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Message from President Gonokami Regarding the University Response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Fourth Message)

May 12, 2020

Dear students, faculty, and staff of the University of Tokyo

I hope this message finds you well, despite this period of self-isolation.

The global spread of COVID-19 is bringing unprecedented suffering and change to our lives. I would like to particularly express my deepest respect and gratitude for my colleagues in medicine and related fields, who are at the forefront of this fight against the illness, and who are daily working under extremely trying conditions.

Effective drugs for curing the illness are yet to be developed. In the meantime, we must be willing to change our lifestyle, being aware of the risk of the so called “3-Cs” or closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings, as that is the only way to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate the damage. To this end, the Japanese Government has extended the state of emergency until May 31. Tokyo Metropolitan Government has also extended its emergency measures until that day. This means the difficult situation facing our campuses will remain, as our ability to implement the fundamental mission of our university, as a site of research and education, will continue to be severely restricted. The university’s function as a forum of communication among different people has been curtailed. But this is necessary to protect the health and safety of not only the members of the university community but also society at large. The University of Tokyo will thus continue to designate the current condition as “Level 3” in its Activity Restriction Index. This will remain so until the declaration and measures issued by the Japanese Government and Tokyo Metropolitan Government are lifted.

The fight against the virus will be long-term. This is the time when we can devise creative measures to come up with new research and education. It is also a great chance to nurture a new way of communication with friends and gain a global outlook by learning how the rest of the world is coping with this crisis. The University of Tokyo will do its best to provide financial support and a good academic environment to its students. There is no need to be overcome by anxiety or panic. Rest assured and please continue with your work. All the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Tokyo will share their insights to create a new style of higher education and a better society.

To ensure that students will be able to continue to focus on their academic endeavors even under this state of emergency, the University of Tokyo moved entirely to online teaching in the new semester. The school loaned personal computers and internet routers to students in need so that they could take classes from their homes. The majority of the courses that had been scheduled to be offered are currently available online, thanks to the internet environment we have been able to set up. Students say online teaching allows them to take a wider variety of courses. It also makes it easier, some say, to review what they have learned in classes. Faculty members are making new discoveries through this new experience of online teaching. Some say it has enabled them to interact more with individual students than in regular classrooms.

But because our campus remains closed, students are not able to access libraries, a vital facility for research and self-study. Furthermore, hands-on classes that require in-person communication are not possible, and the science lab facilities cannot be opened. I am sure the incoming first-year students, who no doubt had been looking forward to starting their lives on our campuses, are finding it hard to feel that they are part of the University of Tokyo community. Returning students must be disappointed that they are unable to study and enjoy extracurricular activities in person with their fellow students.

At the same time, I am fully aware that the current coronavirus crisis has deeply affected the lives of our students. As some are facing economic hardships, the University of Tokyo has set up support programs* to support them in this crisis and enable them to concentrate on their studies as much as possible. I hope they will be able to take advantage of these programs. Also, as self-isolation may lead to disruptions in routine and psychological and physical challenges, it is important that no-one is left to struggle on their own. The offices for academic affairs and student counselling of faculties and graduate schools remain open for students.

Faculty and staff are also having a hard time working from home, unable to conduct their teaching and research in the way they are used to. It is not, for example, possible to discuss and debate readily with colleagues in person. Nor can faculty travel to their areas of research. This situation is likely to continue for a while. In this time of challenge, I also ask them to see the positive aspects of the changes taking place in the current environment, and use them as a moment to carve out new opportunities for the future. Perhaps this imposed period of working from one’s home can be taken as a wonderful chance for us to expand our vision.

As the fight against the novel coronavirus continues, we will go on with our telework, telemedicine and remote teaching. All of these, in fact, will serve as preparation for a new society characterized as “Society 5.0.”

As I have often mentioned before, our society today stands at a major turning point. Thanks to rapid innovation in digital technology in recent years, the fusion of our “real” and tangible world and the virtual world is accelerating in our daily life. As society moves toward a knowledge-intensive society, in which knowledge and information accrue socio-economic value, we can start to envision the possibility of overcoming such global challenges as the destruction of the global environment and the widening gaps in our society. Perhaps it can also become possible to create an encompassing and inclusive society where people from many diverse backgrounds will be able to play a greater role in the larger society by contributing their individual talent. This is what Society 5.0 represents. As we aggressively explore ways to utilize cyberspace so as to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, we are also accelerating our shift to Society 5.0. The experience of online learning indicates that new technologies brought about by digital innovation will become all the more important in the world after the threat of the novel coronavirus subsides. These will not only be new tools that can be used for convenience. More importantly, they will initiate new systems and values, replacing the old ones. The new use of cyberspace should make our lives and activities in the real world even more appealing, with more attractive values. I encourage you to imagine what your work and research at the University of Tokyo could be like in Society 5.0, as you continue incorporating digital technologies in your work-from-home environment.

There is a bright light in the darkness of our current state of emergency. The number of infected people reported daily is steadily going down. It will not be long before we can resume our campus activities by lowering the level in Activity Restriction Index. We can see on the horizon the day when we will be able to safely resume in-person education and research, albeit in a limited manner. Of course, we will have to prioritize the prevention of the spread of the virus. We must start exploring how we can restart our campus life while avoiding the “3-Cs.”

Life under the threat of this new virus should not consist simply of a series of restrictions on our lives, but it also should work as a seedbed for germinating new ideas. Our creative and continuous effort will make it possible to realize a better society that is inclusive and friendly to our global environment, something Society 5.0 aims for. I will do everything within my means to create such an educational and research environment.

Let’s continue our steps forward with a sense of hope, in this age of challenge.

 

GONOKAMI Makoto
President
The University of Tokyo

 

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