At a faculty meeting in early March, the coronavirus was third on my list of agenda items to talk about, after facilities improvements and fundraising progress. When I mentioned a colleague’s suggestion that Wesleyan cancel the upcoming Spring Break so as to finish the semester early, the room erupted in laughter, and I joined in. Students had their theses and vacation plans, professors their research (and vacation plans)—ridiculous to contemplate disrupting everything!
But within days, I found myself seriously considering suspending classes for the semester. Students caught wind, and I was bombarded with emails and petitions urging me not to cave into a “mob mentality” and overreact to an illness “quite like the flu.” A letter campaign urged me to take a “moral stand” against “mass hysteria.” Meanwhile, the prospect of an overwhelmed health care system in our small city and the fact that our residence halls rival cruise ships as sites for contagion were keeping me up at night. After consulting with public health experts, I made the decision to close campus. The risk of a mass outbreak was just too great. On March 11, we suspended in-person classes. By the next week, 90 percent of our students had left campus, the library and classroom buildings were closed, faculty were preparing to teach online, and all but a small number of employees were working from home.
Now we are figuring out how to learn from one another and support one another at a distance—and at a time of extraordinary vulnerability for our democracy and our economy, as well as our health.
Hard on everyone, clearly, and some more than others. An undergraduate wrote me that she had a real connection with a psychiatrist in town, was on a new medication, and so how could I ask her to leave? Hundreds of our students have underlying health conditions that put them at risk. Some 20 percent of our students are low-income and depend on Wesleyan for housing and food. Many more depend on us for jobs, and now we don’t have nearly as much campus work for them to do. We responded by adding resources to our Emergency Fund to help with travel, housing, and food. But how to respond to every need?
Residential education is about togetherness, about learning (in any number of ways) from mutual entanglement. Now we are figuring out how we can make the most of our remote interactions. Now we are figuring out how to learn from one another and support one another at a distance—and at a time of extraordinary vulnerability for our democracy and our economy, as well as our health.
Already we have seen our community rise to the occasion. Wesleyan faculty and students have energetically embraced the distance-learning technology that is allowing classes to continue, and everyone is conscious that they must actively work together to ensure success. Campus in spring is usually boisterous with the ping of bats on Andrus Field and students calling out to one another on Foss Hill or celebrating at WesFest. Now it’s eerily quiet. But the communal feeling it represents has not been forgotten. The more than 70 families that make up the Wesleyan Chinese Parent Committee have raised $29,000 to support our Emergency Fund; Shanghai resident Sha Ye MA ’96 donated more than 10,000 surgical masks to Wesleyan, the Middletown community, and Middlesex Hospital; two makerspace labs on campus are manufacturing much-needed protective shields using 3D printers and distributing them to area hospitals. And this is to say nothing of all those educating children at home, caring for ill family members and friends, and the countless Wesleyan alumni working tirelessly on tests and vaccines and on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response.
Few moments of communal feeling rival those at Commencement, and I feel particularly sorry for the Class of 2020 unable to celebrate together on campus with their families and friends. We will find an appropriate way to do this at a later date. While the virus still rages as I write this column, we are actively planning for the post-crisis world, and as testing becomes widely available in the coming months, we will institute measures to ensure that it is safe to bring everyone back to campus. What the new normal will be, I’m not sure, but I am sure that we Wesleyans will use our creative powers to adapt to whatever it turns out to be. Wesleyan has faced crises at various times in our almost 200-year history and has always risen to the occasion. Now we are doing that again.