For years, the state of the university address has been an opportunity to celebrate our progress with students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends all tightly gathered in a large room.
That, of course, is not possible this year, and so we’ve adjusted, just as we’ve learned to adjust in nearly every facet of our lives as a result of the pandemic.
So, I’m speaking to you today from a lab at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, and on the one-year anniversary of when we as a university shifted to remote learning and work in response to what was then a rapidly evolving public health emergency.
Both time and place are significant, because I want to spend a portion of this address focusing on how UMass responded to the COVID-19 crisis, and how it exemplifies what this university means to Massachusetts.
But, first I want to take a moment to acknowledge the pandemic’s tragic toll:
To date more than two-and-a-half million lives have been lost across the globe and more than 540,000 in the United States alone.
Among them are members of the UMass community, as well as family and friends of our students and colleagues.
We grieve their loss.
To those of you affected, I extend my deepest sympathy, on behalf of the University of Massachusetts.
As I mentioned, it was a year ago today that all five UMass campuses made a sudden shift to remote learning for our 75,000 students.
It was a decision made to protect our community. But, it sent a shockwave through the university, with students sent home, many deprived of the residential experience they had sought when they chose UMass; Faculty having to re-design curriculum and integrate new technology into their teaching; And staff scrambling to take a 157-year-old brick and mortar institution virtual, and do it virtually overnight.
It was a herculean task and understandably it tried our patience and tested our resolve.
But even in those early moments of chaos and uncertainty, as we collectively confronted what seemed impossible, something uniquely UMass began to shine through.
It was familiar to those of us who have ever attended, or worked at this university.
It was an attitude, a stubborn, can-do spirit that has come to define the University of Massachusetts for generations. A spirit fueled by ingenuity and an unyielding commitment to excellence. A truly revolutionary spirit.
And around the time we graduated the Class of 2020 last May, our mindset shifted, to not just how we were going keep the university running but how UMass was going to help fight this deadly virus.
Not just for ourselves, but for the entire Commonwealth.
Through all of this, we began to realize something that, frankly, should have been obvious from the very beginning.
What institution is better equipped to address this crisis than the Commonwealth’s public research university?
In fact, we were made for this moment.
We have the expertise, the brain power, the horse power and the commitment to get the job done.
Never before has our mission of high-quality education, research and public service been so perfectly crystallized in one momentous challenge.
And so, in the darkest of hours for Massachusetts, UMass was prepared to answer the call.
Here at the UMass Medical School, the Class of 2020 graduated early, rushing to join other doctors and nurses saving lives on the front lines.
At UMass Amherst, engineers and nurses designed low-cost face shields for healthcare workers and researchers helped predict the course of the national virus outbreak.
Faculty at UMass Boston developed a coronavirus test and studied the impact of COVID-19 on the state’s most vulnerable communities.
A biologist at UMass Dartmouth helped explain to the country how the virus was spreading between individuals.
At UMass Lowell, the Fabric Discovery Center helped ensure the effectiveness of PPE.
And both the Dartmouth and Lowell campuses hosted field hospitals for COVID patients.
Meanwhile, on all of our campuses, our medical and public health experts, our environmental safety experts, and our logistics and planning experts stood up some of the largest testing and tracing operations in the northeast.
Today, clinics on our campuses are contributing to the statewide vaccine rollout.
And notably, the UMass Medical School, one of the world’s leading RNA research centers, is conducting vaccine clinical trials and studies of treatments that are helping people with COVID get better.
Even though the last year has been the most trying of my time as a leader at UMass, I can say without hesitation that it’s been, by far, the most inspiring.
I’ve been inspired by the leadership of our distinguished volunteer Board of Trustees, led by chairman Robert Manning, and by our outstanding team of chancellors:
Amherst’s Kumble Subbaswamy
Boston’s Marcelo Suárez-Orozco
Dartmouth’s Mark Fuller
Lowell’s Jacquie Moloney
And, the medical school’s Dr. Michael Collins
And I know each of them are inspired by the incredible dedication of their faculty and staff and the commitment and resilience of their students.
The results are impressive.
18,000 UMass students were able to graduate last spring, and a similar number will graduate this spring.
Each of our campuses continue to compete for, and win, major national research grants, injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the Massachusetts economy.
Our academic programs continue to rise in national rankings.
And the university has been recognized for its sound management throughout the pandemic.
But, of course, we were not immune to the impacts of COVID-19.
Like so many organizations, rapid changes to our operating model, which increased our costs and decimated our revenue, had a tremendous impact on our budget, and therefore, on our employees and their families.
That has been one of the most painful aspects of the COVID-19 crisis for the university community.
But even as the pandemic persists, the work of recovery has finally begun.
Economic recovery, civic recovery, all rooted in a renewed pursuit of social justice, that honors the dreams and aspirations of our students for a fairer society and a healthier planet and rejects racism in all of its many forms.
And just as the University of Massachusetts is one of the largest drivers of the state economy, generating more than $7 billion in economic impact annually, it will be one of the largest catalysts of the state’s economic recovery.
It begins, first, with returning our campuses to full strength.
Thanks in part to our contributions the vaccine rollout, we are confident that by fall 2021 we will be back to near-normal operations on all of our campuses with the vast majority of students returning to in-person classes, most employees returned to work, and all participating fully in the local economies of our host communities.
To lessen the financial burden on our students and their families, many of whom have suffered from job losses, business closures and other impacts of COVID-19, I will recommend to the university’s Board of Trustees that we freeze tuition for in-state undergraduate students for the second consecutive year.
This is made possible, in part, by the support of our federal legislative delegation who recently passed the American Rescue Plan Act and our partners in both the state legislature and Governor Baker’s administration.
As always, we will continue to advocate for additional targeted support from the state for our most vulnerable students.
And, as Massachusetts adjusts to a post-COVID economy, one where remote work is no longer a novelty, telehealth is the new norm in our healthcare industry, and rapid innovation occurs across financial services, life sciences and other sectors important to us, UMass will break down barriers to upskilling and degree completion for hundreds of thousands of adult learners in Massachusetts, and beyond, through our new online college, UMass Global, which we are poised to launch this year.
And as the Biden Administration looks to further jumpstart the national economy by increasing federal investment in research and development, the University of Massachusetts, with our $684 million research portfolio, stands ready to attract those investments to Massachusetts, which in turn will spur discoveries that translate to economic growth for Massachusetts.
Of course, all of this is made possible by the incredible dedication and commitment of our students, faculty and staff.
It has been an extremely difficult year, but UMass has not only survived this crisis, in fact, we are ready to emerge even stronger than before.
The University of Massachusetts has answered the call.
Thank you for everything you do, every day, for your university and your community.
Take care of yourselves. Support each other. Wear your mask. Get tested. Get vaccinated.
And keep up the good work.
Thank you for all you do for the University of Massachusetts.