Update on the Fall Term

August 14, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

In early July, I wrote to announce our plans for how Columbia would operate in the coming academic year in the face of an historic pandemic. The goal underlying and animating that message remains the same today: to continue our mission of research, education, clinical care, and service with all the dedication we can summon and consistent with the highest degree of safety and wellbeing for our entire community that we can possibly achieve. Between then and now the institution has dedicated every possible minute and resource to that end. In addition to the creativity applied to revising our academic life, we have reshaped our landscape of public health. There has been robust training; implementation of symptom attestation, testing, and contact tracing programs; and multiple sessions to prepare our communities for this new life. We have transformed our physical spaces to minimize risk and to optimize campus life in a socially distant environment.  

These extraordinary efforts have made it possible to bring back almost ten thousand faculty, researchers, and essential employees to continue and resume clinical care, education, and research on campus. We have instituted an internally run testing program, through which we have not yet seen a positive test result. I am profoundly grateful to everyone involved for their relentless efforts in getting us to this point. 

In that July letter, I also indicated our need to evaluate the circumstances prevailing at this time, and I committed to sharing with you a final assessment by August 15. Now is that moment. While New York City is well along in its phased reopening process, as we all know, the surges of the pandemic continue and its grip on American life has not eased. This, unfortunately, has consequences for us. Though six weeks ago we thought that we could safely house 60 percent of Columbia College and Engineering undergraduates in our residence halls, today we have concluded that we must drastically scale back the number of students we can accommodate in residence on campus, thereby limiting residential-style living only to Columbia College and SEAS undergraduates who must be present on campus due to personal or academic circumstances. Housing arrangements for School of General Studies undergraduates will remain unchanged. We will continue to evaluate undergraduate housing options for the spring term. 

We remain committed to the academic success of all undergraduate students in these difficult circumstances, and we will make provisions for the return to residence halls of students who cannot pursue their academic programs successfully without being present on campus. This includes those without access to stable internet, quiet study space, and other prerequisites for remote learning, and those whose academic progress depends upon lab research, access to special archives, or other activities that cannot be effectively accomplished online. Your deans will be in touch with details about these provisions for student return.

This is a hard and difficult decision. Many of you are aware that State protocols require all students from the now 31 states and 2 territories included in New York’s high-risk list to quarantine for 14 days once they arrive here. A very large percentage of our residence hall population falls into this category. Affected students are required to reside alone in their dorm rooms, or (as would be the case for most students) in hotels, or other private quarters, at all times.

While I am supportive of the measures New York State has imposed, and while I have no doubt that we could ensure a safe quarantine period from a public health standpoint, two weeks is a long time to endure isolation, especially for students who will be leaving home for the first time. Conditions for all students in quarantine will be austere, to say the least. And, of course, after the quarantine period ends, various restrictions related to social interactions and other forms of gatherings on campus will remain in place, limiting the quality of life for students residing on campus because of the nature of dormitory-style spaces. These two considerations combined are a major part of our decision.

With few undergraduate students living on campus, we have decided that all undergraduate courses will be virtual. There is the physical capacity to conduct many undergraduate courses in person, but students now will be living in so many locations, and under such varied circumstances, that online instruction is the only realistic approach. This means that, no matter where undergraduates spend the fall term, many courses and opportunities for interaction with faculty will be available to each student. There will still be the chance to learn from some of the finest minds and teachers in the world and to experience the dazzling creativity that marks a truly outstanding university such as Columbia.

Now, there are very important points to add. Despite these changes, necessitated as they have been by the particular circumstances of undergraduate life, Columbia will continue to be open and moving ahead towards our goal of regaining every essence of personal intellectual engagement. The careful metrics, grounded in science, that we have established to assess whether we have achieved the necessary conditions for return have been satisfied. Graduate and professional schools are executing carefully constructed plans for the upcoming term, with many having converted to hybrid and in-person models that will allow for some classroom-based instruction, while taking into account the needs of international and other students who may be unable to be physically present due to immigration or travel restrictions or other reasons. Approximately 40 percent of all graduate courses offered this fall will be hybrid or in-person (including my small seminar on Advanced Issues in the First Amendment in the Law School), and I completely support and admire deans who are offering these forms of instruction despite the many obstacles we have all confronted. In every school and college, and all across the University, we see faculty demonstrating impressive resilience and creativity in designing and redesigning their courses and displaying the passionate commitment to their students that Columbia is justifiably known for. 

That brings me to the last observation. There is every reason to believe that the conditions that we are experiencing now will continue in one form or another, in one degree or another, for an extended period. Even if one is, as I am inclined to be, optimistic about getting all this behind us, we must assume we will be living with a significant degree of uncertainty for quite some time. That means many things. Among them, we must be prepared to shift as conditions change. We should, accordingly, think of the decision about undergraduates and the fall term as part of a phased return. We need to establish a sense of confidence among us, turn to our experts in public health for guidance, calibrate our sense of risk based on best evidence, think in terms of the common good, and talk—again and again. Finally, as many of our rhythms of intellectual life are disrupted, we must make sure we are experimenting and learning from the vast array of teaching opportunities we will be exploring. 

This is a moment to give our primary focus to our students, and I know I speak on behalf of the entire faculty and staff when I say this is being done. We know your lives are being shaped by this pandemic in ways you never contemplated possible. Please know we stand ready to help. And, a final expression of unending gratitude to all within the Columbia community who are making this journey feel like a true community effort. 


Lee C. Bollinger