June 8, 2020
Katherine A. Rowe
William & Mary President
In a Community Conversation this spring, Associate Dean of Admission Tish Canady stated: “There’s nothing else to put out there but what’s authentically you.” She was speaking about William & Mary’s approach to recruiting new students in a time of pandemic. Reflecting on her words in the weeks that followed, I realize that she was speaking to a larger truth.
When confronted with overwhelming challenges, our only option is to respond with our authentic selves. We have witnessed healthcare providers, including many William & Mary alumni, courageously combatting COVID-19 on the frontlines. Essential workers continued showing up, knowing that their work makes it possible for others to stay in. And so many chose to stay home to protect the safety of others.
As we navigate this pandemic, the Alma Mater of the Nation is learning once more what it means to serve with compassion. At the time of this writing, we are in the final week of the spring semester. Our community’s creative adaptation and profound commitment to belonging carried us through the past months. Those same qualities will carry our nation through the next uncertain phase of what it means to “reopen.”
We should all take great pride in how William & Mary has responded. We have shown who we are as a 327-year-old institution, grounded in tradition and committed to changing the world for the better.
Navigating a "Wicked Environment"
COVID-19 exemplifies what sociologists call a wicked environment: an unfamiliar and adverse environment that changes rapidly. Decisions must be made with far too little information for comfort. As we navigate this territory, our mission is our compass.
At William & Mary, we know who we are as a learning community. We convene great minds and hearts to meet the most pressing needs of our world. From that mission, we set out four goals to guide us through the pandemic. We would:
- Safeguard the health of our community
- Sustain W&M’s vibrant learning mission
- Maintain the university’s research and operations
- Join the national effort to flatten the curve of COVID-19
Innovating to Advance What We Value Most
For the sake of these goals, we reimagined every aspect of living, working and learning at William & Mary. A student yoga instructor summed up the challenge in an online wellness video posted in the early days of quarantine. She observed that community exists even when we cannot see each other.
Our students and their families, faculty, staff, alumni and friends approached the task of creating community under quarantine with energy and dedication.
- Learning together from afar. In just 10 days, our faculty moved 2,000-plus courses online. Students took active roles as collaborators in learning and the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation supported pedagogical innovation. Intergenerational partnerships, in which we learn side-by-side, may prove one of the most valuable lessons we take with us from this difficult season.
- Taking a both / and approach to Commencement. For a community that cherishes close connections, some traditions must be held in person. So we deferred our in-person Commencement ceremony to a long weekend in the fall. We want to give our students and their families as much time to reconnect and celebrate as possible. And, by the time you read this, we will have conferred degrees virtually on May 16: paying homage to past traditions that some alumni may remember, while we inaugurate new traditions of gratitude.
- Connecting personally with the Class of 2024. Our Admission team partnered with William & Mary’s entrepreneurship fellows to find new ways to introduce ourselves to the Class of 2024. Admission staff and students reported that this year’s process was more fulfilling than ever because they had more opportunities to meet one-on-one with prospective students. Alumni reached out to students and shared their #whyWM on social media. And we brought our most cherished traditions online through a virtual tour and a new Digital Days program.
- Finding new ways to engage one another. Our Alumni Association stood up new programming, recognizing the increased desire for connection that so many of us have felt during this season of quarantine. New professional development programs and networking opportunities offered support to William & Mary’s entire community in this difficult economy.
As our community comes together to combat the impacts of COVID-19, we do so with a profound sense of duty to each other that befits William & Mary’s long tradition of service. The challenges brought on by the pandemic have illuminated the intense vulnerability of so many in our university community and beyond. Immediately after we announced that learning would be moved to remote platforms, alumni, parents, friends, students, faculty and staff wrote to me directly to ask: how can I help?
- Our extended community stepped up through our For the Bold campaign to support William & Mary’s emergency funds, including especially the Fund for William & Mary, which supports the university as a whole;
- Students supported their classmates by giving to the HEART Fund; many students donated their housing and food rebates; and the Student Assembly committed additional funding;
- Neighbors in Williamsburg offered to open their homes to students unable to activate their emergency evacuation plans;
- Researchers donated thousands of items of personal protective equipment to area hospitals.
So many in our William & Mary community have reached out, with compassion, care and wisdom. Many have observed that while these seismic shifts feel unprecedented, William & Mary has been here before. This university has navigated war, fire, epidemic and economic recession. And we have flourished by holding close our educational mission to learn and to serve in all times coming.
In this time of pandemic — to borrow our thoughtful colleague’s words — the Alma Mater of the Nation is putting out there what’s authentically us.