Bates Community Letter: Fall 2020

Dear Members of the Bates Community,

As we head into the fourth week of the first semester, I write with an update on how we are managing this fall’s unique challenges and to give you a sense of some important areas of focus for this semester and the academic year.

First, I want to thank all of you for your part in helping us sustain a safe on-campus environment for living, learning, teaching, and working. Students, you have adapted with grace and good will to a new course format, new patterns of operation in almost every aspect of campus life, and, for first-years in particular, a challenging context in which to meet new people and build community. 

Faculty, you have worked with astounding diligence, care, and creativity to reshape your courses for a modular schedule and multiple modes of delivery. I realize this has been a very heavy lift, and that it is ongoing, given the pace and intensity of the re-shaped semester. Staff, you have worked tirelessly since March to transform our operations, services, and modes of work in response to pandemic conditions. The level of planning, adaptation, and communication necessary to put the college in a position to open safely this fall has been daunting by any standard. As with everything this fall, the need for flexibility and nimbleness continues as we figure out what works and what doesn’t and respond to evolving public health conditions. Furthermore, the challenges we face at work are intensified by home responsibilities, complex school schedules for children, and care for friends and family who are more vulnerable.

I am deeply impressed with the way this community has come together to make it possible for our students to continue their education and for all of us to focus on fulfilling our educational mission. Your adherence to new routines and exacting community health guidelines are the most important factors in our low positivity rates in testing to date. As the semester progresses and more activities move inside, it will be important for all of us to stay vigilant about observing public health measures so that we can remain on campus through the rest of this semester and beyond.

Summer Progress and Fall Areas of Emphasis

In addition to the core functions that go into providing for an outstanding education in a residential community, I’d like to call your attention to a few areas of progress and focus unique to this fall.

The Physical Campus. Those of you who returned to campus after several months away have likely noticed some significant changes in our physical environment. The Bonney Science Center is taking shape across Campus Avenue from Carnegie, with the roof in place and brickwork making its way up the outer walls. This building project remains on budget and on schedule to open in time for the fall semester in 2021. Across the Historic Quad, the scaffolding that has surrounded the Peter J. Gomes Chapel for the past two years has disappeared, and the Chapel in all its renovated glory is once again open for campus events. On the other side of campus, between Bardwell Street and the Mays Center, you will now find the Veterans Plaza, a site that, as its entrance marker explains, is meant to honor members of the Bates community who are veterans and to invite reflection on the impact of war on everyone it touches. We will be hosting a virtual dedication for the Veterans Plaza on October 9 at 11 a.m., which will be open to the entire community. An invitation will be forthcoming.

Engaging Issues of Race and Justice. This spring and summer the nation has been confronted, repeatedly and relentlessly, with police killings of Black people and the ongoing devaluation of the lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. These are deeply distressing times, and they are particularly difficult times for BIPOC people, including those who are members of the Bates community. This fall, we will intensify our efforts to center equity, inclusion, and anti-racism as core institutional priorities for the college.

Under the leadership of Noelle Chaddock, now in their second year as Vice President for Equity and Inclusion, we are entering the fall with a multi-layered approach designed to engage the Bates community on issues of race and social justice, support our students of color with programming through the Office of Intercultural Education and the Bobcat First! program, and push forward planning and progress on issues of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism throughout the college. Highlights include:

  • Developing a framework to guide racial equity work in individual departments and areas across the college. During the summer, I asked each member of senior staff to develop a racial equity plan for their area of responsibility, specifying progress to date, specific goals, and strategies to guide progress toward these goals. Noelle will take the lead in synthesizing these individual plans into an integrated framework that we will share in the coming months with the broader Bates community for consideration, feedback, and further development.
  • Launching a new position, the Director of Equity and Inclusion Education, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, to provide education and training for students, faculty, and staff, as well as departments, both academic and operational, across the college. Nicollette Mitchell joined us from Oberlin this month as the first occupant of this position. 
  • Restaffing and revitalizing the Office of Intercultural Education (OIE) to better support our minoritized student population. We have recently welcomed two new staff members: Rachel Roberson, who is responsible for educational student support and leads the Bobcat First! program, and Steven Parker, who is responsible for the OIE space and for working with students on leadership development and club activities in the OIE. The focus in OIE this year is to assist our students—particularly students of color and those who are first in their families to attend college—in accessing resources across the college to facilitate their success at Bates; working with students interested in activism on issues of racial justice; and supporting students in efforts to build community among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color on our campus. 
  • Creating a standing committee of the Board of Trustees focused on issues of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism at the college. Building on a Board retreat in January 2020 that included a focus on equity and inclusion, and given the urgency of addressing the ongoing issues of racial injustice laid bare by recent events, the Board of Trustees voted in June to create a standing committee to be chaired by Trustee Evelynn Hammonds, and staffed on the administrative side by Noelle Chaddock. The committee will meet for the first time this October.

Reaccreditation. This fall will bring the culmination of our once-every-ten-years reaccreditation process by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE). It will take the form of a virtual site visit by an eight-member evaluation team, comprising faculty and administrators from other institutions. Along with our self-study, which was completed this summer, the virtual visit forms the basis of the evaluation team’s assessment of Bates against a set of institutional and programmatic standards. Our process is being led by Professor of Biology Don Dearborn, a small coordinating team, and teams of faculty, staff, and students that were responsible for drafting reports for each of nine standards of evaluation. Many of you will be called upon to meet via Zoom with members of the evaluation team, and the entire Bates community will have the opportunity to engage with the team at open forums. The virtual visit is scheduled for November 8–11, 2020, and we will share more information closer to the date.

Election Programming. Understanding that the election in November would be a matter of great interest on campus, an Election Programming Team—including faculty from the Department of Politics and the Department of Rhetoric, Film, and Screen Studies; Josh McIntosh and his team; Noelle Chaddock and their team; Darby Ray, Peggy Rotundo, and other staff and students from the Harward Center—began working over the spring and summer to plan robust programming to run throughout the election season. The Harward Center is focused on encouraging students to vote and providing them with information and support in registering to vote and making a plan to vote in Lewiston or elsewhere, in person or by mail. A series of virtual panels and programs will be offered throughout the fall featuring faculty, staff, and outside speakers with expertise in such topics as electoral politics; the constitutional framework of elections; perceptions of voting by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; economic and social factors affecting access to healthcare; and immigration. Virtual watch parties are planned for the presidential and vice-presidential debates and election night. Post-election programming will give students and the broader Bates community the opportunity to analyze the results of the election and/or follow any post-election events that may occur. This kind of programming is particularly important in a highly polarized electoral environment, where the college’s responsibility to model informed citizenship and healthy debate takes on special urgency. I am grateful for the work of so many colleagues in putting this plan together.

Changing Work Patterns. One of the unexpected silver linings of managing through a pandemic has been discovering new approaches to work processes and culture at Bates that we may wish to carry forward once COVID-19 is behind us. I would like us to take stock of our pandemic-related experiences on an ongoing basis so that we can adopt for the long term some of the positive changes in work patterns and strategies that we have ended up piloting, out of necessity, over the past six months. Examples include: more frequent and detailed communication and dialogue across the college community, in writing, on the web, and in multiple open forums and information sessions; experimentation with new and varied ways of carrying out work, both for individuals and departments; and greater collaboration, openness to change, and pace in decision-making born of the urgency of the moment. 

Closing Thoughts

This community has come together in truly inspiring ways to put Bates in a position to open the college fully this fall for students studying on campus or remotely. It is wonderful to have our students back, and it is exhilarating to be able to focus on our central purpose as a college—working together to offer motivated and idealistic young people a life-transforming education. As we make our way through this year of uncertainties, I can imagine no better fellow travelers for the journey. 

Warmly, Clayton