April 23, 2020
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
We are all being inundated by bad news. God knows we all need some inspiration right now! Whether you consume The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, or the evening national news on TV, we hear a drumbeat of doomsday scenarios. That’s because scary is news. Calm reassurance, thoughtful analysis of likely outcomes, and planning based on history or best-available data are not so sexy.
It’s hard to ignore the apocalyptic content of the news media and prognosticating scientists, who may even have the high-minded motivation of scaring the bejeebers out of us so we will all stay inside. Some of these scenarios can be almost seductively gloomy . . . the hole-torn-in-the-fabric-of-life, “nothing-will-ever-be-the-same” narratives.
Don’t fall for them. While caution is reasonable — you should stay at home right now as much as possible and follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and confronting our financial challenges is essential, even a data-driven realist like me sees reasons for optimism.
Life — and the University — will retain the essence they had before. The things that are great about U of R will persist – our warm and welcoming presence, our personalized education, our life-changing student experiences, our commitment to providing opportunity, our communitarian spirit and service.
When we are able to look at the pandemic in retrospect, we will see not everything we were told came true. Like many of you, I was a professional during the 2003 SARS, 2009 H1N1, and 2012 MERS pandemics. Life went on for universities, even though at the time we were scared and made contingency plans for the worst. Every televised model of the current pandemic arc is likely to be wrong, by up to ten-fold. That’s because models are iterative, and by the time they actually “work” based on empirical data, one already knows the answer. SARS and MERS outbreaks were relatively shorter than first imagined; the influenza epidemic of 1918, of course, was not.
Moreover, the “After-Pandemic” won’t be a terrible new abnormal in which we hardly recognize our prior lives. This pandemic will certainly change some behaviors, some symbolic, some real — we’ll likely become as comfortable as some in other countries have been for decades wearing masks in public. And we’ll habitually overuse hand sanitizers. But crises can also make for progressive changes, often great ones that should have been made long earlier. The Great Depression begat Social Security. And the Great Wars begat the GI Bill.
In the case of higher education, this crisis, particularly with its home-bound isolation, should trigger a profound realization of the importance of the social contact we now miss and the personalized interactions that are the essence of a Redlands education. There is no substitute for the inspirational Mortar Board Professor of the Year who writes that letter of recommendation for the next job. The starkly imminent need for robust vaccine research and better testing will greatly enliven our universities’ missions of research, as well as funding. John Thelin, a professor of the history of education and public policy, expresses the university campus’s potential resurgence in an interview this way: “Some people predict that with colleges going online, that would lessen the demand for the traditional campus. . . . If anything, there will be a rediscovery of how really special the traditional campus is: spectator sports, Greek life, dormitories, and campus cafes, and just interacting with your colleagues.”
Another thing that’s commonly left out of most of the news and essays we are all reading . . . innovation! As a physician scientist, I have fundamental faith in the centuries-long history of innovation and ingenuity; vaccines and ingenious pharmaceuticals and biomedical engineering discoveries will be life-saving. Smallpox, bacterial infections like strep throat and its sequel rheumatic fever, measles, mumps, polio, childhood leukemia, many forms of hepatitis, neuromuscular respiratory failure — all have dramatically been tamed in our lifetimes. Highly active antiretroviral “triple therapy” has turned HIV/AIDS into a chronic disease to be managed. These life-saving advances were possible by combining innovation with an evidence-based approach; they don’t involve unscrupulous salesmen hyping untested “cures.”
In response to today’s crisis, I’m impressed by how critical shortages of ventilators in New York and California have inspired “MacGyvered ventilators” at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City (Los Angeles Times, April 13). A team of doctors and therapists ingeniously scavenged tubing and electronics, crafted a key plastic part on a 3-D printer, and successfully transformed a $1,500 BiPAP device normally used for sleep apnea into a full-blown workable ventilator, capable of substituting in the gap for the typical $50,000 high-tech machine for patients with COVID-19 pneumonia. That’s innovation.
And that’s the spirit we will harness to get through these times at the University and shape our future. We will rise to the challenge of doing more with less — and doing it better. We all have something to offer. Can you imagine a more efficient and effective way of doing things in your area? Now is the time to advance those ideas, be it through discussions with your supervisor, proposals to your dean, or applications for innovation grants. Or email directly the Task Force for Future Financial Health at TF4H@redlands.edu.
In the meantime, I look to the next months of late spring and early summer to see our focus beginning to reorient. The Cabinet and Emergency Preparedness Planning group are examining contingencies for the coming summer and fall. While decisions will be based, of necessity, on insufficient information, we will stay grounded in what we know, the best predictive data, and smart guidance from epidemiologists, public health experts, and clinical virology experts . . . not from alarmist essayists. And we’ll have adroit projections (not merely models and guesses) coming to us from the three Western state governors; the CDC and immunologist/infectious disease authority Anthony Fauci; and the American College of Education and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
We already have an uplifting and visionary message to tell our prospective students and to share with others in our community — with themes like “Come to U of R because we have a track record of personalized education”; “We’ve been focused on health and safety in the pandemic and on emotional and financial support for our students, because that’s who we are”; and “Look how flexibly we’ve enacted technology-supported personalized education in the face of this unexpected challenge.”
We are still writing many of these stories. They will be accounts of our patience and perseverance, of looking toward authoritative sources rather than panicked speculation, of measured responses and creative reimagining, all in the context of our commitment to providing transformative opportunities for our students and caring for members of our inclusive community.
Like the inventiveness of the American past and the ingenuity that made us who we are, we need now more than ever the creative spark of innovation, all the wisdom we can muster, and our famed Bulldog grit.
With your help, I see the University of Redlands thriving well into the future.
Ralph W. Kuncl, PhD, MD