Reopening with Choice Was a Success

The following first appeared in the Richmond Register on 11/14. 

Lyle Roelofs

Berea College President Lyle Roelofs

In August, Berea College enacted a number of new policies for students, faculty and staff in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am happy to report that the measures we took to ensure everyone’s safety while continuing our educational mission have been a success.  Students are graduating, we’ve had only a handful of positive cases, and our community has shown great resilience.

Our students and employees have cooperated well with a rigorous set of rules designed to limit the possibilities both of introducing the contagion into campus and it being passed around. We made extensive physical modifications of spaces to ensure safety in classrooms and other gathering places, and we have conducted scheduled testing for both on-campus students and employees.

Faculty were given the choice to teach courses in person or online, and the result was about 62 percent of courses offered this semester were taught online. Faculty were creative in making adjustments to succeed in their learning goals as the format changed for many courses. One painting course, for example, was taught in person but mostly outside.

Consistent with Gov. Andy Beshear’s Healthy at Work guidance, all employees who are able to work remotely are doing so. One-third of our staff is working fully remotely, one-third is working on campus, and one-third is working a mixture of on campus and remotely.

Taking these steps has successfully limited transmission of COVID-19. To date we have had only three cases among in-person students, all of which seem to have been due to travel off campus. There have been considerably more positive tests for students doing remote learning, but we do not have accurate statistics there because not all students report cases. Both for in-person and remote-learning students we do not know of any cases of serious illness.

We did have an unfortunate outbreak in the Child Development Laboratory, our on-campus day care center. This occurred after operating safely for four months, but it necessitated a three-week closure of the facility. The CDL re-opened on Nov. 2, and we hope to be able to continue operations there without further incident.

For employees, we have had more cases because they have to live outside the campus bubble. A number of these cases were detected through our scheduled testing program. Every employee and student had to have a negative test to start the semester, and we have been doing scheduled testing of on-campus employees and students throughout the semester. Our test-positivity rate for employees is 2 percent, and for students it is virtually zero. For employee cases, aside from the CDL situation, there has been no transmission on campus, thanks to rigorous contact tracing.

In general, life on campus has continued virtually. Our wonderful convocation program, for example, was conducted entirely online, and the customary high quality of the presentations has been maintained. Athletics was postponed for the fall, but we expect to resume in the spring semester, with men’s and women’s basketball commencing around mid-January and all other sports occurring with shortened seasons and reduced travel.

In total, 1,367 students have been able to continue their education this semester, 797 in person and 569 remotely. I am proud to say that 64 students will have satisfied the requirements for graduation at the end of the current term.

While we hope never to need to take advantage in the future of all we have learned in dealing with COVID-19, it has been a powerful learning experience for our community.  Thanks to the contributions of many, we have proven resilient. We look forward to next semester, when we will again re-open with choice.

Making Better Citizens Through the Liberal Arts and Labor

The Labor Program at Berea College was born of necessity. The students the College served in the mid-19th century—freed people of color and low-wealth Appalachians—meant that if they wanted to come to school they had to work.  Until the College began the practice of employing all of its students in the 1890s, most students regularly had to interrupt their studies to earn more money for fees and living expenses.  (Already then Berea College did not charge tuition!) Over the intervening decades, what started off as a necessity has become a key component of the Berea College learning experience.  We have come to understand how work and school synergize to create better employees and citizens.

Work by itself has value. In addition to the practical skills one picks up for doing a specific job, there are other soft skills, too. Skills such as work ethic, time management, organization and responsibility enable a person not just to do a job, but to be a good employee.

Biology lab  A liberal arts education works in much the same way. But in addition to learning to be a good employee, a liberal arts education teaches students how to be good humans. They pick up additional soft skills that are crucial for living in a complex, human-centered world. Critical thinking allows the liberal arts student to thrive in difficult situations. The ability to speak and write to get one’s ideas across clearly is vital in a democratic society. And learning to think across disciplines and contexts makes the liberal arts student nimble and quick to offer solutions from a new perspective.

There is a special magic that happens, though, when a good education is married with work experience. At Berea College, we hire every student to support campus operations. Much like in the world outside, our students work their way up to positions with more responsibility and more relevance to their career aspirations. The art history major may begin her academic career mowing our beautiful lawns and finish by managing the art gallery. Managing the art gallery has obvious applications of learning, but what about mowing the lawn?

The beauty of mowing the lawn in a liberal arts context is that it no longer is just mowing the lawn. Our students work and learn. When Students with lawnmowersthey’ve finished studying American colonialism, or sustainable agriculture, or energy markets, they hop on the mower to think about lawns, the culture that produced them, the amount of petroleum required to run a mower, the complex systems that created the mower, why you should let the dandelions grow—and the art history major’s place within it all.

No labor is mindless that exists in this context. Our future labor lawyers put on an apron at Mountaineer Dining Hall and learn the dignity of a hard day’s work while thinking about labor practices—what’s fair, what’s not and what should be done about it. Through the Entrepreneurship for the Public Good Program, our future business persons spend summers working in startups and communities in our region looking for new opportunities.

We doStudent with apples in diningn’t just make entrepreneurs. We make better entrepreneurs by giving them a liberal arts background and opportunities to apply their lessons through work. And when they leave Berea, they go forth into the world ready not only to contribute to their local business climate, but also to attend to the broader context in which those businesses operate.


Fighting to realize a century-old vision

Black Lives Matter March for Solidarity“God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” This verse from the book of Acts is not only the Berea College motto, it is a way of understanding our relationship to humanity. It says that no matter our differences, we have a shared kinship. The Reverend John G. Fee and the founders of Berea College believed in this kinship when they set out to educate poor whites, formerly enslaved Blacks and women together in the foothills of Appalachia in 1855. More than 160 years later, recent headlines make it clear that our society has yet to embrace the idea that we are all kin.

In late May of this year, anti-police brutality protests erupted around the world after video emerged of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling for nearly nine minutes on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, resulting in his death. Closer to home, just two hours away in Louisville, a young Black woman was killed in March when police broke down the door of her apartment and shot her eight times. All of this happened against the backdrop of a global pandemic that is claiming the lives of Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans at a rate four to five times higher than other populations, renewing calls for an end to these systemic injustices: racialized policing, differential access to adequate medical care and housing, inequitable economic well-being, etc.

These events led Berea College to affirm our support for the Black Lives Matter Movement and to join the many calls for an end to police brutality against Black people. In doing so, we also pledged to do more within the campus community to uphold our Fifth Great Commitment, “to assert the kinship of all people and to provide interracial education with a particular emphasis on racial healing and equity among Blacks and whites as a foundational gateway toward understanding and equality among all peoples of the earth.”

It was heartening that on July 11, Berea College students, faculty, staff and young alumni led a march in solidarity with the movement through the city and campus. Harkening back to 1965, when Berea community members participated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., they displayed the same sign with the College motto as they moved through town. It is simultaneously disheartening that the same message, that Black lives matter, still needs to be repeated today, more than 50 years later.

The breadth of this movement has brought renewed attention and urgency to racial justice, and we pray that the winds of change blowing throughout the nation move us further along Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe toward justice. Indeed, cultural imagery, corporate icons and police protocols are being reviewed, removed and reimagined. These are positive, though not always popular, developments on the road toward equality and equity for all.

The fight for a world shaped by the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice is far from over. The names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among too many others, should forever reside in our conscience as we move forward. Perhaps 50 years from now, but preferably much sooner, we won’t have to remind society again that, indeed, Black lives matter.

Bereans Respond to COVID-19

Covid-19, Retirement Accounts, and Black Swans: One Economist’s Perspective

Nancy SowersDuring the COVID-19 Pandemic, many in the Berea College community submitted their unique perspectives on the situation to President Roelofs to share with campus. The following is the next in a series appearing here at Berea Beloved. 

By Nancy Sowers, Associate Professor of Finance

Stock markets really started to roil while our Berea community was on spring break.  From February 28 to March 20, the S&P 500 (a common index for measuring the market performance overall) decreased 21.98%.  Of course on an individual level the most important thing is our health and physical safety, but it is likely that some are looking at their retirement accounts right now with a great deal of anxiety.  The standard professional heuristic is to remember your long term plan, to sit tight and stay calm, that the average recovery period is about 24 months from a downturn.  That this advice falls flat is understandable as you watch one metric for “all you have worked for” drop precipitously.

The stock market acts as a leading indicator for the economy overall, which means that it typically tells us what will happen to the economy about six months ahead.  But what we are seeing now is a black swan event.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb teaches us that a black swan event is “highly improbable with massive consequences.”  Covid-19 appears to be the perfect example of this and, unfortunately, our financial models neither anticipate such events nor handle the effects well.  As market shock turns to economic shock, we are all watching the economic situation unfold for the people we love, the friends we care about, and the students we have helped to develop over four years.

The silver lining here is that the Federal Reserve is moving more quickly with more tools than ever before to assure liquidity in the markets today.  American ingenuity will rise as firms adjust their production to meet the shortfall of supplies so desperately needed in our hospitals.  Toyota is donating industrial grade respirators; Hanes will make masks instead of underwear; our distilleries will shift to making hand sanitizer instead of bourbon.  Volatility will play into the recovery too.  Keep in mind that the people that cashed out their retirements in the last market downturn missed 6 of the 10 best days of market recovery and the start to a strong decade of market growth (PlanPILOT).  The market on Tuesday (03/24/20) supports the idea that when the market does come back, the rebound is likely to catch us by surprise too.

Spiritual Perspectives on Disease and Suffering

Chapel candlesDuring the COVID-19 Pandemic, many in the Berea College community submitted their unique perspectives on the situation to President Roelofs to share with campus. The following is the next in a series appearing here at Berea Beloved. 

Spiritual Perspectives on Disease and Suffering

By Dr. Jeff B. Pool Chairperson, Department of Religion, Eli Lilly Chair in Religion and Culture, and Professor of Religion

Various religions and other spiritualities offer numerous explanations for the realities of illness, pain, suffering, and death, as well as ways in which to respond to those realities.  Because traditions in all religious and spiritual communities contain many diverse and sometimes even conflicting layers, some layers of traditions offer greater wisdom for life and its challenges than other layers.  Some representatives of theistic traditions have described viruses as “evil” and illnesses as “judgments” from God on specific groups of people for their “sins,” which then have produced corresponding judgments on those groups of people as the sources of the problems for which God purportedly has inflicted illness, suffering, and death on humanity at large.  Other representatives of the same theistic traditions, however, have interpreted such human health-crises differently: understanding viruses, as well as other natural threats to human life, as part of the larger world that God has created; describing illnesses and diseases as the natural interactive conflicts among creatures that endeavor in their own ways to survive and to propagate themselves (a tragic reality, understood as the conflict among various goods, rather than “evil” in opposition to the anthropocentrically-defined “supreme good” of human life); and, as a result, encouraging sharply different forms of human responses to such challenges to human life.

At their best, the diverse traditions of religious communities and other spiritual traditions regard such multi-dimensional health-crises for human life as genuine opportunities for both personal and social transformation.  For numerous spiritualities, such critical situations guide and encourage people both to discern that which they can control in order to work toward change and to release their attachments to that which they cannot control in order to consent to that which they cannot change.  Various layers of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and many other spiritual traditions teach that such challenges to life offer possibilities for deepening human character, for either instilling or reinforcing important human virtues: gratitude for all that each person has received, understanding life itself as gift; trust in the meaningfulness of life, despite the challenges that inevitably arise; equanimity and peacefulness in the midst of turmoil and chaos; humility; compassion for all creatures; an attitude of non-judgment toward other people; a passion for social justice and reciprocity in a profoundly interdependent world; generosity toward and hospitality for people in dire circumstances; and even joy in the experiences of both severe suffering and grief over losses that result from that suffering.

Many of the same religions and other spiritual traditions also develop practices through which to develop human character: meditative techniques, physical exercises, contemplation, and prayer, among many other methods.  For example, in the current global crisis, people might view very differently even the supposedly restrictive measures that various levels of society have prudently imposed on or recommended to communities and individuals in order to address this health-crisis.  Rather than construing such measures (“social-distancing,” sequestering, even meticulous “hand-washing”) as limitations on human freedoms or “rights,” people might understand the practice of such measures as practical exercises, even as rituals or prayers, to develop the virtues that will shape their character and that will enable them to contribute to changing the world as they now experience it.

Encountering Berea’s Old Quarantine Dorm

Christopher MillerDuring the COVID-19 Pandemic, many in the Berea College community submitted their unique perspectives on the situation to President Roelofs to share with campus. The following is the next in a series appearing here at Berea Beloved. 

Encountering Berea’s Old Quarantine Dorm

By Christopher A. Miller, College Curator, Associate Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center

Over the years, I have encountered bits and pieces about Berea’s historical quarantine practices.  From at least 1906 until 1940, Berea had designated quarantine spaces that were used during annual outbreaks of influenza.  One such space was the third floor of Stephenson Hall where EPG is located today.  Stephenson Hall used to be two separate buildings and this side was the Bruce Building.  In the basement of Bruce was the college’s on-campus saw and planing mill.  On the first floor street side, where the Appalachian Center is now, was the print shop, fully equipped for hot-lead typecasting and offset printing.  The back half of the first floor, where First Year Initiatives is now, as well as the entire second floor, was the woodworking shop which supported Woodcraft, woodworking instruction, and Facilities Management.  Finally, on the third floor of Bruce Building was the quarantine dorm.  Sometime after World War II, the quarantine dorm was converted to storage. However, in 1999-2000, it was completely emptied in preparation for remodeling as the home of EPG.  After clearing, but before renovation, I was in that space to scout for historical artifacts.  It has green painted pine floors and tongue-and-groove wooden walls.  There were deep marks in the floor made by rows of metal bunk beds.  What is now Peter Hackbert’s office was the restroom, with three old toilets and two showers.  On street-side brick wall were the remains of an old candlestick telephone and a bulletin board.  I spent about an hour in that forgotten room.  Because of my training as a social historian and curator, those visible clues kept bringing to my mind the anxiety and suffering that once occurred in that space.  Our current crisis has brought back that memory and gives me increased insight.

Stephenson Hall

From inside Stephenson Hall


The Ghost Light

Dr. Deborah Martin

Dr. Deborah Martin

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, many in the Berea College community submitted their unique perspectives on the situation to President Roelofs to share with campus. The following is the next in a series appearing here at Berea Beloved. 

The Ghost Light

By Dr. Deborah G. Martin, Professor and Chair of Theatre

It is the isolation that hurts the worst. Sure, we have our students reading plays, watching videos, giving them modified assignments.  However, true Theatre means simultaneous space and time and teamwork, and teamwork means togetherness.  In Theatre we learn by DOING together.  In our Acting classes we tell our students that we expect them to fail the first assignment because on the second they will fail better and on the third even better.  Audiences do not come see actors thinking onstage; they come to see them DO onstage.  Confidence is built through trust and exploration with other students in the room.  We need to hear the breath and see preparation in the body.  Rehearsals are pedagogically electric; we teach our students to apply what they learn in the classroom to their production work. Together, we learn the lines, build the sets, sew the costumes, hang and focus the lights.  When a theater “goes dark” or closes, we leave on what we call the “ghost light.”   We are keeping the ghost light on – even now.  Hopefully it’s a beacon that leads our students back to our theatrical home.  We yearn to open our doors again; to take reservations again; to rehearse again; to hear the applause again.  We yearn for the belly laughs we would have at our department meetings. The pandemic has taken the one teaching tool we never knew we needed – togetherness.


Closer to Sustainability

Nancy GiftDuring the COVID-19 Pandemic, many in the Berea College community submitted their unique perspectives on the situation to President Roelofs to share with campus. The following is the next in a series appearing here at Berea Beloved. 

By Nancy Gift Compton Chair of Sustainability; Associate Professor of Environmental Studies; Chair of Division II

I want to preface what I write about sustainability and this virus by saying that I am scared, and I am not trying to be blindly optimistic or insensitive to suffering. I am newlywed to someone with compromised lungs, and my mom, at 85, has heart problems; I worry for both of them. Every life lost to this virus matters, and the fact that medical care in this country is best for the privileged means that we are facing tragedies that need not happen this way.

On the other hand, I spend more energy than I would like worrying about our carbon emissions and our natural resources. And here we are as a globe, suddenly and dramatically improving air quality and water quality and slowing consumption of goods and fuel and resources. We are, many of us, cutting our busy lives to core essentials, hopefully to some of the basics that truly make us happy: simple meals with loved ones, walks and time with animals, reaching out via letters and phones and email and text to those we care about. We are buying less stuff and flying less and keeping important people close.

Some people in power are noticing that working people matter. And many people are protecting the vulnerable. The political ground is shifting. The stock market is literally shrinking.

I find myself watching this moment, with compassion and fear and hope and wonder and anxiety, hoping that we can make the best of this awful situation, soon return to community life and travel, but not return to the habits of production and destruction and pollution. Maybe this can be a turning point in the path of climate change, and maybe we can move closer to sustainability in the wake of COVID-19.


Let It Be a Dance

AJ Bodnar

AJ Bodnar

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, many in the Berea College community submitted their unique perspectives on the situation to President Roelofs to share with campus. The following is the first in a series that will appear here at Berea Beloved. 



Let It Be a Dance by A.J. Bodnar

I play music for the dance classes in Health and Human Performance. It’s heaven. In the course of any given week, I may play modern jazz, improvisations, ballet, Argentine tangos, contradances, swings, waltzes, square dances, Morris dances, English dances, Danish dances, Appalachian folk dances, Scottish dances, dances from antiquity, and this last semester, even the Charleston. But now keyboard’s been unplugged – lights are off – dancing has stopped. And I’m sad.

And yet, I’m not as sad as I could be.

One part of me is looking forward; forward to the next time eyes and hands will lock, and groups of smiling students will once again celebrate life by dancing as Bereans have done for what seems like forever; forward to the next time our dance students eagerly watch their devoted teachers, at first imitating them, then finally flying under the power of their own wings; forward to the next class, or street dance, or Convo, or Berea Dances; forward to once again watching students’ journeys from the hangdog I’ve never danced before, to the exuberant Hey, check out THIS move!

Another part of me is looking back to when we had all just come back from spring break (five-hundred years ago), and how quickly the fear caused by COVID-19 gripped the classes. It was a bit of a shock watching the panic set into the faces of the student, even before anyone knew much about the virus or what was to come.

It’ll be agonizingly long before we dance again, and interesting in the interim to see how our particular classes will lend themselves to online work (the touch, the sound, the look, the hold, the smile, the contact all being so integral to dance). Between now and whenever I’m privileged to hit the first notes again, however, there’s no doubt our professors will have it all worked out. Soon, not soon enough, but soon – we will experience that sweet anticipation as across the campus we hear dance instructors count off, Five, six, seven, eight!