Aug 12, 2020 | Atlanta, GA
In Harrison Square, at the northwest corner of Tech Tower, sits an interactive tribute to Rosa Parks. Her refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus in 1955 sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. The Montgomery bus boycott would also launch Martin Luther King Jr. as a national leader of the civil rights movement. The sculpture was unveiled April 5, 2018, one day after the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. It was a glorious spring day and the Georgia Tech community rejoiced together. The following fall the sculpture had a constant flow of visitors as students and families moved in for the fall term.
I use the example above because the Rosa Parks sculpture is one of my favorite places on campus. It is a place for introspection and solace, as I will describe later. It also reminds me of one of the best days I ever had on this campus. What a difference two years can make! In March, the coronavirus pandemic forced us to finish the spring semester delivering courses in an all-remote format. Sadly, the campus has been empty. This fall, we begin the semester with a delivery plan that includes face to face residential, remote, and hybrid courses with different levels of personal interaction. Our success is all predicated on physical distancing, wearing face coverings, and strict personal hygiene practices. But in the midst of valid concerns, fears, and uncertainty, I was thrilled to see the excitement and glowing, smiling faces of new students as they moved into residence halls last weekend – a reminder of better times and a hint that the future will be bright.
Georgia Tech is an extraordinary place. No other public university can claim the recent trajectory of excellence that Georgia Tech can. We pride ourselves for being innovative, bold, and willing to take necessary risks. We are the home to all who live by the tag line “we can do that.” Ten years ago, I came to Georgia Tech as provost based on the expectation that this institution excels where others fail, and will always rise to the occasion when others falter. I have not been disappointed.
I will soon leave my position as provost. Unquestionably, I would have preferred to end my administrative career with the normal soft landing, celebration, and warm farewells. That soft landing is not to be. Instead I leave at a time of turmoil and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Not ideal, but I can assure you that I would do it all over again. Georgia Tech is the type of place where you want to belong, and I can say without reservation, it is now a part of me. Once at Georgia Tech, you are part of this community forever.
This fall semester is the time to use that “we can do that” spirit. The semester will challenge our extraordinary community in extraordinary ways. Dedicated faculty, staff, and students have worked for months to prepare a plan that will bring us back together as safely as possible. From required face coverings, a large offering of hybrid and remote courses, and reduced density in classrooms and labs, to modified student and campus services, campus signage and ongoing education, and a campuswide surveillance and diagnostic testing strategy, our plan is to face this challenge aggressively. But our plan is only as good as its implementation.
The successful implementation depends on all of us behaving responsibly, maturely, and with common sense. This is not a time to ignore the issues that face us, and it is certainly not the time to panic — whatever happens, we, students, faculty, and staff, must act rationally and according to the expectations of the fall plan.
Staff must make sure that the business of the Institute continues uninterrupted and safely. We, the faculty, have the obligation to provide students with the best quality education possible within the existing modalities. We must act as mentors, as responsible leaders, acknowledging that not all is perfect, but we can always make it better even within constraints. Students, you are the great majority of our community. I implore you to join us in a campuswide commitment — Jackets Protect Jackets — by maintaining habits and behaviors that will ensure as safe and productive a fall term as possible. This virus is serious, and we must refrain from activities that will propagate it. Remember that the virus will be here, and do not take unnecessary risks, for your sake and the sake of your family, colleagues, and the rest of the community.
As we move forward we should also be cognizant that the plan reflects current understanding and circumstances. But we must be mindful, as this pandemic reminds us every day, that understanding evolves and conditions change fast. We must be ready to pivot, change direction, if warranted and humbly accept any new reality.
From the above, it is clear that I am putting a lot of the responsibility of implementation of the fall semester plan on all of us, which brings me back to Rosa Parks. The sculpture is titled Continuing the Conversation, a name I can proudly say I suggested. The conversation is between Rosa at age 42, when she confronted segregation, and at 92, when she died after a life of hard work, activism, and unimaginable courage. But there is a third empty bench between the two Rosas inviting each of us to sit down and listen, learn, and participate in the conversation.
I do that often, when I need to refocus and renew my efforts or when I need the courage to act on difficult and uncertain decisions. I urge you all to do the same. New students, in particular, when you have any doubts go to the sculpture and sit with Rosa. When you are struggling in any way, when you are tempted to do what you know is the wrong thing for your health and safety and that of others, sit with Rosa for some quiet time and listen. When you go, now or in the future, and you see a bald old guy in a suit and tie, GT lapel pin, and wearing a mask, it is probably me.
I will see you around. Georgia Tech forever.
-Rafael L. Bras