Armacost: How networks and connections will see us through

In his video and letter, President Armacost notes that UND’s exceptional closeness is both strength and weakness in fighting the pandemic

Please view my video, which is above, and a transcript of which is below this letter.

We’re about a week away from reopening the University of North Dakota for the 2020 fall semester. After five months of online education, it will be exciting to see students, faculty and staff back on campus. It will also be interesting to hear what everyone thinks about how UND has changed since they’ve been gone. I think you’ll notice and like the difference.

However, as you know, this will not be the typical beginning to the semester. As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we recognize the concerns about keeping everyone at UND — as well as the surrounding greater Grand Forks community — safe and healthy. This is our No. 1 priority.

It’s important before you come back to campus to be tested for the coronavirus. We strongly encourage students, faculty, staff and their families to take advantage of testing sites set up around the state and on campus. Testing is one of the best tools we have to help prevent the spread of the virus. I also want to remind everyone that wearing a mask is required on campus while interacting with others and attending UND-sponsored events.

I wish there was a way to share with you all the experiences, meetings and conversations I’ve had over the past several months as we’ve planned and prepared to reopen UND for the fall semester. This has been an intensive process based on careful, thoughtful and thorough planning. We have sought input from faculty, staff, students and community leaders on a daily basis.

Our work has been based on five guiding principles that aid us in making the appropriate decisions for everyone’s benefit. They are:

  • First and foremost, consider the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff;
  • Ensure that our educational and scholarly experiences remain focused on excellence;
  • Sustain a sense of community founded on principles of respect and empathy;
  • Promote collaboration on campus, while recognizing key differences among our units;
  • Respond sensibly to changing conditions of the pandemic.

We have built as much flexibility as possible into our reopening plan to deal with changing conditions. For example, the University can rapidly transition to online teaching if needed. In addition, those uncomfortable with attending or teaching classes have the option to do them online.

As students and faculty begin classes, perhaps the most noticeable difference will be the health and hygiene measures put in place to keep physical distancing and maintain cleanliness on high-touch surfaces. Our goal is not only to make UND a COVID-resistant campus, but also a COVID-resilient campus.

Given the level of disruption the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to everyone’s lives, my sense is that we all yearn for a return to sense of normalcy. Please be patient — it is vital to remember that the current context will be different, yet it won’t be forever. To get to where we want to be, it will require all of us working together, cooperating and engaging in best practices on campus and in the community to defeat this pandemic.

We should be encouraged by examples from this summer, when our campus came back to life with the presence of aviation students and student-athletes. Physical distancing, face coverings, and hygiene suppressed infections, and isolation and quarantine prevented additional spread. We know these methods work, but we also know the emotional impact of having to keep a distance. It is critical for the University, professors, staff members, coaches, and friends to continue to provide great support to each other.

I have trust in UND’s students, faculty and staff, as well as the citizens of Grand Forks, to take ownership of the vital task of protecting one another. Through our words and actions, we are demonstrating that we take this responsibility very seriously. With all the tools we’re providing, my hope is that we choose to take up the task of caring for one another. More than ever, UND needs leaders in action to conquer the challenges ahead.

Andy Armacost
President
University of North Dakota

 

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(transcript of President Armacost’s video message to campus, which is embedded above)

 

Hi. This is Andy Armacost. I know you’re all getting ready to start the academic year, and there’s been, sure, a lot of activity recently on campus.

I wanted to strongly encourage you to read the letter that accompanies this video. It’ll talk about all the steps that we’re taking to get ready for your arrival to campus.

But what I wanted to do is deviate a little bit from the normal approach and get back into professor mode.

So my background is in network optimization and looking at large-scale networks. You can see some of the texts I have here: network optimization graph theory and so forth.

It turns out that there’s a close connection between the work I’ve done and the world of social networks and how small networks interact with each other to have kind of a broad phenomenon.

It was captured in this book. It’s called “Small Worlds” by Duncan Watts, an old friend of mine. Duncan talks about this phenomenon — about how the behavior within small groups can propagate through a network.

And it can happen pretty quickly, whether it’s financial networks, whether it’s social networks, whether it’s networks of crickets around a pond, what Duncan had done was really show the mathematics of how this operates.

You’d be surprised to know that when we look at the campus, and we just look at all the courses that our students are taking, a typical university has an average connection between two students of 2.3 steps away from each other.

Let me repeat that. 2.3 steps. Regardless of how small your friend group is, or your fraternity or sorority, or the people you hang out with in the dormitories, or the people you hang out with in your office, people that you work with, the connection that you have to others on campus is really tight.

This has been known as the Kevin Bacon Effect. You’re all familiar with the Kevin Bacon Game. Can you connect Kevin Bacon to other members of the Hollywood universe? The same phenomenon applies in this pandemic. The fact that you might only have a handful of friends, dozens, hundreds, I don’t know. But you’re connected really closely to the rest of the campus.

This illustrates why it is so important that you take care of yourself and that you take care of others, as well.

So all that we’re asking you to do is to do some simple things: keep distance from others, wear a face covering, make sure you wash your hands frequently. And when we have the opportunity to test, take advantage of that testing opportunity to determine whether or not you’re infected with the virus.

If you’re infected, we’re going to ask you to isolate. We’re going to expect you to isolate and stay away from others.

And even just as tricky is the idea of close contacts to infected persons. Close contacts also have to quarantine. In fact, they have to quarantine for 14 days. That’s right, 14 days; can’t go to class. Can’t go out. You’re stuck, and it requires patience and the support of an entire campus to make sure that you have everything that you need.

So rest assured that whether you’re in isolation because you’re a positive or whether you’re in quarantine because you’re a close contact to a positive, the university is going to take care of you. Your friends, your faculty members, staff members will take care of you. We’ll make sure that you’re on track.

But it’s very important that if you’re identified as a close contact that you pull yourself out of that network. That if you’re isolated as a COVID positive person, that you pull yourself out of that network and make sure that that closeness that we all have through this small network phenomenon, doesn’t come back to bite us.

So with your help, we’re going to do this. We’ve seen great evidence over the summer of organizations, groups of people who have taken the steps to to keep themselves safe.

Our aviation students have a tremendous record. They’re up at 90 percent capacity right now, and they’ve had very little impact of the virus.

Our sports teams are. We had an initial bump with infections early in the summer, but they’ve learned the proper way to care for themselves and others, and what we’ve seen is a radical reduction in the infections and the close contacts within our sports teams.

So you do the same. When you come back to campus, whether you’re a faculty member, a staff member or a student, make sure you take care of yourself. Abide by the principles that we’re asking you to follow.

And let me emphasize also that this is temporary. We’ll get through this together. This will not be forever.

But we need to bind together to make sure that in the near term, we’re doing the things that keep us all safe.

We are one UND. Let’s do this.