Dean Fynsk Explains Strategies for Upcoming Terms

Dear EGS Community: Faculty, Students, and those who may soon be joining us,

I am writing to provide you with a briefing and overview on our situation in the context of this pandemic.  I have waited to do this because events have been unfolding so quickly and so dramatically – they have put into question our every step in provisional planning.  It has seemed that no definitive statement could be made and that the moment called for patience.  But I have also felt that it is imperative to maintain lines of communication with our community (hence my occasional letter last week), and to share the decision-making process.   It’s in this spirit that I write to you today.

I’ll write my letter in three parts, and begin with a statement on where we were before the current crisis began.

Early last fall, we decided to embark on a process of expansion through collaboration.  For my part, I was addressing issues of sustainability, but had also come to the conclusion that if we are to function fully as a global institution, we cannot wait for the world to come to us in our relatively remote locations.  Monastic-type meetings were once considered perfect for our institution (by almost all involved).  But by last year, this seemed no longer to be the case.   For far too many from various countries, travel to Switzerland or Malta, with our tuition rate, simply isn’t possible.  So I concluded that we should establish collaborative relationships that would allow us to engage with students in different parts of the world.  This process began with a modest arrangement with the Accademia di belle Arti G. Carrara in Bergamo, and discussions with the 17, Institute of Critical Studies.  Quickly, our range of opportunities expanded.  I can’t give particulars since formal accords have yet to be reached with specific institutions, but these involved collaborative initiatives in China, Senegal, and the UK.  I remain optimistic that we will in fact proceed with these initiatives.  (A meeting in Dakar in June, in fact, was reaching final planning stages when it became clear that the Biennale there would probably be postponed.)

I should add that for 2020, we envisioned an ongoing expansion of our curricular offerings, proceeding with our initiative entitled “Alter-Eco” (“Alternative Economies, Alternative Ecologies”) and developing our work in the areas of electronic music and film with several dynamic young faculty.

So, in approaching the new year, there was considerable optimism and enthusiasm.  The PACT Division of the EGS was effectively embarking on an exciting new future.

Then news of Covid-19 emerged.  I needn’t rehearse this recent history with you, though you will immediately see how frustrating it has been in its unfolding.  Both China and Italy (Bergamo, no less) became epicenters before the WHO stepped forward to declare the situation a pandemic (making the ironies involved in our efforts to set up new programs in China and Bergamo quite beside the point).  This brings me to the second part of our letter: where we are.

Our discussions regarding our planning for 2020 take place on an almost daily basis.  We glean whatever information we can, and study prognoses with the expertise available to us.  Anyone involved in this process, in whatever their station (be it only online, seeking to learn and evaluate what is offered), knows how difficult it is to reach certain answers.

For this reason, we have delayed in announcing planning conclusions.   We cannot know for certain whether we can reasonably hope to proceed with our plans for late July and the first half of August.  We must even wonder about October.  We constantly entertain ideas for deferrals, relocations, and hybrid structures involving live seminars that are streamed online.  We are trying to be as imaginative and open to changing perspectives as possible.   We also keep an eye on the necessary dates for announcing any changes or cancellations, waiting as long as possible, but not so long as to create problems for our potential students.  In the meantime, we maintain what is in place as a working plan while seeking to make it viable (continuing with scheduling and so forth).

In brief, I want to let you know that we are not merely holding in place what we have planned.  We are simply trying to work in a situation where no sure judgment is possible, and with the institutional imperatives you can imagine (serving our students in their degree programs and keeping our institution alive).  We are keeping things open.

It is difficult stance, but I do believe it should be one that our institution can sustain for the time being; the community composing the PACT Division is perhaps singularly prepared for such a situation of uncertainty.   At the same time, there are limits, and we are looking to the end of the month of April as a deadline for decisions regarding our program in Bergamo and Saas Fee.

Where we are going.   I do not remember a time when the future for our institution (or the academic and cultural world in general) seemed so uncertain and so open.  I do remember an exchange that I have described in print with a university provost in the days after 9/11/01 who was trained in healthcare.  She said to me on that occasion: “Never have the humanities seemed so important to me.”  I think we can adopt Provost Swain’s statement anew, expanding this term “humanities” in such a way as to cover the many areas covered by the EGS in its cross-disciplinary work in the arts, sciences, literature, and critical thought.   Our task is to find ways to meet the situation of urgent need that is unfolding: practically and philosophically.  I do not imagine that there is an institution better poised to do this.  No university has richer faculty resources and such a nimble capacity to address creatively and critically the fragility of our present and what is opening before us.

We have to secure the conditions of our functioning, all the while seeking new avenues for undertaking our core mission.  We will proceed with the exciting plans we carried into this moment and sustain them to the best of our ability in whatever form proves possible.   The world for our work is undergoing irremediable change, and no one can pretend to know where, precisely, we will be even six months from now.

But I do want to convey firmly that we will be continuing our efforts to provide exceptional programming in 2020, and will keep you apprised of our thinking through our social media and the news section of our new website.

With my warmest thoughts to all of you,

Christopher Fynsk
Dean of the PACT Division, March 19, 2020