The closing of a year and the beginning of a new one is always a moment of contemplation of what was and what is to be. After the unforgettable and, in many ways, the lamentable year that was 2020, this year started even more hope-filled than most. We are grateful for the faculty, staff, and leaders of the Universities of Louisiana who overcame innumerable obstacles to advance our purpose beyond reasonable expectations.
2022 promises more uncertainty and assuredly more opportunity. Of course, the emergence of the Omicron variant and the dearth of related public health guidance is concerning. We should expect alarming reports of new cases for the next several weeks. While some data suggest Omicron may be less virulent, its remarkable transmissibility will likely result in significant burdens on our healthcare infrastructure and angst among our families and communities. What we do know is the guidance underlying our systemic guidelines and institutional practices remains valid: vaccination (including boosters) is remarkably effective against severe disease, while masking in indoor spaces, ample ventilation, and personal hygiene significantly mitigate community spread. We expect additional guidance from federal and state public health officials in the next several days and will incorporate that guidance in our planning and practice. The health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff is our paramount concern. That concern must be and will be reflected in our decision making and actions, adapting to ever-changing circumstances nimbly and with fidelity. Your patience, cooperation, and understanding are deeply appreciated, as are your feedback, suggestions, and criticism.
As we focus on the future, I do think it is important to reflect on the year that was. On the pandemic front, we began the year with the promise of the newly authorized vaccines. Even as we fought successfully for vaccine eligibility for faculty and staff, we saw the rise of significant vaccine hesitancy in the broader population. Misinformation, suspect data analysis, and incongruous messaging from a wide array of sources on all sides of the issue certainly added to the uncertainty. Throughout, our approach has followed the science and the law. As a result, our university communities are among the most protected populations in our state, and our efforts in that regard will continue.
In June, the short-lived lull in the pandemic allowed us to gather in person for our inaugural Black Male Summit with a vision to identify, understand, and eliminate barriers to success for our Black male students, faculty, and staff, empowering them with economic and professional self-determination. At that event we introduced the first cohort of our Reginald F. Lewis Scholars. We have been heartened by the outpouring of support for this program which will ultimately produce Louisiana’s next generation of Black male leaders while furthering our data-driven efforts to elevate our people.
In July, the Delta variant found its way to our state resulting in a wave of infections over 6 weeks that was nearly 40 percent of the number of infections from the previous 65 weeks. Then in August, the annual once-in-a-century storm wreaked havoc on the Bayou and Northshore communities and caused significant damage to Nicholls, Southeastern, and University of New Orleans. As these three member institutions faced rebuilding and served as havens for their communities, the other six extended a hand to assist. McNeese shared lessons learned from the two 2020 storms to ensure the affected institutions take the recovery path of least resistance. Displaced students were welcomed with warm hospitality and support throughout the System until they could return to their home institutions. Entire athletics teams found not only shelter but practice facilities to prevent competitive and academic interruptions. We know storms will continue to be a threat, demanding we focus not solely on improving recovery practices but improving institutional resiliency as well, a conversation that is currently underway.
In spite of these challenges, we offered a more normal college experience for our 92,000 students in Fall 2021 partly through effective planning and execution supported by new state and federal resources, but also partly through good fortune as the Delta variant wave was in decline in Louisiana by mid-August. Our faculty continued to innovate and persevere under untenable conditions, advancing our collective aspiration to create the most educated generation in Louisiana’s history and furthering our discrete and collaborative research pursuits. Through the year, our nine member institutions celebrated more than 17,000 graduates prepared for life and career success. We also celebrated some remarkable milestones. Among the innumerable advancements:
- In November, our Board named Marcus Jones the twentieth president of Northwestern State University, an historic moment for our System’s oldest university.
- The Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education designated the University of Louisiana at Lafayette an R1 Doctoral University, codifying the realization of a purposeful research vision centered on improving life in Louisiana and around the globe.
- We celebrated the 100th graduate supported through Compete LA while further developing a program that promises a better future for tens of thousands of working adults in Louisiana.
Though 2022 will certainly provide predictable and unpredictable challenges, we should be confident opportunities will emerge and accomplishments will abound. We expect the year to include advancements in academic programming, further achievements in research and scholarship, and a renewal of appreciation for and increased investment in our mission of workforce development, of community development, of human development.
For your Future. For our Future.
Dr. Jim Henderson
President and CEO
University of Louisiana System