12.15.20: My Thoughts About This Semester and the Ones to Follow

A message to faculty and instructional staff from Provost Urban

Dear Colleagues,

In looking back and trying to describe this fall semester and this past year, I keep coming back to some of the same descriptions:  words like “unprecedented,” “challenging,” “difficult” and even “unusual.” Recently, my impulse is to simplify and just say that it’s been “hard.” Certainly it’s been much harder on some than others, especially those who have been sick, or who have had loved ones who were sick. Many are grieving the loss of family members or friends. We have been fortunate that very few faculty and staff contracted COVID, but the cascading effects of the pandemic have been hard for everyone. I deeply appreciate the work that everyone has done to support each other, our students and the university through this semester and this past year.

The word “hard” reminds me of the line from the speech by John F. Kennedy at Rice University when, in talking about going to the Moon, he said, “We choose to go to the Moon... and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” This quote has always puzzled me a bit—should we choose to do things because they are hard?  Typically not. We choose not to do many things that are hard. But the next line provides a bit more context: “...because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…” 

I think Kennedy was making the point that the goal of going to the Moon served both as a test and as an exercise to prepare us for the future. After a few years of Apollo missions, we stopped going to the Moon and have not returned. But it's clear that the things we learned and the discoveries we made to get us there changed the future. The discoveries that we made on the Moon pale in comparison to those that were needed to make it happen. I would argue that the point of the Moon Shot was not getting to the Moon. Getting to the Moon required the development of new technologies, the implementation of new ways of planning and managing, and the identification of new leaders among the people working for the space program. 

This semester has been hard. It was, in many ways, our own kind of Moon Shot—albeit one that we did not choose. Teaching, learning, serving students and performing our scholarship during this pandemic are things we were unwilling to postpone that served to organize, measure and develop our energies and skills. Even though the specifics of operating in a pandemic are not things we anticipate becoming routine beyond this year (thankfully), this process has forced us to develop new skills and capabilities and to adopt new ways of working that will permanently shape higher education. This is true for faculty, staff and students. The future of higher education and of Lehigh likely will depend on how we recognize and employ what we learned from the hard work and sacrifice required to operate through this pandemic.

With the development and approval of effective vaccines, we are likely seeing the beginning of the end of the pandemic. As we emerge, we should pause to thank those whose efforts allowed us to navigate this time. We should also think about the things we want to carry with us. What changes in the way that we teach, discover and operate the university should persist? What discoveries did we make, what approaches did we develop and what people emerged as making key contributions to our efforts? These will be important questions to turn to after a well-deserved winter break. 

My warmest wishes to you and your families for the holidays.

Nathan Urban

Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs