Happy New Year! We made it through a semester like none other in George Mason University history. Last semester tested us in ways we had never before imagined, and together, we adapted and persevered. As a result, last month we celebrated more than 14,000 students who earned degrees under these unprecedented circumstances. Well done, Patriots.
We can all take tremendous pride in the accomplishments of our community, particularly the efforts everyone made to keep our campus safe and open. I know the pandemic has presented so many challenges to us all, both professionally and personally. Yet throughout the fall semester, we kept the number of cases to among the lowest of any major university, while providing a safe place of learning and discovery for our students and faculty.
Take a bow Patriots! You have earned it.
We have learned so much about this virus in such a short time, while developing smarter approaches to managing it on our campuses. A few examples:
- Innovating in remote learning. In months-time, we moved boldly into online teaching, providing continued access to students with asynchronous, hybrid and creative face-to-face instruction models. More than 750 faculty members have participated in directed professional development activities with The Stearns Center, supporting this historic transition to online and hybrid modalities. And more than 800 faculty have attended webinars and other innovative training to adjust to this new environment.
- Developing our own rapid-return saliva test. Drs. Lance Liotta and Virginia Espina have developed a highly sensitive, quantitative PCR, laboratory developed test (LDT) and an ultra-sensitive lateral flow assay (LFA). Combining these tests with the recently acquired Fluidigm system, which has FDA authorization for emergency use, will allow Mason to greatly increase our testing capacity.
- Advancing research into COVID antibodies. Dr. Liotta and colleagues are also validating a novel test that measures the body’s antibody response to the virus, or to the COVID vaccine. This test will help us understand a person’s post-vaccination response and build greater knowledge of how long individuals will be resistant to the virus and how a person’s immune system fights the virus.
- Increasing our face-to-face instruction and on-campus living, as conditions allow. This fall, we did an outstanding job of supporting nearly 3,000 students on campus and providing a safe and meaningful on-campus experience in the classroom. Now, our goal is to expand our offerings, as conditions allow. We currently plan to expand in-person instruction by more than 10 percent and have received 400 additional requests for housing on campus.
- Boosting rapid research on combating the virus. Dr. Tyler Cowen, an economics professor in the Mercatus Center, launched the Emergent Ventures Fast Grants program in March, raising millions of dollars to support the concept. With prizes up to $500,000 and grant decisions made in under 14 days, this highly successful program has helped many important initiatives, including Yale University’s development of its own saliva-based COVID test. Just yesterday, an anonymous multimillion-dollar contribution came to the Fast Grants program that will be devoted to tracking the new, more contagious strain of the virus that recently emerged in the United Kingdom.
Even as we enter the spring semester with this momentum, we must stay focused on the work ahead and be undeterred by any new challenges that surely will surface. We will continue to expand our safe return to campus support and monitor the number of cases in the region and on campus. We remain in close communication with public health officials.
Safety remains a top priority at Mason. We know that cases remain high across the country and that there are challenges ahead, as we await distribution of the vaccine. Please continue to fill out the Mason COVID Health Check and stay tuned for additional announcements this month about our plans for spring, as we will make decisions based on the best available information and make adjustments, as needed.
I know many of you may feel tired or frustrated by the duration of this crisis, but we continue to make real strides. This is our moment to show what higher education is really about, and more specifically what Mason is made of. I am just amazed by what this community has been able to achieve. Our people are at the forefront of this crisis, and together, we are making a real difference.
I hope you had a well-deserved rest from the fall semester, and are coming back ready to tackle the spring semester with the same energy and esprit de corps that I got to know last fall, in my first semester at Mason.
Let’s tackle 2021, Patriots!
President, George Mason University