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Board of Visitors reviews fall 2020 opening, looks to protect financial future

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    Board of Visitors  The W&M Board of Visitors met in a physically distant meeting in the renovated Alumni House on Aug. 25, 2020.  Photo by Erin Zagursky
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The Board of Visitors heard updates on the opening of the fall 2020 academic year at its meeting Tuesday. The board unanimously approved measures that will help William & Mary weather the financial implications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Administrators provided details on academics, student affairs, move-in and orientation, additional mitigation measures, compliance efforts, promotion of student mental health, and multiple modes of COVID-19 testing – including prevalence sampling stratified to reflect the risk factors of different employees and students.

The final design for the university's memorial to the enslaved was unveiled before the board and William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe took presidential action to formally acknowledge the original Indigenous inhabitants of the state-owned land on which the Williamsburg campus resides. She also announced two named directorships, presenting the Thomasina E. Jordan Directorship of the American Indian Resource Center to Anthropology Professor Danielle Moretti-Langholtz and the Robert Francis Engs Directorship of the Lemon Project to Assistant Professor of History Jody Allen. 

The board also received a comprehensive update on William & Mary’s current financial picture, including efforts to mitigate a 2020-21 budget shortfall of between $30 million and $100 million. 

Board actions included authorizing Chief Operating Officer Amy Sebring and  Rowe to issue up to $200 million in combined debt restructuring and new debt. At Rowe’s request, the board temporarily reduced her salary by 15% through the end of the calendar year. Provost Peggy Agouris and Sebring have also taken a voluntary salary reduction. In recognition of extraordinary work by faculty and staff, the board also unanimously endorsed a resolution of support for Rowe’s decision to grant paid recognition leave to employees on Nov. 30, 2020.

Adapting move-in and orientation

This year’s move-in included touchless adaptations, such as a drive-through check-in that proved so efficient that it will be adopted in future years, said Ginger Ambler ’88, Ph.D. ’06, vice president for student affairs. Sophomores, juniors, seniors and graduate students will move back around Labor Day.

William & Mary required all students moving in to present a negative COVID-19 test. The initial phase of the program encountered some timing errors, Ambler said, but the university responded by rapidly setting up a call center, an online intake form to triage challenges faced by families and a case management system. W&M’s expanded student health services allowed for additional testing options to move students in quickly and safely. 

New Student Orientation was conducted both in-person and remotely, with orientation aides specially designated to help create community and engagement for students learning remotely, Ambler said. 

“We are doing something that’s easy to describe but very hard to execute,”  Rowe said, describing Path Forward 2020’s plan allowing students and faculty the flexibility to choose whether they will be remote or on campus – and for students and employees on campus to use every tool available to minimize transmission of the virus.

Acknowledging tribal lands; new directorships

On Tuesday, Rowe announced a formal acknowledgment about the original inhabitants of the state-owned land on which William & Mary’s Williamsburg campus resides. The action was a concrete and affirmative part of larger commitments W&M has made to partner with the university’s historically-linked Indigenous communities over the past two decades. 

“The practice of land acknowledgement is growing at peer institutions,” Rowe told the board Tuesday. “It represents a commitment to a culture of inclusion that begins with recognizing the Indigenous peoples of our region. At William & Mary, respect for our region’s complex history and the university’s place in it is an essential part of our teaching and research mission.”

William & Mary partnered with present-day descendants to create appropriate language of acknowledgement. After consultation and input from Virginia’s Tribal leaders, Rowe issued the following statement:

William & Mary acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands our campus is on today – the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Upper Mattaponi, and Rappahannock tribes – and pay our respect to their tribal members past and present.

In recognition of two faculty members’ “extraordinary service to the university and the commonwealth,” Rowe also announced two named directorships. She presented the Thomasina E. Jordan Directorship of the American Indian Resource Center to Anthropology Professor Danielle Moretti-Langholtz and the Robert Francis Engs Directorship of the Lemon Project to Assistant Professor of History Jody Allen.

Both directorships are named for the academic mentors that inspired both Moretti-Langholtz and Allen, and who were instrumental in establishing or encouraging the founding of the American Indian Resource Center and the Lemon Project, respectively. The directorships each carry a $5,000 annual stipend to the research projects, which will be made available after COVID-19 funding restrictions are lifted.

Moretti-Langholtz and Allen, Rowe said, have uncovered a fuller account of William & Mary’s history and demonstrated the profound discoveries unearthed by expanding the stories of W&M’s past.

“These directorships recognize change-makers in higher education,” Rowe said. “Innovation that has accelerated inclusion and research that has forged lasting relationships between William & Mary and the broader community.”

Responding to student needs

Rowe said that many students, especially from vulnerable populations, faced substantial barriers to learning under the conditions of all-remote teaching in spring. Barriers were particularly acute among first-generation and low-income students as well as students whose home communities were more deeply affected by COVID-19, such as students of color. That feedback from the spring fueled the imperative to provide students the option of returning to campus.  

Roughly 25% of W&M students have chosen to study fully remotely this fall. Roughly 67% have chosen a blended curriculum for the fall, Agouris said, meaning their class schedules include both in-person and remote options. Six percent selected entirely on-campus. One percent is unspecified – a result of the St Andrews Joint Degree Programme.

In addition to academics, William & Mary is working to promote safe adaptations to social life on campus: providing expanded outside spaces for gathering and exercise, issuing guidance to limit groups to 10 or fewer students and creating the social norms of remaining physically distant and making mask-wearing ubiquitous.

“We’re seeing incredibly high levels of commitment on campus,” Rowe said, noting that the norms William & Mary students are establishing are now beginning to be adopted off campus, in tourist and community spaces such as Duke of Gloucester Street.

In recognizing the dedication of W&M faculty and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Visitors unanimously approved a resolution supporting Rowe’s decision to grant paid recognition leave.

“The pandemic has unleashed an astonishing series of unforeseen consequences and placed an enormous strain on the selfless men and women who serve the William & Mary community,” the resolution notes. “They have served, nearly without pause, even as the pandemic persists, with the goal of continuing to provide education, teaching and learning for our community, ensuring the safety and well-being of our community, and making decisions that reflect a thoughtful response to a rapidly evolving and constantly changing situation.”

Planning for the future

The Board of Visitors also unanimously supported financial measures designed to mitigate COVID-19-related revenue losses at William & Mary at the recommendation of the Financial Affairs Committee.

Sebring told the committee the university is already facing a $30 million budget shortfall in Fiscal Year 2021, due primarily to declines in auxiliary services revenue, including reduced housing and dining contracts.

At the same time, Sebring said, the university is incurring new expenses related to technology enhancements; COVID-19 testing for students, faculty and staff; protective equipment; modifications to campus facilities and surroundings; enhanced cleaning protocols and contact tracing.

In addition, the Board of Visitors had previously, before COVID-19, taken actions that would increase some expenses in financial aid and employee benefits.

In response to COVID-19, William & Mary has already implemented mitigation strategies, such as building cash reserves, enacting a hiring freeze, containing costs to support mission-critical areas and introducing voluntary personnel actions. Savings totaled more than $6 million in the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2020, Sebring said.

Recognizing the uncertain financial environment, the board authorized a bond package of up to $200 million. Almost half of that – $90 million – will restructure William & Mary’s existing debt to take advantage of low interest rates and reduce debt service expenses over the next 18 months. Another $20 million funds residence hall renovations to support an expanded summer semester.

The final $70 million general revenue pledge will provide contingency funds to cope with the impact of COVID-19 on the university’s finances as it accounts for a potential worsening condition at the local, state and national levels or affecting higher education in general.

Sebring said the size of the bond issuance was calculated to take advantage of historically low interest rates while also maintaining the university’s AA bond rating. In addition, it falls well within W&M’s debt policy, which limits to 10% the amount the university can borrow relative to its revenue. The bond package comes in at 6.1%. 

The issuance also maintains a debt service at or below current levels over time in order to limit future pressure on the university operating budget or require future student fee increases. In the short term, the bond package as approved actually decreases W&M’s debt by $10 million in Fiscal Year 2021 and an additional $5 million in Fiscal Year 2022.  With the board’s action, the university anticipates selling bonds in October 2020.

“We understand that there are circumstances we are encountering today that we need to weather through,” Sebring said. “But we will come out the other side.”