Reflecting on a Marathon Year

A letter from Executive Dean Rick Van Kooten.

IU Studios

This issue of The College comes after a most unusual year, a marathon stretch of necessary adjustments. Even though our campus had been mostly empty for the long period from mid-March 2020, with classes taking place online, we were able to gather in person in May 2021 for an outdoor Commencement ceremony for graduates of both years. Thousands of masked and socially distanced students filled the west stands of Memorial Stadium. Radiating waves of jubilant energy, their euphoria for this milestone event was a joy to behold. And another cohort of students began new lives as alumni!

Pathways to success

Getting to that day — and beyond— has involved a host of challenges. The poems and cover illustration of this issue evoke some of the many moods of this past year. The stories reflect the pace and possibility of unexpected pathways to achievement. 

Indiana University made national news in mid-August when the Supreme Court upheld the rulings of lower courts to leave in place our COVID-19 vaccination mandate. This and other protocols enable us to move forward on campus with cautious optimism, adjusting to cultural change.

The article “Spit Take” captures the urgency and drama of one aspect of our safe-guarding response: building a certified clinical lab to bring IU’s COVID-19 mitigation testing to life. The success of this project underscores the fact that we are a community with a determined capacity to work together quickly and brilliantly, even under unanticipated pressure.

Executive Dean Rick Van Kooten.

Meanwhile, our graduates are busy changing the world. Grounded by values instilled by her parents and inspired by a mentor in the IU Department of Chemistry, Dr. Renã Robinson is now a leading scientist in the field of aging, Alzheimer’s disease, and sepsis. She runs a lab at Vanderbilt University, where a diverse team studies the relationship between stress and premature biologic aging.

Advocacy is the calling of Elyssa Campodonico-Barr, who majored in political science/philosophy and Spanish in the College as a Hudson and Holland Scholar, a program supporting underrepresented minority students. The leadership skills she cultivated there eventually led to a law degree at the Maurer School of Law, coupled with a master’s degree in public administration from the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Now she brings her deep familiarity with our region to a new role with the Lilly Endowment, focusing on at-risk populations in Indianapolis.

The ability to identify problems and seek solutions is also the story of Luke Jacobs and Dan Smedema, founders of Encamp, an Indianapolis-based software company that helps companies meet environmental compliance requirements. In a conversation with The College editor Raymond Fleischmann, they discuss their obsession with hypotheses testing and their willingness to “avoid being dogmatic about the way we do things.” That flexibility is a feature of their success.

It is this gift of agility that carries our students forward as they test their own hypotheses and dig into subject areas they love. The fascinating trajectories of our “20 Under 40” invite speculation about the many more graduates — both under and over forty — who have also found focus, fulfillment, and inspiration.

We offer a profile, too, of one of our distinguished professors. Winner of the prestigious Modern Languages Association (MLA) 2020 Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award, Susan Gubar is internationally known for transformative work in literary studies, feminist studies, memoir, and the “Living with Cancer” column published by The New York Times. Her new book, Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, written with long-time collaborator Sandra M. Gilbert, charts the intersectional terrain of women writing and working as advocates for justice, artistry, and recognition.

And now, a new era

We come back to daily life on campus freshly aware of the remarkable resources we have here, and of the many people who protect and advance our mission. The pandemic has made me less likely to take such advantages for granted. Our faculty, staff, and students rose to the occasion of our online marathon run with endurance, empathy, and ingenuity.

We are enjoying the many spaces on campus that enhance learning. The new Gayle Karch Cook Center for Public Arts and Humanities in Maxwell Hall is home to the College Arts and Humanities Institute. The glass jewel box of the shared facility for the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design realizes a rediscovered 1952 plan by architect Mies van der Rohe. Ballantine Hall, home to many of our esteemed faculty in the social sciences and humanities, has been renovated.

Now we welcome new leadership. Dr. Pamela Whitten has become IU’s first woman president, assuming the helm of our great research university. She understands the College and the fundamental importance of the disciplines we teach and research. Please join me in welcoming President Whitten and participating in her success. Warm congratulations, too, to Interim Provost and Executive Vice President John Applegate, who is assisting with the many transitions of this transformative year.

Finally, thanks to you — our alumni. As our ambassadors in the world and partners in philanthropy, your support for our work has never had more impact or long-lasting value. Your investment of ideas, financial support, and engagement allows us to create and sustain scholarships, fellowships, endowed chairs, and the advancement of knowledge and creative activity. Your generosity has profound effects.

Thank you for your dedication to the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University.