Message to the Campus Community — June 22, 2020

To the Bowdoin community,

Bowdoin has been quiet and largely empty for several months. Since mid-March, when our students left, and students in our new first-year class left their high schools to finish the term at home, each of us has longed to have our campus full again and to return to some sense of “normal” in a world that is far from it.

I know you have been eager to learn of our plans for the fall, and that is why I am writing this morning. This letter does not answer all of the questions that students, families, faculty, staff, alumni, community members, and others will have, but it covers the main elements of our plan, and we will communicate soon and often as other aspects are settled.

Our priorities are:
  • first and foremost, the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and our neighbors in the Brunswick community;
  • providing an excellent Bowdoin education to every student;
  • strengthening the bonds of our community; and
  • being good stewards of our financial resources
The plan for the fall would not have been possible without the work and dedication of so many of you from every part of the College. The Return to Campus Group created a comprehensive and thoughtful report that was essential to informing the decisions. Our faculty, staff, students, parents, the Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs, the senior staff, and the board all devoted extensive time and shared considerable wisdom in service of developing this plan. My great thanks to everyone.

Summary of Our Plan:
  • We will have some students back in the fall, but not all students. The group on campus will be:
    • our new first-year and transfer students;
    • students who have home situations that make online learning nearly impossible;
    • a very small number of senior honors students who cannot pursue their pre-approved projects online and require access to physical spaces on campus, and can do so under health and safety protocols; and
    • our student residential life staff.
  • All other sophomores, juniors, and seniors will remain off campus for the fall semester and will take their courses online. With priority given to seniors, if the fall semester goes as we hope, we expect to have our seniors, juniors, and sophomores return to campus for the spring semester, with the added possibility that our winter and spring athletes may be able to engage with their sports in some way. We expect that our first-year and transfer students will study remotely in the spring.
  • In order to provide the best learning experience possible, nearly all classes, including those on campus, will be taught online. This learning model will bear little resemblance to the emergency version that was created in the spring. Allowing faculty to focus on a single model of teaching, and directing our resources to that single model—rather than a hybrid model—will create the conditions for crafting powerful online course offerings. We are also mindful that teaching in person with masks and appropriate physical distancing will have its limitations.
  • The exception to the online learning model is that many first-year writing seminars will be taught in person or have in-person components. We also anticipate that faculty will develop opportunities for in-person intellectual engagement outside of class time for first-year students, transfers, and other students here on campus. Those first-year students who are at home for the fall semester will have first-year writing seminars that are delivered online.
  • Athletics is an important part of the Bowdoin experience for so many of our students. Unfortunately, given that we will not have all students on campus in the fall, we will not be participating in fall and winter varsity sports during the fall semester. The New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) is developing plans for fall, winter, and spring sports regarding the ways in which coaches will be permitted to engage with their teams, and we anticipate providing opportunities for our coaches to work with their student-athletes from each sport season in the fall. The conference’s most recent statement can be found later in this message. As I have already noted, I am hopeful that there will be an opportunity for the winter, spring, and possibly fall varsity athletes to participate and compete in some form after January 1.
  • Those on campus will be required to follow critical safety practices—face coverings, physical distancing, good and regular hygiene, and self-monitoring for symptoms. In addition, everyone on campus will be tested for the virus at least two times a week and will be required to participate in a contact-tracing program.
  • All students on campus will have a single bedroom, and there will be dining service.
  • We will have a normal fifteen-week semester, with classes beginning on September 2, and exams ending on December 21. All students will leave campus ahead of Thanksgiving and finish the term online.
  • As an acknowledgment of the challenging economic times faced by virtually all families, there will be no increase in the comprehensive fee or tuition for the Fall 2020 semester over what was charged in 2019–2020. We will reduce the room and board charge pro rata for the period at the end of the semester when on-campus students will no longer be in residence. The fall semester fee for on-campus students will total $33,935. Those who will be off campus will be charged only the tuition component of this comprehensive fee for the semester, which is $27,911. 
  • For aided students, we have replaced any summer work expectation and any fall semester on-campus work expectation with grant aid for the fall semester.

These are the essential elements of our fall plan, and I have real confidence that we will carry it out successfully. I am excited about the opportunities it offers our first-year students to begin their time at Bowdoin on campus, to build community together in this extraordinary time, and to transition into college work and life with their peers, upperclass students, faculty, and staff. And we are able to do this while protecting the campus and Brunswick communities with strong safety practices that include regular testing.

Why Not Have All Students Back?

I very much wish we could have everyone on campus in the fall, and I know you do as well. I also know that many of you are deeply disappointed. The nature of the virus requires us to limit the density of people on campus. While we have taken considerable time to understand the scientific data on the virus, there is still a great deal of uncertainty, requiring us to be both humble and thoughtful about what we do and do not know.

What we do know is that the virus is highly contagious and may be spread by asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals. Those who are younger and in good health have limited chance of serious consequences or death from COVID-19, although there is that risk, but those over sixty-five and/or with preexisting health conditions are significantly more at risk for severe illness or death. This is a particular concern regarding our staff, faculty, and our neighbors in Brunswick. A vaccine is unlikely to be widely available until sometime in 2021.

Physical distancing, face coverings, self-monitoring for symptoms, and specific hygiene practices have had a powerful effect on reducing the spread of the disease, and these practices will have to be in place and followed until a vaccine is widely available. But the implementation of these safety protocols is new for us, as it is for every college and university and the country as a whole. We all want to be sociable, but there will have to be changes in day-to-day life that we all must adhere to in order to protect health and safety on campus and in our local community.

With all of this in mind—and with all that we still don’t know about the virus—I have come to the difficult conclusion that it would be too risky to permit a densely packed environment with everyone back on campus. We are not only protecting the health and safety of students with these plans, we are, critically, also protecting our faculty and staff—especially our dining service workers, facilities staff, and security staff, all of whom have close day-to-day interaction with students. And we are also protecting our neighbors in Brunswick.

The first semester at Bowdoin is a critical time, and having our first-year students and transfer students on campus allows our newest students to come to know one another, to develop communities, to acclimate to work at Bowdoin, to understand our culture, and to become familiar with our campus. Our first-year writing seminars are designed to introduce students to intellectual life and engagement at Bowdoin. The ability to offer these unique classes to our new students in person or with in-person components, and to provide them with the benefits described above, are the critical reasons for having them on campus this fall. That said, any students who are unable to come to campus for health, international travel restrictions, or other reasons will take their courses online.

Students who have home situations that make online learning nearly impossible can apply to return to campus in order to find arrangements that will allow them to engage and study in an environment that is conducive to the demands of a Bowdoin education. A committee is being established to assist students who request this on-campus option.

The vast majority of students working on honors projects will complete them remotely. Those students who cannot pursue their projects online and require access to physical spaces on campus, and can do so under health and safety protocols, will be in residence for the semester. Academic affairs, in consultation with departments, will develop a process for determining which students have this need.

With these five groups on campus—first-year students, transfer students, students with home environments that severely challenge their ability to learn, seniors with specific honors projects, and student residential life staff—we will be able to test the efficacy of our safety protocols, compliance with these protocols, new housing and dining arrangements, and other factors that give us the best chance to bring seniors, juniors, and sophomores back to campus in the spring.

Why Are We Teaching Online?

While informed by the experience in the spring, Bowdoin’s Fall 2020 classes will bear little resemblance to what the faculty had to stand up during an emergency with only two weeks’ notice. As I’ve written previously, our goal for the academic program is to provide an excellent educational experience to every student. We did consider a model that would have faculty teaching some classes online and others in person for students on campus, and some will do this by teaching both a first-year writing seminar and an online class, but we concluded that, in general, having a single model of delivery for the entire faculty gives us the best chance to deliver on our goal of achieving excellence. Central to this decision is the knowledge that our faculty are deeply skilled teachers who are dedicated to the success of our students.

The Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group (CTLG) has been at work since mid-April obtaining feedback from students and faculty about the spring experience, researching best practices for online learning and teaching, and making recommendations for how best to prepare for the possibility of online learning continuing in the fall. A campus team with participation from the Baldwin Center for Teaching and Learning, the library, academic technology and consulting, and information technology will soon begin training sessions for faculty informed by the CTLG report and recommendations. And this work will be enhanced by a partnership with a firm that has expertise in online teaching and learning, and that “gets” the specific nature of our liberal arts model. While it will be very different from the on-campus teaching and learning experience we’re accustomed to, our faculty will embrace the opportunity to translate their courses into an online environment and will deliver an excellent education to all of our students this fall.

Beyond the Academic Program

I am equally confident in the work student affairs will do to engage students this fall—both those on and off campus. They will create educational, health and wellness, and recreational content delivered both online and in person to engage our students beyond their academic experience. These will include activities and experiences and help students build virtual communities through residential life, student activities, the Office of Career Exploration and Development (CXD), athletics, and the Office of Inclusion and Diversity. There will be significant opportunities for alumni to help in these efforts. In addition, residential life staff will continue to shape “virtual” communities throughout the fall.

Athletics

Unfortunately, we will not be participating in fall and winter varsity sports during the fall semester. This is one of the very disappointing outcomes of our plan. Athletics is a central part of the Bowdoin experience for many of our students and for the College more generally. NESCAC has not yet determined what will happen with conference play or how coaches in this extraordinary semester may interact with athletes on fall, winter, and spring teams during the fall semester, but I am hopeful that there will be significant opportunities this fall for coaches to work with those athletes who are both on and off campus. Varsity athletes living on campus are likely to have in-person workout opportunities with coaches, but unfortunately, students living off campus will not be permitted to participate in on-campus workouts. Last week, NESCAC released the following statement regarding the fall semester:

NESCAC institutions continue to focus on plans for the 2020–2021 academic year with the safety and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and their communities the primary concern. As institutions finalize their plans for the coming year, federal, state, and local health guidance, as well as institutional policies, will guide their independent decisions regarding reopening.  

Athletics engagement is an important part of the experience for many of our students, and member institutions remain committed to this experience. However, this will not be a traditional fall on campus in any respect, including for athletics. The conference continues to develop plans for the return to athletics, including possible modifications to NESCAC rules to allow institutions flexibility to provide for meaningful experiences for students within school policies and federal, state, and local health directives. We expect to have more details in the weeks ahead and will share information as it becomes available. 

As I have already noted, I am hopeful that there will be an opportunity for the winter, spring, and possibly fall varsity athletes to participate and compete in some form after January 1.

Health and Safety Protocols

As at every other college and university, those on our campus this fall will have to comply with protocols for health and safety if we are going to limit the spread of the virus. Physical distancing will be required in all situations, face coverings will be necessary most of the time, we will have to monitor and report symptoms on a daily basis, and good hygiene, especially regular handwashing, will be essential. We will also all participate in a contact-tracing program. Dining will be reconfigured to allow for staggered meals in Thorne Hall in a manner that is safe, and there will be limits on the size of gatherings. We have set aside space for isolating and quarantining students who become infected.

Beginning in late August, we will require everyone on campus—students, faculty, and staff—to be tested for COVID-19 at least two times per week (less frequently for staff and faculty who are not in contact with students), with easy-to-use tests provided by the College. Students will be also asked to take a College-provided test within fourteen days prior to arriving on campus, and will be tested upon arrival. While not foolproof, testing our campus population with this frequency will give us a powerful tool to identify the presence of the virus early, allowing us to isolate those infected and quarantine those who come into contact with an infected person. It will also allow us to learn if there are safety practices that are not being followed so that we can determine how best to fix them. 
 
The Spring Semester

We will learn and adapt during the fall and will decide about the spring semester sometime in November or early December. Assuming we are able to make it through the fall successfully in protecting the health and safety of our community, it is my intention and expectation to have sophomores, juniors, and seniors back on campus in the spring—with priority given to seniors. We see our plans for this fall as critically important for achieving this goal in the spring. The fall will allow us to test, learn, and adapt our systems for health and safety in preparation for the spring semester.

College Finances

Our faculty and staff will be at full strength, with “all hands on deck” to support the mission of the College in a very different environment. There will be no staff furloughs.

As I have written and discussed at town halls on a number of occasions, we face significant financial challenges in 2020–2021. The Budget Review Group has been critical to me, Treasurer Matt Orlando, and the board as we worked through various ways to meet these expenses—guided throughout by the need for fairness, equity, and shared sacrifice across the College.

We will have a substantial budget deficit this next year, likely the largest we have ever had by a significant margin. We will provide the campus community with an estimate of the fall semester’s deficit in September. Bowdoin is fortunate to have strong financial resources to cover much of the deficit, but we will also have to implement several cost-cutting measures for the coming academic year, with those making the most contributing the most. I have already explained that I have cut my own salary by well more than 20 percent, beginning on April 1. Senior officers will see a 10 percent reduction in their salaries, and, with the exception of a handful of planned promotions, faculty and administrative staff will have their salaries frozen at current levels. The College will also reduce retirement contributions for all employees by 50 percent beginning in September for the remainder of the academic year.

Hourly staff will see a modest increase in their wages, and we will honor our commitment to increase the minimum hourly wage to $14. Because of the administrative work required, these wage changes will not be reflected until August 1, but will be retroactive to July 1.

I recognize that these financial measures are difficult and will have consequences for employees and their families at a time when many of you are working harder than ever.

Flexibility

If we have learned anything from the pandemic in the last few months, it is that there is much uncertainty, and it will be important to keep in mind that this plan is subject to circumstances changing. For example, if our ability to implement the plans described here is compromised, if COVID-19 creates a significant health issue on campus, in Maine, or in the country—or if there is some form of government mandate—we may have to alter these plans and possibly not be able to bring students to campus.

Questions and the Road Ahead

You will all have questions. We are in the process of standing up a series of answers to frequently asked questions, but there are some things we just don’t know yet. Over time, we will add more there.

We will hold a series of Zoom “town hall” meetings beginning today and continuing tomorrow:

Today (Monday, June 22)

Bowdoin Staff – 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Bowdoin Faculty – 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Tomorrow (Tuesday, June 23)

Returning Students and Families – 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. EDT
First-Year Students, Transfers, and Families – 8:15 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. EDT

Also, tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. EDT, we will hold a long-planned Zoom “town hall” for alumni.

The times and instructions for joining these sessions will be sent separately to each group later this morning.

Beyond these, we will communicate frequently over the summer as the details for the upcoming semester fall into place.

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Finally, thank you for your patience, as I and others on campus have worked through these questions and the various scenarios. Thank you also for the concern you have shown for one another through this crisis and for the generosity of spirit that reflects the values of our College. This is truly a remarkable community.

Sincerely,

Clayton