NMU's fall convocation, an annual gathering of faculty, staff and students that features a keynote address by the president, is typically held the Wednesday before classes begin. The kickoff to Northern's 121st academic year occurred a week earlier than usual and was presented for the first time in a virtual format. Both changes were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
NMU President Fritz Erickson wore one of the Wildcat-branded face masks distributed to all campus community members while delivering his recorded video commentary. He praised the efforts of several subgroups that spent the summer addressing specific components of the planned return to face-to-face instruction.
“I'm very pleased with the work people have put in to making sure we're doing everything we can to be safe, supportive and still provide a high-quality education and college experience,” Erickson said. “I can say this unequivocally: Northern is as well or better prepared than any other university I'm aware of—not only in Michigan, but across the country.
“We started this whole process with the commitment of testing everybody and the board made the financial commitment to allow for that. Testing does two things. It tells us whether anyone coming to campus is positive and, if so, we can put in place protocols to help them deal with quarantine or isolation. It also lets us know what the prevalence rate is, which is going to be critical.”
It will take a united effort to remain open, Erickson said. He reiterated the importance of wearing masks, washing hands regularly and abiding by social distancing guidelines. He also cautioned against parties or other larger gatherings that may increase the risk of virus exposure and spread.
“The very idea that we're all in this together could not be more true,” he added.
Both Erickson and NMU Provost Kerri Schuiling said they have been impressed with faculty members' responsive creativity, both when COVID-19 forced all classes online in March and in their planned approaches to face-to-face instruction this fall in classrooms reconfigured for safety.
“They've demonstrated the benefits of using new skills, widening one's talents and pursuing new types of adventures,” said Schuiling in her convocation remarks. “I'm also grateful for those who stepped up to support NMU community members in their time of need. This is what makes Northern a special place. This new academic year will continue to require enormous amounts of flexibility, patience and compassion.”
NMU Academic Senate Chair Norma Froelich said one of the university's core values—opportunity—will serve as a guiding principle this year to counter COVID-19-related challenges.
“This past spring and summer, faculty worked many hours to adapt their teaching to hybrid and online formats, with multiple backup plans,” she said. “We can view that as a burden, or we can use the opportunity to revisit how we think about and communicate our subject areas, and to create new activities to engage students. Students will use new formats to grapple with new ideas. It's hard enough to leave home and adapt to the routines of college. But learning new software at the same time and learning in a modified environment will multiply the stress. Students, you can view that as a problem, or you can use the opportunity to acquire new skills in time management, communication and problem-solving that are sought by your future employers.”
Froelich said the senate supports the academic mission of the university, but also the broader student experience. This year's discussion topics are likely to include student participation in elections and diversity/inclusion on campus.
ASNMU President Emma Drever touched on both topics in her convocation remarks.
“I am most delighted by the university's official recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day,” Drever said. “Receiving this from the board is a monumental step toward equity and inclusion at NMU. I believe the recognition of this day will propel an immense student activism in a world that desperately needs strong young voices. I am ready to lead civic engagement efforts on our campus to encourage students and our community to vote. The responsibility to make something of this year is ours.”
Because of Covid-19, NMU's fall semester will kick off a week earlier—on Aug. 17—and conclude shortly before Thanksgiving.
Watch Erickson's convocation address in its entirety here.