Update on the Impact of COVID-19 and Commencement

April 09, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:
This is the message I hoped never to have to convey. I must report the first deaths from COVID-19 within our own extended Columbia community. In recent days, we have lost family members, neighbors, and now at Columbia, we have lost valued employees and one of our own students. Of course, the mortality rate nationally and globally is staggering, but the shock is always greater when the losses occur within your own home and community. I am sure many of you are suffering under the spread of the virus, being personally afflicted or caring for those who are, all the while carrying on with coursework and other responsibilities. Please know we think about you and the burden of these experiences every day.
This past week, I, along with Dr. Lee Goldman, visited inpatient units, an ICU, the Emergency Department, and an outpatient tent at our Medical Center. It is always remarkable to see our faculty, students, and staff in the health sciences provide such superb care to the sick under unimaginable circumstances while at the same time seeking to rapidly generate new knowledge that can help others. These are among the most challenging conditions, filled with anxiety and distress, and everyone is rising to the moment. 
In the few short weeks since many of you left campus, several of Columbia’s most familiar sites have been commissioned into service, including Baker Field, where the hospital is in the process of expanding its facilities. Emptied Morningside campus residence halls are now being used by CUIMC and hospital employees to ease their commutes. Our Libraries and our Engineering School are both producing face shields. All this, along with the research we continue to conduct and the additional intellectual and physical resources we expect to devote to this pandemic in the future, makes us proud.
And, in the final weeks of the semester, it is heartening to know that the academic work of the University continues. We are currently teaching a total of 9,622 courses online—something we previously would not have imagined possible. Continuing with this effort to maintain the functions of the University into the summer, we now expect to offer over 1,800 courses online.
There are two additional developments to note here: With respect to Commencement, individual schools will offer virtual Class Days during that previously designated week. And the University Commencement ceremony will be recorded and shared virtually on May 20th. We still hope to have at some later time an in-person celebration, but it is, unfortunately, not possible at this moment to be more specific.
Lastly, there has been an outpouring of inquiries about what each person might do to help in this crisis. I am happy to say that there is now a consolidated list on our COVID-19 website of ways you might assist and contribute to others. We expect to add more opportunities as they arise.
I want to return to what I said at the outset. I wish I could do more than just express our sense of sadness and loss. I do feel strongly, however, that this is a period when the strengths of universities are manifest and should be recognized. We lodge the professions within our universities, in part because we value and benefit from their expertise but also because we want to nurture a sense of public responsibility as being inherent in these societal roles. The journalist who enters war zones, the lawyer who fights for human rights, and the health worker who braves dangers of infection to aid the ill, all reflect the commitment to the selfless dedication of expertise that universities naturally nurture. As always, however, it is one thing to affirm this commitment, as we regularly do, and another to live it, as we are now seeing so vividly in our Medical Center. It is, therefore, to be celebrated, as an example for us all to follow.
Finally, I would say, if ever there was a time that proves, yet again, that the subjects and preoccupations of the humanities are of transcendent importance in a good life, this is surely one of those.
From the President’s House, Jean and I send our warmest regards. 
Lee C. Bollinger