Reopening university campuses is key to our continued recovery from COVID’s health and economic threat

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken society to its core. This historic moment has brought great uncertainty, the heartbreaking loss of thousands of lives, and economic turmoil. It has also clearly shown the need for and the importance of research universities like LSU and Tulane University, which are playing a vital role in pursuing the discoveries that can change the course of this pandemic and other existential public health threats.

As the lifting or easing of stay-at-home orders gets underway, the conversation about reopening university campuses is taking place across our nation. The safety and well-being of our campus communities remains our highest priority. At the same time, universities like ours remain committed to the core mission of educating our future leaders and workforce — a mission that requires students to have access to campus resources and a complete college experience.

Besides their educational value and history of scientific breakthroughs, major research universities have the power to transform whole regions economically — especially downtown city cores that have suffered the loss of manufacturing and other traditional industry. Thriving research universities can infuse our cities with new talent and innovation, recasting them as high-tech and biomedical hubs.

Happily, reopening our physical campuses, as we are planning to do in the fall, and ensuring safety are not mutually exclusive. There are ways to accomplish our core mission without sacrificing the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff — all of whom have gone to great lengths to continue their studies, research and work despite unprecedented challenges.

Tulane University and LSU are busy making plans to reopen our campuses in the fall and making every effort to resume in-person classes when it’s safe to do so. We will not sacrifice our students’ futures to this pandemic. There is simply too much at stake — not only for our students and university, but for health and economic well-being of our state, nation and world.

The economic engines of our two leading research universities are essential to restarting Louisiana’s economy. Combined, the LSU System and Tulane University contribute $8.2 billion annually to the Louisiana economy through our operations, capital investments, research, and other activities — supporting some 60,500 direct and indirect jobs. Our graduates don’t just get well-paying jobs, they create them through the startups, discoveries and youthful energy needed to power a new economy. The world is rapidly changing as a result of this pandemic and the current generation of college students — nimble, adaptable and innovative — will be the ones to lead it.

But our engines lose considerable steam when we do not have tens of thousands of students, faculty, staff and visitors on our campuses — and the negative effects ripple through our state and local economies. If our campuses do not physically reopen, many retailers, restaurants and other businesses that rely on us will be in jeopardy of closing.

Often, universities are urged to “be more businesslike” in our operations. This pandemic has clearly shown that we are every bit as adaptable and nimble as businesses — if not more so. And just as businesses are finding ways to reopen in a manner that ensures public safety, so too will universities.

The contributions of our research universities have helped flatten the curve and put our state on the path to recovery. This includes the extraordinary medical professionals on the front lines caring for COVID-19 patients, to the faculty members who have made breakthroughs in testing, PPE production, and clinical trials on treatment options and potential vaccines.

As we move forward, all universities — and particularly research universities — will not only be key to our continued recovery from the pandemic, but our open campuses will help us rebound from the economic turmoil it has created. With a unified spirit guided by best safety practices, the reopening of our campuses this fall will serve as another inspiring example of how we can pull together, Greenies and Tigers alike, to triumph over this crisis.

Mike Fitts is the president of Tulane University. Tom Galligan is interim president of LSU.

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