Plans for the Coming Academic Year

July 07, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

It is now the moment to focus our attention on how the University will operate in the coming academic year. As you might imagine, no decisions in our history have been taken with more seriousness, care, or rigor than the ones we set forth here and in following correspondence. 

These have been trying times for everyone, albeit in varying degrees. For many, especially our students, lives have been on hold. Dreams have been upended and opportunities seemingly thwarted. It is and will remain our central goal to correct this. Unfortunately, no perfect path lies ahead; there are too many variables outside our control. But we will do everything we can, at every moment, to recapture the rich, intense intellectual life that constitutes our very reason for existence. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a major public health threat, and the challenges we face collectively, as well as individually, are daunting. Today it is time to move forward with what we believe to be the best possible plan for Columbia. 

Academic Life

As I announced previously, Columbia will operate on a three-term cycle for the 2020-2021 academic year. Classes for the fall term will begin on schedule, September 8, but the spring and summer terms will be moved up on the calendar. Classes for spring 2021 will start on January 11 and for the summer term on May 3. Each term will offer the option of immersive courses by being divided into two, equal-length sequential blocks. The first summer term block will end on June 18 in order to allow students time for internships and other work. Commencement exercises will take place at the end of the spring term, during the last week of April.

Across the University as we enter the fall term, courses will be offered in multiple formats, almost always with an online option, as we restore face-to-face instruction as soon as possible. We are now equipping our classrooms with new technology that will ensure a rich learning experience for students, whether they participate in person or virtually. 

Faculty response to new models of teaching necessitated by the pandemic has been tremendous. We want to support faculty in every way we can. Training has already begun for all instructional modalities. As we move back into a partial in-person educational environment, questions will inevitably arise about who will provide this teaching. It is important, therefore, to say at the outset that the University will not prescribe an approach for individual faculty members. Faculty will have leeway to teach in person, online, or some combination of the two, in consultation with their schools. 

Graduate and professional schools will have flexibility to design their own reopening plans, as they take account of the specific nature of their coursework and student and faculty preferences. It is nothing short of amazing to witness the creativity and thoughtfulness of our deans as they work with their faculties and staff to develop their distinctive approaches to reopening their programs. Each will shortly announce their decisions. 

Thus, all students should expect in the coming days to receive additional information from their schools about the upcoming year. These school-specific messages, along with all related news, will be posted on the COVID-19 Resource Guide website

Undergraduate Residential Life

One of the most intricate aspects of the reopening process has been configuring our residence halls to ensure that they are healthy living spaces. We have determined that we can safely offer on-campus housing to 60 percent of our Columbia College and The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences undergraduate students, who traditionally live in our campus residence halls. Additionally, we will be able to accommodate the same proportion of Columbia School of General Studies undergraduate students in off-campus Columbia residential housing as we have in the past.

We are committed to offering CC/SEAS undergraduates the option of living on campus for some portion of the academic year. For the fall term, we will invite first-year and second-year students, together with entering transfer students and entering 3-2 Combined Plan Program students who apply for on-campus housing. Students with special or extenuating needs for on-campus resources may apply for an exception to live on campus.

If, in light of public health conditions, we must continue on the current path of our 60 percent guidelines for CC/SEAS students in residence halls, first- and second-year students would depart campus at the Thanksgiving break, finishing their courses and exams remotely, and third- and fourth-year students would be invited to move into campus residence halls in early January for the spring term. We believe it is especially important for fourth-year students to experience their capstone term in person, if they are able to do so.

We understand that many undergraduates will be unable to return to campus in person, due to the federal government’s deeply disturbing visa restrictions, health concerns, or other personal reasons. If first- and second-year student residence hall acceptances do not reach the 60 percent ceiling, additional students will be invited until we have reached our campus housing capacity. As I mentioned previously, we will give additional priority to students in any year who do not have access to the conditions necessary for academic success in their home environments. School deans will be in touch with further information about this commitment. 

Campus Life

While we will provide flexibility in teaching and scholarship and will seek to provide an on-campus experience to as many undergraduate students as possible, we do have to impose strict guidelines that will apply to all who live, work, study, and teach at Columbia. 

Our recently adopted campus health policy will require that persons on campus wear a face covering at all times, unless they are in a private room with the door closed. Physical distancing will be enforced throughout campus, especially in classrooms and residence halls. Many University staff members will remain remote through the fall term—additional guidance is forthcoming. All faculty and staff who have returned to campus after some research activities resumed on June 22 have been tested for COVID-19, and each day they are required to complete a symptom self-check. The same requirements will apply to students, and subsequent periodic testing will also be added. A detailed overview of public health protocols on campus is available here.

Finally, all students, faculty, and staff on the Columbia campus will be asked to sign a compact that encompasses two-way commitments from the University and its community members. This is an unusual step for us, but it reflects the extraordinary degree to which we are dependent on each other to remain healthy and to maintain any semblance of the university experience we all cherish and are together seeking to restore. 

Please keep in mind that every decision we make related to resuming in-person instruction and residential life will be contingent on New York moving into Phase 4 of its reopening plan. We are required to submit to the State our own detailed reopening plan, demonstrating how we will operate and ensure the health and safety of our campus community and neighborhood. We expect to have final clearance from the State to proceed by the week of August 10. If New York City has not entered Phase 4 by August 15, we will determine if it will be necessary to make changes to our fall term plans.

As I indicated at the outset, we are all painfully aware of how disruptive and dangerous the virus has been. The costs of the pandemic in human lives lost and unprecedented economic damage have not yet been fully grasped. The effects on our political culture have been profound, and it can fairly be said that we are reeling from the incalculable damage. None of us knows what trajectory the pandemic will take in the months and possibly years ahead, or when communities like ours will reunite in full form. 

I know we all are committed to adjusting to the world as it comes, while holding dear to our purposes and values. Already we can see signs and examples of creativity that will sustain us not only through the crisis, but forever. This is a defining experience especially for the youngest among us, and all the intelligence and dedication we possess will be devoted to guiding them through it. 

In this spirit, let me draw special attention to one group, in particular. We need to find ways to enable the international students who are in the United States to complete their studies here and to expand and deepen opportunities for Columbia’s large community of international students who cannot come to Columbia because of the pandemic. So, for instance, we are adapting our network of Columbia Global Centers and new Pop-Up Global Center locations to provide in-person academic and peer engagement for many of these students. This will provide a dynamic learning experience in their own or nearby countries and regions. 

We are also trying to teach in the moment and to draw on the extraordinary array of intellectual talent in the University that can help us, and students specifically, interpret and understand the historic effects of the pandemic in the years and decades ahead. 

Columbia College, in partnership with the Columbia Global Centers and Columbia World Projects, has launched the Global Columbia Collaboratory, which will focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. This academic experience is designed to give students—indeed, all of us—the skills, understanding, and ways of thinking that will be needed to lead a world so desperately in search of knowledgeable responses to endlessly complex issues. 

Yet another example: The Columbia School of General Studies is working with the Columbia School of Social Work and the Mailman School of Public Health to develop a co-curricular undergraduate academy, which will begin this fall and will be focused on matters of justice and pandemic preparedness. It will look at communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including many of the neighborhoods surrounding our own campus. 

And, the Columbia Design Challenges, which is offered by Columbia Engineering with partners across the institution, will provide students the chance to see how engineering and applied science together with other disciplines can engage with challenges such as climate change, social justice, and, of course, pandemics.

Let me close by saying that I know this is and will continue to be an immensely difficult time, most especially for those whom the pandemic has affected directly. I want to take this opportunity to remind you that counselors and specialists are available for students on the Columbia Morningside and Columbia University Irving Medical Center campuses, and for faculty and staff through the University’s Employee Assistance ProgramReligious Life also offers pastoral counseling. Your deans and other University leaders will provide additional information in the coming days and weeks. I also encourage you to visit the COVID-19 Resource Guide website to track related news and announcements. And, as always, I promise to be back in touch as developments warrant. 


Lee C. Bollinger