Meditations and Musings
Last week, it hit me that we’ve crossed the six-month anniversary of the “new normal” of our University operations and delivery on our three-part mission – from March 30 when we began “remote instruction” for the remainder of the spring 2020 academic term. There has been tremendous “water under the bridge” in those six months – and much of it needs to be chronicled and preserved. I made the personal commitment on that day last week that I would do my small part by putting a few of my own recollections and reflections, what I am calling “meditations and musings” – or M&M’s for short – down on paper. This is the first one, meant to set the stage for a series of “Ronnie’s Pandemic M&M’s”.
The older I get, the more I have come to gradually accept two realities – becoming a creature of habit and becoming more and more like my father. Or then again, maybe those things were true all along, but time and “seasoning” has made me more able to see and appreciate them.
The past six months have been nothing like any of us have experienced, regardless of our age or season of life. For many of us, what we previously considered major global challenges have paled in comparison to the global pandemic resulting from the presence of SARS CoV-2 causing COVID-19 in our midst, coupled more recently with the reality of racial injustice and inequity, especially experienced by Black Americans, laid bare in all of its ugliness and impact.
Three moments in the early months of 2020 have been permanently imprinted on my consciousness: February 26, March 11-13, and May 30.
February 26 – the first time I saw epidemiological modeling data reflecting what “could be” in the order of a global pandemic. I remember the sense of alarm I felt as I listened to my colleague, UNMC Chancellor Jeff Gold, describe a very dire situation that would likely unfold globally, nationally, and locally. That sense of fear grew as the subsequent two weeks played out – more and more evidence accumulated showing a real threat to our university, and our UNL leadership team went in to full “war room” mode of planning.
March 11-13 – three days burnt into my memory as we worked to operationalize the reality of COVID-19’s initial arrival to Nebraska and Lincoln, and announced drastic measures to safeguard our university community, yet continue our educational mission, in the midst of global chaos and uncertainty. There was a global sense of panic and fear, yet what I recall most on the faces of our leadership team was resolve.
May 30 – when Jane and I looked at one another and said that we were wrong – that institutionalized racial inequity and racial injustice is real, and we are a part of it. And that we must be part of its solution. As we watched protests and unfortunate accompanying violence in many places, including in Lincoln and even more so in Omaha, break out in late May and early June – we saw age-old fears rise in the anger.
Along the way, I found myself having fully become a creature of habit – spending important quiet time thinking through the nights and in the wee hours of the morning. This is not a lifelong habit; until a few years ago, this human had a full out “go full throttle until late and limp into the morning” kind of rhythm. When I had the awesome privilege to serve as UNL’s Vice Chancellor of IANR, that changed along the way – and I began finding myself really needing and valuing the time to read, meditate, and reflect in the early morning hours. Listening to my ancestors – including the father I lost in 1989 to cancer at 59 – to my inner faith – and to all of the things the world was saying – are the most insightful parts of my day.
This spring, what I found there in those moments – and subconsciously heard there — was a clear message — “whom shall I fear?”
Since February, I had been reflecting on memories and stories I recalled from my grandmothers about 1918-20 and the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which was endured while my grandfather Green was in World War I in France. I reflected about the stories from my mother and father, and later my mother and father-in-law about growing up in the Great Depression followed by World War II. And repeatedly, the words which echoed back to me were in the lines of the old songs and scriptures from my Southern Baptist upbringing in Virginia – “whom shall I fear?”.
Those words have guided me along every day and every hour over the past 221 days. If we let fear control us, it will undoubtedly convict and commit us to failure. I made the conscious decision that as a human being in 2020, and even more so as the leader of this great University at this pivotal time in our history – that I would choose to live with calm focused commitment, clear thinking, committed courage to draw upon when needed, and human grace. It is grace, above all, that would be the most important thing I felt I could contribute in response to these challenges we face.
We have now entered week eight of the 14-week UNL fall academic term – certainly against the odds many predicted and certainly against the raging pessimism actively flaring across much of higher education in these past six months.
I am at peace in knowing that everything we have done and are doing is allowing us to manage effectively through the greatest challenge to UNL since 1918. I am so immensely proud of our institution – of our faculty, staff, students, and alumni. And, I am confident that we will emerge stronger, better, and more rooted as a world leading institution than ever before in our 151-year history.
I will sit down to write as these reflections come to me over the coming weeks and months. I know they will be helpful for me – and will be something I will leave to my children and grandchildren. If they are helpful to you, my University family who I continually hold in my thoughts and prayers -- and who I know love this great place as much as I do, then it will be an important part of that grace I mentioned earlier.
More to come.