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COVID-19 Update: Reflecting on Changes for the Fall Semester

May 29, 2020

Dear members of our Saint Louis University community, 

Prior to COVID-19, you continually expressed a strong preference for communications to be as short as possible. You wanted the facts and only the facts, but over the last several weeks, this has changed. You still want the facts, but now you want more — more of the when, the why, and the how. 

While there are still many questions for which we do not yet have answers, I can provide a deeper look into how we arrived at the decisions we have made thus far. 

Earlier this week, members of our University Leadership Council (vice presidents, deans and representatives from faculty, staff and students) convened over Zoom to continue our ongoing consultations and deliberations regarding the fall semester. This led, ultimately, to our agreement to:

I want to clarify that while changes to our academic calendar apply to all undergraduate and most graduate programs, they do not apply to others, such as the Schools of Law and Medicine. Graduate and professional students will receive more guidance from their academic leaders if the new calendar does not apply to them. 

To arrive at our commitment to return to campus for the fall semester, and our decision to start nine days earlier than we originally had planned, the ULC reaffirmed that our Catholic, Jesuit values would serve as the foundation to guide us as we confront the complexities and challenges of planning for the fall. 

It is tempting to think that living our mission would provide a clear path forward, when in fact, relying on our values to make decisions actually creates more contemplation. This discernment is a bedrock of the Ignatian charism. 

During our thoughtful discussions, we recognized that our values often present paradoxes that are held in tension. This is best illustrated by St. Ignatius himself. He was both an activist and a contemplative; a soldier and a saint; a mystic and an administrative leader. 

These tensions surfaced during the ULC discussions. For example:

Ultimately, we agreed: Our mission and values are best advanced through the power of face-to-face instruction and the strong interpersonal bonds found at the center of our residential campus. That is how we best achieve our foundational commitment to cura personalis

Looking Ahead 

We are eager to invite members of our community back to our St. Louis and Madrid campuses — and we recognize that saying “yes” to that invitation comes with tremendous responsibility on our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

When the semester begins, there will be many changes to "our way of proceeding." Some will be inconvenient. There will be limits that will require us to remember that our care for one another means that we will accept changes so that classmates, professors and staff members remain healthy. 

No doubt, this semester will look and feel different than any previous semester. We will need to rethink student activities, residence hall occupancies, classroom capacities, course schedules and much more. All such unanswered questions will be addressed as the answers become clear. 

The changes to our fall calendar help, in part, to minimize opportunities for members of our campus community to travel back and forth between, for example, St. Louis and their hometowns. We hope to reduce the potential for greater exposure not just to our campus but to the entire region. 

Deeper Reflection 

The patchwork decisions among institutions of higher education regarding whether or not fall instruction will be predominately face-to-face illustrate that, despite how confident each school’s announcements may seem, much is yet unknown, and many important variables are beyond our control. 

Leading our University is a responsibility I have always taken with a seriousness of great magnitude. Families entrust us with their loved ones who live, study, work and worship at SLU. 

Colleges constantly consider the health and safety of the campus community.  Nonetheless, we have witnessed tragic events occur at some of our nation’s universities. Institutions are always balancing risk, sometimes remote but real, by weighing how much our campuses remain open and accessible, versus tightly locked down. We act prudently, without going to one extreme or the other.   

The risks of conducting any amount of face-to-face instruction in the fall pose potential consequences to health, safety, and life. Through ongoing consultation with our experts and discussion with faculty, staff and student leaders, we continue to identify safeguards and mechanisms to mitigate these risks. And we continue to pray that while we cannot eradicate all the risks we face, the balance we seek will allow us to realize the full potential and power of advancing and sharing knowledge in face-to-face community within the healthiest environment we can foster. 

In this moment, leadership ought not to be measured by the level of confidence that we have mitigated the risks within our control. Rather, it ought to be a willingness to acknowledge that the decision to convene dual face-to-face and online instruction was made with the best information available to us and that the benefits were deemed to be greater than the risks that remain at this time. 

The decision to return to campus in the fall was made by a broad group of University leaders through extended and rigorous discussions, rooted in our values and the Ignatian approach to education, and with the best information available. 

Astute decision making in novel situations that are filled with uncertainty requires holding paradoxes in tension. This is what we do at Saint Louis University. It is who we are. When some seek simple solutions, we wade into the waters of complexity. We sit calmly with uncertainty and embrace nuance. Together, as OneSLU, we will overcome whatever obstacles lie ahead. 

May God bless you and Saint Louis University. 

Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D.

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