Message from President Bollinger on the Start of this Academic Year

September 04, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

I write to you today to mark an occasion that in ordinary times is one filled with joy and full of promise and optimism, the beginning of the fall term. Perhaps like many of you, I find it difficult to comprehend what we have been through over the past six months. But I am most certainly admiring of the determination to face the challenges of the pandemic and to press on, as we managed to complete the spring term, conduct two robust summer terms, and now stand ready to usher in a fall term of fully enrolled undergraduate and graduate programs. 

Columbia students will primarily learn remotely this fall, including the first-year undergraduates we had so hoped would move into their residence halls this week. While each of our schools will offer a varying degree of courses in person and online, we know that as a whole, 24% of our courses at the University this fall will be in person and hybrid and the remaining courses will be entirely virtual. Thanks to the tireless work of many, I am fully confident we can provide a meaningful academic experience no matter where our students reside. And so today I welcome all Columbia students, faculty, and staff to this new era with a full heart and enormous appreciation for your patience, resilience, and determination.

While Columbia has always thrived as a lively and culturally distinct constellation of individual schools and programs, the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily separated our community between those who will be living in New York City and expect to spend a portion of the fall term on campus and those who will be living elsewhere and hence experience the entire term virtually. 

Of those residing in New York City, about 1,000 undergraduate students have moved into residence halls, having qualified for on-campus housing based on special circumstances that I described in my August letter. Approximately 13,000 others are living off campus, either in Columbia-owned housing in Morningside Heights (approximately 4,400) or in apartments around the city. Our remote students (approximately 15,400), by contrast, are living in more than 115 countries and all across the United States. Each group faces a unique set of circumstances.

First, the New York City-based students. No matter where they live, students who expect to be physically present on campus this fall are required to adhere to a number of safety measures that are spelled out in the Columbia Community Health Compact, including undergoing gateway and subsequent COVID-19 tests, in order to access campus-based facilities, such as Butler Library, laboratories, and classrooms. In signing the Compact, students agree to adhere to public health policies related to face coverings and physical distancing and to enroll in our campus testing and contact tracing program.

As for our ability to operate in person, there are several things to note. It is important to remember that New York State and New York City have made tremendous progress in keeping the COVID-19 pandemic under control. The State’s testing positivity rate has remained under 1% for nearly one month, after reaching a peak in New York of 46.7% in early April. Columbia data are even stronger, with over 13,000 tests already conducted and a positivity rate of .05%. However, as many universities with earlier start dates have already discovered, one ill-advised gathering can turn a single case into an outbreak. Many of these outbreaks have started off campus, in small group settings, and involve older students. In other words, COVID-19 spreads as easily among graduate students as it does among undergraduates—and the implications are the same, and very serious, no matter how or where the outbreak starts.

Under New York State rules governing colleges and universities, Columbia would immediately revert to universal virtual classroom instruction for at least two weeks if we experience an outbreak of 100 or more positive cases over a 14-day period. A significant outbreak carries particular risks for New York City, which was so grievously stricken by this pandemic and would be devastated anew by a resurgence—and that adds a moral imperative to our safety efforts. Given the stakes, students who commit serious Compact violations will be subjected to our student disciplinary process. This includes violations involving students that take place off campus.

Given the tremendous spirit of public service that characterizes Columbia students in regular times, it does not surprise me in the least to see our students embracing new opportunities to help others during this crisis, rather than retreating into private concerns or buckling under its constraints. More than 600 students have signed up for a new ambassadors program to work as peer leaders on campus health issues with their classmates. Students are creating their own safety videos. Over 1,000 students have volunteered as tutors for the children of essential workers. Faculty and staff have also been enlisted as safety coordinators to ensure adherence to safety measures.

It is also noteworthy that our technology teams are deploying very creative solutions to both keep our campus safe and enhance our ability to engage students remotely. On campus, these solutions include new software to help with symptom attestation and density management, a reservation system for study seats in our libraries, as well as enhancements to reduce surface contact including touchless printing. For our entire community across the globe, our classrooms have all been technologically upgraded to accommodate remote teaching and we now have virtualized computer labs to provide specialized software access to those students off campus. 

Let me make special reference to our international students, who are so critical to defining the very nature of Columbia University. We are deeply concerned for them, as they face both reasonable and unreasonable barriers to being fully with us, mostly centered around visa delays and restrictions. We will do everything in our power to help our international students manage these obstacles. But we are also trying to re-fashion existing capacities and to invent new ones, like enhancing our Global Centers network around the world, expanding existing centers, and adding pop-up centers to provide study and work space for students. This additional capacity will provide opportunities for community building and will serve as a temporary bridge to in-person campus life.

This Tuesday, when classes officially begin, is a day we have all anticipated for many months. We have imagined it in countless variations, but now it is what we have arrived at through that unimaginably complex process. Although the pandemic is not now abating, the fall term does not represent a permanent change in our academic way of life. On the contrary, it is only a transitional period in which we gird ourselves to restore the intellectual richness and vitality that so attract the world to Columbia’s doorsteps to know, teach, and act as only a great university can. 

All this said, I cannot close without expressing a larger concern about the wellbeing of America’s constitutional democracy. I have said many times over the past several years that, while the University takes no position on political issues, no matter how serious or even grave, a university cannot survive in a society that does not take seriously the basic elements of civic life—respect for truth, respect for reason as a means to truth, and the embrace of a foundational principle of human equality. In those, we have as much at stake as anyone and can, indeed must, devote our resources to their preservation. So, one priority we have as an institution is to assist students with voting, no matter where they are located in the United States or beyond, and you will be hearing more about this issue in the coming weeks. 

This is a moment when mutual support matters. We must do all we can to help each other in this academic year, no matter where we are and no matter how dispersed our community is.  


Lee C. Bollinger