Coping with Covid

We are at the end of one of the most complicated semesters we have faced as a Volunteer community. I am proud of the way our faculty, staff, and students coped with the disruptions brought on by the novel coronavirus, racial protests, and a political upheaval unlike anything we have seen since 1918-20. I am beginning to understand why the roaring 20s “roared” after two years of dealing with the great flu pandemic.

In August, we were as prepared as we could be to start a new academic year. Several of our staff remained on campus through the summer, working in solitude behind closed doors to keep our college running as smoothly as possible despite the uncertainty. Many of our faculty came back to campus in early August for the first time since March. Students stepping foot on campus for first time were anxious about starting much of their academic career online instead of in the classroom. In spite of the challenges, we worked together to adapt to the new college experience by providing a great many workshops and expert support to provide the best educational experiences possible. At the same time, our researchers were figuring out how to restart activities in their laboratories safely.

Through the semester, we did what we do best – provided research and teaching excellence and embraced the Volunteer spirit.

On the research front, Frank Loeffler, Governor’s Chair for Microbiology, and Albrecht von Arnim, professor and associate head in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology, are leading a team of researchers who designed a pooled saliva testing program to track COVID-19 as students returned to campus. The project works in conjunction with a wastewater monitoring plan lead by Governor’s Chair Terry Hazen, a joint appointment in the Departments of Microbiology and Earth & Planetary Sciences, which is part of the larger synchronized effort across campus to keep the UT community safe.

Jeremy Smith, Governor’s Chair of Biophysics in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology, is part of a team at ORNL using the Summit supercomputer to test chemical compounds in order to discover effective drug therapies to treat COVID-19.

Nina Fefferman, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, collaborated with an epidemiologist at Washington State University to develop an analytical model to help define the risks COVID-19 posed to incarcerated populations, as well as the staff and community who support them. They released a study in April showing that large scale reductions in arrest and quick releases of incarcerated persons was likely to save lives. The UT Emergency Operations team tapped Professor Fefferman’s modeling expertise to develop and interpret our local testing, contact tracing, and other protocols.

Read more news and updates from our faculty in the Notes and Noteworthy section of this newsletter.  

When UT leadership closed campus in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, faculty spent the week of spring break transitioning all their courses completely online to students scattered across the country. For example, faculty in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures took action and overcame challenges while sharing tips with colleagues along the way. Graduate teaching assistants and lab instructors in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences created more than 450 lab kit boxes to connect students more directly with rocks and minerals in an introductory lab taught via Zoom.

In their fall 2020 department newsletters, several department heads praised the work their faculty and staff did to get ready for the fall semester.

In his message from the department head, Derek Alderman shared how instructors and teaching assistants in geography worked overtime to teach courses online or in classrooms designed specifically for socially distanced learning this fall and how members of the department are advancing public conversations about racism and other forms of oppression.

Gladys Alexander, professor and head of the biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology department, stated in her message that faculty in the department are ready to meet challenges and unknown circumstances because that is what a doctorate degree prepared them for, such as troubleshooting and accounting for unknown variables.

While many of us focused on overcoming the challenges, Ernie Freeberg reminded us in his message that one of the most valuable lessons we learned from this experience is there is no real substitute for face-to-face learning.

It is also the case that we have learned a great deal about how to deliver high quality online distance education. There are current and future students for whom this is the best option. We have long offered summer online courses and, after the pandemic passes, we will continue to provide an expanded set of such courses for students who cannot attend classes in Knoxville.

At the college level, we welcomed 20 new tenure and tenured-track faculty to 15 of our departments and schools this fall and promoted several tenure-track faculty and lecturers. We also said goodbye to several retiring faculty. While we could not recognize our faculty at an in-person banquet, we were able to show our appreciation online.

Through all of this, the Volunteer Spirit never wavered. In fact, thanks to alumni and donors like you, we reached a new fundraising record during the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Your generosity helps us continue our legacy as a top-tier public research university and support our students’ success. In addition, the effort made during the early days of COVID-19 to raise funds for a Student Emergency Fund helped provide much needed support for students affected by the pandemic.

I will close by reminding you what I reminded my colleagues on the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences in my presidential address this month – take care of yourself and those around you. Create a routine that includes self-care and give yourself permission to take a break from work and think about other things. The stakes are high and it is more important than ever to bring your best self to your work and to your life.

Thank you for all you do for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and our Volunteer community.


Theresa M. Lee
Dean, College of Arts & Sciences