MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT
June usually is a month of transition right after the hustle and bustle of Graduation Ceremonies, with a small break until we start the marathon of the all-important undergraduate student recruitment and placement in July. That little window gives us time to take a little breather, relax and recharge our batteries.
However, our new normal unfortunately did not and probably will not allow many of us to take that break for a while.
I had informed you about the formation of our ‘Return to Campus Taskforce’ in my previous message. We have now also formed the ‘Health Board’ and the ‘Legal Board’ sub-committees, consisting of university experts who are familiar with our campus conditions to better manage these processes and help us make sound decisions.
The month of June this year was all about getting ready to resume our research efforts on campus after a 3-month hiatus. After much detailed deliberation, we now have started a limited number of high priority research projects where related faculty, graduate students and staff are authorized to only enter their assigned laboratories. Our task force and other teams are working diligently to ensure firstly the safety and health of those returning to campus while simultaneously preparing schedules, necessary trainings and technical infrastructure. I have to admit that making the decision to close down our University and transition to online/remote learning and teaching back in March was very hard and challenging; nevertheless, it was clearly necessary, absolute and definitive. Reopening decision, on the other hand, is immersed in a myriad of so many uncertainties, unknowns, what ifs and if nots which makes the whole operation much more daunting and an extraordinary undertaking.
Our main focus nonetheless is still the same: The health, safety, and well-being of our community, on and off our campuses, is always our top priority. Thus, our decisions and actions are driven by our responsibility towards our community.
I share many of the frustrations of our community with the pace of progress on this pandemic and understand the expectations on more finalities but we all have to accept the fact that we are still immersed in and surrounded by a lot of uncertainties. Therefore, we are only able to make short-term plans where we can evaluate each step with due diligence and allow ourselves as much flexibility as possible so that if circumstances change, we can adapt swiftly and decisively.
On a more positive note, being remote and away from campus also allowed us to come up with new traditions. For the first time this year, we announced the Honor Roll for the Graduating Class of 2020, recognizing those students who have achieved the highest grade point average in their respective Schools, Colleges and Departments and who stood out in terms of sports, cultural and social activities besides their academic success. Even though we would have preferred to have had the opportunity to address our students in person and share these accolades from the podium during our beautiful traditional Graduation Ceremony, with such a message, we wanted to at least congratulate our students who had the tenacity, will and resilience to succeed in a time where we all had to deal with a pandemic that forced us to change our way of life. We have also decided to make these email announcements to all our community in connection with our Graduation Ceremony in the following years.
Even though my time this month was primarily allocated to preparations for Return to Campus, I had a chance to attend the IE University’s Reinventing Higher Education Virtual Conference on June 29. I was a speaker at last year's Reinventing Higher Education Conference's ‘The Future of Work’ panel, where I had shared my thoughts on how I saw university education as a rendezvous, or an appointment if you will, between generations. This year, Koc University, along with other top 33 universities in the world, is a signatory to the joint statement on global academic mobility and I was asked to address a group of Presidents and Representatives from these universities in an online meeting. Echoing my reflections from the previous year's conference about university education, I elaborated on how we all went through a digital transformation in two weeks, rather than in several years that it might have been otherwise spread over and how many people observe that this entire sequence of events underscored and demonstrated the feasibility and potential of online teaching and learning. I stated my opinion that it is exactly the opposite and that the sequence of events actually illustrated and exposed the shortcomings of online teaching and learning and that most of university education still needs to happen in the context of the ‘appointment between generations’ on campuses and in classrooms.
This thought also brings me to a recent survey I was asked to fill out by EUA - European University Association. The key question there was what this pandemic taught us and how it changed the way we look at the future of higher education and research and how university education and research may be like in 2030. Here are my thoughts: First and foremost, the emphasis on interdisciplinary education and research should be even more important than it is today. As disciplines and departmental emphases evolve, research in the areas of overlap of Medicine with Engineering, Science, Humanities, Social Sciences, Administrative Sciences and Law will more likely be increasingly impactful for society. This means that medical education should undergo a transformation to be much more integrated with other disciplines. Genetically based targeted therapy should emerge as the norm, transforming role of Medical Doctors from patient diagnostics in clinical visits to selectors and administrators of pre-determined treatments. Artificial Intelligence should be a driving influence in every aspect of our lives, so much so that it would be taken for granted while being used massively by students & faculty. And I would also foresee that every student, faculty & staff at the university should be much more computer literate, possibly everyone knowing at least one programming language.
We also need industrial partners to evolve to a mid-to long-term vision in their partnerships with universities so that they can provide support for the ‘R’ of R&D partnerships, rather
than being oriented with short term ‘D’ type of goals. Best examples of this happen in the United States in the context of ‘Seed Research’ support in which research topics are not dictated by the needs of the industry (‘known’ unknowns) but rather by the exploration of future topics that might bring in disruptive change (‘unknown’ unknowns).
I surely do not subscribe to the idea of University education being obsolete or the thought that this pandemic crippled Universities as suggested by many attention seeking headlines. Research is the way out of this pandemic, name of the game and the driver of progress. Research shall always remain as one of the primary missions of Universities. University based research should be, in the near future, a healthy mix of curiosity-driven research and research in programmatic priority areas, determined by targeted steeples of excellence of the university and/or specified by national and/or other governments.
Let me conclude with our present plans ... I do hope that with the overall structure for the new Academic year ahead and the different return to campus scenarios for all of our community slowly coming into place, we shall have a roadmap to share with our community by the end of July.
In the meantime, please continue to be cautious, keep your social distance and remain healthy, take care of yourselves and your families ... I cannot wait to see things go back to normal when I hope to see you all on our beautiful campus ...
My best wishes and regards to you all,