Open Mind: A thoughtful, reasoned approach for returning to campus

Last week, I went to campus for the first time in weeks, determined to provide a meaningful backdrop for my special video message to the amazing Vanderbilt students who graduated on Friday. As the videographer and I set up in E. Bronson Ingram College—while maintaining social distancing, of course—it felt bittersweet to be back on campus. Even more than the stately buildings, which I have missed, I was struck, first and foremost, by the quiet that surrounded campus.

My favorite days at Vanderbilt are those when campus is bustling with noise. The days when, even from my office, I can hear students chatting as they walk to class or return to their residential colleges, faculty traveling across campus for meetings or staff stopping to share a lunch outside with colleagues.

Susan R. Wente, interim chancellor and provost (Vanderbilt University)
Susan R. Wente, interim chancellor and provost (Vanderbilt University)

The people of Vanderbilt, and particularly our students, are our reason for having a beautiful and interconnected campus in the first place. Together, you are the fuel behind our mission and our motivation for coming back together as soon as we safely can.

As I hope you read in my message last Thursday, we are carefully approaching the first steps in bringing faculty, staff and students back to our campus for specific functions. Today marks the beginning of Phase 1 of Mayor John Cooper’s Roadmap for Reopening Nashville. Vanderbilt University is charting its own specific plan, one that recognizes the distinct needs of our community and the many ways that our physical campus serves our students, faculty and staff.

Today, we launched the web portal for our Return to Campus phased approach. The Vanderbilt University plan lays out how certain functions of our university, such as on-campus research, will begin to ramp up this week and going forward.

I encourage you to read the Return to Campus plan and learn about how we are approaching this ramp-up of activities. We are doing so with the safety of our people at the forefront. In Phase I of the Vanderbilt plan, which is set to begin on May 18, only those with explicit authorization from their dean or supervisor are allowed on campus. Our focus is on supporting our primary mission of research and teaching, and the first phase of ramp-up prioritizes the resumption of vital research activities that cannot be conducted remotely.

As part of our efforts to be consistently transparent about our planning process, Vice Chancellor for Administration Eric Kopstain and I will host a virtual town hall on Wednesday, May 13, at noon. We will walk through the many considerations and decisions we have made up to this point—and the reasoning for those decisions. We will also share the protocols for those who are being allowed to return to campus in Vanderbilt’s Phase 1 and address the questions you have about ramping up campus functions.

I encourage you to register for the town hall and, during the registration process, share any questions you have about the Return to Campus plan. We likely won’t be able to address every inquiry during the town hall, but we will update the FAQs on the Vanderbilt COVID-19 website based on submitted questions.

I know the big questions on all our minds revolve around the fall semester. As the parent of a rising college senior at another university who does not yet know what the fall holds for her, I fully understand the yearning to know what is to come. Vanderbilt’s committees, task forces and working groups, along with the deans and university leadership, are working hard on a complex range of strategies. Our goal is to hold in-person classes on campus this fall. We have many factors and options to consider and are consulting with public health experts, students, faculty and staff to inform our final decisions.

No matter what, we are in this together. In the meantime, I am grateful for your thoughtfulness in support of the decision-making process and your continued dedication, patience and resilience.