Opening of the Academic Year
Dear Colby Community,
We will take many lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. It has provided us with endless teachings about public health and medicine, the disparate effects of health and economic crises on different groups in our society, and the societal and personal bonds that fortify and fray in times of excessive stress and uncertainty. We have all witnessed innumerable acts of courage and selflessness, tragedy and callousness. The astonishing rate of scientific progress is a signal of hope and a reminder of the human capacity to overcome the most daunting challenges.
Like many of you, I have been consumed by these issues and more over the last several months, and they have informed our thinking about opening the College for the academic year. This week we fully operationalized our plan for reopening, welcoming to campus well over 2,000 students, including 577 members of the Class of 2024. We also have nearly 150 students studying remotely. All told, Colby begins this academic year with the largest enrollment in its 208-year history.
We also welcomed back our outstanding and dedicated faculty and welcomed 29 new faculty members who follow in a tradition of scholarly and teaching excellence.
I can neither adequately express the joy I feel in having this campus totally alive and energized nor the gratitude I have for the staff members who worked around the clock, without a day’s break, for many months to make this possible. There is no perfect plan for reopening a college at this difficult moment, but I am satisfied that Colby’s plan, which is guided by the latest science and evidence-based research and cuts no corners when it comes to safety, is the right plan to allow us to carry out our important mission.
Our early experiences bear this out. Over the last few weeks we have conducted almost 10,000 COVID-19 tests, including pre-arrival and on-campus testing, and currently three members of our community are in isolation after testing positive. Our goal is to drive the infection rate to zero, to continue with no community transmission, and to maintain that level of safety through our extensive protocols and through a community ethos of committing to protect the health of ourselves and others and the extraordinary opportunity we have to live and learn together. I understand that is an unrealistic standard given the broader prevalence of the virus, and we are fully prepared to address cases that emerge and support anyone infected. That said, I want our aspirations to be high for the health and safety of this community and our behaviors to align with meeting those aspirations.
I am encouraged by what I see every day. My “commute” from Osborne House to Eustis takes me along Runnals Walk, which is now complete with tables and granite benches where students are meeting and taking their meals. Dana Lawn is filled with students in small groups, distanced and wearing facial coverings. Miller Lawn, now speckled with colorful Adirondack chairs, is the perfect meeting place for faculty members advising students, and tents across campus are open-air classrooms on these gorgeous late summer days in Maine. We need to heed the lesson that we can do more to take advantage of the beautiful outdoor setting of this campus going forward.
Another lesson, far more consequential, is that, as a people, our personal interconnectedness is both powerful and fragile. We know the formidable role of relationships in learning, which is why it is essential to be here, connecting with one another in ways that facilitate growth and discovery. Healthy relationships challenge and nurture us, transform and inspire us. This is the essence of a Colby education, where world-class scholars work closely with talented students to educate them and train their minds to use the methodological tools and knowledge, both ancient and novel, of the academic disciplines.
The corollary to this lesson is that disconnectedness can be dehumanizing and devastating in consequence. The history of this country—indeed, of much of the world—is wrought by our inability to connect across differences, to fairly value the potential, capability, and contributions of all people, to create systems and structures that treat people equitably and justly. The result is persistent inequalities of striking and lasting magnitude. The result is Jacob Blake, a Black man, being shot multiple times in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis., this week as he attempted to return to his car, where his three young children were already situated.
The horrific violence against Jacob Blake is connected to millions of other people across generations and geography, some woven into a well-known narrative and far too many others largely invisible and forgotten except by those most directly affected. Hearing these stories is not enough. Expressing our anger and frustration is not enough. Individually and as a community we must keep asking what we can do, what action we can take to forever alter these patterns of dehumanization and structural inequality.
This summer I joined nearly 700 staff and faculty in a series of anti-racism trainings as we sought to deepen our understanding of the belief structures and practices we hold that might hinder our ability to make important progress on racial justice at Colby. It was helpful, enlightening, and needs to continue, but it, too, is not enough.
As we enter this extraordinary year, I want to share three initiatives that we will launch immediately, and I invite you to engage in this work and suggest other ways for Colby to evolve into a more just and equitable institution that has, at its core, educational practices and programs that will deepen our understanding of these issues and educate leaders with the intellectual and moral might to alter the course of our society for the better.
1. The Board of Trustees, dedicated to probing its own practices, structures, and composition, has voted to empanel an Ad Hoc Committee on Racial Justice. The committee will focus primarily on board governance and related issues, working to ensure that trustees have the training, shared understanding, and opportunities to consider how best to bring about meaningful change within the governing body itself and the College as a whole.
2. In 2016 the Presidential Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion finalized its broad-reaching recommendations, which, through their implementation, have had a major impact at Colby over the last four years. This year we will revisit and renew the excellent work of the task force with the understanding that while we have made significant progress, we still have far more to accomplish. I have asked our newly arrived Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tayo Clyburn to convene and lead a group to undertake this work. It is the right time for a fresh perspective and a hard look at where we need to accelerate our pace of change, where we are falling short of our ideals, and where we see new opportunities to bring about improvements. I encourage you to contact Dean Clyburn if you are interested in participating in this process.
3. I shared in a previous communication that Colby has an opportunity to create a distinctive and influential scholarly, pedagogical, and community engagement program addressing issues of structural inequality. I see this program as potentially analogous in organization and reach to Colby’s focus on sustainability and the environment. On those issues, Colby has an abiding commitment to campus sustainability, from the College’s early efforts to being a carbon-neutral campus to more recent investments in solar and locally harvested power. The principles of sustainability are embedded in how we live our lives at Colby, and we have clear, promulgated standards for sustainability, with funding to support them and even annual funding to foster innovation and experimentation. On the academic side, our leading Environmental Studies Program is interdisciplinary and intellectually expansive, and we recently made a cluster hire of outstanding faculty members in several departments to create even broader-scaled pedagogical and scholarly groups. We created a program in environmental humanities and established the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment to support faculty and student work and to facilitate external partnerships. The intellectual and financial resources we have allocated to this work make Colby an acknowledged national leader.
Could we do something of similar breadth and depth with respect to understanding deep-seated inequities and injustices that lead to structural inequality? Colby’s environmental program arose out of the environmental awakening in the early 1970s, with the first Earth Day a call to action heard by Colby faculty and students. Can this new program arise out of the nation’s awakening for racial justice, for ensuring that the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others will be the call to action that we respond to by situating this work at the center of our mission? Let Colby be the place that defines this field of study, that provides greater support to our many faculty and students already working in related areas, and that becomes the national leader as we did in the study of the environment and climate change. I have asked Margaret McFadden, our provost and dean of the faculty, to oversee the College’s exploration of this possibility. This work will demand the insights of students, faculty, staff, and external experts. And it will require significant new resources, which I am prepared to provide and secure to ensure the program’s long-term strength. I encourage you to contact Provost McFadden if this opportunity interests you.
These initiatives can have a lasting impact at Colby and far beyond. But standing alone, they will not be enough. It is up to each of us to do our part to understand and address what the great Civil Rights leader John Lewis called “this soul-wrenching, existential struggle.”
I enter this academic year with renewed optimism that we are still being guided by Colby’s restless spirit, the very disposition that has pushed the College to innovate in times of need and provided a dose of courage to step ahead when others have stood still. Let us also be guided by our traditions of caring and compassion, humility and generosity, without ever diminishing our exacting standards and highest aspirations.
We have a historic opportunity to demonstrate that even during this pandemic, our community can remain connected and focused on our educational mission. We also have an obligation to remain connected to the world and answer the call of our time to work unrelentingly for the changes that are long overdue.
With my best wishes,
David A. Greene