individual volunteerism and private philanthropy. The steps in this direction may be small for now, but they can have a powerful impact nevertheless. As educators, we can invite our students to imagine and debate the meanings of citizenship and modes of belonging; as scholars, we can frame hard questions about human priorities in our domestic and global society; as decision-makers, we can be challenged creatively to enact the values that we teach and study, most especially in the choices that affect the most vulnerable among us.
We will make it through this turbulence, and we will be sturdier, more forward-thinking, and adaptable as a result. From this standpoint, I hope that when this storm has blown over, we will not return to “normal” at all.
Thank you again for holding steady in the meantime.