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A Beacon in Dark Times

President Seamus Carey, Ph.D., Reflects on Hope and the Iona Spirit in Times of Hardship

Riding home late on a recent Saturday night, a young man stared aimlessly out the back window of his Uber. He appreciated the driver’s silence and not having to make small talk. About halfway into the ten-minute ride, the air outside the car suddenly turned bright. As they turned the corner, they came upon a car engulfed in twenty-foot flames. With sirens closing in, the driver steadily passed the fiery scene and, without turning his gaze from the road ahead, broke his silence, saying simply, “Get me to 2021.”

2020 is a year we would all like to put behind us. The coronavirus has killed more than one million people worldwide and more than 220,000 in the United States. It has upended the world economy and the livelihoods that fuel it. This past summer and fall protests have moved through American cities in response to the plague of racism. Fires unlike any we have seen tore through the Northwest taking lives and property with it, a reminder that climate change is leaving us less and less time to shift course. Our public discourse has been debased and lost its sense of decency and purpose.

In the midst of such upheaval, and with so much uncertainty still on the horizon, it doesn’t take much to be distracted from the work that is required to move ahead. At Iona, however, we are not swayed. We have sustained our discipline and focus by drawing on the spiritual ground of our faith and its authentic distillation through the Christian Brothers. At the core of our faith is hope: oxygen for the spirit. As Irish poet Seamus Heaney notes,

“Hope is not optimism,which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for…”

Calling us to better days ahead, hope gives us the latitude and the inspiration we need to focus on sticky tasks that might otherwise hold us back. It sustains our innate drive toward self-transcendence, the indelible human need to move beyond our current state of being. This movement is easily sidetracked by anxiety and despair.

But 2021 is coming. We need to move forward with steady hands on the wheel.

Following the guidance of our wisdom traditions, we have used the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate our progress, not disrupt it. In fact, if one looked at a description of the work that has transpired over the past eight months at Iona, it would be easy to forget we are operating in the midst of such disruption. True to the Iona spirit, students, faculty and alumni were at the front lines in response to COVID-19. Among our alumni responders were doctors, nurses, hospital and nursing home administrators, emergency medical technicians, teachers and cleaning technicians who led the way in disinfecting facilities. Our students volunteered to tutor schoolchildren who were learning online for the first time. They made phone calls and wrote cards to the elderly who were isolated in nursing homes. To many, this work is extraordinary. But for Gaels, it is just what we do.

When COVID-19 hit in March, New Rochelle was the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. Iona responded immediately with the safety of our community as our top priority. We formed a task force to address immediate needs and began planning for the future. On March 3, students were sent home and faculty went into action moving all of their courses online to complete the semester. Over the following weeks and months, faculty and staff worked seven days a week to develop and implement protocols to maintain a safe environment and prepare for the new reality we would face in opening for the fall semester. We studied the science and listened to the guidance of health professionals at each step. Informed by the best knowledge available, we made the decision to open for the fall semester three weeks early on August 10.

Every student, faculty and staff member was required to provide a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus. In addition, rigorous safety protocols, including mandatory face masks, distancing, hygiene, daily symptom tracking and testing have been implemented across campus. There have been few better examples of the Iona motto, “Gaels take care of Gaels,” than the campus-wide compliance we have witnessed with our safety protocols. We completed nine weeks of the semester before we faced a spike in cases. When the spike occurred, we followed our protocols and contained it within 10 days. The attentiveness of the Iona community is enabling students to continue their Iona education on campus. For those who cannot be on campus, technology enables them to fully participate in their classes remotely.

A masked student reads a book in the library.

While we worked diligently to meet the immediate challenges arising from COVID-19, we also recognized the need to address the challenges of racism that were exposed with new and horrifying emphasis by the killing of George Floyd. At the core of the Iona mission, ever since Blessed Edmund Rice began educating the poor street-children in Waterford, is an unwavering commitment to the transformative power of education for moral as well as material good. Every era calls for the renewal of that commitment if it is to meet the challenges of the day. Emboldened by the spirit of Edmund Rice, we set out to address issues of race and racism and get a sense of the climate on campus. We met with minority faculty members, students of color, the Committee on Diversity and alumni. We initiated a search for a chief diversity officer, and I retained recently retired Professor of Sociology, Susan Toliver, Ph.D., as an adviser. We declared Juneteenth a holiday in recognition of the end of slavery in America. Faculty have turned their attention to the curriculum to make sure we are offering the courses our students need to be fully informed on race in America. All of this work has enabled us to chart a course forward as we work to become a model campus for racial justice and deepen the legacy of Edmund Rice and our mission as a Catholic college.

While responding to the plagues of COVID-19 and racism, we did not lose sight of the future. In fact, we intensified our efforts to innovate and improve. In January, we celebrated the opening of the LaPenta School of Business. This new space provides faculty and students with state-of-the-art learning spaces and helped land the LaPenta School of Business among both Princeton Review’s best business schools for 2020 and Money Magazine’s most transformative schools.

The Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation added two academic majors and hired an Iona graduate as our first entrepreneur-in-residence. We had 44 students inducted into Delta Epsilon Sigma National Honor Society.

We developed a new Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing, which was approved by New York State in April. The nursing program welcomed its first students in August and recently moved into its new facilities for classes. We established a Strategic Innovation Committee from across campus, which has identified ways to support faculty pedagogy, enhance the student experience and consolidate technological advances from our pandemic response.

Sadly, men’s basketball coach Tim Cluess had to step aside to tend to his health. Coach Cluess was named MAAC coach of the decade and built a program that was attractive enough to land a Hall of Fame coach to replace him. Rick Pitino, widely recognized as one of the best college coaches of all time, signed on with Iona in April. He has recruited a stellar class of student-athletes to begin a new era of men’s basketball at Iona.

Over the past year, we engaged in a campus-wide process to tell the Iona story in a more compelling way by rebranding the campus. This work resulted in a fresh look that preserves our Catholic and Celtic traditions of St. Columba and Blessed Edmund Rice while at the same time represents the dynamism and innovation that are underway at the College. A new website complements the new brand to welcome visitors to the Iona community virtually with user-friendly functionality.

President Carey sits at his desk with a shelf full of books behind him

All of these tasks are essential to our success. As members of the Iona community, we can all be proud of the effort that our faculty and staff have poured into their work. The outcomes of their dedication will procure a healthy future for Iona. But the work of this community is more than what we can capture in measurable outcomes. It is more than new programs, scholarly articles or athletic victories. It is more than diligence, innovation or the latest technology.

“Our work is a manifestation of the power of hope, faith and compassion.”

Student calls to the elderly, exhausted nurses treating yet another patient, a retired professor returning to campus to inform discussions, students enforcing safety measures across campus, staff working seven days a week so that faculty can deliver courses online—this is the movement of transcendence. And it is this work that makes Iona a beacon of light to guide us through dark days.

At a time when the news reports deaths in the hundreds of thousands and what passes for public discourse by world leaders would have prevented us from getting through grammar school, we remain focused on our work. We are not weighed down by the despair around us; we are elevated by the hope in front of us. We are not confused by truculent rhetoric; we are steadfast in the quiet resolve of the Brothers’ chapel. We are not hardened by callousness toward others who are different or disagree; we are caring and confident in the wisdom of our traditions. These are the values that make Iona a unique community and fortify us to move forward with the strength of a full force Gael.

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