To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Post Docs
From: Clarence Lang
Date: January 19, 2021
Welcome back. I hope you had a restful break and were able to make the most of yesterday’s federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. As we reflect on the state of national affairs, there is no sugarcoating the fact that the spring semester begins today amidst a great deal of turmoil. We have witnessed a siege of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and its aftershocks add to ongoing questions and concerns about the health of democratic processes and civil society as Inauguration Day approaches. We also remain in the throes of a global pandemic that requires us to begin the semester remotely and continue working primarily through virtual means. This exacerbates the isolation, anxiety, fear and despondency many of us are experiencing as we grieve the illness and loss of family and friends to COVID, contemplate our sense of vulnerability to harassment and violence, miss the comforts of community at a time when we need them most, grapple with the responsibilities of rearing children or caring for elders and other dependents, and attend to our own individual physical and emotional well-being as a result of coronavirus or other health challenges.
As we know, the start of a new year and the transition from one presidency to another cannot, by themselves, resolve any of these challenges. The creation of multiple vaccines to combat the coronavirus is a promising development, though our University has not yet been identified as a vaccination site. When vaccines become more widely available, though, I do not anticipate removing face coverings from our wardrobes, nor do I foresee us returning safely to handshaking and other pre-COVID forms of casual social interaction in the near future. At the same time, the growing chorus of voices demanding an honest reckoning with the nation’s past, and a data-driven, truthful engagement with its persistent legacies, should leave us confident that our college – and the liberal arts more generally – have an important role to play in moving us collectively toward reconciliation and just transformations.
I understand how many of you must be concerned about the ways in which this pandemic has affected your career development and trajectories. In the same way that our college acted on a commitment not to compel faculty or staff back to on-site work in situations where they were unable or unprepared, we will act on a commitment to support faculty and staff to the fullest extent possible within the boundaries of University policy. This not only includes adhering to COVID-related extensions for tenure-line faculty, but also supporting professional development for teaching faculty and staff. We are also giving academic heads and directors the latitude to evaluate teaching, research, service and other duties with the lenience and compassion they believe are warranted. This encompasses not only adjusting departmental service expectations, but also enabling instructors to demonstrate in annual reviews how they made conscientious efforts to facilitate student learning in a difficult teaching environment. This also entails observing the University’s designated “Wellness Days” this semester, and providing faculty with the opportunity to document how COVID has affected research agendas and overall career progression. Further, we will work with heads, directors, and the offices of the Provost and General Counsel to support research, travel and other requests critical to our educational and scholarly mission.
For those of you teaching this semester, be mindful of how you engage your students in discussions about challenging subjects, remembering that our role as instructors is to model best practices for critical debate and elevate classroom dialogue. Refresh your familiarity with the Office of Educational Equity’s protocols for dealing with disruptive students, and consult the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence’s “Teaching and Advising Resources for Inauguration and Beyond.”
Please also think carefully about your social media presence, even on personal platforms. This is not an admonishment to censor your speech – I state this only to heighten awareness about the polarized environment we occupy, and the many risks that come with this territory. If at any point you find yourselves struggling emotionally, professionally or otherwise, do not hesitate to reach out to the University’s Employee Assistance Program, whose services are free to you. Although we are here for our students, University support should be accessible to you, too.
As the spring semester starts, albeit remotely, I hope that your interactions with students and colleagues bring you some reassurance that better days are on the horizon. Notwithstanding current circumstances, I wish you a strong start to the semester and all good things this year. I look forward to us crossing paths throughout the spring.