On University Continuity and Efforts to Support the Local Community

An update reassuring the continuation of the '20-21 academic year, the task force guiding the University's response to COVID-19, and ongoing efforts to support the local community.

President Lee C. Bollinger
April 23, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

I am writing with another update, this time primarily to begin thinking ahead to the next academic year. Under the extraordinary and painful conditions of the pandemic, our minds are, by necessity, fixed on coping with the present. But, by inclination and by the sheer march of time, we also have to make plans for the future. We have collectively done so for this semester, and then for the summer, and now we need to bring our attention to the fall semester and next academic year. The purpose of this message is to say that this process is now underway.

It is true that in a crisis, such as the one we are now experiencing, the almost incomprehensible variables and uncertainties that characterize the moment often make definitive decisions unwise. That said, I want to affirm that Columbia will be proceeding with the 2020-2021 academic year. Over the next two months, I and others will write with more detail about how we will do that. I have no doubt, however, that whatever form our pursuit and application of knowledge takes we will be called upon to manifest a steady and determined effort and to achieve the highest levels of creativity we can summon. We are open, but we are and will be open in new ways, including those we have not yet discovered. Some of what we will do will be new but will change back when normality returns, and for good reason, because these activities and practices have been developed and refined over centuries. I’m thinking here especially of the art of personal intellectual discussion. Other things, however, we will invent afresh, and keep, and the Columbia decades from now will be richer for them. You will hear from me soon about ideas that are emerging.

Columbia is many parts. The colleges, schools, departments, institutes, and centers each will have somewhat different plans for the future given the different impacts of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Our central challenge, however, will be accommodating the undergraduate residential system in a period of ongoing risk resulting from COVID-19. Needless to say, we want everyone back just as soon as that can be accomplished with the level of safety we insist upon. As I indicated, we will know much more in the next several weeks. In the meantime, I have asked Ira Katznelson and Dr. Lee Goldman to expand our COVID-19 Task Force, which has been the bedrock of recommendations for the University in confronting the crisis, to have subcommittees address large issues of research, education, facilities, finances, and campus life. These groups are formed and will begin reporting back soon. I want to express our shared gratitude to the members of the administration and faculty who are literally devoting themselves to these institutional issues. 

Just one more thing. I try in these notes to add something about what the University is doing so that we can all have a fuller sense of pride in Columbia. I’d like to speak about our nearby communities. We are trying our best to help those closest to us in these dire moments. Our faculty are lending their expertise on public health and other urgent issues through a local media partnership with the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. And our Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which is connected to Columbia Business School, is helping hundreds of local enterprises to secure emergency federal loans. We have also offered two months in rent abatement for our small-business tenants, and we are preparing to launch a loan program, in partnership with the SBDC and the Business School, to help local shops, restaurants, and other small firms to reopen.
I would like to close by saying that, while the virus continues to have its devastating effects on the lives of everyone, our medical and public health experts confirm that our policies and practices in New York City, the State, and the nation (as well as around the globe) are working, as witnessed in our own Medical Center, to reduce the escalation of severe illness to levels from which we can begin to bring our world back into some order. Especially for these individual acts of personal responsibility, we can also feel pride and hope for the future. For this, I am forever grateful.

Again, from the President’s House, Jean and I send our warmest wishes.


Lee C. Bollinger