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Carthage and COVID-19

Coming Together in Uncertain Times

A Letter from President John Swallow


March 14, 2020

Dear Carthaginians,

First, to students: I know that the news these past few days has been surprising, deeply disappointing, and highly disconcerting for you. I know that it will be difficult to manage through this uncertainty and the new challenges each day will bring. Please know that all Carthage faculty and staff will work to help, to understand, and to adapt as best we can.

And to faculty and staff: Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am seeing you pull together as never before, in a spirit of patience and grace. I know you are committed to our shared mission of educating students to the best of our ability, even in difficult circumstances.

To the whole Carthage community: We have moved very quickly these last few days — whether hurrying to collect belongings from residence hall rooms, or hurrying to help those arriving to do so. Whether working to equip faculty with new teaching tools, or working to master them. We have all had to make decisions, change plans, and react to news reports that seem to arrive faster than we can read them.

Now I hope we can all take a moment from our continued preparations to reflect on the days past and the days ahead. I write to share my own reflections with you now, and encourage you to share yours with others, including me. Exercising new pathways of communication will be all the more important to us now.

For me, this intense period began Tuesday evening, when I flew back home from visiting Carthage alumni, knowing in my heart that I needed to be on campus as we prepared responses to a quickly evolving situation. I have felt a greater sense of responsibility than ever before, for our 3,000 people and the institution that brings us together. I have felt as well a greater sense of community than ever before. Walking the halls of our buildings, I have drawn strength from every Carthaginian I have met. Together, we are making the preparations we can for the weeks ahead. We know that the storm is coming. And we are coming together to weather it.

We have a common focus. COVID-19 is spreading — across Wisconsin, across the country, and across the world. We are putting these measures in place to slow the spread, so that those most vulnerable can receive the treatment they need. What further measures will be needed, and what limitations will be required, will likely continue to change in the weeks ahead. What is clear is that we will be gathering in smaller groups, and at greater distance from one another. And this saddens me.

I have spent my career at small liberal arts colleges. I earned my bachelor’s degree at one. I know that there is simply no environment as powerful as a close and supportive community of learners, teachers, and mentors. The opportunity to gather easily as a class of students, as a student organization, as a faculty or staff department — and simply as friends and colleagues — is one I have long cherished.

And not only to gather, but to discuss, to perform, to research, to create, to worship, and to serve. To laugh, to cry, and to draw strength from each other in common humanity. My daughter is returning home, with only a few days’ warning, from another liberal arts college, and I wish so much that her studies in a residential environment were not being interrupted.

None of this is meant to take anything away from the remote education that our devoted faculty will deliver, supported by our devoted staff. I am confident that it will represent our very best efforts.

But like all of you, I will spend the weeks ahead longing to gather again. I will be especially saddened to miss the athletic contests, the musical performances, and the theatrical productions we have had to cancel or postpone. I will be saddened above all for the students, but also for myself and others who, as fans and audience members, are thrilled and engaged and moved by athletic and artistic achievement. There are no substitutes for deeply human moments, in close proximity to others.

A crisis brings new perspective. From this vantage point in the spread of COVID-19, I have an even deeper appreciation for education itself. Yes, for postsecondary education, but for K-12 education as well. Now, more than ever, who among us does not want to know more of what the future may hold? Of what to expect as COVID-19 spreads, for ourselves, for our families, for our economy, for our society? Of what human reactions may be, and how those reactions will shape us? Of how we might interpret what is happening to us, to gain a larger sense of meaning? I am led to every department and discipline, to every one of the liberal arts and the many professional curricula, to learn more, to understand, to forecast, to interpret. To examine the options before us, and feel confident that we are taking the right steps. I am grateful for the education I have received, and I am committed all the more to providing it for others.

As we face the many challenges ahead, I expect we will all draw on what we have learned from past readings and study, and that we will find ourselves seeking perspective from new places. I find myself reflecting on the science of disease and the literature of disease. On how, following the Spanish flu of 1918, few literary works addressed the epidemic. On how, in The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy treated the human impact of a hurricane’s destruction. There are many possible human reactions to a widespread crisis. Some we will later be proud of; of others we will not. May we find solace and direction, understanding and action, from all that we can learn.

We cannot know the future, but we can make ourselves as ready for it as we can. In truth, strength, and service, that is the work I know we will do, together.

John Swallow
President