President Leshin bumps elbows with a graduate student during one of six Commencement ceremonies held for the Class of 2021.

Pride and Gratitude

In its long and celebrated history, WPI has persevered through many difficult times. The COVID-19 pandemic surely will be counted among the greatest challenges ever faced by our community. Operating the campus safely during the pandemic meant that everything we do at WPI changed. Everything. Every department, every activity, every student, and every employee was affected. This crisis was all-encompassing, and it took the work, commitment, and collaboration of everyone in our community to bring us through it.

In important ways, WPI was well-positioned to take on this monumental challenge. First, as a STEM institution we make data-driven decisions and follow the science, both of which are critical when addressing a rapidly evolving public-health emergency. Second,  WPI had built an emergency response process and hired a seasoned emergency response director more than a year before the pandemic emerged. With our infrastructure in place, we began our planning well before many other colleges and universities did.

The Coronavirus Emergency Response Team, led by, from left, Ron Bashista, emergency preparedness director, Philip Clay, vice president for student affairs, and Jeff Solomon, former executive vice president and chief financial officer, meets in the WPI Emergency Response Center.

Following our emergency protocols, we created the forerunner of our Coronavirus Emergency Response Team (CERT) in January 2020, just three weeks after the first cases of what would become known as COVID-19 were diagnosed in Wuhan, China. CERT has re-formed six times throughout the different phases of the pandemic, and at one time or another has included representatives of virtually every university functional area, which meant every recommendation and decision was built collaboratively. Closely monitoring the threat and the situation on campus, regionally, and globally, they developed carefully researched and considered plans for nearly every conceivable contingency. Overcoming constant changes, CERT provided thoughtful recommendations to me and other WPI leaders as we put the policies and procedures in place to allow the campus to operate as we navigated this multifaceted challenge.

WPI was also fortunate to have the collaboration and resolve of our  Board of Trustees. A subset of the board met weekly during the peak of the crisis. That group helped us plan conservatively, which assured our financial health in the face of the greatest fiscal uncertainty in modern WPI history, and they pushed us to be clear-eyed in our assessment of what needed to be done to manage the crisis. And when we went to the Board with our plan to bring students back last fall, with all the costs and logistical challenges that would entail, they probed our plans, and then supported us wholeheartedly.

“Every day I am thankful to work at a place where putting theory into practice is in our DNA. At WPI we are used to rolling up our sleeves, asking, “What do we have to do to solve this?” and knocking down problems one at a time until we have the answers we need to move forward.”

Our students played an essential role. They took the safety measures incredibly seriously, and they figured out how to still meet one another and stay connected. It was difficult for them in many ways, but they stuck with it and with us. During the academic year, we were able to have between 85 and 90 percent of our undergraduates back on campus, and I’m so proud that they were able to continue to advance their WPI education. Our parents deserve credit too—for supporting us and their students so creatively through these uncertain times.

Our students’ educational success during the pandemic can be traced directly to our dedicated faculty, who figured out how to massively pivot our academic operations while staying focused on student learning. Their impressive teaching innovations, born of necessity during the pandemic, will continue to serve students well for many years to come. Finally, I’m so grateful for our staff and administrative leadership team. They stepped up and got the job done—whatever job was needed—every single time.

President Leshin, center, in red, gives a tour of WPI’s COVID-19 testing center in Harrington Auditorium to Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty and City Manager Edward Agustus Jr. shortly after she was named to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s Reopening Advisory Board.

Early in the pandemic, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to serve on Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s Reopening Advisory Board (RAB), which gave me insight into what was happening nationally and locally and into how the pandemic was affecting a broad range of industries. As part of my work for the RAB, I convened a 14-member Higher Education Working Group that crafted and led the reopening plan for the state’s higher ed institutions. The group met with experts, documented best practices, and provided valuable guidance that was officially adopted by the commonwealth to be used across all of higher education. Many of those best practices were developed by WPI; indeed, many other institutions looked to our leadership and our example as they navigated the pandemic on their own campuses.

The knowledge we shared with our peers was hard won. Every day I am thankful to work at a place where putting theory into practice is in our DNA. At WPI we are used to rolling up our sleeves, asking, “What do we have to do to solve this?” and knocking down problems one at a time until we have the answers we need to move forward.

We found those answers, time and time again. With each hurdle we overcame, each new challenge we faced and tackled, our confidence grew. And along the way we learned valuable lessons that will put us in good stead as we look to the future of higher education and prepare for future crises.

We often spoke about getting through the pandemic “WPI Together,” and we did. My pride in our community has never been greater. I hope you share it.

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