As our planet, nation, state, city and university respond to the unprecedented Coronavirus, few of us can avoid a feeling of deep and relentless unease. This is a feeling that will persist, but I believe that in the face of this danger and in response to it, we need to focus on our responsibilities to each other and to the community we are part of. I think of myself as an educator and my first concern is for our students. We are responsible for ensuring that the process of educating our students continues. Each of us, faculty and administrators, play a key role in delivering courses, advice, career opportunities, co-curricular programming and a sense of community to all of our students. We do that in this wonderful city on our magnificent campus, and we work very hard in a very specialized way. But now, a central element of our educational infrastructure, our location, is not available to us. In response, we must pivot, demonstrate our agility and provide services in a new and different way.
Last week, I taught my Sustainability Management course to about 50 students on Zoom. It was the first time I ever taught remotely, and it was a challenge. The session went well but I hope that when I teach again after spring break it will improve. SPS staff did an excellent job of supporting our move from face-to-face to online instruction. We need to continue to provide this high level of support, but now we must also extend our work beyond the virtual classroom. Education is not simply a set of classes, but it also involves co-curricular programming outside the classroom. It is our responsibility to develop virtual co-curricular programming. Our events and instructional teams will be working to support programs as they present speakers, films and panel discussions central to their fields. I am certain that our programs will want to focus on the impact of the virus on their fields of professional practice and study. We will also want to provide out-of-classroom sessions virtually that we had originally hoped to deliver face-to-face.
We continue to recruit and admit students to degree and non-degree programs for the summer and fall and must prepare for the possibility that some of the summer programs may need to be delivered remotely. Our admissions committees will continue their work as will our efforts to market educational programs in this more uncertain world. Visits to campus and classrooms must be replaced by online and phone communications between applicants and students, faculty and staff.
Other tasks such as recruiting and reviewing faculty must continue and be completed on schedule. We need to continue to recruit adjunct faculty, teaching assistants and staff to ensure that our virtual classes deliver the same Columbia-quality education we deliver in face-to-face courses.
As a professional school, one of our key missions is to advance the professional aspirations of our students. This involves career education and connecting our current students to employers and alums. This will also need to continue throughout the spring. Connecting students and employers will be a challenge, but electronic resources are of growing importance in this area and I suspect we will be replacing face-to-face contact with phone and email networking.
Everything we do will need to be rethought and reframed in the environment we are in. An important community-building event like graduation may need to be adjusted, perhaps to a program-based online session featuring the Dean, the academic director and a video summary of the accomplishments of the graduating class. While no one welcomes the disruption of our way of life, we must respond to it with energy, creativity and innovation. We have an ethical responsibility to our students and to each other to remain hopeful and productive.
This week, from my SPS office in Lewisohn I was able to see students preparing to depart campus posing for photos by Alma Mater dressed in their commencement regalia. It was both depressing and profoundly moving to see. I’ve worked at Columbia since 1981, nearly four decades ago. I am always impressed by the strength and sense of purpose evidenced by this institution. Since 1754, through war, riots, economic disasters and the easily remembered horror of 9-11, Columbia has managed to maintain its high standards and sense of mission. The School of Professional Studies is the newest school at Columbia, but we share in that rich tradition. I am confident that those of us responsible for the operation and management of SPS will respond to the challenge of this difficult time.
Please feel free to contact me or my colleagues in the Dean’s office to address any operational issues you are unable to address on your own.
Dr. Steven Cohen
Senior Vice Dean, School of Professional Studies, Columbia University
Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs
Director, Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy & Executive MPA Concentration in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
Director, Master of Science in Sustainability Management, School of Professional Studies, Columbia University
Director, Research Program on Sustainability Policy & Management, The Earth Institute