In January, I told the Colorado Legislature that I feel like I have the best job on the planet. I get to live, I said, in a wonderful community and work alongside outstanding professionals focused on successfully training the next generation of teachers and scientists and artists and business leaders. What could be better than that?
In our COVID-19 world, January seems a lifetime away.
Today, being the president of Fort Lewis College is a bit less fun but no less inspiring. I’ve never been more proud of our students, our staff, our faculty and the community of Durango.
The global pandemic has forced us all primarily inside and online. Our faculty moved 700 courses online in five days. Our staff provided vital support services to students from telehealth to technology to help our students stay safe and learning. True to our motto of putting students at the center of everything we do, our housing and finance staff devised a straightforward way to provide pro-rated refunds to students who had to leave the residence halls. And our engineers and scientists sprung into action to create and provide personal protective equipment for local health workers.
In the face of global challenge, the role that higher education plays in our society is more important than ever. No one can predict exactly how our post-COVID lives will evolve, but we know that we’ll need knowledge, creativity and ingenuity to put the pieces back together. For decades, higher education has created innovative leaders of society. More than ever, this still holds true for FLC.
During the last great recession, communities with colleges and universities did not fall as deep into economic hardship because higher education institutions positively impact regional economic development. Given the high rates of unemployment and the devastation experienced by our local business sector, a strong FLC will be essential to the Four Corners recovery.
The faculty and staff of FLC are up for the challenge, guided by the values that shape our work: caring, compassion and a commitment to equity. We can do our part. But, we will need help.
We’ll need support from the state and federal government. Nationally, higher education is facing an existential crisis from COVID-19, with an estimated impact of $50 billion. I am grateful for Colorado’s U.S. representatives and senators, who understand the value of higher education. They have responded through the passage of the CARES Act to help begin to address the financial needs of students and the financial costs to FLC and other institutions across the nation.
Additionally, we’ll need to build upon the great local champions who have already stepped up to assist our students through charitable donations and to voice their support of the great work we do.
If FLC is to actualize its potential in providing high quality, affordable and accessible education, while also serving as an economic anchor, we’ll need support from every corner. Thank you for being in ours.
Tom Stritikus has spent his career working in education and is the president of Fort Lewis College.