Union News

Academic and Community Life Plans for 2020-2021

Categories: COVID-19, Union News

Dear Union Community,

We are pleased to have you as a member of the Union family for the 2020-2021 Academic Year!

We are truly a place where “faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice,” and the year ahead promises to be one where we live into this critical mission with even greater vigor and passion. Times are difficult, across the world and especially in New York City, but in such times, Union has a history of rising to the challenges it faces and becoming an ever-better seminary because of our response. This year will be an historic one at Union, and we can’t wait for you to join us in the important work ahead.

I’m writing today with an update on Union Theological Seminary’s plans for 2020-21. As we are all well aware, restrictions related to COVID-19 continue to evolve, and we will be as adaptive as possible. In planning for the fall semester, ethical and moral concerns are at the center of our decision-making, taking care to consider the safety and well-being of our campus community as well as our broader neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Harlem, one of the harder hit communities in the city. At Union we know that “No School is an Island.”

New York City remains a remarkable place, even in the midst of the devastation of the pandemic. For almost 200 years, Union has been deeply committed to this city’s well- being. Over the next 12-18 months, Union students have an important role to play in the city’s recovery, especially as the city struggles to address long-standing injustices that dramatically and disproportionately impact communities of color and the poor. We are in the midst of an historic turning point in the city, and are determined to be present – open, engaged, activist, compassionate, and energetically involved. It’s the responsibility of our heritage as a school, and it is born of fierce love.

With this in mind, here are the central components of our plans for Fall 2020.

1. Remote-Flexible Teaching for Fall 2020: We will begin the 2020-2021 academic year teaching remotely and will continue to do so as long as it remains the healthiest, safest mode of being in community. The faculty and staff are excited about developing new, innovative ways to engage students online. For students with accommodations, the Student Life Office and Dean Charlene Visconti will work with them to ensure their needs are met in the shift to remote learning.

If social distancing restrictions are lifted and it becomes possible to meet in small groups related to courses, we will happily consider doing so for those who are able to be on campus. If such face-to-face meetings do become possible, we will make sure that students who are not on campus are fully incorporated into the learning process.

2. Open and Safe Residence Halls: Union has ample, beautiful residential housing available directly on our campus for students who choose to live here. Our residences consist of a combination of small apartments, two room suites with private bathroom and kitchen, one room studios with private bathroom and kitchen, and dormitory rooms with shared bathrooms and large shared kitchens on each floor. We have two residential buildings, the largest, Hastings Hall, has been newly renovated. McGiffert Hall is where the faculty live and includes a similar but smaller number of apartments, studios, and dormitory floor residences for students.

Because of the Governor of New York’s early construction ban, our main student residential building, Hastings Hall, will not be ready for occupancy until October 1. Beginning September 28th, students can move into McGiffert Hall, and on October 2, we will open Hastings to students.

We are excited about the newly renovated residences in Hastings Hall, and the wonderful common spaces on each floor. It is a building designed for community, and it also allows us to safely house all students who choose to live there because apartments, suites and studios are considered “safe dwellings” should there be a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall or winter. This means that we will not have to move students out of the building should quarantines become necessary. We will also be placing students primarily in the studios and apartments of McGiffert Hall , for the same reason. As has been our practice, shared spaces will be regularly disinfected and offices, classrooms, and halls deep cleaned. We will also continue to adhere to health guidelines regarding social distancing and the wearing of masks in shared spaces, for as long as they are in effect.

Because we want to dramatically limit the number of students in dormitory spaces for health reasons, for this year only (academic year 2020-2021) the cost of a room in a Hastings Suite will be the same as a single dorm room. After COVID, we will return to regular pricing and open two new floors of dorms in Hastings as well as two floors of dorms in McGiffert.


Floor plans and photos of residences will be shared in the coming days. For further information, please contact our Director of Student Housing, Michael Orzechowski at michaelo@uts.columbia.edu.

3. New Calendar – Two Semesters and Three Intensive Sessions: Union’s fall Semester will officially begin on Monday, October 5, 2020.

This year we are implementing an innovative schedule consisting of two regular semesters interspersed with three “intensive” blocks of classes. We are trying this new schedule not only because of our late Fall opening but also because we have heard from students that for some, a full four-course load is difficult to manage when learning remotely. This model allows us to lessen that load. If you prefer to follow the traditional two semester model, you can do so. If you find that intensives work well for you, you can decrease the number of courses you take during the regular semester by supplementing it with an intensive session.

We realize that everyone has different learning styles and paces, and there is considerable educational evidence that this mix can be extremely productive. Your advisor will, of course, help you decide what pattern is best for you. We are excited to make this change, and we look forward to hearing your feedback as we implement it. Any additional questions, please contact Dean of Academic Affairs, Pamela Cooper-White at pcooperwhite@uts.columbia.edu or Assistant Dean, Nicole Mirando at nmirando@uts.columbia.edu. An email with specifics from the academic office will follow.

Here is a brief overview of the academic calendar:

a. September Session (Optional): We will offer an academic session of Intensive Remote Courses from September 8 – 25. This will include an optional but encouraged course for incoming students on the “Introduction to Theological Studies.” Several upper division courses will also be offered. We will share the course schedule as soon as it is ready.

b. Fall Semester begins October 5: We will hold our historic fall Convocation on October 7, as well as celebrate a Union Homecoming event. On December 22, the semester will conclude in time for a well-earned Winter Break.

c. January Session (Optional): From January 4 to 15. Course schedule will be shared as soon as it is ready.

d. Spring Semester: The schedule for Spring 2021 Semester is also slightly modified, beginning February 1 and ending May 14, with spring break from March 15-19. Commencement remains as scheduled on May 21.

e. June Session (Optional): Right now, it is scheduled for June 1 to 18, but more details will be shared as made available.

4. Financial Aid: Federal rules require that financial aid is disbursed according to when you start classes for the year. Those who start with the September Intensive Session will be eligible for disbursement in September. Those who start on October 5th receive their financial aid starting in October.

For financial aid purposes, credits taken over both the September Session and Fall Term will count towards your enrollment status. Likewise, credits can be combined over the January Intersession and the Spring Term to determine your status. As a reminder, students must be registered full-time to receive their Union scholarship or grant award.

5. Medical and Mental Health Services: Union’s close partnership with Columbia University assures that students receive state-of-the-art health care. Columbia also has extensive resources devoted to mental health care, recognizing the extreme pressures COVID-19 has placed upon the shoulders of all. Union also has a well-developed spiritual care program available to all students. Our Dean of Student Life, Charlene Visconti can be reached at cvisconti@uts.columbia.edu for further information.

6. New Student Orientation: For our new entering class, we have a number of virtual orientation events planned beginning in late August. You will be hearing from the Dean of Student Life soon about these plans. For questions, please contact Dean Charlene Visconti at cvisconti@uts.columbia.edu.

7. Community Life: Each year, students arrive at Union ready to learn from our esteemed faculty and eager to engage other students in the myriad environments Union offers students: Daily Chapel, Student Senate, Student Caucuses, Ministry of Fun Events, shared learning sessions, public programming, and most importantly, the spontaneous gatherings that happen in every corner of the campus. This year, as we continue to adapt to the requirements around the pandemic, we are committed to encouraging such a vibrant campus life to continue, albeit in smaller groups and following appropriate health requirements. We look forward to sharing with you our plans for small group support work with faculty and for spiritual care formation groups. We promise campus life will be strong and vibrant!

8. Volunteer NYC: Union students have a long history of being a lively and engaged part of New York City non-profits, religious communities, and community organizations. Now, more than ever, that engagement is crucial. and you are needed. Over the summer you will receive a list of places to volunteer across the city. If you do so, you will have an experience of New York City that promises to be life-altering. For M.Div. students, second-year field education will continue as usual, adapting to health concerns as appropriate.

9. Graduation 2021 will be held with all its wonderful fanfare on May 21, 2021.

I want to thank the class of 2020 for a wonderful, celebratory virtual graduation on May 15. Your spirit embodied the best of Union. We can’t wait for you to visit and again experience freely roaming the halls of your Union home. Any student from 2020 who wishes to return and walk across the stage diploma in 2021 will be gladly welcomed.

We are thrilled that a robust and diverse class of admitted incoming students are already on board to start at Union, and we look forward to seeing our many returning students. Each of you will have to make your own personal decisions about what living conditions and learning pattern works best for you, and it is our hope that the options we have will allow everyone to find a path at Union that works well for them. It promises to be a powerful and academically enlightening year for all.

No matter your choice, we are in this together–Union strong!


President Serene Jones