May 15, 2020 — An Update

To the Bowdoin community,

Tomorrow is the last day of exams, bringing to a close a semester unlike any in the history of our College. I can almost hear a collective sigh of relief that we have made it to this point. It has been amazing to see how the Bowdoin community rallied together during these recent weeks to deal with the many issues that COVID-19 has brought—concerns about our families near and far, about their health, our own health and that of our friends, the emotional toll of the pandemic, and worries about finances and the future. I hope you will each take the time to regroup and get added rest once the semester’s work is done.

I wish that this end of the academic year was also bringing an end to the challenges we all face with respect to COVID-19, but unfortunately that is not the case. This will be with us for some time, impacting many aspects of our lives. There will be no “normal” for a while.  

We all very much hope to be back on campus in some form in the fall, and there is considerable work underway to try to make this possible. The three groups I have asked to evaluate aspects of the challenges ahead have been hard at work, and they are making good progress. I am grateful to the faculty, staff, and students who are devoting their time and wisdom to this work and to Professors Rick Broene, Ta Herrera, and Jen Scanlon for their leadership. 

I am spending a substantial amount of my time speaking with scientists, medical and public health professionals, and other college and university presidents in order to get as much information and as many thoughtful points of view as I can. When decisions about the fall are made, our paramount goal will be to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff and our neighbors here in Brunswick. We will also focus on ensuring the effectiveness of the education we provide, protecting the financial condition of the College entrusted to us and our ability to invest in Bowdoin’s future, and maintaining a leading student aid program. We will be guided by the values of equity and shared sacrifice, by a keen awareness of the financial impact of decisions on everyone who works at Bowdoin, and by doing our best to preserve jobs.

The Fall

As I reported on April 30, there is considerable work underway to determine whether there is a path to resuming operations on campus in some form while satisfying the health and safety imperative. The Return to Campus Group, led by Professor Scanlon, has been working to provide me with an analysis of the issues that must be addressed before we can return responsibly to campus. To do this work, they have divided into three teams—medical/science, academic, and logistical/operations. The group has benefited from input by medical and public health experts, by members of the community, and from surveys undertaken by the various student class councils. And, on Wednesday, Professor Scanlon and other members of the group held a Zoom meeting with the faculty to discuss several possible academic scenarios, each with its own implications for teaching and learning and the work of the faculty. As you would expect, it was a very thoughtful discussion with a wide range of issues and points of view, and it provided the group with additional insights to help them complete their work. Later today, to the same end, the group will meet on Zoom with students to gain their perspectives on these academic scenarios. 

We expect that any viable plan to return to campus will almost certainly involve the ability to successfully test our population, reducing the density in our living and learning spaces, adhering to physical distancing rules, the use of masks, regular deep-cleaning and disinfecting, and changing or eliminating certain aspects of regular gatherings and common academic, extracurricular, and social activities—including lectures, presentations, performances, and athletics. If we are able to be on campus this fall, it is likely that some courses will still need to be online to deal with large classes, where physical distancing would not be possible, and to accommodate students and faculty who are in health-compromised situations or students who cannot return to campus. And, regardless of how we start the semester, we will need to be prepared to pivot to remote offerings in light of new information, an outbreak on campus, or new restrictions imposed by the government.

Continuity

We all want to return to our classrooms, labs, performance spaces, studios, athletic facilities, study spaces, and libraries on campus. Being together to engage with one another makes the Bowdoin experience so special, and no remote model is an adequate substitute for this. We also know that the online courses that our faculty so remarkably and effectively created over only a few days in March were not what we would have chosen without the duress of that circumstance. To do all we can to prepare for the possibility of a fully remote mode in the fall—or for a situation that requires us to pivot—we need to develop the very best remote model we can. The Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group, led by Professor Broene, is working to help do this—identifying the tools, skills, and flexibility for faculty to offer the most effective remote version of their courses possible, and to find the best ways for students to engage with faculty and one another in a virtual environment. To begin their work, they have administered surveys to faculty and students and organized discussions with faculty. Like the Return to Campus Group, they have benefited, and will continue to benefit, from the thoughts and advice of members of the community, and from the survey results provided by the class councils.

Finances

As I discussed in my message on April 2 and again on April 30, the College will face significant financial challenges in the 2020–2021 academic year. In fact, we are likely next year to face the largest loss in the history of the College. The Budget Review Group, led by Professor Herrera, was established to provide me and the staff with advice as we evaluate and develop ways to reduce these losses for the budget that I will recommend to the board of trustees. The group, which has been meeting on a weekly basis with me and with Matt Orlando and Jamie Tatham from the treasurer’s office, has provided thoughtful advice and insights, challenged our thinking and assumptions, and asked probing questions.

Context is helpful in understanding the challenges we face. For example, without the imposition of cost-cutting measures at the College in 2009–2011, the largest one-year loss in the years that followed the so-called “Great Recession” would have been about $9 million, equal to 7 percent of our revenue at the time. The actions taken in that period to stem future-year deficits included a nearly two-year freeze on faculty and staff wages for those making in excess of $40,000 a year, a two-year freeze on operating expenses, and a freeze on hiring new staff. These actions reduced the actual loss to about $3 million. By comparison, in almost all circumstances and before taking any actions, our loss in the 2020–2021 academic year may very well exceed $20 million, or 15 percent of revenue. And it could be significantly larger. As a result, we will almost certainly need to cut costs by more than what was done in 2009–2011. And even these measures will not eliminate what will likely be a substantial deficit. 

I am acutely aware that uncertainty about College finances and the budget next year continues to be cause for significant worry, and I very much wish I could alleviate some of the anxiety. At this point, we’ve made no decisions and won’t until we know whether the fall semester will be on campus or remote. As stated earlier in this note, we will be guided in this work by the values of equity and shared sacrifice, with an understanding of the financial impact on College employees, and by doing our best to preserve jobs.  

Many in our community are already providing input, and if you have ideas or concerns regarding the budget, or actions that could be taken, please share them with the Budget Review Group or with me.

Thank You

Every college and university in this country is contending with exactly the same issues that we face. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the global health crisis and related economic distress, and the difficult decisions and painful periods ahead, we are fortunate and as well positioned as any school to weather the challenges. Thanks to prudent management, wise investments, and generous donors over many years, we have financial strength. Our model of personal learning is crafted and guided by exceptional faculty devoted to the education of students who are kind, collaborative, smart, imaginative, and independent thinkers. And it is sustained by an amazing staff who devote their professional lives to making Bowdoin better every day. And, perhaps most importantly, we are a community built on care for one another, resilience, and determination. None of this will be diminished by the current crisis.

Thank you for all that you do for one another and for our College. 

Clayton