University leaders discuss Spring Return to Campus at virtual town hall

Preview of spring academic and residential experience among highlights 

Vanderbilt experts from academic, medical and operational areas of campus came together during a Jan. 13 virtual town hall to discuss and answer questions about the Spring Return to Campus plan with undergraduate students and their families.

Chancellor Daniel Diermeier noted in his opening remarks that the campus is ready and looking forward to welcoming back students.

“This is due to the tremendous dedication of our faculty and staff, but also, importantly, to our students’ resilience, as they participated fully and embraced what was necessary to have a successful fall semester,” Diermeier said. “Of course, parents and family also played a crucial role here to support their students in what has been and will be a difficult and challenging time.”

Diermeier noted that it is vital for the Vanderbilt community to understand the protocols for spring to be sure our students continue to thrive.

COVID-19 medical and operational discussion

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente led a discussion on the medical and operational aspects of the Spring Return to Campus plan with Dr. Donald Brady, senior associate dean for health sciences education and executive vice president for educational affairs for Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Linda Norman, dean of the Vanderbilt School of Nursing and Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing; and Pam Jones, senior associate dean for clinical and community partnerships in the School of Nursing and co-commander of the university’s Public Health Central Command Center.

“I really want to emphasize how we all together must continue to take personal responsibility in following the university’s safety protocols,” Wente said. She expressed many thanks for all of the faculty and staff who have led the way in keeping the campus as safe and healthy as possible with measures that include regular testing, contact tracing and protocols.

Jones spoke about the mandatory undergraduate testing program moving to bi-weekly. In addition, testing turnaround times have been enhanced, with results now expected in approximately 36 hours. No pre-arrival testing is required this spring.

Norman addressed the need for students to follow the same physical distancing protocols as last semester with a reminder to “Mask up, back up, wash up!” She emphasized that there was no evidence of transmission of the coronavirus during classes and labs last fall. It was in the casual settings where people opted not to follow protocols that problems emerged.

Brady addressed many questions coming into the town hall surrounding the timing of the vaccine rollout and its implications for Vanderbilt students this spring. He said there are multiple factors concerning production and distribution that make it impossible to predict at this time when a vaccine will be available to the general Vanderbilt student body. “We cannot get away from the masking, the distancing, the gathering sizes. We have to stick with those—even for those who are vaccinated—as we continue to learn more about the virus going forward.”

Academic and residential experience

The second part of the town hall, focusing on the academic and residential experience, was hosted by Puja Jagasia, senior in the College of Arts and Science and chair of Vanderbilt Student Government’s academic affairs committee.

“As a senior, I know that this academic year has been a tremendous challenge,” Jagasia said. “I’ve seen so many of our students show resilience when faced with the changes since the pandemic began. The fall semester was neither easy or familiar, but it laid a tremendous foundation for everything we can achieve together.”

She spoke with Shaul Kelner, associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies; Julianne Vernon, assistant dean for academic programs and research assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the School of Engineering; Melissa Gresalfi, dean of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons and professor of mathematics education; and Mumin Kurtulus, faculty head of Moore College and associate professor of operations management in the Owen Graduate School of Management.

Kelner shared examples of how he got creative to keep teaching interesting during the fall semester, including helping students in a Cold War human rights course use a campus dining tent to replicate a Cold War simulation camp from the 1970s.

Vernon also discussed ways faculty made extraordinary efforts last semester to engage and include all students—in-person, remote and international remote—in their teaching. This will continue in the spring. One example was from Engineering’s first-year program, which gives students hands-on design experience. “In the civil engineering module, student groups were deconstructed so that only one student at a time was allowed to go into a design room to work on a specific aspect of the wind turbine project,” Vernon said. “Remote students were heavily engaged in the planning and calculation of the design details.”

Kurtulus found that the students in Moore College definitely enjoyed using the nearby lawns for exercising and outdoor games such as Frisbee. While it will be challenging to hold outdoor programs in January and February, heated tents will provide a solution for some activities.

Gresalfi addressed efforts that are continuing to sustain Vanderbilt’s unique residential experience. “The Ingram Commons has planned two online events for the first two weeks—one with Dr. Buddy Creech, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, and the second is a set of programs hosted by Associate Provost Jill Stratton, called ‘Building in Breaks,’” Gresalfi said. “These are time management workshops to help students think about planning their work, their assignments and their down time, so they can take full advantage of the reading days and not find themselves using that time to catch up on work that they let slide.”

She acknowledged that the fall was different from anything any of the students or faculty had ever experienced or imagined. “We can’t change the fact that we are living through a pandemic,” she said. “We can’t make on-campus life look like does when we are not in the middle of the pandemic. All we can do is figure out how be together safely, how to connect and support each other, even though how we do it is different.”

University leadership who participated in the live Q&A session included Vanessa Beasley, vice provost for academic affairs, dean of residential faculty and associate professor of communication studies; Dr. André Churchwell, vice chancellor for equity, diversion and inclusion; and Eric Kopstain, vice chancellor for administration.

FAQs on the Return to Campus website are being updated in response to questions submitted during the town hall.