An Unprecedented Challenge

Photo: Toni Bird

This spring, Stanford, like the rest of the world, has been grappling with an unprecedented challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic. Our first priority has been to protect our community members and to care for those who are sick. We have had to make tough decisions, from moving spring quarter online, to requiring those employees who can to telework, to sending most undergraduates home. 

As I write this in late March, we are in the midst of this rapidly developing crisis. It is hard to predict how the situation will evolve in the coming weeks and months. So in this column I thought I would step back and reflect on some of the broader lessons we are already learning. 

First, the crisis has driven home the importance of universities in generating knowledge to address global challenges. Stanford scientists are working around the clock to research potential treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus. The COVID-19 diagnostic test developed at Stanford has rapidly expanded capacity to test and serve patients in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, experts across the university have been weighing in on issues from the economic implications of this pandemic to strategies for staying connected while social distancing. Their insights will help us better understand the impact of this disease on society.

Second, the pandemic has specifically highlighted the critical need for cross-border scholarship. Researchers and scientists from around the world are working together to understand the virus and discover treatments that might prove effective against it. Knowledge from overseas has also been crucial in understanding the most effective strategies for containment and mitigation. 

The coronavirus has drawn attention to how interconnected our world is: It has spread through modern transportation networks and densely populated communities. One role of universities is to respond to globalization with an openness to understanding one another and to sharing ideas across borders. Sharing knowledge is key to tackling the world’s pressing challenges, from this pandemic to longer-term issues like climate change.

This crisis has highlighted how important it is for Stanford to be nimble. As the outbreak has intensified, it has been critical both to have reliable emergency response structures in place and to have the flexibility to shift course in a rapidly evolving situation.

Lastly, this crisis has highlighted how important it is for Stanford to be nimble. As the outbreak has intensified, it has been critical both to have reliable emergency response structures in place and to have the flexibility to shift course in a rapidly evolving situation. I am deeply grateful to all who have been involved in our planning and response, and tremendously proud of how our entire community has worked to advance our collective well-being during this
difficult time. 

We will continue to face unknowns in the weeks and months ahead. Our focus, in the near and medium term, will remain on preserving operations to the best of our ability, saving lives through research and clinical care, and supporting our community. 

At the same time, we need to begin planning for the longer term. Our Recovery Team is thinking through the aftermath of this crisis, including how to return students to campus and what a “new normal” will look like—both at Stanford and beyond. The coronavirus will have far-reaching consequences and leave a lasting impact on our society. We are beginning to contemplate how Stanford can contribute and lead in the world that emerges after the pandemic subsides. 

We will look back on this as a difficult moment in Stanford’s history. But this is a university that has survived two major earthquakes, numerous economic downturns—even other epidemics. Our spirit of optimism and innovation has always impelled us to rise to the occasion. I am confident that, by standing together as a community, we will emerge from this moment even stronger and more resilient.


Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.