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  • Collegian staff

Students and alumni call for reopening postponement

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

Noah Dantes


On August 16, Willamette alum Rebecca Alexander published an op-ed on calling for Willamette to postpone its reopening. Alexander, alongside nearly 400 other alumni and current students, signed an open letter asking Willamette to demonstrate “a commitment to the safety of its students, faculty, and staff by switching to full-time virtual learning.” This open letter was sent to President Thorsett and the Board of Trustees on August 3. As of August 17, Willamette has not replied to the open letter, or Alexander’s op-ed. Find below the full text of Alexander's op-ed on


Earlier this year I got some great news. I was selected to receive the Young Alumni Leadership Award from my alma mater, Willamette University.

I was supposed to receive this award in June at an on-campus ceremony during my 10th reunion weekend, but the festivities were postponed because hosting such a gathering during a worldwide pandemic would have been immoral. While disappointed, I was proud that my alma mater acknowledged the severity of this pandemic and acted responsibly.

So imagine my surprise to learn that next week, with little to no progress in controlling the pandemic nationally or in Marion County, Oregon where my alma mater is located, Willamette University is preparing to welcome well more than 1,000 students and employees back to its residential campus for in-person instruction.

Currently, there is a 30% chance that in a gathering of 25 people in Marion County, at least one person will have the coronavirus. This is part of the reason why Marion County’s public school district has postponed the in-person reopening of its schools until at least November 16. What will happen to these odds when hundreds of students fly in from coronavirus hotspots in California, Arizona, Idaho, and other states to start class at WU? Will Willamette’s rush to reopen risk an even later reopening date for public schools in Marion County? It certainly will.

Willamette’s classes will be conducted inside buildings. Students have been given the option of online learning, but most faculty are required to teach in person. Custodial staff must clean up and breathe in “droplets” from every single person who uses a bathroom on campus. Every person who moves into a dorm hall. And every person who spits ever-so-minimally onto desks while having 90-minute discussions that could absolutely happen over Zoom.

The university is limiting the number of people who will be in one room at any given time to 15 and requiring masks be worn, but Willamette is a residential campus and even the best-laid plans will likely result in unintended death — either of students, faculty, food service workers, janitorial staff, or family members of any of these groups.

I wrote about Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” in my application essay to Willamette 15 years ago. I lived this motto as a student at Willamette and I’ve lived it every day of my life since I graduated, always working to improve the lives of my friends and neighbors. Tens of thousands of my fellow alums do the same.

Our alma mater is betraying our legacy of community service and its mission to care for others by reopening in person this fall. President Thorsett, as a Young Alumni Leader to you, the ultimate leader of this university, I beg you to do the monumentally difficult, but morally required thing: Delay in-person reopening.

In the absence of effective federal leadership, community leaders like yourself are our nation’s only hope to slow the spread of this deadly and debilitating virus. According to a recent Forbes article, the following universities moved to online-only learning just last week:

  • Columbia University

  • Princeton University

  • Johns Hopkins University

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst

  • Howard University

  • Loyola University Maryland

  • Smith College

It is not too late for Willamette.

My life will be forever changed because of the education I received at Willamette. It would not have been the same if it occurred over Zoom. It is not fair that today’s Bearcats will have fewer of these in-person moments when they look back on their college years, but this is their “Not unto ourselves alone are we born” moment. And it is yours as well, President Thorsett. Please press pause on in-person reopening until it is safe. Keep students where they are. Don’t make this pandemic worse for your employees and others who live in Marion County.

With hope,

Rebecca Alexander

College of Liberal Arts ‘10

Willamette University

P.S. — I and hundreds of other WU alum have signed an open letter requesting Willamette take several actions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, including moving to online-only instruction in the fall. The letter was originally offered by @WUAlumniForVirtualFall2020

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