Letter to the Community, April 20, 2020
Dear students, staff and faculty:
Spring is normally a time of renewal and anticipation on our beautiful campus. This year feels—and is—different. Spring remains darkened by the persistence and spread of COVID-19, and we do not have sufficient public health guidance on when it will be safe to return to work and school; for example, we do not yet have a firm sense of when testing and contact tracing will be widely available, nor the likely timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine. Regardless, we must plan for the future by focusing on our mission—to educate our students for lives of distinction and purpose.
In managing Smith’s response to COVID-19, we have been engaged in scenario planning in key areas of operation, most notably our academic program and the college’s finances. To accelerate this work, we are supplementing our existing governance bodies with focused planning groups in specific areas. The charge to these groups is to design concrete plans, incorporating feedback from others on campus, that align with the college’s overall scenario planning. We are grateful to those who are willing to serve on the planning groups and thank them in advance for the hard work and careful coordination that this effort will require.
We are interested in your ideas as well. All members of the Smith community with a smith.edu email address are invited to share their ideas about planning and managing through the COVID-19 pandemic at Suggestionbox@smith.edu.
Smith is a residential college with a deep commitment to face-to-face, place-based education. We are planning for an in-person fall semester and hope to welcome students back to campus in late August/early September. If we need to delay the start of the fall semester, we will still be prepared to offer a full, in-person academic year by extending the term longer than usual or having fewer breaks. Nonetheless, we have to consider the possibility that public health guidance will prevent us from full on-campus operations in the fall, and we are actively planning for alternate scenarios. An Academic Program Planning Group is developing detailed contingency plans that will guide faculty and students as they prepare for the next academic year. The group’s charge is to design a curriculum that emphasizes the essential core of our academic mission while incorporating flexibility for changing circumstances. We are grateful to the provost’s office team for the leadership they are bringing to this critical work.
While the college began the fiscal year in a strong financial position, the worldwide impact of COVID-19 presents significant financial challenges to all colleges and universities, including Smith.
As we have shared previously, we now have an estimated gap of $8M - $10M in this year’s budget, primarily attributable to refunded room and board fees. We believe we will be able to address this shortfall by implementing a hiring freeze, curtailing departmental spending through the rest of this fiscal year and relying on our reserves.
Much of our attention now is directed toward planning for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The global pandemic is affecting our endowment and constraining two additional and sizable revenue sources: net student income and philanthropic gifts. It is likely that enrollment will be limited by international travel restrictions, that students’ and families’ financial needs will increase, and that donors may not have as much capacity to donate to Smith.
We will bridge some of this lost revenue in two ways: first, by accessing reserves established for such extraordinary moments as this one, and second, by allowing our endowment spending rate to temporarily increase, a measure already approved by the board of trustees. It is important to know that the temporarily increased spending rate is not sustainable over the long term, and is an action we are taking despite having lost considerable value in the endowment.
In light of these revenue constraints, we will likely need to reduce our budget by 10-15% ($25-35 million). The specific figure will depend largely on the duration of physical distancing requirements and the implications of those requirements on residential colleges like Smith.
Our response to a revenue shortfall of this size must be timely and comprehensive, and calibrated to the best information available at the time. We have already made a number of decisions to begin to address this shortfall.
- With ACRA’s endorsement, there will be no salary increases (except for already approved tenure and promotion actions) for the first half of FY21; later in the year, we will reassess the potential for salary increases for January through June.
- The president and vice president for finance and administration have each taken a voluntary 20% salary reduction for the first half of FY21. All vice presidents have also taken voluntary salary decreases ranging from 5% to 20% for that period.
- We will extend our hiring freeze throughout FY21, with rare exceptions for faculty and staff positions that are determined to be critical for the college.
- We have suspended nearly all capital projects, a decision that will continue into FY21. While temporarily paused, the Neilson Library and Washburn House projects will resume when conditions improve. Remaining capital investments will be limited to emergency and essential work.
Even with these significant actions, further work is needed to close our gap. We have already asked each Cabinet member to model a range of reductions across their operating and compensation budgets.
Unfortunately, these circumstances will require us to consider staffing changes, given that salaries and benefits comprise the largest portion of the college’s expenses (58%). We plan to use a phased approach. All 12-month benefit-eligible employees will be guaranteed salary continuity through May 31; however some staff will be placed on summer furlough, full or partial, if there is not sufficient work for them while the college remains in remote operation. In those cases where furloughs are necessary, staff will be temporarily laid off but retain their benefits. We are also modeling voluntary retirement options for staff and faculty and will be in touch when we have more to share.
We are sure you will have many questions. We will address questions from faculty at the April 22 Faculty Zoom Meeting and from staff in an All-Staff Zoom Meeting 10 - 11 a.m. Thursday, April 23. Zoom invitations will follow.
Managing Through Profound Change
We appreciate your support, now more than ever, as we meet the challenges that have been presented not only to Smith and other colleges, but also to institutions and communities throughout the world.
None of us is where we expected to be, or doing what we hoped to be doing. The rhythms of learning and work have changed dramatically, and families are facing unexpected hardships. We hope that the Smith community can be a source of resilience in these times, even as each of us is tested in unprecedented ways. We thank you for all that you are doing, and we pledge to continue communicating openly and regularly about changing conditions and emerging decisions.
The extended time at home indoors, and the distance from one another, can make this time period feel interminable, but it will come to an end. The future may look different in some ways, requiring adjustments but also creating new opportunities for innovation and growth. By pulling together, we will come through this, and assure that Smith—and Smithies—will be prepared to lead the way.
Vice President for Finance and Administration