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W&M board hears updates on COVID, finances, antiracism

‘The fall will be different’

During a virtual meeting July 15, William & Mary administrators, faculty, students and staff updated the Board of Visitors executive committee on the university’s financial position, inclusion and equity efforts and plans for fall.

W&M President Katherine A. Rowe gave an overview of the university’s COVID response effort. W&M’s decision-making is informed by evolving scientific indicators and state and federal guidelines. While the country had anticipated a lull during the summer months followed by a second wave of the pandemic, Rowe said numbers indicate that the first wave is ongoing.

“We’re facing now similar decisions as we did in March, but we are facing them under different conditions and with different information,” Rowe said, adding that the university’s top priorities remain mitigating the health risk to the community and meeting W&M’s educational mission.

“The fall will be different, and we’ll have to do things differently,” Rowe said. “We understand that we have to be as flexible as possible with the uncertainty we face.”

Rowe also discussed W&M’s financial position heading into fiscal year 2021 and the university’s antiracist and equity efforts. The latter include transformative gifts that advance equity on campus and around the world, a working group established to develop principles on the naming and renaming of buildings, spaces and structures, and efforts to support low income, first generation, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and international students.

“William & Mary would not be the institution it is without this vibrant community,” she said, noting that W&M recently joined statewide and national efforts to challenge proposed new Immigration and Customs Enforcement restrictions. Community collaboration, support and a commitment to the university’s core values of belonging is vital at this moment, she said.

“Xenophobia, othering, us-versus-them thinking: these are known risk factors in pandemic,” said Rowe. “William & Mary will not tolerate them in our house.”

{{youtube:medium:left|8IOveccVLTQ, July 15 BOV Executive Committee Meeting}}

Fall planning

University administrators decided to pursue a return to campus for blended instruction in the fall based on what they heard from many students in the spring: that their online learning experience was uneven and presented obstacles such as isolation and challenging home environments.

“If you understand the power of the learning community, the learning environment here on campus to address profound inequities for students, you understand why we are working so hard to find a way to bring students back to campus that’s consistent with the health and safety of our staff and faculty, our neighbors and the students themselves,” said Rowe. “Return to campus neutralizes so many inequities.”

With the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, Rowe said the university will continue to plan in a phased, evidenced-based way so it can adjust as conditions change. University planning has been focused on providing the community maximum flexibility — with a variety of in-person, blended and remote courses available for faculty and students to determine their best path forward. That range ensures an adaptable fall curriculum that meets different student needs.

“We also recognize that William & Mary doesn’t control the virus. So we are developing criteria around which we would change course,” Rowe said, adding that she would share those criteria by early August.

Sam Jones, who is leading the university’s COVID response team, said the team is monitoring trends to make appropriate recommendations. Ultimately, Jones said, the university will manage the pandemic via systematic and required changes to how we operate. All community members will be required to stay home when they are sick, physically distance themselves from others in de-densified spaces, and use face coverings. The response team released a campus message this week detailing mask and face shield requirements for faculty, staff and students. A future message will outline testing protocols.

A shared commitment to the safety of others will be essential to mitigating risk, he added.

“Our success will depend on the community,” Jones said, adding that all members of campus will be asked formally to commit to mutual responsibilities for one another’s health and safety.

Financial status

Financially, W&M fared better in fiscal year 2020 than originally expected, according to Chief Operating Officer Amy Sebring. That was thanks in large part to people around campus finding ways to limit spending. In total, the university generated nearly $7 million in net savings during the fourth quarter that can be applied to the coming year’s expenses.

However, finances in fiscal year 2021 remain uncertain, with the key issues being enrollment and public health. Currently, Sebring is projecting the university will have a $30-$100 million shortfall.

“I wish I could tell you the crystal ball has become clearer over the last several weeks,” she said. “We still know that FY21 is really going to be a different year for us and unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

Because the business model for higher education is complex, W&M will need a multifaceted approach, Sebring noted. Possible mitigation strategies include a mission-critical budget review and curriculum alignment, use of cash balances and carryforward funds, debt refunding from the state or university, a change in the endowment payout rate and actions such as pay reductions and/or furloughs, although personnel actions would be a last resort, Sebring said.

“We continue to view that as a last resort, holding to the commitment to do the best that we can to be protective and mindful of the people that make this university run,” she said. “Having said that, we also know we are planning, and we know we may get a point where we may need to go down that path.”

Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity and Inclusion Efforts benefitted greatly from the university’s latest One Tribe One Day and the recently concluded $1 billion For the Bold campaign, with more than 500 new scholarships — from gifts totally around $300 million — being established as a result, said Rowe. However, much more is needed to achieve W&M’s values of belonging and inclusion, she said.

“I share your sense of urgency for antiracist culture change, and I embrace being accountable for it,” Rowe said. “In this area, I am not going to ask for your patience because William & Mary does need to accelerate the pace of change and show results more frequently and more clearly.”

As part of those efforts, the university is looking this fall to improve pathways to and through W&M for undocumented, first-generation, Indigenous and low-income students and will strengthen its support for international students, Rowe said.

Additionally, in August, the working group to establish principles on naming and renaming will share with the board its recommendations on guiding principles and review process.

“The working group is moving quickly, but we are being thoughtful because we want this work to be lasting and we want to make sure it’s done in the right way,” said Chief Diversity Officer Chon Glover.

The group has been reviewing research by the university’s Lemon Project and others and establishing ways to gather input from the W&M community, including a new website with a comment box and a series of six virtual listening sessions.

“These listening sessions are focused on the first part of the charge that the group has, which is naming and renaming buildings, spaces and structures and developing commemorative, explanatory markers throughout campus,” said Glover.

“Naming is one part of the conversation — we see this as a first step,” she said. “Moving on, we want to make sure we look at the systemic institutional structures that are imbedded in practices and policies that exist and examine in them all the ways that will make William & Mary a more inclusive and welcoming place for all.”

Flourishing despite pandemic

Rector John E. Littel P ’22 said that the board appreciates all of the comments — both positive and critical — it has received from people across the W&M community over the past few months on issues ranging from COVID to racism to international study.

“As we chart a path forward, it is very helpful for us to consider a wide range of perspectives,” he said. “Our goal has always been to make decisions that will protect and advance our students, faculty and staff, to ensure that our mission continues and flourishes despite this pandemic, for all time coming.”