May 2020

Sometimes two things can be true: Yes, COVID-19 is a destructive force, one that has already caused huge losses. And at the same time, the pandemic has been a catalyst for positive responses. The same is seen at private colleges: COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with class schedules and more, but there are also ways it is triggering students and faculty to take on new work that aims to address the public good.

Consider, a new website that provides an equity lens on COVID-19 economic relief policies. Aware of how the initial responses to the pandemic could be felt differently in different communities, Bruce Corrie, associate vice president of university relations and professor of economics at Concordia University, St. Paul, didn’t plan to publish an academic paper. He chose instead to create a resource that lifts up relevant pieces of research and analysis for a broad audience. Topics include the accessibility of micro businesses to the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program and the high unemployment rates in minority communities. He’s already seeing the site have an impact, given questions coming from policymakers and the media — and visitors from more than 25 countries.

“My footprint is small, but it has been effective,” Corrie said. “It is both research and action combined – and that’s being quite fruitful. The focus on equity is critical now, as we work to rebuild a broken economy.”

So many other responses from faculty and students are emerging, offering relief and resources. Consider the project that grew out of the concerns of one professor at the University of St. Thomas. Mark Osler, a professor at the School of Law, wrote an opinion column in the Star Tribune in March that called on officials to take action to reduce catastrophic illness and death in prison and jail facilities as COVID-19 spreads. His call for reducing prison populations was heard, including by the state’s commissioner for corrections. Faculty from all the local law schools grew involved as legislation moved forward to allow for more conditional medical releases. And since the law passed, students from the law schools have been staffing a helpline for inmates and helping them write their applications.

“Too often we divide ourselves between academic work and what people call real work. It’s the same thing. Here, I’m able to write something about policy and it generates action and collaboration,” Osler said, as quoted in the University of St. Thomas Newsroom article.

Responses are coming from students too, and through work with partners. Take the example of just one student at St. Catherine University majoring in apparel design; her search for an internship led her to join an existing effort and sew masks for health care settings that pass the test of being personal protective equipment.

Students are processing — and seeking to help — in many ways. Take the students in Greg Hewett’s poetry workshop course at Carleton College; he noted how the shutdown and isolation have continued to surface in their writing. “This time it is a little rawer; there are more personal poems than usual,” he said. Students in the class decided to publish a chapbook of their work, selling it and raising funds for Northfield Community Action Center’s food shelf. The spring campus event that usually raises funds for the food shelf had to be moved online, given COVID-19; Empty Bowls involves student-made bowls, great soup — and a crowd of people who could no longer meet. The online shift was a spark: students began to see opportunities to raise funds through other online means, too.

Along with impacting community needs and students’ lives, the pandemic is also entering their courses. Sinda Nichols, director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement at Carleton, noted examples from different disciplines. “Bringing students experiences into the classroom is one way to deepen engagement,” Nichols said. “There are real opportunities to bring the content to life; that’s always true but especially true right now.”

“This is a time for research institutions and liberal arts colleges to show their public purpose and public face,” Nichols said. “But we have to talk about it carefully, given so many basic needs are going unmet.”

By John Manning