Dr. Kim on reopening campus: ‘We are in a good spot’

After months of planning and strategizing, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim is ready to return to campus with safety guidelines in place. Camilla Forte

When he was not listening to the nine symphonies by composer Anton Bruckner or exercising, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim, along with cabinet and task force members, was working all summer to develop plans and procedures for starting the new school year during the ongoing coronavirus, or COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid months of confusion among faculty, students and their families filled with vague emails about new and changing policies, tuition protests and the constant shifting of class schedules, the months leading up to campus reopening have been anything but smooth.

The Chronicle sat down with Kim and Chief of Staff Laurent Pernot to gain a better understanding of the college’s thought process behind major decisions, how the campus will operate this fall and their goals for the 2020-21 academic year.


During a Wednesday, Sept. 2 interview with the Chronicle, Kim said administrators began worrying about the coronavirus in January, weeks before the campus officially closed in March.

He said it has been difficult to make decisions on how to properly reopen campus and hold classes both remotely and in person, acknowledging a number of decisions have disappointed students and faculty.

The main challenge has been figuring out how to deliver an efficient and effective experience for the Columbia community with rules and policies constantly changing, Kim said, adding the college is “in a good place” now.

“What’s kept me positive and optimistic is my belief that this is a community made up of people who actually care about each other,” Kim said.

The college’s Incident Assessment Task Force, composed of employees from various offices and departments, meets regularly and was expanded to involve more faculty and staff members in the crafting of plans to address the ongoing pandemic.

Members of Kim’s cabinet, including Pernot and Associate Vice President of Safety and Security Ron Sodini, also met to discuss the college’s plans.

Kim said in all decisions Columbia has prioritized safety and the quality of education delivered to students, while also taking the college’s finances into consideration.

Kim said the college decided to take a three-week pause during the middle of the Spring semester to ensure the best instruction possible following safety guidelines, and Pernot said those on campus were sent home in March because the college was not equipped to have students stay in the dorms during the pandemic.

“The level of understanding, sophistication, the amount of guidance, the tools we had at our disposal in March were none,” Pernot said. “So we would probably make different decisions today … if outside or internal events dictate that we have to go remote.”


With reopening campus comes a number of changes to a student’s experience, including a lack of, or reduced amount of hands-on instruction and collaboration, issues with student housing and limited access to some resources.

Over the summer, some students signed a petition demanding a tuition decrease of up to 40% for the academic year, as reported by the Chronicle July 28, and held a protest outside the building where Kim’s office is located, 600 S. Michigan Ave.

Kim said he and Pernot met with students last month who organized the protest face-to-face in an effort to resolve the conflict and hear their concerns.

Kim said he wants to have more in-person exchanges, with a desire to meet on a regular basis with the college’s student leaders by working alongside the Student Government Association to connect better with students.

“The thing that I noticed right now that’s so difficult [is] … we seem to be moving into a world where it’s almost like, if you’re willing to talk to each other, you’re weak,” Kim said. “I don’t know what you resolve that way.”

With numerous changes to the college’s policies and procedures and coronavirus updates, Kim said mass collegewide announcements have been an immense challenge and are either too vague or too long.

The college is continually working to figure out the best ways to communicate with students, Kim said, such as trying out videos and social media as other effective methods besides email announcements.


Beyond the coronavirus, the college has actively addressed widespread unrest surrounding police brutality and other social injustices

Kim said the college still has a commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and will push harder in the next few years to be an “anti-racist institution” by identifying the ways in which systemic forms of oppression are embedded in education.

He said although Columbia is in a better position than other institutions, there is still a gap in degree completion rates between white and Black, Indigenous, and people of color, or BIPOC, students.

“If we don’t get this right, we’ll never get to where we need to be as an educational institution,” Kim said.

The college plans to announce a new set of initiatives for the fall to involve students in a push toward a completely safe and inclusive environment.

One challenge at Columbia as well as other colleges and universities across the country is creating a safer space for all students, many of whom are demanding their schools cut ties with local police forces.

Kim said Columbia does not have a formal relationship with the Chicago Police Department, but because of the school’s location downtown, they are in frequent communication, as he often worries about students’ safety.

Pernot said having a heavy presence of police officers on campus would not be a good mix and would diminish the culture of Columbia.

“While a lot of [security personnel] are former police officers, they’re in the mindset that they’re here to serve the campus community,” Pernot said.


Pernot said there are many options the college can explore if it were to see a high number of COVID-19 cases before closing the campus altogether.

Some options include pausing in-person courses, closing specific facilities for cleaning and isolating certain departments or classes, he said.

Kim said rather than thinking of one positive case on campus as unsafe and shutting everything down again, the college is now able to do things “the right way” and manage cases with dormitory isolation rooms, contact tracing protocols and guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health departments and Rush University Medical Center.

He said there is no specific number of positive cases administrators are using as a threshold to determine if the campus will close or classes will go completely online.

In the meantime, Columbia will continue to offer optional free testing, rather than enforcing mandatory testing, as the three-day turnaround for test results and students’ class schedules present logistical issues.

“We consulted with the Chicago Department of Public Health, [and] their guidance is that testing everybody is not a proven way to control the virus,” Pernot said.


Kim said navigating the reopening of campus has been financially challenging, but it is of the utmost importance the college tries to preserve employment by not eliminating positions or cutting staff.

As Columbia closes the book on fiscal year 2020, the college has seen a loss of nearly $17 million—$10 million due to increased student scholarships, $9 million for refunds on room and board and $1 million spent on coronavirus safety resources. These losses were minimally offset by funding from the CARES Act.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Chief Financial Officer Jerry Tarrer said the college has taken steps to reduce costs for this year by $9 million, which includes pay cuts for all senior administrators, including Kim.

Kim said all senior staff members received anywhere from a 2-10% cut to their individual salary for the upcoming fiscal year, but he did not elaborate on how the percentage cuts were determined.

He said the college’s budget is contingent on student enrollment, which will be challenging to maintain this year as typical recruitment methods are not possible due to the pandemic. Though there are 100 more freshman students enrolled this year compared to this time last year, he said overall there are around 130 fewer students at Columbia this fall than there were in the spring.


Kim said his main goal for the new school year is to maintain the authenticity of the education students are receiving.

“This is a school that has a profound commitment to promoting [the] creative practice as broadly as possible, and that’s why we’re here,” Kim said.

He said as a creative institution, he hopes students, faculty and staff come out of this situation with a series of lessons learned, including new approaches to teaching, producing work and connecting with others.

“I’m really proud of our students, … and I find it very motivating and uplifting,” Kim said. “I want our students to just go for it this year [and] to be responsible to each other and the community.”