Reflections from the Dean

DeanLeeIn each edition of Higher Ground, we offer stories on a theme. This year, reflection is our theme and, as I thought about what to share with you, I found myself wishing we had more time to reflect on the past two years – what we have learned about our students, faculty, and staff on campus and what we can take forward into a better future. 

What I recollect first is the uncertainty we all experienced during those first few months of the pandemic two years ago. We were uncertain of its seriousness, how to protect our community, and how to continue our work or daily lives. Worry was a common theme. We worried about individuals who were alone, or did not have enough food, or those who could lose their homes. People who filled roles we rarely noticed became absolutely essential. We were grateful for their service – especially those from often under-appreciated marginalized populations. 

As we began coming back together, we worried about how to do so in a way that respected each person’s physical and mental health. We needed to figure out how to accommodate our students who wanted in-person classes while acknowledging the fears and uncertainties the pandemic still perpetuated among our communities. In the past month, we tentatively leaned into allowing each person to decide to mask or not, but no longer requiring it as the coronavirus retreated – at least for now. We will wait and see what the next phase of this pandemic brings. 

Our lives have been disrupted. Our mental health has been impacted. Our community has frayed around the edges. We have more depression and doubt about whether to trust public health professionals. Our desire to return to normal runs deep, even though we know our world has shifted and the old normal is gone. The true impact of these past two years – both positive and negative – is at all levels, from the individual and community to the national and global scale. 

As our world changed around us, however, many people learned how to teach or learn or work in new ways. I encourage us to reflect on that outcome of the pandemic – our ability to embrace new ways of getting the job done while supporting our Volunteer community. In addition, our community of alumni and friends reached out to help support students and staff who were struggling to meet their daily needs. I am so very grateful for the generosity of everyone who helped successfully keep students in school.

I have hope that our community of Volunteers can reduce the negative consequences and enhance the positive ones in the next few years. The global pandemic exhausted us. It left some of us broken and lonely. It reminded all of us about our humanity. Let us now take a collective breath and realign our Volunteer community towards a brighter future. 

The centerpiece of this year’s magazine is Ayres Hall. It is 100 years old and the most recognizable building on campus. It was built during boom times and, a decade after it opened, we were in the worst depression in American history, followed by a World War. And yet, Ayres Hall has become the administrative heart of our college and evokes the promise of great things to come for students from all parts of campus who walk through its halls. Let us take a moment to pause and reflect on its symbolic meaning for our community echoed in our alma mater: On a hallowed hill in Tennessee / Like a beacon shining bright / The stately walls of old UT / Rise glorious to the sight.

Thank you for your work, your diligence, and your support.