Message to the Bowdoin Community—An Update (April 30, 2020)

To the Bowdoin community,

Last week, I met with the members of the Division of Student Affairs for a Zoom “town hall.” On Monday I made my regular report at the (virtual) faculty meeting. And last night, I hosted another “town hall” with Dean Janet Lohmann that was “attended” by more than two-hundred students who asked really thoughtful questions. 
As in the other settings, we covered a lot of ground, with questions about what it will take to be on campus in the fall, whether they can take the semester or the year off if we have to be remote, different options for the academic calendar, finances and student aid, the CARES Act, summer fellowships, and so forth. If you have time, I encourage you to watch the recording for our thoughts on these and other subjects.

As I did at the faculty meeting and “town halls,” let me address a few issues about our situation that I know are top-of-mind for so many of you.

Our goal is to have everyone back on campus in the fall, and we are doing everything we can to make this possible. It’s who we are—a college built on a personal learning model and experience that thrives on in-person engagement. Beyond that, there are also the financial considerations. Some have speculated that we might save money with a remote learning model, so let me be clear: In addition to the valued experiences that are completely absent and the learning inequities that can result from a remote model, remote teaching and learning is also expensive, for us and for every college like us—far more expensive than being on campus. If we can find a way to be back on campus in the fall—a way that is safe for the campus and Brunswick community—we will be back.

That said, there is much that we don’t know, and there are many health issues that simply will not be solved by September. COVID-19 is highly infectious and often spread by individuals who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. While for the vast majority of younger people the disease is not serious, it can create severe and sometimes fatal problems for those who are health compromised—those with high blood pressure, who are obese, who have asthma or diabetes, and the elderly. The experts tell us that a widely distributed vaccine is at least a year away. If we are able to return to campus this fall, things will be different from what we have known. Among other measures, we will have to reduce density on campus to ensure that we can practice physical distancing in our classrooms, in residence and dining halls, and in our social spaces. We will likely need to make changes in athletics and performances, and we are going to have to have measures in place to deal rapidly and effectively with illness. This may mean having the ability to both test broadly and regularly for the virus and to quarantine anyone who is infected. And, it means we will have to be confident that an outbreak on campus would not overwhelm the local health care system.

These and other issues are being examined by the “Return to Campus Group” chaired by Professor Jennifer Scanlon, which is charged with analyzing the issues that would have to be addressed and with providing advice and guidance on necessary changes, actions, and alterations in behavior that would be required in order to safely open the fall semester back on campus. Their work is expected to be completed by the end of May.

Simultaneously, a “Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group,” led by Professor Rick Broene, is working to understand what tools, skills, and insights should be developed to aid our faculty in enhancing their remote teaching and learning models. We are doing this work not because we want to go there but because we will want to be prepared in the best possible way should circumstances require us to go in this direction, or if being on campus is interrupted by an outbreak or government requirement. The work of this group will be completed by the end of June.

Then there are our financial challenges. By the end of the current semester, we will have incurred costs in excess of $8 million as a result of this crisis. And the financial challenges get worse the longer this goes on. It is a two-part problem: the probability of a significant loss if we can’t be on campus this fall, and the possibility that in two to three years we will see lower spendable returns from the endowment. Our endowment puts us in a better position than most other colleges, and we have the liquidity right now to help us weather this crisis. But we have to be very careful with our cash—we may well face considerable financial stress down the road if the economy weakens and remains weak for some time, and even if we get lucky and come through all of this sooner than we think, we are going to need these funds for the academic initiatives and the building projects we had been planning.

These projects are currently on hold to preserve cash, and we’ve also imposed a hiring freeze. All of our full-time hourly and salaried staff are being paid full wages, which will continue until June 30. What comes next depends upon whether we are back on campus in the fall or are required to employ a remote learning model. As I have said previously, as we develop our financial plan for next year, a top priority is job preservation. I was asked at last night’s student “town hall” about whether senior administrators would take a pay cut. We are examining the issue of pay cuts as we work through developing the budget for this next year. In response to this question, I did tell the group that, beginning on April 1, I cut my salary by well more than 20 percent, and it will remain at this level through the next academic year. I also want to be clear that while this is the appropriate thing for me to do as president of the College, the fact that I have reduced my salary by this much, or at all, should not signal that we have made any decisions about whether we will reduce pay for anyone else—we have not.

There are a number of people working through these financial issues with me, including Matt Orlando and his team, Paula Volent and her team, the board’s Resources and Investment Committees, and the “Budget Review Group” chaired by Professor Ta Herrera. These faculty, students, and staff are engaging with me and the staff in Matt’s office to offer questions, suggestions, challenges, and advice as we build the budgets for next year. We expect to complete a preliminary budget and a proposed model for the fall by mid-June, preserving the option to make changes over the summer should the situation change.

All three of these groups can use your thoughts and suggestions. Please don’t assume that we’ve thought of everything—if you have ideas, please submit them using the forms available online.

It is worth remembering that every college and university in this country (and beyond) is facing exactly the same issues we are, and wrestling with the challenge of how to have students on campus in the fall given the public health crisis. I spend a good bit of my own time talking with other college and university presidents, sharing information and ideas. I am also in regular contact with public health authorities, scientists, and medical professionals in order to get as much information and as many thoughtful points of view as I can. These conversations are incredibly helpful in thinking through the issues.

All of this work will allow us to make the most informed decisions possible in the time we have available, and with the health and safety of our campus community and the Brunswick community as the essential priority. Our goal is to find a way to be back on campus this fall.

With respect to summer work, fellowships, internships, and related housing, we had hoped to provide final information by the end of this week. We are close to having this work completed, but it will not be done in time to report to you tomorrow. We’ll be back soon with details.

Meanwhile, even in a pandemic, it is important to keep in mind that great things continue to happen in our College community:

  • Next Wednesday, we will launch a webpage to recognize the academic achievements of our students on what would have been Honors Day;
  • Two professors—Aviva Briefel in English and cinema studies and Paul Franco in government—have been honored with endowed professorships
  • Assistant Professor of Sociology Theo Greene was recently awarded the Sydney B. Karofsky Prize for Junior Faculty, an honor presented annually to a faculty member in the untenured ranks who “best demonstrates the ability to impart knowledge, inspire enthusiasm, and stimulate intellectual curiosity”; 
  • Our graduate, Tina Satter ’96—an Obie-winning writer and director for theater and film—was recently awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship; and
  • The Improvabilities—Bowdoin’s oldest improvisational comedy troupe—will take to Zoom tomorrow (May 1) at 9:00 p.m. to help us build community and laugh. I look forward to watching and hope you will too!   

Again, I know these are stressful days and I am sorry about the worry and the uncertainty. Bowdoin, along with the nation and the world, has faced serious challenges before, and the College has always emerged stronger because of the character and concern that defines our community. We have tough decisions and more difficult days ahead, but we will get through this crisis too. Thank you for your patience and understanding, for keeping yourself and others healthy and safe, and for all that you do as a part of the Bowdoin community.

Stay safe.