May 12, 2020
Dear Members of the Hobart and William Smith Community,
Since the pandemic emerged, we have been unwavering in our dedication to ensuring that we fulfill our core mission of preparing students to lead lives of consequence. Yesterday was the last day of finals for students, and I remain impressed with the resiliency and creativity of our faculty, staff and students as they adapted to this unexpected situation and heeded the advice of healthcare officials. I am pleased to report that just yesterday, New York State Governor Cuomo announced that the Finger Lakes Region we call home has met all metrics required to begin the first phase of the state’s reopening plan on May 15. This is a significant milestone as we plan for the future.
Normally this week would be one of celebration across campus as our seniors prepare for Commencement. Although the pandemic has forced us to postpone our normal graduation festivities to a later date, it has not dampened our pride in our graduates’ accomplishments. If anything, their ability to achieve this life milestone now amidst these circumstances only heightens my admiration. On Sunday, May 17, I will send an email that acknowledges the official conferring of their degrees on that date and that will include messages from members of our community. We will announce the date of the in-person Commencement by early June.
During these past few weeks, there has been steady media attention regarding what the next academic year will look like for all colleges and universities. We have every intention of opening in person this fall and welcoming our new Classes of 2024 to campus. We are of course also considering a range of scenarios so as to stay flexible as conditions develop. Three main task forces have been established to consider details and ramifications:
- The Logistics Task Force, overseen by Provost and Dean of Faculty Mary Coffey and Vice President for Campus Life Robb Flowers, is comprised of faculty, staff and students. The group is considering scenario planning that takes into account a variety of requirements that may be placed on the Colleges by state or federal officials regarding social distancing, enhanced cleaning, regular medical testing and quarantine protocols. This work includes planning for multiple models of instruction that can flex to respond to the health and safety of the community and any further surges in the virus.
- The Financial Task Force, led by incoming Chair of the Board of Trustees Craig Stine ’81, P’17 and consisting of trustees and senior staff members, is looking closely at the pandemic’s projected financial implications on the Colleges under various scenarios.
- The Community Coordination Task Force, led by Vice President and General Counsel Lou Guard ’07 and Vice President for Campus Life Robb Flowers, and comprised of regional officials, health care leaders, local alums, parents, politicians and community leaders, is working to manage the safe opening of the Colleges in the context of Geneva, Ontario County and the Finger Lakes Region as a whole.
In addition, I have been in continuous contact with the other New York 6 presidents (Colgate, Hamilton, Skidmore, St. Lawrence and Union), the Rochester Area Colleges presidents and New York’s Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities. All of us are working together to ensure that we are sharing ideas and, when appropriate, costs. Likewise, senior staff are in constant contact with their counterparts and professional organizations. The senior staff also meets on a daily basis to discuss the work of the task forces and to solve problems as they arise.
Fortunately, the Colleges entered this pandemic from a position of strength. We had spent the Fall 2019 semester in a rigorous self-evaluation exercise on the staff side that streamlined processes, increased our commitment to technological adaptations and included an incentivized retirement program. Philanthropy this year has also been significant, and I am pleased to report that we are nearing the second largest fundraising year in the history of the Colleges. Although we are still working to ensure our Annual Fund goals, commitments to the Colleges this year have topped $25M. I am sincerely appreciative to everyone who has made Hobart and William Smith a priority in their charitable giving. This includes the generosity of many who, in the midst of this pandemic, donated to our Student Emergency Fund that allowed us to quickly distribute more than $60K to our most vulnerable students. Many student organizations also returned their unspent funds so that those monies could be issued to students in need. In addition, the Colleges are in receipt of approximately $1.57M in CARES Act money, half of which will be provided directly to eligible students adversely affected by the pandemic; notification and application instructions have already been sent to students. The other half of the CARES Act money will be applied to the Colleges’ COVID-19 related budget deficit.
Despite all these efforts, for many of our students whose families are dealing with lost jobs or health situations, the future remains uncertain. That’s why I’ve asked our Financial Aid office to work with every family on a case-by-case basis to ensure that no matter what the situation, we will do everything in our power to ensure that our students can continue to achieve their academic goals and graduate on schedule. It’s also why next week we will announce the lowest tuition increase at Hobart and William Smith in more than two decades which, coupled with our continuing aggressive approach to providing financial aid, is part of our planned multi-year effort to make the Colleges more accessible and affordable.
Just as we entered this pandemic from a position of strength, I am certain that by focusing on the needs of our students, the Colleges will emerge from it stronger. Unlike many other higher education institutions that have already instituted compensation cuts or furloughs, we have not yet had to undertake those types of measures. But as we look at our students’ changing financial aid needs in the wake of the pandemic and the Colleges’ projected deficit caused by COVID-19, there is consensus on the part of our trustees and the senior leadership team that we may need to do so over the summer. If so, these measures will be temporary until the economic effects of the pandemic recede. The willingness of our campus community to rally in support of our students remains a continual source of inspiration.
Wearing my economist hat, I am optimistic about our nation’s ability to rebound and about the power of higher education to be a force for good in our collective recovery. I’ve been following financial and labor market trends closely and am cheering on the many scientists and epidemiologists around the world who are working on a vaccine and on antiviral drugs to reduce case severity. Hobart and William Smith Colleges will exit this situation steadfast and resilient, with an enhanced sense of purpose and promise, together.
I thank you for your partnership.
Joyce P. Jacobsen