Shortly after I started at Clarke University, a friend asked, “How does it feel to wear a mask to work every day?” After an awkward silence, he added, “You know, paint on a smile in your parking spot; then, wipe it all off the moment you get home.” I politely disagreed with him, mentioned how much I love the work I get to do, and that I had never felt the need to wear a mask.

Of course that all changed a few months ago, when COVID-19 set my mother-in-law and thousands of caring people like her to sewing protective masks, including the one I wear when I make a rare visit to campus these days. Yet, even as I find myself wearing a real mask, I can’t resist the urge to shed a figurative one. Follow along, at a safe distance.

On March 10, a day when there were eight confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Iowa and no confirmed cases in Dubuque, an unlikely group of collaborators gathered for the first time via each other’s email inboxes to share contact information, campus status updates, and an abundance of empathy. Joining me were Phil Boom (Emmaus College), Jeff Bullock (University of Dubuque), Jim Collins (Loras College), Dennis Shields (University of Wisconsin-Platteville), Kris Stache (Wartburg Theological Seminary), and Liang Chee Wee (Northeast Iowa Community College).


Each one leads a college or university that works day and night to distinguish itself from the others, competes for many of the same students, meets the evolving needs of regional employers, seeks and secures public and private funding, serves the common good, and, yes, does it all behind the mask of secrecy so often associated with higher education.

Then came COVID-19.

Armed with daily reports from local and state public health officials, guidance from their governing boards, and always with the health and safety of their students and employees front of mind, these competitors seamlessly became partners. They freely shared ideas for continuing instruction by alternative means, closing or sustaining residential housing, creating a primarily telecommuting workforce, donating soon-to-be idle classroom equipment to local hospitals, and preparing soon-to-be empty residence halls to house health care professionals if a surge should come. And that’s just the list from the first conference call.

Sounds improbable, right? Then hold onto your seat.

In all of this, no one asked for an invoice, no one signed a nondisclosure agreement, and no one said we could not go forward without first forming a joint bipartisan blue-ribbon task force of the willing.

Its mask removed, Dubuque area higher education revealed itself ready to lead and speed the post-pandemic recovery.

I originally planned to end this here, but the mail came.

My 19-year-old son recently received a letter from Mayor Roy Buol (UD ’92), encouraging Drew to continue his education right here in Dubuque where the city is “committed to a long-standing and proactive relationship with each of our higher education institutions to ensure that Dubuque remains an engaging and welcoming place in which to study, work, and excel.”

Now that the masks are off, might we peel away a few others to ensure Mayor Buol’s statement rings true for decades to come?

Imagine if you will these same seven colleges and universities, regularly gathering with area elected officials, city and county staffs, school district leadership, economic development heads, employers, clergy and nonprofits — not for show and tell, but to show it all: All the ways we are stronger together, all the resources we could share to co-invest in an educational ecosystem that provides for its community even as it creates it. Imagine.

Before becoming Clarke president in 2019, Chesney was president of Brookhaven College in the Dallas County (Texas) Community College District. His email address is