Responding to the pandemic

Dear IU Student, Colleague or Friend of the University:

As I write to you today, the season has just turned to fall, the sun is shining (mostly), the air is growing cooler and Indiana University is fast approaching the midpoint of the on-campus phase of the fall semester of this unprecedented academic year. To get us to this point has taken an enormous effort from thousands of people across all IU campuses and in nearly every office, dating back over six months ago to the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. I continue to be extremely proud of students, faculty and staff, who have banded together with the greatest energy and vigor to ensure the safest possible start to the fall semester and to confront — with courage, creativity and compassion — new developments and challenges as they arise. The IU community continues to persevere and stay #IUStrong.

I want to take this opportunity, then, to thank all of our students, the overwhelmingly majority of whom have embraced their responsibilities uncomplainingly and with persistence and seriousness in spite of all the challenges these have presented and how alien our present world is from the traditional IU college experience.

I want to thank all of our faculty for the skill and vigor with which thousands of courses were rapidly changed to an online format in difficult circumstances and for their ready adaption to the challenges of in-person instruction with all of the necessary public health precautions. A total of 60 percent of all IU courses are now hybrid in-person/online courses, and 28 percent are fully online. Last academic year, the total of hybrid and fully online courses was just 23 percent.

And I want to thank all of our tireless and dedicated staff, without whom we could not have resumed on-campus operations in either instruction or research. This includes our tireless senior administrators; everyone responsible for the massive task of keeping classrooms and public spaces clean; those who advise and support our students on a myriad of topics; those who keep our critical world-class IT infrastructure functioning at peak efficiency; those who have been at the front lines of our testing and public health response; and a host of others.

All of you carried out your responsibilities superbly, and the success we have had so far in combating the COVID-19 pandemic is due to your collective efforts.

Indiana University put together a robust, on-arrival testing program at IU Bloomington's Memorial Stadium in August.  Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

Our public health strategy

Resuming on-campus operations in instruction and research required the implementation of a comprehensive, detailed and far-reaching public health strategy — developed by our medical and public health experts — to mitigate and strongly limit the spread of the coronavirus in the IU community and keep its members safe and healthy.

A key part of this strategy was the establishment of one of higher education's most robust, rigorous and efficient testing and screening programs for COVID-19 — a program that is unmatched by all but a very few other U.S. colleges or universities. We determined early on that it was critical to test as many members of the IU community as possible, and continue to test them regularly, so we could safely and confidently begin on-campus, in-person instruction.

This strategy also involves extensive efforts to ensure all of our campuses are clean and, in particular, that our hundreds of common spaces and classrooms on all campuses are regularly cleaned and disinfected as well as being arranged for physically distanced learning. Our students, staff and faculty have all signed agreements affirming their shared responsibility for public health, and the vital importance of these responsibilities is constantly reinforced through our comprehensive Fall 2020 website, physical signage, emails, social media posts and more.

As we approach the midpoint in this phase of the fall semester, we are seeing accumulating evidence of this strategy's success. While we saw an anticipated spike in infections as the semester began, intensive and focused testing and contact tracing efforts have allowed us to pinpoint areas of concern and take immediate action to slow the spread. Our students, faculty and staff are able to get medical attention and diagnostic testing when they need it. Those who are infected or have been in close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus are reached quickly by our contact tracers and helped to quarantine or isolate appropriately. And our robust mitigation testing has illustrated that our classrooms remain safe, and infections are rare in many areas of our campuses. Overall and most importantly, things are improving and not worsening at this juncture.

None of this, of course, is cause for complacency​. Our numbers are improving because of our unremitting efforts. Hence, continued precautions and vigilance are essential. We are continuing to regularly test a significant portion of students, faculty and staff on all of our campuses, and we are conducting additional focused testing in areas where infections are most common. Our contact tracers rapidly follow up with anyone who is tested positive. We are establishing our own testing labs that will soon begin operations to enable us to do even more frequent and extensive testing as cold weather and influenza arrive, driving more people indoors. It will be even more important to follow guidelines about distancing, masking and hand washing in the coming months. The latest results of our testing program are updated every Wednesday at our COVID-19 testing dashboard.  

All of this has been essential to our ability to resume on-campus operations in educational instruction and in research, and it has contributed to our significant successes in both areas, which in turn are vital to the state and nation. I will describe some of these in the rest of this update. It had been my practice before the COVID-19 pandemic to regularly inform the university community about noteworthy achievements in monthly updates. This was overtaken by the need to communicate in other ways, driven by the imperatives of the pandemic. So I am very pleased to be able to resume this practice.

IUPUI students study in University Library.  Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Continuing to successfully educate students through the pandemic

Our ability to keep our campuses open — and maintain the continuity of our instructional, research and clinical operations — is vital to Indiana's and the nation's ability to weather the economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and to recover from them. Indeed, the pandemic has only exacerbated some of the major economic and public health challenges facing our state. This has reinforced as never before the vital role universities play in educating knowledgeable, highly trained and creative graduates who will be needed to vigorously take on these challenges.

IU continues to do this in an exemplary fashion, educating more Indiana residents than any other college or university in the state, many of whom are pursuing degrees in professional and specialized areas that are essential to Indiana's economic development and quality of life in the face of the pandemic and its aftermath. At the same time, we have continued to provide an education that is affordable, accessible and of the highest quality.

Amid all of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic over the past six months, it was widely and pessimistically predicted that enrollments this fall would be significantly lower than in past years. However, this did not happen, and our enrollments have, in fact, been very solid and stable. Great credit is due to our campus leaders and enrollment staff who, in the face of this pessimism, redoubled their efforts to recruit and admit new students and to re-enroll continuing students who were determined to keep their education on track in spite of the pandemic.

This fall, 70 percent of the 90,090 degree-seeking students enrolled at IU campuses are Indiana residents. Of these, the 62,992 Hoosier students are, by far, the largest total of Indiana residents enrolled at any state institution of higher education.

Additionally, IU's campuses are also more representative of the regions of the state they serve, as a result of IU welcoming the most diverse class in the university's 200-year history. The university's record total of 23,401 domestic students of color constitutes more than a quarter (28 percent) of the total degree-seeking population. Once again this year, IU's percentage of students of color exceeds that of our state. Of all of Indiana's public institutions of higher education, IU has the largest enrollment of underrepresented students.

We are especially proud to be Indiana's largest educator of both students of color as well as in-state students. These figures clearly demonstrate that IU is the people's university.

Likewise, we are proud of our efforts to expand access to our quality academic programs, more effectively reaching nontraditional students seeking to further their education and earning potential, and educate tomorrow's health and business leaders. The following fall enrollment figures reflect the success of these efforts:

  • A total of 65,820 continuing students, who are staying on course to complete degrees, be recruited by the state's leading employers or start their own businesses.
  • More than 28,000 students enrolled in health- and business-related programs.
  • 7,444 students who are enrolled in our pioneering IU Online program, a 17.5 percent increase over last year's total.
  • 3,899 students — more than ever before — who are attending an IU campus to pursue a professional education in the health science fields that are vital to improving the health and well-being of Hoosier communities, such as medicine and dentistry.

On top of this, IU also educates over 20,000 dual credit or not-for-credit students, which means that IU's total educational impact exceeds 110,000 students in the state.

IU's research and philanthropic funding exceeded $1 billion for the first time in fiscal year 2020.  Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

IU's research enterprise successes continue

IU also plays an important role as Indiana's largest research institution. The work of our researchers and innovators is critical in addressing the myriad of challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic now and as the world recovers from it. This can be seen in the tremendous impact our faculty and staff are having in addressing the public health and scientific aspects of the pandemic, as well as the broader social, economic, legal, technological and cultural facets of the pandemic. IU faculty and staff have made major advances in testing, vaccine research, virus-killing masks and other health innovations; understanding and mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the young, the elderly, the poor and diverse racial groups; evaluating the effectiveness of executive orders, quarantine restrictions and public safety communications; and bringing the arts and humanities, folklore and culture to homebound Hoosiers.

All of this work, and much more, is supported and fueled by IU's record-breaking research enterprise. Last month, we were extremely pleased to announce that, for the first time in IU's history, the university's annual total of research and philanthropic funding exceeded $1 billion, further underscoring the fact that IU is truly the state's research powerhouse.

IU's combined research and philanthropic funding for fiscal year 2020 totaled $1.15 billion, including a university-record $854 million in external funding for research and other activities. This is the highest total of external grant funding obtained by any research university in the state during the last fiscal year and the highest annual total — by far — in IU history. This year's figure represents an increase of more than 25 percent over the previous year's total of $680.2 million. 

The research total includes $418 million in federal grants and contracts, including an IU record of $245.7 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, the major federal government source of support for health sciences research in the United States.

These remarkable figures are all the more noteworthy in light of the extraordinary circumstances under which IU researchers have worked during much of this year due to the pandemic. And, as I have said in past years, they are also particularly noteworthy given the increasingly competitive environment that has faced researchers across the country. The demand for research funding has steadily increased but continues to exceed supply.

These figures also indicate the quality of the outstanding research being conducted by our faculty, staff and students — research that expands knowledge, drives innovation, creates new industries and jobs, spurs economic growth and supports a high standard of living. And they reflect the long-standing generosity of tens of thousands of IU alumni and friends, based on the university's historic reputation for excellence in its first two centuries. And collectively, this funding directly and indirectly also helps to support thousands of jobs in the state of Indiana.

A banner hanging on IUPUI's Michigan and Blake streets walkway declares "Discrimination has no place here." Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Supporting underserved students and racial justice

This fall, in light of a series of tragedies involving Black Americans, IU has also taken action to reaffirm its commitment to diversity and equity, and to redouble our efforts to foster an educational community that is inclusive, supportive and welcoming to all.

One of the first steps we took was to address the very disturbing fact that the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected underserved communities. CDC data shows that the hospitalization and death rate among these communities is about double that for the white community. This is a matter of great concern to us, given that about 15,000 IU students are African American or Hispanic.

To help address these inequities, we created the IU Pandemic Health Disparities Fund, supported by $1 million from the IU Office of the President. We also established the Pandemic Health Disparities Committee, which recently unveiled a set of recommendations to more effectively support vulnerable members of the university community. These recommendations include broadening their access to important health and wellness resources such as mental health counseling; actively recruiting a diverse and culturally competent staff in this area; and providing funding for the fundamental necessities for vulnerable students, such as access to food, housing, utilities, technology, child care and employment.

In June, we also established a Racial Justice Research Fund to engage some of IU's best researchers in tackling vital issues concerning diversity, inclusivity and social injustice at this pivotal time in our nation's history. As we announced last week, this initiative is now supporting 31 research projects exploring racial justice, including the pandemic's impact on Black-owned businesses, a partnership with school districts to encourage racial justice youth activism, storytelling to heal racial trauma and other critical topics. We have also formed a new Gender Research Task Force to address the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on female researchers at IU.

Last week, I released the report of the Jordan Committee that I formed over the summer. I had tasked the committee with evaluating all spaces at IU named for IU's seventh president, David Starr Jordan, in light of continuing concern about the leading and prominent role he played in the eugenics movement nationally and worldwide. Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that purports to improve society and the genetics of the population through selective breeding.

This week, in line with the recommendations of the report, I will suggest that the IU trustees rename Jordan Hall as the Biology Building, Jordan Avenue Parking Garage as the East Parking Garage, and Jordan River as the Campus River. Honorific namings for each of these may be proposed in the future. In addition, I have referred the issue of the renaming of Jordan Avenue to IU's University Naming Committee to work with the city of Bloomington to find a single name for a thoroughfare that is owned in part by the university and in part by the city.

The committee's work is part of a larger, systematic review of all named buildings or structures on all IU campuses. The goal is to identify any buildings or structures named after a person found to have held views — in statements, writings or publicly — inimical to the fundamental values of the university and where there is a case for considering the removal of their present names. This process will be carried out by campus naming review committees that have now been established on all campuses.

Students attend the College to Career course in the Walter Career Center at IU Bloomington. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Strengthening the state's talent pipeline

IU's robust and increasingly diverse student enrollment offers perhaps the best reflection of the university's efforts to expand our state's intellectual capital and ensure that we continue to offer a high-quality, engaging and relevant education to individuals of all backgrounds.

Still, it is no secret that our state, and its colleges and universities, face daunting challenges as we all adjust to an as-yet uncertain "new normal" resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant economic and social justice inequities that the crisis has magnified.

Prior to the pandemic, we knew that the demographic composition of our state and nation was rapidly changing. Population projects maintained by IU's Indiana Business Research Center reveal that the secondary and postsecondary age cohorts will experience very slow growth over the next 20 years, and that this growth will consist almost entirely of students from racial and ethnic groups that have traditionally been underrepresented among college cohorts. We also knew that the success of Indiana's future economy would be driven by the state's ability to fill highly skilled jobs. Unfortunately, these jobs remain highly inequitable across urban and rural areas, family educational attainment, and racial and income lines.

Data from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development show that 80 percent of the most in-demand jobs over the next decade will require some level of college education. And one can only imagine that this trend will be exacerbated as many sectors accelerate plans to adopt new automation and artificial intelligence strategies.

As Indiana's economic and public health landscape changes, more creativity, collaboration and innovation clearly will be needed to ensure an expansion of the state's educational attainment pipeline that produces the sort of skilled and credentialed workforce we know will be demanded.

To this end, last week IU was pleased to announce that it had received an extremely generous $5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to engage our vast statewide expertise in information technology and data analytics to improve the flow of students through Indiana's K-16 school pipeline into the state's workforce and the quality of outcomes for those who flow through it. As we do this, we will also be looking to reduce systematic inequalities for low-income individuals and persons of color.

IU will use this funding to develop, among other initiatives, a multipart data analysis system, called the Insight Engine, to identify "leaks" in the state's workforce pipeline from secondary schools to Indiana careers, as well as key points for interventions that improve student success. We will also further develop our suite of first-rate online educational resources for K-12 and college students, while expanding the availability of career planning, job placement and other student service programs that are especially important for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students.

And while our efforts will focus on the secondary school population, we expect that the practices and support systems we establish will be relevant to adults who need education and training to advance within current careers — or enter into new jobs — that require contemporary skills, additional training or credentials.

Those voting in Indiana must register by Monday, Oct. 5.  Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

A special message to all IU students about voting

A fundamental and critical part of any healthy democracy is citizens exercising their right to vote. It is a precious right that the majority of the world's population does not have in any meaningful way.

Unfortunately, the turnout of young voters has been at a historic low when compared to other segments of our population. Yet every vote counts; it is the way in which the concerns, values and ideals of our students can be conveyed to our politicians.

But to vote, you must be registered to vote. I strongly encourage all of our students to register to vote by Monday, Oct. 5, if you are voting in Indiana, or before the closing dates in your home states, and to vote in the 2020 election on Tuesday, Nov. 3, here or in your home state.

IU's Political and Civic Engagement program features essential information on its website about how to confirm voting status, register to vote, request and return an absentee ballot, and vote in person.

IU students can also help IU win the nationwide Big Ten Voting Challenge. This friendly, spirited, nonpartisan competition, launched in 2017, seeks to increase voter registration and turnout among students on all of our campuses. IU will be competing for two awards that will be given to the university with the highest eligible voter turnout and the one with the most improved turnout compared to 2016.

To the members of our outstanding student body: This is your time to exercise one of our most fundamental and important rights as U.S. citizens, to contribute to positive change, and to seek solutions to the major challenges facing our towns, cities and country.

The #IUStrong message was painted on the ground during First Thursdays on the IU Bloomington campus.  Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

A final word

IU's ability to ensure student success, breakthroughs in research, service to our communities, and more welcoming and inclusive campus environments is only possible because of its people, who continue to rise to the serious challenges we face and who pride themselves on caring for all members of the IU community and the broader communities in which we live.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to test our communities in ways we could never have imagined before, but I am proud to say that we have persevered, succeeded and stayed together. We have been able to do so because of our pandemic response plan — developed by some of the nation's leading public health and medical experts — to which we have kept from the start. Indeed, our focus has never wavered from protecting the health and safety of all students, faculty and staff who comprise the IU community and maintaining the continuity of our instruction, research and clinical operations.

All of us are hoping for medical advancements soon, including a vaccine and increasingly effective therapeutics. Until then, we will continue to take seriously our responsibility to stop the spread of the virus and keep our campuses safe. We can be incredibly heartened by our response so far. Let us continue to work toward making IU an example for others to follow.

With thanks, as always, for all that you do for IU,

Michael A. McRobbie