A conversation with Provost Davis Baird on COVID-19


Courtesy of Brandeis University

Mimi Prevelianakis, Contributing Writer

While the COVID-19 outbreak rages on, most college students spent the past months either at home, stranded in their dorms, or in some sort of temporary living situation as they attempted to make it through the end of the semester via online schooling. An entire college education was crammed into a computer, with some classes not even taking place anymore—just assignments to keep the course going.

Any and all communication with professors and faculty occurred through email, phone calls, or video chat, with the latter being used to conduct lectures instead of face-to-face classes.

Many students had trouble with motivation for doing work with so much uncertainty about their education lies ahead. Many have questions about what comes next, with the biggest questions in regard to returning to campus in the fall, and if that is even a possibility.

“The fact is, there is a huge amount of uncertainty in the next six to twelve months,” says Clark Provost Davis Baird, illuminated on a computer screen via Zoom—the method most professors have used to continue classes with students.

Baird is upfront about Clark’s dedication to in-class learning and outlines the most important and essential values to the University, before getting into the logistics of what the future could hold. “We deeply believe that the face-to-face experience is core to what we do educationally. The goal of course is to, in a safe way, provide that kind of education—that high touch, face-to-face, residential education,” Baird says.

Baird concedes that if distance learning was needed due to another outbreak, students could probably not stay on campus. “Part of the problem of a college campus is that it is nearly impossible to social distance. Am I going to say to a hundred students, ‘You can stay, but you can’t come out of your room?’”

When asked if there is a possibility that students could get sent home again, Baird answers, “I would be a fool to say there is no chance.”

If distance learning needed to be implemented again, Baird says that the Clark administration would work to improve online learning. “We already do a fair amount of online education at the graduate level, and the work that was done to bring these courses and programs online was done over several years with a huge amount of care in each course and a lot of training.”

Baird says that Clark will try to replicate this kind of quality and care towards all courses moving online, even if they were not meant to be online classes. “We are taking more steps so that faculty are prepared if we have to [move to online learning].”

Baird makes it clear that the Clark administration will be “working to create a flexible modality” in the next few months. “In the end, we will come up with a reasonably simple set of possibilities” that respond to any public health concerns.

According to current Clark President David Angel’s email to Clark faculty on April 21st, the administration is preparing for a variety of scenarios.  “The preferred scenario, of course, is to welcome our students back to campus in late August, and to return to regular in-person classes. But we need to be prepared for alternatives, including the possibility of a delayed opening to the academic year, a new academic calendar, and the possibility of continued use of online courses,” Angel wrote. “This uncertainty is challenging, and we appreciate all of your creativity and commitment in helping Clark work through this.”

No matter what happens, Baird stresses, consideration for students will remain at the forefront of any response from Clark. “It would be difficult for Clark to not respond to whatever without a certain degree of compassion,” he explains.

Whatever the circumstances of the coming year, Provost Baird insists that the university will attempt to ensure the high-level, onsite education that students are paying for. “What Clark will not do is make a decision like; ‘Online is ok.  We’re just going to do that because it’s the easiest, safest way to approach education in the uncertainty we have,’” he says.  “We know that our core educational value does not come through an online experience.  It comes through a residential experience.”

Baird is confident that students will come back to campus in the fall. “I know it will happen,” he exclaims. “Depending on how the virus evolves, it may happen in an unusual way, but we will get students on campus.”