Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

July 30, 2021
Week of Pentecost

Dear ULS Community:

The last two weeks have brought me much more back into circulation among people, in-person, both on campus and in the wider world. It is somewhat like “arriving” in Pennsylvania for the second time, almost a year after the last time. At least now Rob and I can go places and see people more freely. That has been so liberating and joyful. We’ve now been to two baseball games in person; we’ve gone to church actually in church buildings and with other people reasonably near for several weeks in a row, and we’ve sung hymns (through masks) and received communion without having to peel back a layer of plastic—it all begins to feel more normal each week!

And yet there is anxiety just below the surface: the new variants of the coronavirus continue to be of concern, even though those of us who have been vaccinated can still be relatively sure of our safety. The nation around us is not as secure as it could be, and there are hot spots of infection in many parts of the country. Earlier in the pandemic, when we had just moved from Los Angeles, that city was doing extraordinarily well in its vaccination rate, and Philadelphia was lagging behind; now Philadelphia is doing better with the infection rate and LA is a place threatened by the variant viruses—things just don’t stay the same. I am still committed to a trip back to LA for my successor’s installation as bishop in mid-September, but we’re worrying a bit more now about being on a plane with possibly unvaccinated people than we were before.

At ULS, we have committed to returning to in-person instruction and worship in the fall semester—now only four weeks away—but we acknowledge that the path forward is still not fully clear. It is my assumption that most of our community—faculty, staff, and students—are fully vaccinated, and we have made a return to campus possible by working on that assumption. Nonetheless, we continue to monitor the signs, and we may need to go beyond urging to actually insisting on vaccination as a requirement for an in-person return. We watch the statistics every day with concern and worry. It will be very demoralizing to go back to a more restrictive pattern, but we will do it if we must. The safety of our community is our highest priority. If you haven’t been vaccinated, and not prevented by medical reasons, please get vaccinated now!

I had a chance this week to accompany a staff member from the Association of Theological Schools on a brief “site visit” to our two physical campuses. It was the first time I’ve ever been physically present (at least briefly) in both my offices on the same day! I now see that that is possible, if inconvenient. The site visit is a normal part of an accreditation review, but it usually involves the whole review committee and lasts for multiple days, so this one was more pro forma, but it was a chance to show someone around our beautiful campuses and see what we sometimes take for granted through the eyes of someone else.

Our visitor observed how fortunate we are to have campuses that are spacious and beautiful, but noted that it is also a burden and an obligation to have such extensive grounds and so much built environment. That we know well, and even just the exterior maintenance of the 14 acres in Philadelphia and the over 50 in Gettysburg requires considerable people-power. We only have a small permanent staff for this on each campus, but we augment that with part-time, temporary, and contractor work during the times of year it is especially important. Now, in the lead-up to fall, we are redoubling our efforts to make the campus beautiful for our day of “return” to campus.

One of the things I saw for the first time during the site visit was the setup of our new “Zoom rooms” on both campuses for teaching and learning. These four classrooms (two on each campus) have been outfitted with new cameras and monitors, and new easily moveable chair/desk units, each on wheels. There is one larger and one smaller classroom like this on each campus, so we can run up to four classes simultaneously with both in-person and remote learning capability. The addition of new, very large monitors right in front of (and facing) the instructors will bring the “Zoom students” right into the virtual front row of class, and the other monitors on either side, and better-positioned cameras and microphones should make both the in-person and distance students better visible and audible to each other. I am very excited about this technological advance, and it made me really want to offer a class someday using this equipment! Our visitor was visibly impressed, and took pictures to supplement her report back to the accreditors. This is the kind of thing that one has to see to fully understand.

I also had my first meeting this week with the principal officers of the student body government for next year. We’ve set up a regular monthly meeting during the semester, too, to keep all the lines of communication wide open. I am excited to be working with them, and grateful for the energy and enthusiasm for our work together that they bring. I look forward to speaking with them often. I let them know that I am hoping to host some on-campus welcome events both in Gettysburg and in Philadelphia early in the semester, to get to see people myself, and to introduce our two new faculty members, Dr. Teresa Smallwood and Dr. June-Hee Yoon. I hope we can have regular community events and resume a community meal too, as the pandemic restrictions allow.

You’ll have seen by now the beginning of a little campaign we’re doing at ULS to highlight the importance of vaccination: at the welcome desk in Brossman and the mailroom in Valentine you can pick up buttons to identify yourself as vaccinated, and stickers you can put up on offices or dorm rooms if you wish to mark your vaccinated status. It’s all for fun, but it has a serious side—we want people to know our ULS commitment to being as safe a place as we can be.

This week I led two “Movie Night with President Erwin” events, in which I asked people to view a film and then participate in discussion afterwards. They were reasonably well attended, and the hope was that they would fill some of the “pandemic gap” in our popular summer life-long learning program that our alums and friends have grown accustomed to. I love using films for teaching, so I chose two quite different movies that both have concepts of faith and love at their core, and which show people wrestling with what it means to be faithful to God and each other. This summer we watched “As It Is In Heaven,” a 2004 film from Sweden, and “The Apostle,” a older film (from the 90s) starring Robert Duvall. The films evoked quite a lot of conversation, and the whole experience was very enjoyable. All that was missing was the popcorn!

In the week ahead I will be working on preparing a path for our board of trustees to begin a process of strategic planning for the institution. I am convinced that by thoughtful reflection, involving all parts of the ULS community, we can more clearly and sharply define our aspirations and goals for the future. Both our accrediting agencies suggested strongly that we should use the opportunity of the arrival of a new president, and now the lifting of the pandemic restrictions, as a chance to do such deep thinking and high-level planning. We’re beginning this summer with the board, then we’ll widen the circles until we have included every part of the ULS community.

Much of my thinking this summer has revolved around how to bring our community life back into focus when we can physically be together again, through in-person worship that still includes remote participants, through community events and meals that feed those physically present but also offer something to those off campus, and how our Community Life working group can help steer us back into on-campus life while still keeping our remote students connected. This will be a challenge, but it is not a new challenge, and it is one that every institution is wrestling with. It’s also an exciting opportunity to look forward to.

That’s enough for this week. I’ll be back in two weeks. I hope you can seize whatever rest and recreation the remainder of the summer can offer you. Pray for those in need. Stay safe and cool. God bless you all, and I’ll see you soon!

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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