Presidents Bollinger and Beilock updated the Columbia community on possible plans for fall, spring, and summer semesters in an email to students this morning. In an email accidentally sent to Bwog, Columbia said they would not be answering our “reasonable” clarifying questions, leading to larger concerns about administrative transparency.

Both President Bollinger and President Beilock welcomed the newly admitted students and congratulated graduating classes across the University, before launching into what decisions the university has made regarding our return to campus this fall.

In his email, President Bollinger expressed gratitude for the resilience shown by all members of the Columbia community, particularly those working in the Medical Center and the Class of 2020. He also announced a plan to allow faculty members and certain graduate students to return to their on-campus research as NYC stay-at-home orders begin to relax. He expressed hope to put this plan into place as early as June.

As President Bollinger mentioned, and President Beilock later clarified, three semesters—Fall 2020, Spring 2021, and Summer 2021—will all be part of the 2020-2021 academic year. He explained that this longer academic year would hopefully allow as many students as possible to return to campus for in-person instruction. According to his email, more information about the composition of these three semesters will be released by July 1.

President Beilock confirmed that Fall 2020 classes will commence on Tuesday, September 8, as planned, in her statement to students. In accordance with the new schedule announced by President Bollinger, a third semester (Summer 2021) will be added to the 2020-21 academic year in order to maximize enrollment flexibility and accommodate on-campus learning as much as possible. As of the publication of this post, it is unknown whether Fall classes will take place online or in-person.

However, President Beilock was able to offer significantly more details about the possibilities for next year in her statement to students. In addition to Barnard’s confirmation yesterday that all study abroad programs during Fall 2020 have been canceled, Beilock mentioned possible changes to the structure of current curricula. The options include traditional semester-long classes, intensive classes that meet more frequently over a period of six weeks, and a combination of blocked and semester-long classes. Barnard Provost Linda Bell is currently leading an Academic Working Group to further examine these possibilities. Additionally, curricula across the College will be adjusted to study the “big problems” presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. She announced that decisions regarding these changes will be made public in early July, a similar, if more vague, deadline to Columbia’s scheduled July 1 announcement. She also linked a survey where Barnard students could share their opinions about the academic year.

Barnard’s Vice President for Operations Roger Mosier is leading a Return to Campus Working Group to determine how to safely bring the Barnard community back to campus. This involves evaluating housing and dining practices as well as cleaning protocol to facilitate isolation or other necessary health measures. Bwog has reached out to both Barnard and Columbia about what metrics they are using to determine whether it will be safe for students to return to campus and what density they are trying to achieve on campus.

The addition of a summer semester will result in a number of changes to the lives of Columbia students, and this announcement leaves many students with more questions than answers. The email did not announce whether graduation for the Class of 2021 will take place in May 2021, as currently scheduled, or after the completion of a summer semester. Year-long courses, including Lit Hum, CC, and thesis seminars, could potentially be impacted. Any adjustments to the structure of classes or housing practices have the potential to disrupt the classes and housing that students have already selected. CU students are only guaranteed eight semesters of financial aid and/or housing; President Bollinger did not announce whether students would have to pay for a third semester of tuition, room, and board, or if other arrangements will be made.

Additionally, most Columbia and Barnard students are expected to work over the summer to contribute to their tuition. Barnard has already announced a new grant program for Summer 2020 to cover those costs, while Columbia has not made any changes, despite unemployment rates at their highest since the Great Depression. Bwog has reached out to see if students will still be expected to make this contribution for Summer 2021, and has sought clarity on the other issues mentioned above. Barnard has not yet replied to our email; this post will be updated if/when they do.

In response to these and other questions, Bwog has received an email from a Columbia University spokesperson reading: “Sharing these perfectly reasonable follow up questions from Bwog that we will not be answering just to give you some idea of the questions floating around.” Moments later, we received a follow-up requesting these comments be moved off-the-record, an arrangement to which Bwog did not agree. This email (included below, along with our original questions) was obviously not intended to be seen by Bwog or any student and leads to concerning questions about administrative transparency as student anxieties about the shape of the upcoming Fall semester continue to grow.

With only a little over two months between Columbia’s final announcement and our return to classes, many Columbia students might not have the time to make the necessary arrangements to adjust to this new schedule—including financial arrangements, should financial aid not be extended for an additional semester. Although the answers to many of these questions might still be uncertain, this email indicates that Columbia’s administration is currently avoiding its responsibility to be honest and transparent with its students. Instead, administrators are choosing to avoid providing guidance about these “perfectly reasonable ” concerns regarding financial aid, housing, and even the metrics they are using to decide whether it is safe to come back to campus—a delay which could, in turn, prevent students from being able to return at all when campus finally does reopen.

President Beilock’s statement:

Dear Members of the Barnard Community,

As we wrap up the current academic year and look forward to the next, I want to once again congratulate the spirited and strong class of 2020, and welcome the amazingly impressive Class of 2024 to Barnard.

Looking forward to the coming academic year, we know we must allow health and safety experts to learn as much as possible about the course of the pandemic before final decisions are made. This is vital to protecting our community. 

Yet that patience does not mean we are sitting idly on the sidelines. Despite the challenges we face, we are doing all in our power to make it possible to return to campus as soon as it is safe to do so. 

Along with Columbia University, we will follow our current Fall and Spring Semester calendar, with classes commencing Tuesday, Sept. 8. In keeping with President Bollinger’s announcement today, we will also be adding a third Summer semester for the 2020-21 academic year. This additional semester will enhance flexibility, add to the enrollment opportunities available to our students, and maximize the opportunity for on-campus classes. By early July, we will share more information about the specifics of the year to come – including whether we plan to start classes on Sept. 8 on-line, in-person, or some combination of both.

At a deeper level, our faculty and staff are hard at work developing new and better ways to teach in these challenging and unpredictable times. Most importantly, we continue to promote one of our core values – education for the social good. Now, more than ever, we have an obligation to address the challenges of our times head-on, and to propose and evaluate solutions. Arguably, no institution is better poised than Barnard to contribute to a collective knowledge base that will inform our understanding of the causes and solutions of the current global crisis. 

To that end, I am excited to let you know that the College will devote a portion of next academic year’s curriculum to addressing the current pandemic in all its complexities and relevancies. Science informs solutions, and so does the societal and economic impact that the pandemic will have – especially on marginalized groups. Interrogating the “big problems” of this crisis from multiple perspectives will best position our students to be leading voices for change. 

This orientation toward knowledge for impact is not new to Barnard. From programs such as our Harlem and Mississippi semesters to our new Barnard Engages curriculum, our students tackle real-world challenges around economic inequality, sustainability, immigration, and more. Partnerships with community-based organizations in our classes will enhance our learning, our work, and the solutions we can offer to the world. Provost Bell will be writing soon to our incoming first-years, transfers and returning students with more information about our important focus on COVID-19 “big problems” across the next academic year.

In collaboration with the faculty, we are also exploring various options for curricular changes with the goal of ensuring maximum flexibility to maintain the health and safety of our community. These include several possible options: 

  1. Traditional semester-long classes.
  2. Intensive classes to be offered in two six-week blocks for each semester that meet more frequently and allow students the flexibility to take fewer courses in any given semester block. 
  3. A combination of both semester-long and blocked classes.

An Academic Working Group, led by Provost Linda Bell, is focused on exploring these and other possibilities. Our goal is to be able to utilize the entire academic year as fully and flexibly as possible to maximize the probability of instruction occurring on campus and to uphold the academic excellence that is the hallmark of a Barnard education.

A Return to Campus Working Group, led by Vice President for Operations Roger Mosier, is focused on laying out the various steps necessary to bring faculty, staff, and students safely back to campus. This group is navigating a myriad of issues such as how housing and dining will operate, how COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and isolation might work on our campus, how to manage the required cleaning protocols, technology needs for our classrooms, and more. We are also working closely with Columbia University, the City and New York State on these health, safety and operational issues. More information on our planning can be found on the new Barnard Planning 2020-21 webpage.

Your input is vital here as well. As such, I invite you to fill out this survey to help gauge your opinions on course delivery and campus life for the coming academic year. 

Through all we have faced this year, I have never been more impressed by the Barnard community and the support and care we have shown for each other. Together, we will continue to prevail and to thrive.

Thank you,

Sian Leah Beilock

President Bollinger’s statement:

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

As one of the most perplexing and difficult semesters in memory draws to an end, I write now with some updates on the shape of the summer and the academic year to come. 

Let me just begin by expressing, once again, our genuine gratitude for the extraordinary ways in which every member of the University community has responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, first and foremost, of course, our colleagues at the Medical Center. This has been a spring for the ages, and my deepest hope is that the goodwill and collective effort manifested in this crisis will continue to sustain us in the months and years ahead. At this very moment, I am especially thinking of our graduating classes and of how our campus would ordinarily be filled with the anticipation of one of the most uplifting and magnificent academic ceremonies on the planet. Though we will all gather virtually for these milestone events, having to forego what we wish most for will only magnify the feelings of warm connection we will have in the years to come with the Class of 2020. As I plan to say on Commencement day, these strange and frightening times have most certainly deepened our collective appreciation of the University’s many vital roles in society, beginning with the search for fundamental knowledge and carried through to the care of humanity and the world. 

As disjointed as this moment has come to feel, as filled as it is with deep uncertainties, we must move forward. I write first, then, about the state of our research. 

Over the last several weeks, we have developed an intricate plan for returning to laboratory research that has necessarily been suspended. Following the guidance of our public health experts, and pending the approvals from the State to ease stay-at-home orders in New York City, we will gradually allow our faculty and certain graduate students to return to their lab research sites, ensuring, most of all, of course, the safety of our community. It is our hope that this plan can be activated as early as June. Ira Katznelson has communicated the details of our schedule and the conditions to our researchers.

We also have been intensely focused on the general form of our next academic year. We all wish to return to in-person instruction and campus life, and our intent is to make that possible as soon as it is safe to do so. The hard fact is, however, that we just cannot predict now when that moment will arrive. Yet, we can put in place structures that maximize prospects for that outcome and offer meaningful steps along the way. Our primary goal must be to create as rich an academic experience as possible, in whatever form that will take, while preparing to bring us back together at the earliest feasible moment. No doubt social distancing techniques will be with us for some time, which, of course, complicates the logistics of the return. Taking these and other factors into account, we have made one key decision: to prepare to use the three upcoming academic terms—fall 2020, spring 2021, and summer 2021—as a unit of time in order to provide us with the greatest amount of flexibility in organizing our educational experiences. 

By leveraging a longer period of time, we will be able to de-densify our campus so that all students may experience much, if not most, of their coursework in person over the arc of the three terms. While this is just the beginning of a University-wide effort to determine the specifics of the academic year, we now have the capacity to tap into the rich expertise and creativity of our University leaders and faculty to shape the substance and content of this one-time arrangement. By July 1, Ira Katznelson, our spectacular deans, and I will have more details to share about how the three terms will be composed. 

May is always filled with the sense of exhilaration of admitting new classes across our schools and colleges. It is natural to wonder—and we have—how the understandable anxieties among our prospective students about how the current crisis will affect their beginnings at Columbia will in turn affect their college plans. Amid such uncertainty, it gives me great pleasure and pride to share that all we now know suggests we will welcome one of the most talented and formidable cohorts of new students this fall. As with their predecessors, these exceptional individuals will add immeasurably to the intellectual life at Columbia, perhaps even more than usual because they have already displayed a kind of courage and fortitude to maintain a steady course in the search for knowledge.

One can only feel a sense of humility in the face of the broad human response as we grapple with a threat as menacing as COVID-19. And one can only feel thankful for our universities and for Columbia, in particular. New York City is almost always the epicenter of crises that strike this nation, and Columbia University in the City of New York is, therefore, too. This is not exactly to be wished for, but it does create, over time, an intellectual character that is grounded in the hard realities of existence. And, on balance, inhabiting a space imbued with that character is where I would rather be. I trust that view is shared by everyone at Columbia. 

From the President’s House, Jean and I send you our very best. 


Lee C. Bollinger

photos via Bwog Staff