Message from the Provost
April 15, 2020
I am very pleased to report that after a nearly four-week absence I am back at work this week, albeit working remotely like all of us. But the Baruch and CUNY to which I’m returning are profoundly different from the ones I left, but also as strongly committed as ever to the fundamental mission that has guided us for generations.
Most importantly, over the past month the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Baruch students, staff, and faculty profoundly and personally. Many members of our extended Baruch community have been infected by the virus and I most certainly send my very best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery to all of you who have been affected directly. Tragically, some members of our community have suffered the loss of family, loved ones, and friends from this terrible disease. Appropriate and effective words of sympathy and condolence are impossible to come by, especially in these most trying circumstances, when we are required to be isolated at the very time when the comfort of family and friends is most needed. But please know that our hearts and our deepest sympathies are with you as you mourn the loss of those dear to you.
This story is also personal for me: I’ve been absent from Baruch for four weeks because I was being treated for and then─fortunately─recovering from a COVID-19 infection. Although Baruch, for reasons of privacy, could not provide details of why I was gone, I can. And I think it might be helpful─especially to me─if I do so. About four weeks ago, as we were beginning our move to remote teaching and working, I began a 14-day period of self-isolation and quarantine because of a possible exposure to COVID-19. Near the end of that period, on March 20, I began to develop symptoms of COVID-19 and immediately contacted my primary care physician in Connecticut. On March 24, when my symptoms became more severe, I was admitted to Yale New Haven Hospital and definitively diagnosed with COVID-19. I stayed at Yale for 10 days and was very fortunate to receive excellent care in a most supportive environment, before Yale and Connecticut experienced their COVID surge. So my stay there was also amazingly calm and quiet. I was discharged on Thursday, April 2, and have been home since. I actually felt completely recovered from COVID when I left Yale, apart from some lingering tiredness, which has now largely dissipated.
As one of our former Baruch colleagues used to remind us regularly, it is always important to “frame the narrative” appropriately. Almost reflexively, I think I initially framed the narrative of my recent experience around the concept of luck. I was “lucky” to get some advance notice of exposure; I was “lucky” to be in a place where I could comfortably self-isolate and have the support of a strong family network; I was “lucky” my wife recognized that my situation was deteriorating and took rapid, effective action; I was “lucky” to have full access to a world-class academic health center 20 minutes from where I live.
But, as our Baruch colleague Professor of Political Science Mitchel Cohen has pointed out in a provocative new essay in the journal Dissent, luck really had nothing to do with it; this is a narrative more appropriately viewed through the frame of “privilege.” Take every one of those “lucky’s” in the above paragraph and replace it with “privileged” and the narrative becomes much more accurate, more powerful, and more tragic. As Dr. Cohen writes:
Is this the story of life?…Basic advantage for some and disadvantage for others, safety for a minority and rough going for the rest…It’s as natural as a killer virus. But isn’t there something wrong about it that a decent society and a proper sense of citizenship would rectify?
A day after Cohen published his essay, The Guardian confirmed and documented New York’s “shocking (and deadly) inequalities.” That comprehensive article starts with its tragic conclusion that echoes Cohen’s: “The coronavirus has laid bare two societies divided on lines of class and race─a divide reflected in skewed death figures.” Tragically, this is the narrative of life─and death─in New York in the time of COVID-19.
But CUNY and Baruch have always been guided by fundamentally different perspectives on these frames of inequality and privilege, perhaps never more clearly than in the past weeks. The work that Baruch’s faculty, staff, and students have undertaken─in the relatively few weeks I’ve been gone─have transformed Baruch to an all-remote institution, providing continuing access for our 19,000 students to the transformative education that has been a hallmark of Baruch, going back to the founding of the Free Academy at 17 Lexington Avenue in the 1840s. The pace of this change has been staggering, and your individual and collective accomplishments mind-boggling. In the last week or so, I’ve been following a number of faculty email chains focused on overall challenges and opportunities that arise from our new pedagogical realities, and some intriguing specific issues as well. At the top of that list of specifics are discussions of how best to conduct rigorous, valid examinations remotely. Faculty from across the College have contributed to these discussions, along with colleagues from BCTC and the Center for Teaching and Learning. Integral to all these efforts have been amazing displays of fundamental commitment to doing everything possible for our students and equally fundamental commitment to faculty helping faculty.
Our colleague Mitchel Cohen asks the question “But isn’t there something wrong about it [i.e., a pervasive presence of advantage for some and disadvantage for others] that a decent society and a proper sense of citizenship would rectify?” There is indeed. But, throughout the last three centuries, Baruch and CUNY faculty and staff have been part of the that “decent society,” with “a proper sense of citizenship,” a society that believes profoundly in the power of access to the best higher education as a fundamental source of social and economic mobility; and as a fundamental strategy for extending privilege from the few to the many.
You all contribute to this every day at Baruch, but the last weeks have been extraordinary─and your contributions during this most difficult time have also been extraordinary
I am─in the very best sense of the word─privileged to be back with you.
Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs