Back to school message from President Daniels

To the Students of Purdue University,

Any new school year arrives accompanied by excitement and some apprehension, but none like this one has. For the first time in a century and a half, we faced the question of whether to open the university at all. It wasn’t an easy call.

Among a plethora of decision points, two stood out: conclusive medical evidence that the vicious disease called COVID-19, while posing truly serious risks to the elderly and to those with a variety of preexisting illnesses, causes in the large majority of cases only mild, often asymptomatic and indetectable sickness among younger people, particularly those the age of our students.

Second, you and your fellow students told us in resounding terms that you want to be on campus, that there are aspects of learning and growth that are not fully replicable through even the most advanced technological means. After considering Purdue’s offer of an online option for the fall semester, 88% of our undergraduates chose to come to campus, and as many as half the remainder would have but were precluded from coming by travel restrictions.

Still, the decision to open was difficult. We made it only after concluding that, if we took every preparatory step we could conceive, we had a good chance to provide a campus environment that protects the vulnerable among us. Constructing that environment (a summary of our actions can be found here) will come at a very steep price, and I’m not referring to our expenditures, although they will run to the tens of millions. I mean the price we must all pay, for a time, in inconvenience and in forgoing many of the activities that traditionally enhance both the learning and the fun of campus life.

These impositions have already started. By now, each returning student should have received and returned a COVID-19 test kit, or will do so in the coming days. Even at the tiny (well under 1%) infection rate we have seen in the early rounds of testing, that will mean that two or three hundred potential spreaders of the virus will not come to campus until that risk has passed. But that is only the first of the unprecedented burdens we are forced to insist upon not just from students but from all of us.

Social distancing, including the avoidance of large crowds and the suspension of concerts, convocations, parties, public lectures and other events may all quickly become irritating. But let me dwell a moment on the single most bothersome, but single most crucial, of all the elements of the Protect Purdue Pledge we have all taken, the wearing of masks indoors and in any confined setting. Even though the governor of Indiana has now mandated a similar policy, I want to affirm that we believe the reasons for this approach are sound and necessary.

Like all aspects of the pandemic, much confusion surrounded the topic of masking and its efficacy for quite some time. In the early weeks, even the CDC expressed doubt. But for months now, it has become absolutely clear that, of all the protective steps an individual or institution can take to stop the virus from spreading, masks are the most effective. See here: 1,2,3,4,5.  In fact, if that were all a large community like ours did, it is highly likely that the virus would be contained. Conversely, absent high compliance with masking, the risk of spread would remain even given a host of other actions.

No one can know whether all our efforts and precautions will suffice. All we know is that it is the right thing to try, to do all we can to keep Purdue open and our students on path to their degrees and successful lives beyond.

Our intention throughout this time of trial is to be as open and direct as possible. Should developments tell us that we cannot ensure the safety of the community, and the proper care of those who do contract the illness, then just as a host of cities, states, and entire nations have done, we will change course.

One example of the reasons we might do so would be a large number of serious cases, requiring acute medical care or hospitalization. Another would be so many simultaneous cases that we risk running short of places to isolate those infected until they are no longer contagious.

Preventing setbacks like those will take discipline and a common commitment by all of us, and that will be hard, if not for the first couple weeks, then as we try to sustain it throughout the fall. By far the biggest question is whether you students, who compose the vast majority of our campus population, and live in the densest settings, can summon the resolve to live with the impositions and without many enjoyable activities.

Skeptics are everywhere. There are those who scoff that it simply cannot be done. Most of those asserting that point directly at students, declaring them – you – unwilling or incapable of the sacrifice necessary to protect others. I don’t believe that, at least not about Boilermakers. But I can’t prove it.

You can. In choosing the on-campus and not the online option, you have stated your readiness to live by the Protect Purdue Pledge and its very specific demands: monitoring yourself for any symptoms, adhering to the hygienic, social distance, and masking requirements, and holding others accountable for doing likewise. I believe you mean it and can stick to it.

If you do, we are highly likely to make it through, and not repeat the wrenching spring experience of stopping school in mid-semester. But that literally depends on the choices all of us make.

It’s a small consolation, I recognize, but consider this. In a university committed to diversity of people, disciplines, and viewpoints, our members seek out chances to come together. The honor code crafted by our students a few years ago ends with “Accountable together – We are Purdue.”

Whatever else this year brings, it presents us with a matchless opportunity for unity. Wherever we come from, whatever our area of study or intellectual inquiry, whatever our background, whatever causes inspire us, every one of us has a common interest in keeping each other safe, and thereby keeping Purdue open. If we pull it off, we’ll have the satisfaction of proving the cynics wrong, but much more fulfilling, we’ll have the memory that as a community we enabled a great university to pursue its mission against the biggest challenge it has ever faced.

See you soon. Boiler Up.

Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.