2021: What We Take Forward

2021: What We Take Forward

“There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in….”

(Leonard Cohen, Anthem)

Sometime early in the months when we were hunkered down/bunkered in during the early days of the pandemic, I asked my colleagues on Trinity’s senior staff to start thinking about three questions:

  • What have we learned during the pandemic?
  • What will we leave behind?
  • What will we take forward?

The reflections on these questions inform our work in updating Trinity’s strategic plans and tactical approaches to managing the university in an environment that is permanently changed.  There is no “going back” to some time before March 13, 2020, the last date when everyone was on campus in “normal” time.  We can only go forward, and to do so well, we must take the best of what we have learned and not waste time in mourning what we have to leave behind.

In an ironic way, the pandemic in 2020 was the crack that cut across just about everything, letting light into places we had previously avoided or did not even know about.  Amid all of the hardship, fear, sorrow and suffering, we also had moments of discovery and progress in learning how to do things we once thought were impossible.  A faculty member wrote to me to acknowledge that her greatest pandemic insight is that “…you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!” — or at least to use Zoom well enough to teach effectively and stay in touch with family and friends.

But we learned more than how to “unmute” ourselves at all the right times.  We learned how to express communal solidarity and sustain our sense of community even when we could not be together physically.  We learned something we suspected, but realized in an important new way, that the idea of Trinity is larger and stronger than some venerable buildings on Michigan Avenue.  We learned that we could keep our values of excellence and integrity intact even in the online and remote teaching and learning environment.  We learned that we could help each other to absorb the frightening impact of the pandemic by being present to each other and the community virtually, listening to and understanding our fears, sharing strategies for coping, responding compassionately to those who were having the hardest of times.  We also found a renewed sense of solidarity and commitment to justice in our response to the persistent climate of racial hatred and injustice toward immigrants fomented by the outgoing political administration.  We found a sense of collective hope in the thought of political change for the better in the months ahead.

Even as we learned many important new skills and habits during the last long nine months, we also experienced a sudden and permanent break from old ways of doing business, and that’s also a good thing, light shining through the crack in the once-impregnable facade of “we’ve always done it this way.”  We learned that we can certainly teach and learn online and do it very well; we learned that we can work remotely without sacrificing productivity; we learned that the obsessive need for signatures on papers and hoarding multiple copies of everything is just not necessary in the age of Docu-Sign.  We’re still working on the assessment of what we leave behind, from mundane bureaucratic procedures to more significant parts of our programs, services and operations.

What do we take forward into 2021?

A new year always offers a sense of hope, renewal, resolution to make good change permanent.  Our eagerness for change may be tempered by our memories of the last nine months and the knowledge that some of those conditions continue unabated.  The Covid-19 pandemic is worse than ever, the death toll is appalling, the rate of infection accelerating.  The arrival of the vaccine is a ray of hope, but the early rollout is slow, and the likelihood of widespread immunization is at least six months away.  The political environment continues with an unprecedented level of toxicity and lawlessness even as the inauguration of a new president offers some sense of a return to stability and common sense at least.  We are optimistic about the potential restoration of DACA and a more secure environment for our Dreamer Scholars.  But at the fringes, the elements of anarchy and white supremacy, encouraged by the outgoing administration, will continue to haunt our city and the new political leadership.

For Trinity, we know now that we will definitely take forward into 2021 a new sense of openness to change, a willingness to embrace technologies and create an even more dynamic teaching and learning culture that will thrive in all modalities.  We are so eager to return to a vibrant campus community — Trinity will never abandon the idea of a real campus with face-to-face teaching and learning, but that reality will be one of multiple options for the Trinity experience in the future.  We will surely have a number of programs, particularly graduate programs, that will reach broader audiences online, and even our on-campus courses will make far greater use of technology.

Trinity is taking forward a renewed commitment to exercise leadership for racial and gender equity as a matter of our mission commitment to social justice.  We have established Trinity DARE: Driving Actions for Racial Equity as a signature initiative to widen career pipelines and create greater opportunities for our students and graduates.  We will be even more ambitious about advocating for justice and equity for our students and graduates in the months ahead.  We seek to raise a significant amount of money to support this initiative for student scholarships, internships and related support.

Speaking of money, we are able to look to the future with confidence and creativity thanks to an exceptional group of benefactors who have contributed millions to Trinity this year to ensure our strength through and beyond the pandemic.  A remarkable group of donors contributed more than $16 million to create the “Renaissance Fund” to leverage Trinity’s forward movement beyond the pandemic era, and other donors have contributed substantially to scholarships, emergency grants, support for Nursing and other disciplines.  We are blessed to have so many loyal and generous alumnae and alumni, benefactors, trustees and friends cheering Trinity on —- they are the light that shines through on some of the more difficult days.

Most important, we have our vibrant campus community of students, faculty and staff who have persisted and thrived through these long months, and who are looking ahead eagerly and with much creative spirit.  In my next several blogs, I will be recounting the stories of the students who will receive their degrees at winter graduation on January 13-14, and some other stories of students who had remarkable experiences during the Fall 2020 semester.

Trinity takes forward into 2021 the commitment to excellence in teaching and learning that has always been our hallmark, with the sense of urgency to prepare our students to make a real difference in a very needy world.  We see our graduates on the front lines everywhere — Trinity nurses courageously attending to Covid-19 patients in area hospitals, Trinity teachers finding new ways to keep children engaged with their studies, Trinity non-profit leaders providing essential services to those in need in our city and region, Trinity judges ensuring justice and fairness every day, Trinity graduates tirelessly reaching out to help others in need, Trinity journalists telling the news stories of our times, Trinity public leaders standing fearlessly for human and civil rights against the rising tide of authoritarianism.

2021 will be a challenging year to be sure, but we will take with us the power and strength of our great mission at Trinity as we continue to find new and even more effective ways to be of service to all those who need us.  May Trinity be that light shining through the cracks, illuminating lives, reducing fear and restoring hope in communities everywhere.