I’ve lived in Maine now for nine months, and never have I lived in another part of the world that is as welcoming to those who are from another part of the country, as I’ve been in Maine, and I hope that it stays that way.
—Dr. Nirav Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (March 19, 2020)
We are confronted daily with an often overwhelming reminder that we are living in “unprecedented times.” For comparable context in terms of a health crisis, the United States must look back one hundred years to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, in which 500 million people, or nearly one-third of the world’s population, became infected with an H1N1 virus. This means that only 0.0173% of Americans alive today were there in 1918. That is indeed a long time between new precedents.
Doing what is morally right and socially responsible is quite often the result of unprecedented decisions, both small and large, for individuals as well as institutions and nations, and not just in times of global crisis. When the 1918 pandemic struck, the Aroostook State Normal School, whose doors had been open for only 15 years, turned Normal Hall into a temporary hospital to meet overwhelming urgent care needs. During World War II, the Normal School was again closed to students while temporary military barracks were constructed and the campus used for training and deployment purposes. In 1968, the first recorded student protests occurred at what was then called the Aroostook State College; these protests were responses to different sorts of urgent needs, such as calls to end anachronistic curfews against women (whereas men could come and go as they wished) and other policies, both local and national, that we would today deem unjust. Through all this time and all of these changes in name, the University of Maine at Presque Isle has been an integral part of Maine culture and society, responding to our communities’ needs through its ethical imperative to help make our world safer and more just for all, even as those communities have broadened from Presque Isle and its immediate environs to international and global arenas.
That’s why I feel Dr. Shah’s comments, made during one of his unfailingly measured and informative press conferences, perfectly reflect our interwoven ethical imperatives to provide succor and support in times of need while also providing individual care and compassion during such events.
Our response to the current emergency reflects both this mandate to support our broader communities and to provide care for each individual within our university community. Along with the entire University of Maine System, we are working directly with the Maine Emergency Management Agency to deploy our facilities, supplies, services, and personnel in Maine’s response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. We are in direct contact with local officials, both in government and health care, to support their needs and operations.
But we are also more fortunate today, than in either 1918 or 1943, because we are able to continue to meet the needs of our students, both local and afar, in regards to their teaching and learning. Faculty have converted all “live” or “in-person” courses to distance modality delivery, starting Wednesday, March 25. This means that every student currently in any one of our classes will continue their studies online, through live video programming, recorded and simulated laboratory experiences, and combinations thereof. Indeed, our YourPace programs, competency-based learning environments designed specifically for learners with some prior college experience, have continued throughout this crisis with absolutely no interruption to their students’ education. Even further, all of our support services, from professional advising to tutoring to counseling, are now available to all of our students through these same distance modalities—from Google hangouts to screen-sharing techniques to old-fashioned tele-conferencing. Regardless of this health emergency’s duration, we will be able to meet the educational and supportive needs of all our students and ensure that they not only succeed in their spring coursework, but that they will succeed in summer sessions and this coming fall, and that all of them will be able to graduate on time. Our faculty and support staff are singularly dedicated to supporting their success.
This is one of the great strengths of higher education generally and the University of Maine at Presque Isle especially. For a great institution recognizes that the world is comprised of relationships rather than people standing alone, that it is human connections, not simply systems of rules, that help us all to succeed. Carol Gilligan, one of today’s most renowned ethicists and psychologists, demonstrated that a person defined through connection and supported through activities of care will not only be healthier and more successful but will themselves be a better future companion, collaborator, and leader. At the University of Maine at Presque Isle, in these unprecedented and uncertain times, as we have done for over one hundred years, you can be assured that we are reconfirming and redoubling our efforts to provide this ethic of care to our students, each other, and our communities. Most importantly, we are ensuring that we will all benefit from the world that such an ethic will help to create.