What a Difference a Year Makes

We sometimes think of institutions like ours as slow-moving and resistant to changing direction. Sometimes this is true, but last year we turned on a dime. The pandemic gave us no choice.

We sometimes think of institutions like ours as slow-moving and resistant to changing direction. Sometimes this is true, but last year we turned on a dime. The pandemic gave us no choice.

That March 19th, a week after I had announced that all three schools would transition to delivering classes online for the remainder of the semester, I sent my first COVID-related missive to the Lewis &Clark community:

“I begin with a message of gratitude: Thank you for your support and patience as we navigate uncertainty. While endeavoring to keep everyone as safe as possible and stay true to our educational mission, we are moving with both speed and prudence. I am encouraged knowing that we are all working together to take care of our students, our campus, our loved ones, and our communities. Thank you to each of you for your dedication to Lewis & Clark.”

I very well could start a message today with those same words and sentiments. But my, how much the world has changed and how much we have learned since those early days of COVID-19.

We wasted no time and were planning for the fall before we even completed the remainder of that virtual spring semester. How could we maintain the health and well-being of our community and environment; the integrity of our educational mission; and the financial stability of the institution?

What we do best is in-person education, so maximizing those experiences was our goal. As plans came together for a hybrid approach—a mix of remote and in-person instruction —we had some naysayers. They said that it couldn’t be done, that we couldn’t bring people to campus, at least not safely. If we look at the national landscape, it is true that many institutions of higher education chose not to try in-person at all, or failed to keep COVID-19 positivity and transmission rates low. But we had a road map for success, and backup plans if things didn’t work out.

Through a combination of public health campaigns, exceptional compliance to our social distancing and health guidelines, a program of symptomatic and surveillance testing, low rates of the virus in the surrounding community— and undoubtedly some luck—we now approach the end of the academic year having succeeded in keeping the campus safe and almost entirely free of COVID-19.

Providing the best educational experiences possible in the pandemic hasn’t been perfect or easy. But our community has come together in remarkable and sustained ways. You’ll see ample evidence of that in the pages of this issue.

So what’s next? Beyond working to get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible, what does the future of education at Lewis &Clark look like?

While we managed well with hybrid education, we firmly believe that interacting with people in the same physical space is essential. It’s the nature of what we do and provides the best preparation for life after Lewis &Clark. So, the deans of the three schools and I are working steadily toward a fall semester in which we safely return to fully in-person instruction.

At the same time, we draw lessons from this experience. We have learned that far more alumni will participate in Zoom gatherings than we can ever draw to campus. Some teaching can be done well in virtual settings, and some students will participate more when using technology. We don’t all have to be in the office simultaneously to be productive, thus saving valuable time and reducing carbon emissions. Though we haven’t been able to travel, we have been reminded of how globally interdependent we are.

And so, the last year has reaffirmed just how much what we do matters. We believe that the education we provide is the best approach to seemingly intractable challenges: public health; racial, economic, and gender injustices; climate change; and more. The world continues to need what Lewis &Clark offers: Exploring for the Global Good.

Thank you, as always, for your support.

Wim Wiewel