August 24, 2020
Dear Members of the University Community,
In thinking about the challenges we have before us this year, and all that’s at stake with our partial reopening, I found myself reflecting on another moment in history when a powerful adversary forced a large-scale strategic retreat.
Early in the Second World War, before the United States joined the effort, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops found themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, with enemy troops closing in. Their capture, or worse, would have guaranteed ultimate defeat for the Allies. The British Army launched Operation Dynamo to evacuate the troops. They thought maybe they could save 45,000 lives.
Military warships couldn’t get close enough to the shore to reach the soldiers, so the government asked for civilian help. More than 700 “little ships”—small, private boats—volunteered to shuttle soldiers from the beach back home. Together, they managed to evacuate a whopping 338,000 Allied troops. The stories of civilian fisherman and private yacht owners coming to the rescue, following warships in and out of battle, lit up the British imagination and boosted morale. The media began referring to the solidarity and courage on display as “The Spirit of Dunkirk.”
The nation rightly celebrated the success of Operation Dynamo, particularly since it almost failed. Yet Prime Minister Winston Churchill, addressing the House of Commons, gave the nation a reality check. “Wars are not won by evacuation,” he said in his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address. He reminded the nation that they were still at war, and that they needed to brace themselves for “an ordeal of the most grievous kind.”
Cardinals in Solidarity
Our Dunkirk took place over a few days last spring when we successfully transitioned our academic enterprise to a remote learning model. We should recognize and celebrate the incredible solidarity and collaboration of that moment, which continues to this day. Our actions prevented what could have resulted in a serious outbreak of COVID-19 in our community.
I want to thank our faculty. So many of you spent hundreds of hours redeveloping the curriculum, rethinking delivery, and extending office hours to help our students finish their semesters with minimal disruption, while keeping the bar for academic achievement high. I want to thank our students for accepting this new reality and working with your professors to achieve your educational goals. Equally important were the contributions of our staff who served us all in countless essential ways. These include implementing a sanitation scheme that has made the University sparkle, redesigning classrooms and work spaces, installing advanced technology in dozens of classrooms, redirecting foot traffic, and standing up a new COVID-19 test center. We wouldn’t be where we are today without all of you.
Additionally, from what I’ve heard and seen so far, our efforts for this semester are going as planned (other than today's system-wide Zoom hiccup). Freshmen move-in and Orientation were carefully planned and executed, and our newest Cardinals did their part to keep our community safe. We have many students living nearby in off-campus housing, and I can’t tell you how proud we all are of your responsible behavior last weekend. Thank you to everyone who made this past week a success.
Not Without Your Help
As Churchill said, though, evacuation isn’t winning. Nor is remote learning and quarantine a residential university experience. That’s why we are committed to fully reopening as soon as we can responsibly do so. At the end of July we determined that the risk of an outbreak was too great to do that this fall. Welcoming a smaller number of students to campus offered our best shot at opening, and staying open. I appreciate the widespread disappointment at not being able to attend classes in person. We want to bring everyone to campus as soon as possible. But for that to happen, we need everyone’s help.
COVID-19 is a relentless and indiscriminate foe. It only takes one night of letting down your guard, of attending a party with dozens of your closest friends, for the virus to take back the ground we’ve fought so hard to win. For this campus to stay healthy and safe, and to open for everyone, we need to work together, using all the tools at our disposal. We need everyone to wear a face covering, stay six feet from each other, wash hands frequently, complete the daily health check, and visit Student Health Services if you get sick.
People Will Get Sick and Recover
We know people will get sick. We have planned for it. Even if we take every precaution, COVID-19 will find a way in. This doesn’t mean that if you contract the virus you have done something wrong. If you followed all the precautions, respected the quarantine, and still got sick, it only means that COVID-19 is everywhere and we need to be vigilant.
For our employees, the University has provided an extra 15 days of sick leave this year so you can stay home if you experience symptoms or need to quarantine. Please use them if you need them. More guidance is available here.
Let’s Work Together
If we as a community do not take this threat seriously, we will have no choice but to return exclusively to remote learning, in the interest of protecting the health of our community.
But I know this community, and I know our students. I have every confidence that we can make progress against COVID-19. Churchill had a similar faith in the British people: “I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again.” Let’s all work together, and find our way back together.