Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students:

The start of a new academic year, when we welcome students back to campus and new members into our community, is a special time that combines cherished traditions and new possibilities. In a typical year, my start of the year message reflects unalloyed excitement, energy, and enthusiasm for the semester ahead.

As we all know, this is not a typical year. That does not mean we are not excited about the semester ahead. It does mean, however, that we need to recognize the challenges this semester will present to us as a community, and think about how we can best equip ourselves to meet those challenges.

In the paragraphs below, I will talk about events, programs, and initiatives. I’d like to begin, however, by talking about people. This community is made up of extraordinary faculty, staff, and students who have all had to make enormous sacrifices as a result of this crisis. In the months ahead, I ask that we all bear in mind that every member of this community is living, learning, and working under conditions of unusual stress and uncertainty. I know that at times that stress may feel overwhelming. Nevertheless, this is a time when we all need to offer each other as much support, encouragement, and grace as we can muster. Our ability to understand the constraints of these circumstances, and to keep our expectations of each other reasonable, will be critical to our ability to maintain the energy and momentum that will make this semester a success.

It is fortunate that we entered into the COVID-19 crisis at an especially strong moment in the College’s trajectory. The opening last fall of the Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center, the completion of the new McCartney North and South residence halls just in time for some students to move in last week, the expansion of our financial aid budget as a result of our Affordability and Distinction through Growth initiative—all of these accomplishments will be helpful to us in the months and years to come.

That said, there is no question that this will be a challenging fall semester for all of us. None of our 623 first-year students, 77 of whom are the first in their families to go to college, imagined launching their college careers from their own homes. Student-athletes expected to compete in fall sports, student performers expected to be on stage, and everybody expected to be learning in classrooms, together. There is inevitably a sense of loss mixed in with the usual anticipation. I promise that the entire College community is dedicated to providing the best possible experience to all our students, on campus or off, and to supporting one another during this semester and year.

The 10 new tenure-track faculty and eleven visiting faculty who have joined us this fall are part of a creative and dedicated faculty who have devoted the summer months to transforming their courses to meet the demands and possibilities of remote learning. In addition to participating in training and workshops to enhance their facility with new technology, professors are sustaining hands-on instruction by devising art projects with found objects, or mailing students items like cardboard and plastic build-your-own telescopes, coffee samples for chemical analysis, or equipment kits for engineering courses. The Theater Department is soliciting original writings about experiences with the uncertain world in which we live with the goal of creating live theater delivered in an online format. Our staff, too, have worked to adapt residential life programming, create online programs in academic support, community engagement, and career services, and find new ways to connect individually with students.

The disruption of the coronavirus is not the only challenge we face as a community. The national discussion of racism that began with the killing of George Floyd inspired ongoing reflection and activism that has engaged many of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Our shared goal of changing the world for the better includes a desire to change Lafayette for the better, and many students and alumni used Instagram accounts this summer to share painful stories about experiences of racism and sexual misconduct at Lafayette. Over the past several weeks, I have shared messages about our ongoing work needed on campus and our next steps to counter racism and sexual misconduct on our campus and in our community. 

We will continue the necessary and sometimes difficult conversations required to make meaningful progress in both of these areas in a variety of venues. Several important events in the coming weeks will help launch these efforts. On Sept. 2, Associate Professor Wendy Wilson-Fall and Vanessa Wills, assistant professor of philosophy at George Washington University, will host an online workshop on whiteness and anti-black racism. A Sept. 24 lecture by Virginia Valian, distinguished professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, will focus on creating and sustaining an inclusive and equitable campus. The Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education and Studies, under the newly appointed team of its co-directors, Professor of Mathematics Chawne Kimber and Professor of Mechanical Engineering Jenn Rossmann, will sponsor a talk on Oct. 7 by Ruha Benjamin, professor of African-American studies at Princeton, on anti-racist technology design.

Another area of focus this fall will be our celebration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Lafayette. A number of online events will highlight this transformative decision in the life of the College. As the first female president of Lafayette, I am particularly proud of the accomplishments of our alumnae over the five decades since women were first admitted to Lafayette, and I look forward to honoring their achievements as we explore this half-century of the College’s history. 

As many of you know, we took some difficult steps in the spring to address COVID-19’s financial impact on the College. These included a reduction in faculty and staff compensation, deferral of non-essential capital projects, cuts to operating expenses, and implementation of a limited number of furloughs. Painful as those steps were, acting promptly gave us the flexibility needed to respond to the crisis throughout the summer and make the difficult decisions needed for the fall. This semester, we will work closely with faculty committees, staff leadership, and the board of trustees to assess our financial status as enrollment numbers are finalized and the size of our actual budget deficit becomes clearer. We expect to manage the deficit through a combination of a reduction in operating expenses, increased draw on the endowment, and access to lines of credit. One goal of this analysis will be to determine whether and when it will be possible to restore some of the compensation reductions, or conversely whether additional budget savings will be needed. Clearly much will depend on what the spring semester looks like as well. We are hopeful that with improved testing capacity nationwide and the experience gained on campus this fall, we will be in a position to welcome all students back for the spring term.

In addition to addressing the immediate budget challenges, we will also begin conversations this fall about Lafayette’s future and the longer-term impact of the many changes this crisis has brought. We remain committed to the goal of increasing financial aid in order to strengthen the quality and diversity of the student body. We are also committed to ensuring that our increasing diversity is matched by greater inclusivity and equity in the student, staff, and faculty experience on campus. Over the last two years, we have created robust plans for enhancing the distinction of the academic program and the competitiveness of our athletic programs. Building on our existing goals, we will want to think about the kinds of strategies and opportunities that will benefit Lafayette in the future. I look forward to engaging faculty, staff, students, trustees, and the extended community in these discussions.

As we embark on a new semester that is new in more ways than we ever imagined, I feel enormous gratitude for the incredible work done by our faculty and staff to bring us to this point. I am confident that the resilience, creativity, and shared commitment of this community will make this a semester to remember. 

Speaking of things to remember, I will close by noting that it is a very good thing that we won last year’s Lafayette-Lehigh game, because we will get to savor that victory for *two* years—until we beat them again in 2021.

Best wishes for a good start to the fall term. 

Alison R. Byerly