Message to Luther Community Regarding the 2020-21 Academic Year

To: Luther College Community
From: President Jenifer K. Ward
Re: Academic Year 2020-21
Date: April 30, 2020

Dear Luther Community,

Just now, I was looking back at a letter I wrote you to launch this academic year on September 2, 2019. I ended with an appeal to all of us to have an appetite for adaptation and an intention to make trust and optimism viral, noting that the wind turbine was turning and that students were activating every space on campus. I ended with: now is the time!

I had no idea when I wrote the letter how prescient those words might be, how quickly we would need to leap into adaptive action, how the word “viral” would have new meaning, and how vitally important it is for a college like Luther to have students present as more than postage-stamp-size images on a computer screen. But here we are in a new reality, and now is the time to signal our intention to adapt once again.

Rather than asking IF we will return to an on-campus, residential experience next fall, I want us to start adjusting our expectations to HOW and WHEN we will do so. To that end, in consultation with the leadership of the Board of Regents, I convened a task force to consider a number of different scenarios for how to restructure our academic calendar and consider mixed pedagogical approaches to account for the great uncertainties still facing us. That group has begun vetting these scenarios with others and we hope to share details with you by mid-May. Each one will require cooperation and adaptation and intensive planning in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, it is clear that we are still in the early days of learning how COVID-19 works, the trajectory of infection transmission, whether or when there will be therapeutic interventions before a vaccine is developed, what policies and actions on the part of local, state, and federal government will have been developed to marshal a response to the pandemic, and any number of other issues. In the face of so many open questions, how can we plan with certainty?

The answer is: we can’t. Certainty will not be there. But planning for a return to campus must not wait until the day before we get some sort of “all clear” months into the future. As I said in an earlier letter, we will have to assume that our return to campus will mean that we will be living with the reality of this virus. And viruses do not respect the boundary of College Drive or the city limits of Decorah, Iowa.

Here’s what is certain: we will continue to find innovative ways to adapt to a new way of being and working so that we can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on our campus and in our town. If we have to wear masks, they will be fun, personal expressions that tell the world that we take our public health responsibility to our classmates, colleagues, and neighbors seriously. If we have to stand or sit farther apart than we like, we will reorganize our spaces and raise our voices and project; we will listen more attentively. If we need to monitor our health or rearrange our housing assignments or workspaces, or spread our scheduled activities such as dining across more hours, or postpone large gatherings, or have athletic competitions without fans in the bleachers, we will adjust.

I understand that it is hard to fast-forward, emotionally and psychologically, to a time several months from now. Perhaps by that time we will know more, have more answers, have better solutions, or have less anxiety than we do in these first weeks. Even then, we will not have a grand “re-set” moment in which our previous way of doing things is restored. Many things will be different, and every member of this community will have a choice to make: whether to frame these differences as loss or as opportunity. Observing the way we have risen to the challenge of the last 40+ days, through all their peaks and troughs, gives me confidence that we will choose the latter.

Being “Norse” is not shaped by a schedule or a space. It is shaped by our call to learn actively, live purposefully, and lead courageously for a lifetime of impact. But we are indeed bound in affection to the places and people that we associate with Luther College. We miss conversations on the Library lawn, in the Regents Center, and in the Valders Concourse; the sounds of voices and instruments tuning in Jenson-Noble; and the Asian Bowl in Oneota Market. There is our favorite pizza or coffee in town, and the hikes and rides around Decorah. We want to see each other’s faces. Let us commit boldly to doing so, and then pull every lever of creativity we have to achieve this intention.

Soli Deo Gloria!

President Jenifer K. Ward