Living and working in the time of Covid

“I am optimistic that future generations, looking back on the year 2020, will recognize great advancements,” President Kent Fuchs told the Rotary Club of Gainesville. “Perhaps these historic achievements will involve the pathbreaking science now emerging to defeat Covid. Perhaps they will address inequities and racism. But I believe great things will emerge, even this year – and perhaps right here in Gainesville.”

Living and working in the time of Covid

Many thanks to President Matthew Braddy and the Rotary Club of Gainesville for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be with you!

I last spoke to this club two years ago, when you were celebrating your centennial anniversary.  In honor of that anniversary I discussed your first president, Albert Murphree, who was also the second president of UF. I talked about the influenza pandemic of 1918 and its dramatic impact on President Murphree, UF and Gainesville.

I had no idea then, when I last met with you, what our community and planet would be facing two years later, our own pandemic.

UF lost several students and a professor in the 1918 pandemic. President Murphree himself got sick.  But the university recovered and went on to grow and prosper.  President Murphree became one of UF’s longest-serving and most consequential presidents, with a tenure of 18 years, 1909 to 1927.

There’s even a statue of him. It is the only statue of a UF president. Knowing what I know now, I think he deserved it!

So although the university and Gainesville and indeed our world have been through this before, ours is a unique time in history, and not just because of Covid. I have organized my remarks to you around three consequential years:

  • 1968, when there was a great deal of social unrest, which I remember even though I was in middle school
  • 1929, the start of the Depression
  • And 1918, the flu pandemic

Incredibly, we are experiencing all three of those years combined in one year! 2020!

In reverse chronological order, 1968 was the year of Vietnam War protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the Chicago Democratic convention. 

The social upheaval of that year is mirrored in the social upheaval this year, as made clear by the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. We have reached a tipping point where a majority of Americans have decided that violence and racism of all forms against Black Americans can no longer be tolerated - and that police and our society have to change.

For me, this historic moment has been an opportunity for higher education, and it has been an opportunity to do two crucial things: 1) reflect and 2) take action.

William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We at UF live and work in the context of a university that was founded in Gainesville in 1906 exclusively for white men.  We admitted women in 1947 and the first African-American student in 1958.

In a message to campus in June, I pledged to take steps to confront these unacceptable parts of our history that are “not even past.”

A number of UF’s steps will be symbolic. For universities, symbolism can be important. This includes monuments, namings, the use of prison inmates in agricultural fields or even athletic cheers.

Other steps will be tied to our mission of education, scholarship and engagement with society. We’re committed to scholarly documentation of our university history, especially as connected to Native Americans and African Americans. We’ve committed this coming year to research projects, courses and special speakers on race, the African-American experience and racism.

Finally we have committed to redoubling our efforts to make a positive difference for our community, particularly in the lives of those least fortunate. In 2018 a report was issued about our community entitled  “Understanding Racial Inequity in Alachua County.” We all, including UF, have a responsibility to make a difference addressing those inequities, from what we pay our lowest-paid employees to how we work to provide new economic opportunities.

I could continue for the remaining time discussing how in 2020 we are facing our own 1968, but I have two more years to discuss.

My next year is 1929, the year the Great Depression started.

Our nation, state and community have seen a significant economic downturn since the pandemic struck, with unemployment rising, with businesses struggling or shuttered, and with growing demand for food and other basic needs among many residents.

At UF, we have invested more than $40M in reserves to keep employees employed and to address the pandemic. We’ve also received additional federal aid for students.

At the state level, we received strong support in the state budget signed by Governor DeSantis late last month. This was good news, and we are grateful to Governor DeSantis and our lawmakers.

However, the state has found it necessary to hold back 6% of its operating budget, which impacts UF, Santa Fe College and all those that receive operating funds from the state. Many months ago, we put a pause on hiring at UF which is shrinking the number of employees. We don’t know what lies ahead that may even more impact employees and students.

That brings me to my final year, 1918, which I mentioned was the year of the influenza pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.

According to historical accounts, about 140 students at UF became sick with the flu in the fall of 1918.  This amounted to about a third of all our students at the time!  Floyd Hall was converted into a makeshift hospital.  Mothers in Gainesville joined volunteer Red Cross nurses to treat the sick students.  In the end, several students and a math professor succumbed, but most people recovered.

Covid fortunately does not cause as many fatalities as the 1918 influenza, but it is no less serious, and we are laser-focused on working to keep the virus in check and operating as safely as possible when we reopen in the fall.

Masks and physical distance are required in all occupied UF buildings and we have enhanced sanitation, including providing hundreds of hand-sanitation stations.

UF has a distinct advantage in that we are one of just a few universities that own world-class hospitals with an academic health center.  We have faculty and staff who are world experts in epidemiology and public health, and who are leading research on vaccines, therapies and modeling COVID-19. 

These incredible healthcare resources and talent are at the heart our Covid-related procedures and requirements. This includes UF Health’s cornerstone Screen, Test and Protect program, which is our tool to reduce the spread of the disease among students, staff and faculty.

For me, the key element of Screen, Test and Protect is prevention - wearing masks, physical distancing, hand-washing and staying home when sick.

We will both encourage and enforce these practices among all employees and all students. We’re collaborating with the city and county focused on healthy student behaviors off campus.

Testing is another part of the equation.

Through Screen, Test and Protect, we have tested nearly 20,000 employees, clearing them to return to work. We have distributed more than 750,000 disposable masks, about 23,000 cloth masks and thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer.

All returning students will be required to complete a screening - with testing required for those who work with vulnerable populations, and available for any students who want to be tested. Through Screen, Test and Protect, we will also coordinate quarantining those who test positive or had contact with those who test positive.

I am not an epidemiologist, but I expect we will all be living and working with Covid-19 for at least another year, until summer 2021.  If we can keep the pandemic and its worst impacts on our community at bay, I am optimistic for an exceptional year ahead.

While plans for many things, including fall football remain uncertain, remarkable things continue to happen at UF.

Later today, I’ll join a press conference with Governor DeSantis and others to announce a very significant gift. This gift will launch a partnership between UF and a Silicon Valley company related to Artificial Intelligence research and teaching across the university.

In a Town Hall Zoom meeting with faculty and staff last week, I challenged our university community to raise the level of excellence of our teaching and research higher than it was a year ago, even as we live with the pandemic - and I think we can hit that high mark.

Well, I began my remarks by sharing that 1968 was a year of deep social unrest, 1928 was the start of the Depression and 1918 was the year of the last pandemic.

I will end by noting that in each of these years, and shortly after, many wonderful things happened. After the pandemic of 1918, UF experienced one of its periods of greatest growth.

I am optimistic that future generations, looking back on the year 2020, will also recognize great advancements.

Perhaps these historic achievements will involve the pathbreaking science now emerging to defeat Covid. Perhaps these historic achievements will address inequities and racism.  But I believe great things will emerge, even this year – and perhaps right here in Gainesville.

It’s been a pleasure speaking to you! I think we have some time left and I am glad to answer your questions …