Yale Leaders talk about COVID-19: Secretary and Vice President for University Life Kimberly Goff-Crews
This interview is the latest in a running series.
You lead university efforts to foster a community in which all members can feel they belong and contribute. Does COVID-19 change those efforts?
When crises hit, values matter. When you have to act quickly, you rely on what’s core to your identity. For Yale, that’s a focus on service, on the profound interconnections of teaching and research, and on our common life. We begin here. These values determine what we need to do right now and how we prioritize for the future.
President Salovey has said that a culture of belonging should be part of who we are, rather than what we do. That’s especially true right now as we meet the challenges of a public health emergency and as we work to support members of our community. And it’s true as we think forward to next year and the year after, and make decisions to secure and strengthen what makes this university great.
The President’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, which you co-chair, was planning to produce recommendations for President Salovey by the end of the academic year. Is that still possible?
Yes — the committee is going to recommend high-level goals for the university and outline strategies to enact them and assess progress. Equity, inclusion, and belonging are important themes in community conversations right now, and committee members see opportunities during this crisis to create new cultural norms and practices for accessibility and excellence. The committee members are working hard, applying their expertise and experience, and adapting to new circumstances with optimism and confidence in Yale and its people. Most of the members have significant responsibilities in responding to the pandemic, but they are still fully engaged in the committee’s work. I am thinking especially of Ann Kurth, dean of the nursing school, and my co-chair, Dr. Gary Desir. Ann is a tireless advocate for the vital need to keep nurses safe during this and future pandemics. And as chief of internal medicine, Gary is a leader of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s coronavirus response. Still, he made time to join the committee’s virtual retreat in mid-March. In fact, the image behind him during the virtual meeting was a huge photograph of COVID-19.
How do you maintain community when so many people are away from campus — faculty and staff who’ve been asked to work at home as they can, and the many students taking courses remotely?
We pride ourselves on residential education and the close connections of our faculty and staff to each other and to our students. So, it’s hard. There’s a sense of loss. Several of the deans and officers with whom you've spoken have told you about the excellent work of faculty members and other instructors, supported by the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning and others, to ensure excellent education. Let me add that there has been tremendous work by staff and faculty to support students: accessibility needs are being accommodated, IT support provided; office hours and workshops are now online; students are participating in counseling, exercise classes, and religious services. The University Church at Yale provides streaming services to hundreds of worshippers. La Casa Cultural offered cooking lessons. Leaders conduct regular town halls. And myriad individual needs are being met by dedicated staff members, whether students are in New Haven or elsewhere.
In my own administrative division, I’ve been reaching out to staff members, asking them to share photographs of new home work environments and their “coworkers” — partners, children or pets, say — and their anxieties and joys about this moment. COVID-19 has made clearer than ever what we all surely know: each of us has responsibilities to nurture colleagues and students. Alumni, too, have stepped forward in remarkable ways for Yale and for the many communities to which they belong. There’s community in the shared pride we can feel for Yale’s response to COVID-19.
Do you have any immediate concerns for the community?
There’s news nationally of hate and invective being directed toward Asians and Asian-Americans, wrongfully connecting them to the spread of COVID-19. And I’ve heard of a small number of cases in which our own faculty members and students have been called derogatory names on the streets. There’s no place for hate at Yale or in New Haven. We will support any community member who faces harassment or discrimination. Beyond these immediate needs, faculty members in the history department and elsewhere have spoken against this behavior, reminding us of the relationship between current expressions of prejudice and histories of racist fearmongering in this country and around the world.
The end of the academic year is approaching. President Salovey has announced the cancellation of traditional Commencement ceremonies. How do you maintain community and belonging for graduating students?
The decision is saddening and disappointing, but the right one. We will acknowledge the accomplishments of students earning degrees in May through a digital platform and with content that includes both traditional and creative elements, and all graduates will receive their diplomas in the mail. We will welcome graduates back to campus at a later date to further mark their achievements through in-person ceremonies and events. In planning for May 2020 and future celebrations, I am aided by a committee of faculty, staff, and students recommended by the student governments of Yale College and the graduate and professional schools. They bring to the conversations their love of the community, insight into the disruption and disappointment graduating students are feeling, and creativity as we develop a plan.
May 2020 will not be the same as recent years, but there is energy and commitment to recognize and celebrate students’ achievements, even as we focus on preventing and slowing the spread of COVID-19 and addressing or ameliorating its effects on New Haven, our home communities, and the world.