In letters to students, faculty and staff, university administrators in recent days have cut the spring semester short and ordered classes to go online. They have broken the news that commencement will be called off and, sometimes, that tuition will not be refunded. They have calmed nerves, and raised hackles, with their words — and sometimes their dance moves.
On Tuesday, the president of Harvard, Lawrence S. Bacow, was forced to go even further, sharing that he and has wife had tested positive for the coronavirus. He said that he did not know how they had contracted it but were heartened that they had not come into contact with many people over the last few days.
“We started experiencing symptoms on Sunday — first coughs then fevers, chills and muscle aches — and contacted our doctors on Monday,” Bacow wrote. “We were tested yesterday and just received the results a few minutes ago. We wanted to share this news with all of you as soon as possible.”
Here are some other ways that administrators have broken bad news in recent days.
We Are All the Drivers
Mark B. Rosenberg, president of Florida International University in Miami, framed his efforts to deal with COVID-19 around a nightmare he had, ominously set in Italy, where the virus has killed more than 6,000 people.
“There I was in a cramped passenger van along a narrow and mountainous Italian road on a foggy morning. The vehicle was careening wildly along the hillside edge of the road, the worn tires of the left side of the van about to drop off the guardrail-less side of the road into the abyss and deep valley alongside. Where was the driver? Why wasn’t the driver controlling the vehicle so that the 14 or so cramped passengers were not at risk? Still dreaming. I looked around the vehicle to find the driver. Then to my horror, I realized that I was the driver! The common denominator is that we are all in this together and that — paradoxically — ‘social distance’ and business paralysis are the new normal. My most recent dream was a reminder to get my hands on the wheel, start the van and do big things with my passengers!”
Dancing and Doing the Dishes
Allyson Green, dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, raised her arms, twirled, swung her hips and ended with her hands crossed over her chest. In a two-plus-minute dance video she sent to students Sunday, Green, a choreographer, displayed defiance, joy, confusion, sadness and solidarity.
“When I was in the darkest hours of life, with my friends dying during the AIDS epidemic, or in war zones, I started to give up. I remember thinking if I could just get up and do the dishes today, that would be enough. The movement of washing the dishes later ended up in a dance. Today that movement has transformed to washing my hands, for a new dance, and I am not giving up on you. Like me, just do whatever you can do each day.”
Green explained why she had chosen to dance to the song “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. She told students and faculty that they could choose to watch the video, or not, and she would not hold it against them either way. The video had thousands of views by the next day.
A Terrible Hand Can Be Rewarding
Bridge is not necessarily the card game of choice among the younger set, but Cornell’s president, Martha E. Pollack, told students in a recent email that playing it had taught her how to persevere.
“I am a bridge player — not a very good one, but I do enjoy the game. In bridge, you are sometimes dealt a great hand: lots of high cards, distributed across the suits in an advantageous way. Other times, you are dealt a terrible hand. The great hands are unquestionably more fun to play, but every bridge player knows that you have to play the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes, doing an outstanding job with a terrible hand can be incredibly rewarding. Right now, we’ve all been dealt a bad hand — and we have to play it, and play it to the best of our abilities. So many of our plans have been disrupted, leaving us frustrated and disappointed. But we can rise to meet this challenge, just as previous generations of Cornellians have when they faced huge and unexpected challenges, whether it was a World War, or the Great Depression, or the scourge of AIDS.”
Wisdom from the Talmud
Before revealing his own positive test Tuesday, Bacow of Harvard had sent students a letter with his reflections about running along the Charles River while social distancing.
“As I got ready for my morning run today, I thought about how I might maintain a safe distance from others who happened to be outside — wasted effort, as it turned out. The banks of the Charles were almost empty, and I had the chance to do some serious thinking.”
Bacow wanted to just say “thank you,” he said, to everyone who had pitched in, from students and parents who helped move them out of residence halls, to faculty members who were switching to online learning, to researchers and health care providers on the front lines of the pandemic.
“The Talmud says that to save one life is equivalent to saving the entire world. When the situation we find ourselves in has passed, there will be no way to calculate the number of lives your actions have saved. It was the thought of that unknowable figure — undoubtedly growing greater by the day — that gave me reason to keep moving forward this morning. May it quicken all our steps in the weeks and months to come.”
The teachings of Thucydides
John W. Boyer, dean of the College at the University of Chicago, looked to his knowledge of history to find hope for the future. He invoked the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the early Nazi victories on the Eastern front in Europe — and the teachings of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian.
“There is a powerful lesson, which I believe offers hope for us today, embedded in the arguments of one of the greatest of ancient historians and his magnificent work about the dire struggle between the Athenians and the Spartans in the Fifth Century before the Common Era. Thucydides reminds us of the resilience of common institutions and sustaining values, and above all of the importance of holding together in support of the human communities that undergird and constitute those institutions. Even dark moments are transitory, and crises can end with bright spots from everyday heroism.”
The students’ education would help them weather this storm, he said:
“We are not out to develop well-rounded women and men at the University of Chicago. As my distinguished predecessor Alan Simpson once observed, the problem with well-rounded students is that they will roll wherever they are pushed.”
Connection out of Chaos
The chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Carol Christ, brought up the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and Hurricane Katrina 20 years later.
“In a 2009 book, Berkeley alum and author Rebecca Solnit set out to uncover how local communities responded when faced with catastrophic events like the 1985 Mexico City earthquake or 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. She found that out of chaos and grief there often emerged, paradoxically, a profound spirit of generosity, connection and collective purpose. During dark times, she wrote, we tend to become more supportive of those around us, more understanding, more giving and forgiving, and more in touch with our common humanity. This phenomenon is now taking shape right in front of our eyes. I see it when our staff bring cookies from canceled events to workers providing essential services to the campus. I see it in the way our teaching listservs buzz with instructors sharing tips on improving digital pedagogy. I see it in the relentlessness of our biomedical researchers, who are working nonstop to develop diagnostics, vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. I see it in the huge outpouring of support we’ve received from alumni to our student emergency fund. I see it in the fact that campus offices are coming together for digital happy hours at the close of a long work day. I see it in the creative ways our students are using technology to keep in touch, building strong bonds even in a time of turmoil.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .