Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, writes: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
I find myself wrestling today with the words of Dickens as I reflect on another day of marathon Zoom meetings, responding to emails, and sending text messages to do wellness checks on colleagues, family and friends. I invite you to pause for a moment and walk with me through the meandering maze of my mind. I am appealing to you as Thorobreds to do what is fair and kind, to be compassionate and loyal in your endeavors, and to not take ourselves too seriously during this unprecedented season.
The Best and Worst of Times
Today, I learned on a conference call that one of our fellow students is battling COVID-19. I then learned via email exchange that a parent of another student died yesterday from COVID-19 complications. Around 2:30 p.m., I received a text from the wife of an alumnus stating he was now breathing on his own and has been removed from a ventilator. In a conversation with a co-worker on campus as I was heading home, he confirmed that his father is now fully recovered from a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. And then just a few minutes ago on my drive home, my mother called to share that we now have three family members in the hospital (one of whom is on life support) battling COVID-19.
How should I feel? How do I parse the happiness for the recoveries with the angst of those who remain unwell and the death of the parent of a student trying to complete their classes online?
Each of us has so much time to reflect, but we do so under duress. We have unimaginable time to complete projects long delayed, but we do so with restrictions. We have so much to dread and yet so much to celebrate. I find myself traipsing through a bundle of emotions daily.
Earlier today, it stormed, and hail fell from the sky and now the sun is shining bright. These are indeed the best and worst of times.
The Age of Wisdom and Foolishness
I am in awe at how swiftly the faculty at Kentucky State University uploaded 100 percent of our courses into online platforms. It was done timely and without complaint. At the same time, our staff complement transitioned to telework – taking Zoom meetings, Free Conference calls, and Microsoft Team sessions daily. It is amazing how productive we have all become at clicking the screen to mute and unmute, make our faces visible on camera, freeze a background, share a document, or to raise our digital hands. It is amazing what technology can do and how wisely we have employed it.
Yet there is something about all of the Blackboard wizardry and tripod cameras that morbidly lulls us into an unconscionable blindness to the global pandemic resulting in nearly 100,000 deaths in a matter of weeks.
All of a sudden everyone wants to complete all of their paperwork and schedule dozens of meetings a day. Is this to avoid watching the body bags pile up?
All of a sudden every professor wants to be imaginative about pedagogy and teaching design. Everyone wants engagement and participation.
Let me be clear, COVID-19 is not an exercise in metacognitive teaching and learning. It is not possible to do online everything that was originally planned for class or lab. Some assignments are no longer possible. It is an unreasonable expectation that mastery of every learning objective is possible in the weeks remaining.
How can our faculty master teaching online while they tend to aging parents or homeschool children of their own?
How can our students master learning when their fathers and mothers are literally dying in the other room as they try to watch a lecture on a cellphone?
No one planned for COVID-19 and everyone deserves compassion, consideration and empathy.
As the students petition for pass-fail grades and the faculty debate the proper day for withdrawals, everything seems surreal. Where is the heart? Where is the concern? Some things should not be driven by policy, but by passion.
Wiley College has instituted a COVID-19 grading scale that I encourage all faculty, students and administrators to review. There are times to do things right. And then there are times to do the right thing.
The Epoch of Belief and Incredulity
I remain aghast at some of the emails coming in daily to the email@example.com account. There are individuals requesting access to campus to water plants. There are individuals who want to know whether Spring Fest will be rescheduled or if we can have a combined Greek probate.
As the son of a nurse, please believe me when I exclaim the coronavirus is extremely contagious, it is often asymptomatic, and if you contract it there is a likelihood you may die or come extremely close to it.
As the agency head for a public university with thousands of students and employees, it is my daily prayer and ambition that no person become infected because of my administration’s actions or inactions. My aim is for all of us to live long, to be educated citizens, and to be provided an opportunity to prosper in life.
COVID-19 is not a hoax.
Those of us who are merely inconvenienced by social distancing, should ponder the thousands of healthcare workers whose lives are at risk daily trying to care for the ill and infirmed. Those of us weary of working from home should ponder the millions of people who have been indefinitely furloughed and/or permanently displaced by shuttered places of work. Those of us bored by the litany of Netflix series on tigers and hair pomade should ponder the families of our nation without cable or internet. Better yet, those of us stuck indoors are so much better off than the hundreds of thousands of homeless men, women and children on our nation’s streets.
It may be years, decades, or generations before the world learns the who, what, when, where, why, or how this pandemic happened. It is my charge to make sure that there are Thorobreds who live to tell the story of how we overcame, persevered, and thrived in the face of a global pandemic.
The Season of Light and Darkness
The days are getting longer and the sun does not typically set until after 8 p.m. nightly. This confirms for me that the season of spring is in full effect and that summer will quickly be upon us.
This is the time of year for budget hearings and long-term planning. This is the time for spring cookouts and trips to the mall. But the malls are closed. The stores are dark. There are no gatherings of family or friends. I cannot even wander up the street to College Park and visit with the legendary Dr. Gus Ridgel and hear him regale stories of KSU in days gone by. Sadly, I have spring fever and everyone must maintain social distance and quarantine.
Each day that I am on campus, relatively alone, with just a few vice presidents, hardworking staff, and dozens of contractors I am struck by how beautiful our campus looks. I see the green Kentucky grass, the scattered buildings, and so much history in which to find pride. I look at the buildings of our forebears – Jackson and Hume Halls. I note the era of institutional growth and expansion when presidents successfully erected ASB and Exum. Even more I see the babbling Thorobred Fountain in Cheaney Plaza, the Sias Pedway, the Smith Clocktower and the new Quattro Cavalli welcoming me to campus. The campus is so bright and beautiful.
But there is something eerily dark and foreboding about the silence. Silence is everywhere. The parking lots are empty. The buildings are dark. There is yellow tape marking buildings sanitized by our outside vendor. There are no students. There are no faculty. There is no presence of life.
Each day, I feel trapped in a twilight zone – as if some extraterrestrial force has abducted the Thorobreds into outer space. I want my campus back. There is so much to see and do. There is so much to celebrate. There is so much noise to make.
The campus has gone dark at a time when the days offer so much light.
The Spring of Hope and Despair
I wish that I could write about how our students were together celebrating the beauty of spring on the Hill, but such is not the case. Instead, new words and phrases have entered our everyday vocabulary: flatten the curve, self-isolation, and shelter-in-place. Facing a global pandemic has undoubtedly brought change and uncertainty into our lives. But let me assure you that Kentucky State University remains steadfast.
This is the time of year when I should be finalizing my graduation plans. If you think Gradchella 2019 was something, my plans for May 8, 2020 will blow your minds. We are now literally one month away from “G”-day and I have no guarantee that the moratorium on group assemblies will be lifted. We have yet to place our cap and gown orders and interstate travel is banned in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
I cannot imagine the frustration of despair of getting to your senior year and having the Spring semester robbed from you by a health pandemic. The emotions are no doubt raw and agonizing. When do I place my senior orders? Do I need to send out invitations? Will the campus confirm the date and time soon? Will I be forced to wait until December like other schools?
NO – the Spring 2020 commencement will not be combined with the December 2020 class. Kentucky State University must give our Spring 2020 class the graduation they earned with even more surprises than originally planned.
When I’m in the drive-thru and get pulled to the side for a delay, I expect a free apple pie, an extra bag of fries, or something. After suffering multiple presidents, administrative turnover, campus unrest, and COVID-19, it seems only fair that an extra-special celebration will be required to honor the Spring 2020 graduating class.
My hope springs eternal that good things come to those who wait. We must never forget that it is not what happens to us that defines us, but rather how we respond to what happens to us. We will remain flexible and adjust to the situation. We must be patient with each other and understand that each of us is in uncharted territory.
As we walk through this unprecedented season in the history of the world, we must remember who we are – We are a “Thoro” people of a pure “Bred” spirit. We are Thorobreds. We are Kentucky State University.
Despite the challenges associated with the COVID-19 outbreak, I have never been more excited for the future of our great University. As we have made difficult decisions for the sake of our health, safety, and viability, the students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders of our University have displayed incredible resolve and strength. We are strong and united.
In the midst of this crisis, I implore all members of the Thorobred family to unite and stand stronger than has ever been recorded since 1886. Let us show the world that we are THOROBRED STRONG.
Until we meet again on the Hill, remember that Thorobreds are moving #KSUForward and can face any challenge when we are together in spirit, word, and deed.
It is indeed the best of times and the worst of times, but Kentucky State University is THOROBRED STRONG.
M. Christopher Brown II, Ph.D.
Kentucky State University