Dear Lafayette Faculty, Staff, and Students:
As we head into the final weeks of this eventful academic year, I am writing to share an update on our preliminary thinking about the weeks and months ahead. Even as we successfully conclude the work of the spring term, we must prepare to bring faculty and staff back to campus this summer, and, we hope, welcome students in the fall. This memo does not include announcements of decisions. Instead, I am sharing with you some of the options that we are considering and the consultative processes we are using to reach decisions.
Let me begin by thanking every member of this community for the extraordinary commitment that has enabled us to continue our shared work of learning and growth in spite of the enormous challenges we have faced. While I am, like all of you, greatly disappointed that we are not able to end the year with the customary celebrations of our senior class, I am extremely proud of what our students have achieved and what we have accomplished as a community. I hope that you are as well.
We have many reasons to be optimistic about the near-term and long-term outlook for Lafayette. The College entered the pandemic as a financially strong and growing institution. This strength is reflected in our continuing appeal to students. We are pleased that as of our May 1 deadline, our first-year enrollment for next year was close to our original target.
However, the unusual circumstances of this year are likely to negatively impact our fall enrollment. We normally hope to exceed our target number to account for “summer melt,” and this year many other schools are already moving aggressively to fill their classes from their waitlists. In addition, there is a strong possibility that many incoming international students may be unable to travel here in September. We also recognize that students’ enthusiasm for joining us in the fall may be affected by our evolving vision of what next year will look like at Lafayette.
The experience of studying, teaching, and working remotely this semester has reinforced for all of us the preciousness of the communal experience we share at Lafayette. The centrality of human connection to the education we offer has been thrown into high relief as we have used all our energy and creativity to sustain that connection over long distances. There is no doubt that we would all prefer a fall semester that has everyone on campus together. Nevertheless, we need to consider the likelihood that the health and safety of our community will require some changes in how we operate in the coming year.
All of our decisions about the fall semester must be based first and foremost on the safety and health of all members of the campus community. We will use state directives as a baseline, follow the best practices developed by similar institutions, and take advantage of evolving scientific research and guidance. Our next highest priority will be assuring the quality and continuity of the educational experience we can offer.
There are many variables in this situation that we cannot control. There are three things that we do control, however: the academic calendar that organizes our time together, the modes through which we deliver a Lafayette education, and the density of our population of students, faculty, and staff. These primary structural elements can be combined in many different ways. On a continuum at which one end is a “normal” fall opening, and the other end is a complete shutdown until January or later, there are many different ways in which we can organize life and learning at Lafayette. What seems true in any scenario is that we will need to be adaptable, creative, and able to accommodate a variety of different needs and situations on the part of members of our community.
Our planning process has two phases. In this first phase, I have asked Provost John Meier, Vice President for Campus Life Annette Diorio, and Vice President for Finance and Administration Roger Demareski to lead small working groups exploring the topics of Academic Continuity and Adaptability; Public Health and the Campus Experience, and Financial Challenges. These groups are working quickly to gather information from across campus and will seek input as needed from Student Government, Administrative Council, and such faculty committees as: Faculty Academic Policy, Curriculum and Educational Policy, Governance, Student Life, and Teaching and Learning.
The Academic Continuity group includes colleagues Lauren Anderson, Bianca Falbo, Larry Malinconico, Helena Silverstein, Markus Dubischar, Jason Alley, Sherryta Freeman, and Kara Howe. They are exploring among other ideas the possibility that we may have most students on campus but some students studying remotely, or some faculty teaching remotely, and are thinking about how flexible course planning might accommodate another possible mid-semester disruption. Annette Diorio, Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, and other Campus Life colleagues have been researching best practices and evolving options for maintaining a safe and healthy campus environment. Both teams are looking at how we might accommodate distancing requirements in classrooms, study spaces, dining areas, and residence halls. The Financial Challenge group, comprised of colleagues in the Finance division, is modeling the financial impacts of these changes.
When this phase of information gathering and brainstorming is complete, the second phase will focus our efforts on a single target scenario that we believe offers the strongest possible experience next year. With the help of a broader implementation committee, we will sketch out specific operational plans to test the feasibility of this scenario. We expect to announce our planned direction for the fall term no later than June 15.
One thing all scenarios have in common is that they involve significant additional expense, projected reductions in enrollment revenue, and a challenging economic landscape. Our most current estimates are that any scenario other than a normal semester is likely to cost the college between $20 million and $40 million in 2020-21, on top of the unexpected costs incurred in this fiscal year. This means that unfortunately we have no option but to consider additional budget cuts beyond those already announced.
In my April 6 memo to the campus community about the financial challenges created by COVID-19, I outlined the principles that would guide difficult budgetary decisions: sustaining the excellent liberal arts and engineering education for which Lafayette is highly regarded; supporting the faculty and staff who are integral to delivering that education to our students; and preserving the flexibility necessary to adjust to a rapidly changing environment. Steps outlined in that memo included a hiring freeze, zero percent salary increases for faculty and staff, and other actions.
In the spirit of timely communication and transparency promised in that memo, I will say that we are now discussing some further difficult decisions that we believe will be most effective if implemented in the summer. For example, if we implement temporary furloughs, reduced work hours might be less disruptive during the summer months than in the middle of the academic year. Making further budget reductions now would allow time for better planning than if they coincide with the start of the next academic year. None of these decisions will be made lightly and we continue to believe that taking prompt action now will help us to avoid even more difficult decisions later.
In the face of challenging expense reductions, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the role of the College’s endowment. Our endowment has two primary purposes: to provide current support for the annual operating budget, and to sustain the College by maintaining funds that ensure similar support in the future. The endowment’s capacity to help fund the operating budget has already been diminished through at least 2025, due to a decrease in its market value. It is likely we will need to rely more heavily on the endowment during this crisis, but any additional pressure on the endowment now will reduce operating support next year and into the future.
Having outlined these challenges, I want to emphasize that this is not a time to retreat or hunker down. This is a time for us to maintain our investment in the people and programs that will help define our future, and think creatively about what changes will best serve the long-term interests of the College. New programs and new approaches that are born of necessity in this moment should be fostered and strengthened for the future. Our goal is for the College to not simply survive, but advance.
I know that this update has inevitably raised as many questions as it has answered. We will continue to use existing governance structures and evolving channels of communication to seek input on plans as they develop. We will be back in touch with more information in these areas in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, my very best wishes for a strong conclusion to the remaining work of the spring semester.
President Alison R. Byerly