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2020-21 Academic Year-End Letter

June 08, 2021

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: June 8, 2021
Re: 2020-21 Academic Year-End Letter

Last week, Eric Lander was confirmed as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and became the first presidential science advisor to assume cabinet rank. In a letter to the community marking the occasion, he noted: "Science and technology—when applied with vision and optimism, with wisdom and humility, with rigor and integrity, and with a commitment to engage and serve everyone—are among the most powerful forces ever devised to better the human condition."

We have visceral proof of Lander's injunction in the scientific response to the coronavirus pandemic. As devastating as SARS-CoV-2 has been, the terrible toll of illness and death could have been far worse if not for the development in record time of remarkably effective vaccines. We remain challenged to engage and serve everyone across our nation and the world, but the tools of technological innovation, emanating from fundamental scientific understanding, have provided a beacon of hope for humanity. 

In the Caltech community, we have hunkered down through this pandemic year, but always cognizant of fulfilling our mission of forefront research and education in service of society. The laboratories have kept humming, the vast majority of courses have been delivered and assimilated. People around the world were inspired as JPL landed a rover on Mars and flew a helicopter in its wisp of an atmosphere. We have cared for each other and largely stayed safe. 

None of this would have been possible without the skill and dedication of Institute staff. Virtual learning was made possible by Information Systems' network upgrades and software enhancements. The Center for Teaching, Learning & Outreach, in concert with Academic Media Technologies, created scores of videos and "How To" webpages to support faculty and students as they contended with the whirlwind transition to remote instruction. Student Affairs linked our students together no matter where they were located. Divisional and provostial staff oversaw the detailed requirements of reduced-occupancy laboratories, all the while accommodating individual needs. Student Wellness attended to the mental health of our population and collaborated with Human Resources to stand up coronavirus testing and vaccinations. The Center for Inclusion & Diversity hosted moving and affirming events in a time of stress and societal violence. The International Office guided faculty, students, and staff through a blizzard of travel and immigration restrictions. The Financial and Investment offices made sure that Caltech weathered an economic crunch. Facilities kept the plant running safely and efficiently, and pushed forward on construction to enhance our capabilities and campus. Advancement kept alumni and friends engaged with emerging scientific breakthroughs. Strategic Communications made sure that all of us knew the latest developments in an environment that seemed to change by the minute. The list is growing long, but these examples only touch lightly on the heroic efforts of so many staff members dedicated to the commonweal.

This summer we will once again house undergraduates on campus, with the expectation of full resumption of Institute activities by fall term. However, it is not clear what shape "normalcy" will take in a post-pandemic world. What we do know is that the promise of discovery will keep us strong; that the liminal experience of the pandemic promises broader acceptance of scientific approaches to existential challenges like climate change; that the promise of individuals from all backgrounds sharing equitably in the privileges of the academy will help us realize fully the potential of science and engineering.

The Caltech community is positioned to lead. In Dr. Lander's words, we have the wisdom and humility, the rigor and integrity, that the times demand. I look forward to traveling this road with you, together and in person, as we finish one academic year and anticipate the next.