What have we learned in 2020 – and what can we do better?

This week, we begin to welcome many of our students back to campus. It should be a time of eager anticipation for some, and a welcome return home for others.

But this year has a distinctly different tone.

One of trepidation, or even anger at the state of affairs… Feeling angry for our students, who are being robbed of this carefree time…  Being worried about our faculty and staff members, who are balancing the challenges of working in a COVID-19 world while caring for their families… Concern for our entire community, as we brace for the potential impacts of a new school year in full swing… And, most especially, our thoughts on the lives in danger and those lost due to COVID-19.

I wish we were in a different position. I wish there weren’t so many unknowns and that our near-term future was more certain. I wish we weren’t under the shadow of a global pandemic and looming economic uncertainty. I also wish we weren’t living in a time of great divisiveness in our country, when people often cannot seem to agree on even the basics of humanity, and all too common, compassion and empathy for our neighbor does not seem to win out over all else. This pandemic has illustrated how brutal our society can be to our most vulnerable.

And yet, I am optimistic…and here’s why….I’ve seen so many people rise to the occasion. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. If there is one thing I know, it is the steady momentum of an engineering mindset. Engineers learn – then do. If we look at the vast challenges thrown at us in 2020, I ask us all to see what we can learn. And what can we do better?

First, we have learned much from being in a sustained public health crisis. Our engineers and leadership have been thrust into the fray daily by the seemingly never-ending issues surrounding management of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Have we done it perfectly? Absolutely not. I will personally attest to stumbles and false starts along the way. But is – through tried-and-true design, build, test (or fly) methodologies – I see many successes. A safer bus system. A research community that came into our engineering buildings almost 40,000 times over the summer with very few issues. Classrooms and buildings reconfigured to allow for safe and productive learning and meeting spaces. 

These are all examples of how our creativity, innovation and daring have been put to the test, how our grit and resilience pushed us to work in different ways, and how our engineering mindset has led the way. Our faculty members, staff and students have gone above and beyond to prepare. This is not a quick pivot, but rather the result of extensive time, effort and resources. These experiences will allow us to continue to be nimble and flexible, adjust and pivot as the situation evolves, and build capacity for the future.

What else did we learn this year?

The global outcry in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many Black Americans before them illustrated great disparities in our society, and the long-standing issues of bias and systemic racism. We have also seen firsthand here at the University how sexual misconduct can be pervasive, and can go unreported and unaddressed for so long.

In June, I shared my own experiences with you as a Black man in the United States, as well as an appeal for each and every one of us to learn more, and then take action. I also spent considerable time with our students and faculty members at the beginning of the year talking about the shortcomings around sexual misconduct, and hearing your concerns. 

These issues, which will continue into the school year and beyond, have taken a significant toll on our community, and have impacted our wellness and feelings of safety. And yet, as the old expression goes: “If you know better, do better.” Here at Michigan Engineering, we do know better. And in addition to working tirelessly to keep our community safe during this public health crisis, we will be tackling these issues. We will be taking real and concrete actions to increase awareness around racial and ethnic bias, creating opportunities to close the gaps, and following the University’s lead to establish new, clearer norms of acceptable behavior and deal with misconduct.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it – our short-term reality is and will be tough. Our values will continue to be put to the test this fall. But I’m cautiously optimistic the global community will rise to the challenge. I have no doubt that Michigan Engineering will. 

Some may ask why even bring students back at all? Why not follow the trend of other institutions shutting down or going fully remote? The answer, from my perspective, is that we have no idea how long this pandemic will last. We must grow and adapt – learn to live within the pandemic. We have to act based on the best information we have at the time. There are ways to do that safely, applying our engineering mindset to help minimize cases and adjust along the way. We’ll continue to evaluate the situation, and evolve as necessary. 

As a College, I commit to continuing to be as transparent as possible – we will share information as soon as we are able. Please visit the College’s COVID site often, and read the weekly email messages for the most up-to-date information. Please, wear a facemask in public and practice social distancing. And if you get sick, stay home. 

I wish each and every one of you a safe and healthy fall semester, I especially want to thank the faculty and staff for the tremendous time and energy you have dedicated this summer, and I encourage everyone to take care of yourselves and each other, educate yourselves and speak up – and always lead with empathy and compassion. 

Alec D. Gallimore, Ph.D. 
Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering
Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor