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March 10, 2020

A Message from Lehman College President Daniel Lemons

Dear Colleagues,

You may have heard reports today on WNYC or via social media in recent days that some CUNY students and faculty members are concerned that the university has not closed yet in response to the COVID-19 (C-19) outbreak. In the past two days, we have learned of at least temporary closings of a number of the private universities in New York, including nearby Fordham University. One comment I heard on the radio report this morning was, “Is campus closing only for the rich kids?”

First, I want to reiterate that as we have been responding moment-to-moment to the rapidly unfolding reality of C-19, and planning over the past 10 days for a number of future contingencies, we have always seen closing the campus as a possibility. Each day as we monitor and respond to new developments we have two topmost priorities: Keeping our students, faculty and staff safe and healthy, and reducing the academic impact on students of any changes we make. These two priorities have been at the forefront of every discussion and decision.

Our judgements on threats to the health of individuals in our community rely mostly on what we learn from the New York City and New York State Departments of Health as well as the Centers for Disease Control. Major decisions by CUNY and the New York City schools are reliant on them. Even with their expertise at play, they, like we, are confronting something never before encountered in quite the same way. There is so much that is not yet known about viral transmission and health effects on the population. In light of that, we have tended towards conservative decisions locally to reduce the risk to the campus community as much as possible. In our region, none of those official organizations has called for a cessation of movement and mass self-quarantine, like that seen in China and now Italy. CUNY has now called for considering postponing events that include large numbers of people, and all along, the self-quarantine of individuals at higher risk: The elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

In addition to safeguarding the health of everyone in the Lehman community, we are very concerned about minimizing any academic impacts on our students. The worst imaginable would be the loss of a term, which would mean not graduating almost 4,000 students, as well as prolonging the time to graduation for everyone. So, we have been determined to do everything we can to sustain academic progress through the term. If we close the campus, that will become much more difficult, though not impossible, depending upon several factors, including the length of the closure. It’s important to note that closing the campus is not the same as closing the College.

Besides the length of a campus (not College) closure, the largest factor is our ability to continue academic work remotely. This is no problem for fully online courses, and it is not such a major challenge for partially online courses, of which there are many at Lehman, over 20 percent. However, many courses at Lehman do not even use BlackBoard, and converting these courses to online delivery is a major undertaking. I know from experience, having converted several courses to partially online format, that it takes a long time. I spent over a year doing it. Obviously, we don’t have a year, and would have to settle for what we could achieve in a short period of time. We would use a variety of solutions from simple phone conferencing to fully online conversion.

From the first day of our planning to respond to C-19 we began to put together the resources that would enable our faculty to teach remotely, and that effort has accelerated. In addition to the challenge for faculty members with varying degrees of tech ability, there are other important considerations. Not all students have computers and high-bandwidth internet access other than with handheld devices. Those work well to a point, but are not as good for taking quizzes or exams, or writing papers. This is one of the ways that we differ from many of the private universities that have closed so far. By and large, they don’t have to worry about having students without high-bandwidth internet access.

Nonetheless, we are well along the way to developing a range of solutions for classes so that many could continue remotely, thus salvaging the term, and protecting our students to the greatest degree possible. As I have noted before, all students should be sure their CUNYFirst contact information is up to date, and they should have the BlackBoard App on their handheld devices. This is not the time to delay.

Returning to that student comment about the inequitable distribution of resources among universities – It is of course all too true, and when you consider the vastly different financial resources of CUNY compared to elite private colleges and universities, it’s not surprising that we operate differently. They have little reason not to close, and they are not putting their student’s academic progress at great risk by doing so. While we would love to have those kinds of resources – and in a just world, we would – we should be immensely proud of what we accomplish year after year in spite of not having the nearly as many. CUNY is the lifeblood of the New York region and a key driver of economic activity in the region and our graduates achieve in amazing ways. In a time of crisis like this, we are going to respond differently, but not necessarily less well. We have grit and we are going to do what we always do: Provide a high quality education and support our remarkable students.


Daniel Lemons

Previous messages from President Lemons can be found here.