Due to the realities of publishing schedules, I often write these letters wondering what the world will look like when you read them. That is especially true this time.
It is now the beginning of October, about a month into perhaps the most unusual semester UVA has ever seen. Conditions on Grounds are holding steady, at least for the time being, and students, faculty and staff are doing heroic work under exceedingly difficult circumstances. My hope is that by the time you read this, we will have successfully and safely completed the first semester. But if there is one thing this experience has taught us, it’s the need to be humble about what lies ahead, and the need to adapt—quickly—to meet new challenges.
Despite the challenges we have faced, a silver lining is that we have learned a great deal during this pandemic, and these are lessons that I believe will outlast this crisis and make us stronger as a university.
First, we’ve learned the importance of staying one step ahead when faced with challenges. In this case, it means staying one step ahead of the virus. Part of this has involved testing more people—from symptomatic students and close contacts, to random groups of asymptomatic students, to faculty and staff, to members of the Charlottesville community, to large numbers of students screened through wastewater and saliva testing. The increased testing, we realized, is crucial to detect and hopefully stop an outbreak before it happens.
We’ve been reminded, vividly, of just how much expertise exists at the University, and how this expertise can be used to benefit not just our community but those beyond it. In what remains one of the most remarkable examples of “great and good” that I’ve seen during my time as president, back in March a team of faculty, lab professionals and staff created the first local test in Virginia for COVID-19. Since then, we’ve continued to rely on the truly remarkable members of this community—from the researchers who have spearheaded saliva testing on Grounds, to the IT professionals who have helped faculty and students troubleshoot online courses, to the facilities management teams that have helped make classrooms and offices safe, to the alumni and friends who have offered advice and support.
We’ve learned that we can adapt when necessary. I remain incredibly impressed by the faculty and staff who managed to move more than 4,000 classes online in a matter of days, and who stood up a process to help students with travel and technical assistance. I was equally impressed with, and grateful for, the flexibility of our students both last spring and this fall. More recently, we realized after watching other schools that we needed to find more quarantine and isolation space for students who tested positive or were close to someone who had. I’m thankful both to the staff who worked quickly to identify more space and to the group of students who adapted to new living situations with patience and understanding.
We’ve learned the importance—and challenges—of communicating early, often, and transparently. With so much information to share, and so much of it changing all the time, we’ve been forced to think carefully about how to communicate more effectively. Some of this, perhaps unavoidably, has come in the form of long emails. But we’ve also experimented with videos, marketing campaigns, regular newsletters, a weekly show and even sending CavMan to the Corner with signs encouraging masking and social distancing.
We have also gained deeper appreciation of the importance of being patient and assuming good intent, of being generous with each other, of recognizing we are part of a single community, of doing our part for the greater good and of being a good neighbor to the broader Charlottesville community. But the most important lesson has been the enduring value of learning itself—which is fitting, given our role as a university.
As I mentioned earlier, I hope that when this edition of Virginia Magazine reaches you, we will have finished a successful semester. But no matter what happens, I can say with confidence that we will continue to learn, and to apply those lessons as best we can—not just during this crisis but beyond it. Thank you for being with us every step of the way.