Message to the Bowdoin Community—An Update (July 9, 2020)

To the Bowdoin community,

It has been two and a half weeks since I announced our plans for the fall semester and, since then, many other colleges and universities—including nearly all of our peer schools—have announced their own plans. I am writing today to review some key aspects of our plan as well as to provide some updates since our announcement. 
I want to start by again acknowledging that these continue to be among the most difficult of days, and for each of us there is ongoing stress and uncertainty. You are not alone in confronting the challenges we face. I know you are there to help those whom you love and who count on you. Please make sure that you reach out to family, friends, colleagues, your faith community, or professional counseling for the support you need. 

For our international students, the stress and uncertainty has been amplified substantially by a US government announcement foreshadowing changes in visa rules that could upend their educations. This is appalling from a human perspective and very bad policy. If this guidance comes into force, it would have a profound impact on the ability of international students to study at colleges and universities in this country, either in residence or online from their home countries. As I noted in my message to campus on Tuesday, this move by the administration is driven by the politics of “reopening America” in the face of public health guidance to the contrary and the crisis that continues to rage, and by their animus toward immigration and immigrants. It is, as I said, appalling. Yesterday, Harvard and MIT joined forces in a lawsuit aimed at stopping this purely political move by the government, and we will do whatever we can to support their suit, including joining with others in filing amicus briefs in support of their case. I am also in touch with other schools, umbrella organizations for the higher education community, and our congressional delegation. Senators Collins and King and Representative Pingree all oppose the move by ICE and are engaged in work to have it changed. We will provide more specific information soon on the steps we will take to support our international students in the wake of the government’s announcement.

For our Black students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents, as well as those of color in our community, this has also been a time of much greater stress and uncertainty, and also a time of anger. The murder of George Floyd and so many others at the hands of the police have once again laid bare the deep-rooted system of racism in America and the resistance of those who sustain it. More murders, so-called counter-protesters, and the president defending Confederate symbols as part of American heritage are all reminders of the work ahead that we all must share and the change that is necessary to build a more just society. As I wrote to the Bowdoin community on June 11, we have much work to do here—deliberate, focused, and persistent work that leads to action and change.

Since I announced our plan for the fall, we have witnessed a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases across the country, particularly in places that have relaxed safety protocols. We have also seen how hard it is for people to practice the simple but effective safety measures. On Tuesday, the number of coronavirus cases in the US surpassed three million. Yesterday alone, nearly 60,000 new cases were reported—the fifth national record set in the last nine days. This virus is with us until a vaccine is developed and administered and, until then, testing, face coverings, physical distancing, symptom monitoring, and, as Dr. Anthony Fauci said, a concern for the larger community are the actions and behaviors that will keep the disease from landing on our doorstep or becoming an even larger crisis. 

As I discussed in my June 22 message and reiterated during town hall meetings that week, our plan is designed to protect the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and our neighbors in Brunswick while also providing an excellent education to every student. By reducing density on our campus, we reduce the chances of transmission of the virus and create the conditions to build a reliable set of safety protocols and a culture of adherence to these practices. This gives us the best chance of completing the semester successfully, and of bringing upperclass students to campus in the spring.

That said, I acknowledge once again that limiting the number of students on campus is deeply disappointing for all of us. And I know that there are still questions about how and why we arrived where we are. Some have speculated that our plan is driven by financial considerations—that this is somehow a way to save money. In fact, this is the costliest model we could have chosen, because it combines a fully staffed campus, full engagement by our faculty, and additional COVID-19-related expenses with a significant loss in room and board revenues. We expect to see the largest deficit in the College’s history this year. Fortunately, we are in a strong financial position, and I am grateful to our faculty and staff for their sacrifice. So, this was never a financially motivated measure. These decisions were made because they are the right thing to do for Bowdoin.

We have also been very intentional through all of this in preserving our leading financial aid program that places Bowdoin among only nineteen colleges and universities in the country that provide need-based financial aid and meet full demonstrated need for all four years without a loan requirement. It is this commitment to need-based student aid that stands as the centerpiece of our approach to affordability at Bowdoin. The heart of a need-based system is to work with each family to understand what they can contribute to the cost of a Bowdoin education, and then fill the remaining cost with grant aid. And this year, given the extraordinary circumstances, you would expect us to do more, and we are. We have eliminated a student’s work requirement—during both the summer and fall—replacing that amount with Bowdoin grant funding. We are also building in an allowance for the costs a family will incur from having a student living at home. Our highest-need students may have access to a refund that can be used to pay for indirect (those not billed by Bowdoin) expenses, up to $3,500 for students who will be off campus and up to $2,000 for students who will be on campus. Our student aid team continues to have conversations with families whose financial circumstances have changed because of the economic impact of COVID-19. If your family has experienced a change in economic circumstances that is not reflected in the financial aid application provided to the College, I urge you to meet with the student aid team. We have also developed a set of frequently asked questions focusing on financial aid for the fall. 

We have also held our tuition costs to last year’s level. Part of the reason for that, as I noted above, is that we will be employing 100 percent of our faculty and staff this year and will incur additional costs associated with the pandemic. But, even more importantly, the essence of what we do at the College remains: to provide our students with an outstanding liberal arts education delivered by outstanding faculty. There is no doubt that this will be a fall semester unlike any other in the College’s history, but I know that the faculty will do what they have always done in crafting and delivering an outstanding Bowdoin education.

Which leads me to the work underway as we prepare for the fall semester. Last week, our Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group (CTLG), led by Professor Rick Broene, released its report. CTLG was a group of faculty, students, and staff charged in April with developing a teaching and learning model that will approach the challenge of online education from a fresh perspective while building on lessons learned during the spring 2020 semester. The group’s report is an outstanding guide for our faculty that benefits from surveys of our students and faculty, the latest pedagogical research on online instruction, and discussions with external consultants. The result is a roadmap already in use by faculty to develop their courses for the fall with support and assistance from staff and from a firm of outside experts. There is a detailed story and several videos about the report on the Bowdoin website.

Among the report’s findings are a number of recommendations for accessibility and equity that were informed by student feedback. These include a new “time block” schedule to accommodate students in different time zones. You can learn more about the time block system by watching this short “explainer” video. And, later today, students and their families are invited to a ninety-minute town hall on the academic program hosted by Dean Jen Scanlon and several other members of the CTLG and Bowdoin staff.

In student affairs, staff are hard at work on Orientation and on developing public health programming and messaging, a social contract on expectations for student behavior, programming across the division to engage students, and counseling services so that all students—regardless of whether they are on or off campus—will feel supported and safe this fall. The committee that made decisions about student requests to return to campus has finished reviewing requests from students who seek to be here this fall because of situations that make learning at home especially difficult or impossible. Over 100 students asked to be on campus, and almost all of them will be. Student affairs is also having conversations with students who may seek a leave of absence in the coming year. We are still hopeful that students who take a leave will be able to return when they want to, but this will depend on the numbers. The deadline for applying to take a leave is this coming Sunday, July 12, at noon (EDT). Yesterday, admissions informed the forty-six first-year students who requested gap years that they will all be able to begin their studies at Bowdoin next fall, and these students have until the end of the day tomorrow to let us know if they will be deferring this year. 

Our planning for the fall also includes a significant amount of work on the programs and logistics necessary to keep our community safe and healthy. This includes partnering with the Broad Institute for our COVID-19 testing program, which will require all students to be tested immediately upon arrival before gaining access to their residence halls, additional tests every other day during their first week on campus, and twice weekly through November 20. Others at the College will be tested regularly throughout the semester. This will allow us to identify the presence of the virus early and to quickly isolate those infected and quarantine those who come into contact with an infected person. We will not be requiring tests for students before they arrive on campus as previously announced, since public health officials now discount the usefulness of testing prior to travel.

In addition to testing, we have acquired masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment for the campus community, and we are establishing procedures for safe dining and for quarantining those who become ill, installing campus signage, and instituting best practices for effective contact tracing. 

I am pleased to announce that Mike Ranen will take on the role of our COVID-19 resource coordinator. Mike, who is an associate dean of student affairs, will split his time between this role, continuing to report to Senior Vice President and Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann, and his new duties reporting to Senior Vice President and Treasurer Matt Orlando. I am tremendously grateful to Mike for his willingness to take on this critical work. 

I hope this update is helpful as we continue to prepare for the fall, but I know you will still have many questions. I will host another town hall for students next Thursday, July 16, from 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (EDT). An invitation with login instructions is forthcoming, and we will continue to provide updates throughout the summer. 

As I said at the outset, these are extraordinarily difficult times, but as I have witnessed firsthand during this public health and other crises, this is a community dedicated to each other and to solving problems. We will emerge from these challenges, certainly changed, but also better if we work to be better. Thank you for all you are doing to care for yourself and others, and for all you are doing for Bowdoin.