In Community: Bringing the University Together in the Face of COVID-19
Law professor Suzanne Goldberg is Columbia University’s first executive vice president for University Life. The pandemic has made her wide-ranging job even more complicated.
Suzanne Goldberg signs her emails “In community,” a signature that reflects her top priority as executive vice president for University Life. It also signals the challenges she and other Columbia University senior administrators face as they try to keep students, faculty, and staff safe, healthy, and engaged in their work during a global pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis, she says ”is like nothing we could have imagined.”
Goldberg, the Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law, an expert in sexuality and gender law, took on the job to establish the Office of University Life in 2015 after serving as Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s special adviser on sexual assault prevention and response at a time when the university was under scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault incidents on campus.
Now, Goldberg is at the center of Columbia’s response to an unprecedented challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic. In early March, Columbia moved education online and closed its campus. In the ensuing weeks, Goldberg, along with other senior administrators, worked around the clock (often through Zoom) to keep the university functioning and informed. Goldberg led the communication of crucial information to scattered students, while also encouraging activities to keep a cyber-version of the university community alive.
“We have focused intensively on making sure students have access to supportive resources, information, and opportunities to get together and create community, even in our remote world,” Goldberg says. Among other efforts, Goldberg’s 23-person office has organized three virtual forums on COVID-19 featuring university experts in medicine, public health, law, and economics.
As the semester comes to a close, the contrast between Columbia as it is now and Columbia in normal circumstances is sharp. “This time of year is customarily overfull with activities and get-togethers,” Goldberg says. “Long-term projects are starting to be completed, and the weather is great. So it’s also a time to be outside and run into people for longer conversations in the sunshine—which is not happening.”
Yet she sees the university continuing to function in its most important ways. “Students, faculty, and staff are coming together in community in extraordinary ways—providing support, jumping in, and even just managing to juggle through a school day or work day when circumstances can make that very challenging,” she says.
Running a Small City
Goldberg sees her job as an opportunity to apply her commitment to “create a more just society” on a large scale: With 16 schools and more than 50,000 community members, the university is the equivalent of a small city. When she joined Columbia Law School in 2006, she was already an established expert on gender and sexuality law from her work as an advocate and attorney at Lambda Legal, the LGBTQ+ rights organization, where she helped secure gay rights victories in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Today her office covers everything from campus events and wellness activities to knotty issues of free speech, protest, misconduct, inclusion, and discrimination. “Every day is a new discovery of what this opportunity can mean,” Goldberg says. “This is a complicated institution and part of my job is to make it less complicated for those who want to access information or resources or student policies.”
That was particularly true of the sexual misconduct controversy, where she focused on better communication to overcome a “gap” in information about the university’s resources and procedures for sexual misconduct and assault, including through a blog in the Columbia Daily Spectator. The issue was so contentious that in 2017 a group of students staged a protest while Goldberg was teaching a class. (She calls that experience “actually quite shocking.”)
Since then, “we’ve come a tremendously long way,” Goldberg says, noting that the university’s consent-education program, the Sexual Respect Initiative, is in its sixth year, and the community has a better understanding of policies and reporting practices. “I’m quite proud of our work in that area.”
This spring, Goldberg’s office launched a pilot program—the Inclusion, Belonging and Community Citizenship Initiative—to address issues related to inclusion and bias. Her previous initiatives include the university-wide Awakening our Democracy discussion series, focusing on social justice issues. “These are all spaces where we can benefit from each other’s insights,” she says.
Although her office addresses divisive topics, Goldberg says she has not had to fight to make changes she sees as critical.
“I have been impressed by how focused everyone is on doing right by this community,” she says. “That’s not to say that everybody in the community will like every decision. But people go into education for a reason, which is to be part of a process that makes the world a better place by sharing insights, producing knowledge, and supporting our students in achieving their goals. I see that everywhere, in all parts of the institution.”
Using Law in Leadership
Goldberg’s legal training is useful across all her responsibilities, she says.
“Lawyers are trained to identify issues, to understand systems, to try a variety of approaches to problem solving. I try to bring all of that to the work,” she says. “I should confess that I have been told occasionally that I ask questions like a lawyer, which isn't always intended as a compliment!”
Goldberg continues to co-direct Columbia Law’s Center for Sexuality and Gender Law and to write amicus briefs in significant legal cases involving her specialty. She co-teaches a seminar at the Law School, teaches an undergraduate course on Topics in Sexuality and Gender Law, and even found time this spring to contribute an essay on COVID-19 and LGBTQ+ rights to the Columbia Law Faculty’s e-book, Law in the Time of COVID-19.
The shift from full-time law professor to senior university administrator means less time with academic colleagues and much more time in meetings. “I have a great assistant and I don’t get enough sleep,” she says.
Come fall or spring, those back-to-back meetings may again be held in person—as they should be, Goldberg says. “We can accomplish an enormous amount over Zoom. That said, there is something unique and special about the experience of being together, in a classroom, a workshop, or around campus, that I believe people will be very excited to return to.”
When that happens, does Goldberg think the university community will be irrevocably changed? She sees Columbia’s new normal as a test. “Who are we as a community? How do we support the people who are a part of our community? How can we find new and unforeseen opportunities—both educational and social—in our virtual world? What else are we about?”
But the crisis has made the university’s core function—which she defines as “the exchange of ideas”—clearer and more necessary.
“This time underscores the importance of universities remaining places for deep thought about the most challenging problems we face. That is all happening at Columbia right now: the deep thought and the contributions that students and colleagues around the university are making to a world that has such great need right now.”