For Each Other

Call it a paradox of the pandemic: At the same time that something has been stolen from us, the bonds of our community have been strengthened.

Editor’s note: This letter was written for publication in mid-May. For President Wiewel’s message from June 9 about issues of equity and inclusion and Black Lives Matter, please go here.

Call it a paradox of the pandemic: At the same time that something has been stolen from us, the bonds of our community have been strengthened.

I have felt the loss many times these past months. I have felt it for myself, my family, society, and all who care deeply about Lewis & Clark. I have felt it especially for our students in all three schools—and acutely for those who will graduate this year.

But I have also seen our community respond by doubling down on our core values, notably compassion, care, and creativity. Our actions underscore who we are and what we do together, and they make me proud. I hope they do the same for you.

So, I am taking this opportunity to share with you my thoughts and observations about these past weeks as well as what we have done at Lewis & Clark and how we are looking ahead.

Resourcefulness and Resiliency

I have often said that the best place to learn is to take up residence outside your comfort zone and take on manageable risks. Such unsettling moments are the lifeblood of growth.

This pandemic has pushed all of us well beyond what was comfortable. Now, reckless behaviors include ignoring social distancing or shopping without a protective mask. We don’t quite know what lies ahead. I come down on the side of believing that it will ultimately be a time for opportunity and growth.

I believe this in large part because of the ingenuity and resiliency that our community has been demonstrating, even in the face of the hardship, anger, and fear we feel. These last months have required us to do what we do best: to reimagine what has served us well in the past and create new ways to teach, learn, and strengthen community.

On March 12, I announced that all three schools would transition to delivering classes online for the remainder of the spring semester. Shortly thereafter, I said that all employees would work from home unless their jobs required them to be on campus. Events and travel were canceled, postponed, or, where possible, moved online.

Following these tectonic shifts, I was heartened by many of the conversations I had with students. I was impressed by their resilience. And I was encouraged to hear how they were approaching the transition to online education and how the faculty were rising to the challenge while navigating the changes in their own lives.

We push all our students to develop the creativity and mental agility required by rapid changes in society, technology, and the world at large. So I was not surprised to hear that these virtual meeting spaces have created new opportunities for collaboration and exploration.

Our graduate school has for a number of weeks now been providing tele-counseling to individuals and families in need. This vital work provides steady access to community mental health resources as well as required practical experience for our licensure candidates. So too, our legal clinics continue working with clients they can no longer meet with in person. Virtual alumni gatherings and events are proceeding apace.

The community we build at Lewis & Clark persists even when we are dispersed.

The Character of Our Community

All of us who teach, learn, study, and work at Lewis & Clark have this in common: We choose to be here. Our reasons may vary, but each of us made a purposeful and intentional decision to join this community. Since my own arrival, I have seen countless examples of people, individually and collectively, helping each other and advancing our common good.

So, when I began discussing the coronavirus with our deans and executive leadership in February, I knew that our culture gave us a strong foundation for making decisions. In addition, we are drawing on the structure and thinking of the Stress Test Taskforce, which was organized by the Board of Trustees last fall. This preparation was for our financial response to extreme events such as a stock market meltdown, precipitous drop in enrollment, or a Cascadia earthquake.

Our COVID-19 responses have been based on maintaining:

  • The health, safety, and well-being of our community and environment
  • The integrity of our educational mission
  • The immediate and long-term financial stability of the institution

On April 15, I announced our plans to implement a partial staff furlough plan to reduce Lewis & Clark’s payroll expenses during the summer months. For many, this means reduced work hours. As part of this process, we are taking full advantage of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and other federal and state benefits available to employees and the institution as a whole. Because of the available federal benefits, we expect that most of those who are furloughed will ultimately not experience a reduction in income. Implementing a partial furlough spreads some sacrifice over a large number of people in an effort to retain jobs for the greatest number.

There is great uncertainty about what future semesters will bring. As an institution we are thinking through and planning for difficult scenarios. We may have fewer students, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences. We fully intend to return to in-person education this fall, unless the Oregon Governor indicates otherwise. At the same time, we will be prepared to provide online instruction if necessary. We may not be able to offer all of our overseas study programs. And we know that we will lose both revenue and relationship-building opportunities with the cancellation of many summer conferences and events.

And of course, as individuals our circumstances and needs vary, sometimes day to day. We worry about ourselves, our families and friends, our countries. We might also feel lonely when we hang up the phone or log out of a chat. We’ve lost the in-person faces, the ability to scan a room. These energize us in ways that Zoom never can. No wonder we miss them.

Reaffirming the Good

The disruptions in our lives are real and upsetting. But radically new experiences can also be transformative in positive ways. When the shock subsides, we may realize that the world is not closing in, and that we’re learning something valuable and new.

The road ahead is not clear or easy. But I know we have the resilience and resources to do much more than survive. When we are gathered together again, we will be even more dedicated to making a better world both on campus and beyond.

We have been and will always be for each other.

Wim Wiewel