Reasons for hope and optimism

Dear IU Student, Colleague or Friend of the University,

With just a few days remaining until the end of IU’s Bicentennial Year 2020 — a year for reasons expected, and unexpected, that turned out to be like no other in our 200-year-history — there are many reasons to feel grateful and hopeful.

On Dec. 19, during IU Bloomington's first-ever virtual Commencement, we had the privilege of honoring and celebrating the nearly 11,000 members of IU's 2020 Bicentennial Class. Though we were not able to be together in person, our commencement ceremony once again reminded us that — no matter what challenges come our way — we will always be undaunted in pursuing our core missions.

We aim to provide students with the best, most contemporary and broadest education possible — one that is accessible to all, no matter their means or where they come from; to pursue transformative research and scholarship at the highest level of excellence; and to serve our state and its regions, our nation and the world in myriad ways. As such, we strive to be an engine of life-changing opportunity and prosperity for the residents of Indiana, the nation and beyond.

To members of the class of 2020, congratulations and thank you. We know this is not how you envisioned your final year of college. But you should be enormously proud of what you have accomplished — the culmination of years of scholarship, research and engagement in your communities that has prepared you for successful lives and careers. And we are most grateful for what you have given back to your university, especially during the final months of your collegiate careers. You brought spirit and life to our campuses, and you helped keep us together and safe this fall — when many thought it was not possible — by embracing new responsibilities with a combination of courage, strength, resilience, kindness and unwavering concern for others. May you take what you have learned at IU and continue to make us all proud!

To all of our students, staff and faculty who will be returning next year, I want to thank you once again for all you did to ensure our safety and togetherness, and I hope you enjoy some well-earned rest and relaxation this holiday season. We look forward to welcoming you back for the spring semester and — reinforced by our experiences and successes in the fall semester — we will continue to do all we can to guarantee the health and safety of the whole IU community. We anticipate that the spring semester will look a lot like the fall, given the grave COVID-19 surge across our nation, but we are increasingly hopeful that we can return to pre-pandemic operations by the fall 2021 semester. Indeed, all of the medical advisors who have been involved in our successful public health strategy, including members of our outstanding Medical Response Team, are feeling optimistic about the 2021-22 academic year.

The IU School of Medicine has trained students to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Vaccine arrival brings much-needed boost

To this end, Indiana received and immediately began administering the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19 last week. In the coming weeks, the state expects the arrival of more vaccine doses from Pfizer as well as from Moderna, which began shipping its Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine on Sunday. Studies on these two vaccines have shown they are highly effective, with each around 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infections.

As part of the initial phase of Indiana's vaccination plan (Phase 1-A), frontline health care workers and residents of long-term-care facilities are receiving the first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Phase 1-B of the plan may include frontline essential workers and those over the age of 75. An estimated 400,000 health care workers statewide are eligible for the first round of vaccines. After essential workers and vulnerable populations receive the vaccine, it will then become available to wider populations on a timetable that will be progressively announced by the state.

The arrival of vaccines in our state has been enthusiastically welcomed as we continue to work together to protect our communities from the deadly COVID-19 virus. Within just two weeks of the state asking the IU School of Medicine for support in administering its vaccine deployment plan, 430 IU medical students had answered the call, and another 200 nursing students had signed up to help with the large-scale vaccination effort. We are immensely proud of all of them. This army of students will have a major impact on the state moving quickly through Phase 1-A of its plan and getting the vaccine to more Hoosiers when it is their turn to get vaccinated.

The IU School of Medicine is conducting a late-stage clinical trial for a new COVID-19 vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca, in partnership with Oxford University. The trials are being conducted at the Clinical Research Center at IU Health University Hospital. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Leading the fight against COVID-19 with world-class research

In the meantime, IU's world-class researchers continue to have an enormous impact in applying their skills and expertise toward protecting our state and our communities from the pandemic.

Faculty at the School of Medicine continue to oversee the Phase III clinical trial for another vaccine being developed by biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, in partnership with Oxford University. The Phase III clinical trial is the last required stage of study before the potential vaccine, known as AZD1222, can be approved by the FDA for widespread public use. Within days of the study being announced, more than 3,000 Hoosiers volunteered to participate in the study, and we greatly appreciate their commitment to this potentially life-saving treatment. 

On Monday, IU announced it is part of a consortium — including AstraZeneca, the Wistar Institute, Inovio and the University of Pennsylvania — that has received a major grant to develop and study DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies as an additional way to fight SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Late last month, researchers from the IU Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI, working with the Indiana Department of Health, released the results of the third phase of their scientific study measuring the statewide prevalence of COVID-19; they estimate that more than 10 percent of Indiana residents have now been infected with the virus. This study — the first of its kind in the nation — has dramatically increased our understanding of the virus, and it continues to provide valuable information and insights that have shaped our state's public health response to the pandemic.

Researchers at the Fairbanks School of Public Health have also shared a new report, "Indiana Public Health System Review," that includes recommendations for improving both state and local public health systems to achieve better health for Hoosiers. Their report focuses on the centerpiece of the public health system — the network of local and state governmental public health agencies — their structure, human and financial resources, authorities and activities.

Earlier this month, the Paul H. O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI led the launch of a new online database that will help decision-makers, the public and researchers track changes implemented by state governments in response to COVID-19. The dashboard includes research that the school shared earlier this year about the more than 1,500 executive orders enacted across every U.S. state to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Also this month, we announced that researchers from the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington and the Department of Biology in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences will lead a major nationwide study on COVID-19 infection and reinfection and the potential for long-term immunity to the virus. Backed by a philanthropic investment of $12.5 million from Jack Dorsey's #StartSmall Initiative and the Chase and Stephanie Coleman Foundation, the Aegis Study will run through 2021 and will include 2,100 participants from multiple U.S. locations, likely including Chicago, New York, Bloomington and Indianapolis. Through this study, leading public health researchers from IU and around the country will seek to capture critical information about the evolution of COVID-19 and answer the key question of how long the immune system can protect individuals from the virus after they have been infected. As such, this study promises to have important implications for the effectiveness and longevity of vaccines for the virus.

Of course, from the earliest days of the pandemic, as chronicled on our "Hoosiers Being Hoosiers" website, members of the IU community have stepped up in myriad ways to help others, including making and distributing masks, helping those struggling with food insecurity, addressing personal wellness, and providing assistance to small businesses and public organizations in need.

Indeed, our hearts go out to the many individuals, families and businesses here in Indiana and across our nation that have suffered so much during the pandemic. Thankfully, some much-needed help is on the way, with Congress agreeing Sunday night on a new, nearly $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that includes enhanced unemployment benefits and direct cash payments. This help arrives just as several aid provisions in the CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, are set to expire. We are grateful that Congress took action on providing some more relief, and we are confident that its arrival — along with the delivery and deployment of new vaccines — can give many the hope they need as we head into the holidays.

Members of the IU football team celebrate their victory over the University of Michigan Wolverines last month.   Photo by Missy Minear, IU Athletics

IU football going January bowling again

Throughout the fall, and when we absolutely needed it most, IU's tough and resilient football team gave us reason to celebrate and cheer. Led by Big Ten Coach of the Year Tom Allen, our Hoosiers have already given us one of the most exciting seasons in team history, winning six games against only one loss. The team is now headed to its second-straight January bowl game.

IU will meet Ole Miss in the 35th Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, on Saturday, Jan. 2. It is the Hoosiers' 13th bowl appearance and their fourth in the last six seasons.

To echo Coach Allen, our coaching staff, medical staff and players deserve enormous credit for this accomplishment, which speaks volumes about where IU's football program is heading. As Coach said, though, we are not done yet, and all of us look forward to rooting the Hoosiers on to one more victory next month!

IU students at "An Afternoon with Viola Davis," a Bicentennial event, on Jan. 20.   Photo by Alex Kumar, Indiana University

A successful year and the close of the Bicentennial

Once again, this year was unlike anything we could have anticipated. But as with other challenges our university has faced over its previous two centuries, we moved forward with strength, innovation and determination.

Our accomplishments this year ran far and deep, and they included:

As 2020 comes to a close, so, too, does the official commemoration of the IU Bicentennial. Of course, no one would have predicted our 200th anniversary to conclude this way, but that should not take away from what was truly an extraordinary celebration, one that — as reflected in this exhaustive final report and moving video tribute — unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of energy, talent and creativity all across the university.

I want to offer my deepest thanks to Kelly Kish, director of the IU Office of the Bicentennial, for her leadership, creativity and indefatigable spirit, and to her dedicated staff. Let me also thank the thousands of IU community members who contributed to such a historic and memorable commemoration and celebration. Because of you, we were able to reflect upon all that we have accomplished, to spotlight the impact we have had on our state, nation and world, and to envision all that we hope to achieve at the dawn of IU's third century.

Holiday decorations adorn a limestone gate outside the Indiana Memorial Union on a winter day at Indiana University Bloomington. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

A final word, and happy holidays!

I want to thank all of you for all that you have done to keep IU safe and healthy this year and for your continued optimism during these most trying of times. It is an optimism born of a belief in the power of science and research that has helped keep us safe this year and will soon be seen through the impact of vaccines.

COVID-19 continues to challenge our communities in ways none of us could have ever imagined, but we have persevered, helped one another at every turn — mindful of the hardships many have endured — and stayed together. For this, as we celebrate these holidays, we can all feel enormously proud and grateful.

As I never tire of saying, IU is a special place. But what makes it truly extraordinary is its people.

Thanks once again for all you continue to do for IU, and Laurie's and my very best wishes for a safe, happy and restful holiday season,

Michael A. McRobbie

Indiana University