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A message from President Marc Tessier-Lavigne: Our next steps

Categories: Academics, Finance, Leadership communications, President, Research

Members of our Stanford community,

I hope this letter finds you well. In the fourth week of our spring quarter, we continue to live and work in a dramatically different environment, challenging in so many ways. I hope that you and your loved ones are healthy, and that you have been able to find ways to stay connected with friends and colleagues in this time of physical separation. More than anything, I’m grateful for what you each continue to contribute to the life and work of Stanford University.

I am writing today regarding some of the next steps on the path ahead of us. While uncertainty continues to be a defining characteristic of the period in which we are living, it has become clear that we will be dealing with COVID-19 for some time to come. Teams of people across the university have been working to anticipate and plan for the next sets of actions that will be needed in numerous areas of our university’s life as we navigate the evolving situation. Here, I’d like to update you on our current thinking in three areas – our approach to a gradual re-start of some campus operations once conditions allow it, our initial planning for the fall quarter, and our financial future.

Provost Drell and I are hosting another virtual conversation with the university community tomorrow, Wednesday, April 29, at 12 noon Pacific time. We look forward to discussing these issues further with you then, and we invite your questions.

Shelter-in-place and phased re-start

As you know, the current Bay Area shelter-in-place orders are in effect through May 3. Yesterday, our local counties announced they will soon issue revised orders “that largely keep the current restrictions in place and extend them through May,” with “limited easing of specific restrictions for a small number of lower-risk activities.” I deeply appreciate our community’s continued adherence to these orders, knowing the many sacrifices they have required of you.

As we approach this extension, we also know that many people in our community are eager for a sense of what the re-start of our operations will look like, once it becomes feasible. As much as we all yearn to get back to normal, our consultations with public health experts convince us that it will be imperative for our eventual re-start of university operations to occur in a phased, measured, careful manner. It would be unwise to rush our return to normal operations and, in so doing, lose what the sacrifices of the shelter-in-place period have gained for our public health. We also know that many of you will have challenges or concerns around the re-start of operations, due to health concerns, the needs of children or other family members who are at home with you, or other considerations.

Once public health conditions allow, we are planning for a phased re-start of campus operations, with a first priority on resuming research activities. We do not intend to have everyone return physically to our campuses all at once. In a first phase, in addition to those who are already providing essential on-campus services, we envision a fraction of our employees beginning to return to campus to prepare for the resumption of research and other priority activities, in low-density campus spaces. Others would continue to work remotely.

In later phases, additional employees and other members of our community would be able to return gradually, and additional on-campus activities would begin to resume, with units making re-start decisions within university-wide parameters. Research, administrative operations, physical plant maintenance, transportation, and other facets of campus operations would slowly ramp up. Work is being done now to outline what these phases will look like.

We expect that, for some time to come, physical distancing and other safety precautions will need to be built into everything we do at our campuses. We are working now to identify the full range of measures that will be needed. Already, Environmental Health & Safety has developed online training covering health and safety best practices for COVID-19, and this training will be part of the return process for everyone in our community. Also, our campus Occupational Health Center and University IT have developed an online tool for the self-reporting of COVID-19 symptoms as people in our community resume work or study at Stanford locations.

You will be hearing more details, specific to your area of the university, as we approach the early stages of a re-start process. I hope this initial sketch provides a sense of expectations.

The fall quarter

An additional set of considerations applies to our educational activities. As you know, Stanford is providing instruction in virtual formats for the entirety of the spring quarter. We also have canceled many programs this summer, including both residential and non-residential programs on campus.

We are currently assessing options for what our fall quarter academic programs will look like, based upon still-evolving information about the conditions we are likely to face in the fall. We of course hope to resume full in-person instruction at the earliest feasible opportunity. A key challenge is the highly communal nature of our undergraduate living, dining and learning settings, which are not conducive to the physical distancing that has been a key means of controlling the pandemic (until effective treatments or a vaccine become available). In addition to the health of students, we also are concerned about protecting the health of our faculty and staff, some of whom are in populations that may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Between “fully in-person” and “fully online” instruction are many options that we and universities across the country are evaluating right now. In assessing all options at Stanford, we will need to consider factors including the availability of COVID-19 testing in the fall, the availability of treatments, the ability to accomplish physical distancing and other safety measures, and what makes sense educationally for our students and their academic progress. We also need to consider the very real possibility that the winter could be much like the fall in terms of our progress against COVID-19 and the precautions that are necessary as a result.

We do not expect to be able to make decisions about the fall quarter until sometime in June. Our goal is to make decisions based on the best available information. We will be in communication with students to provide information just as soon as we can. We know that students are anxious to make plans for all aspects of their quarter, and especially for housing. For undergraduates, housing plans will be dependent on the shape the fall quarter ends up taking. For graduate students, we have delayed the housing lottery until we have more visibility into how the county shelter-in-place orders will evolve.

Please know that we appreciate your continued patience and flexibility as we navigate this unprecedented situation.

Budget scenario planning

Finally, as you have heard from Provost Drell, the university is confronting significant financial challenges as a result of the pandemic.

For the current 2020 fiscal year, which ends in August, we are estimating a $200 million reversal in the consolidated budget of the university, leaving an anticipated $100 million deficit at fiscal year-end. The challenge is likely to grow in the 2021 fiscal year, when we expect to see reduced operating revenues in a number of areas as well as a potentially significant decline in endowment payout based on losses in the financial markets. It is too soon to know the size of next year’s likely budget gap with precision, but we need to begin planning now.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the full extent of the financial challenge, the provost has asked units across the university to develop budget plans for a scenario that includes a 15 percent reduction in endowment payout and a 10 percent reduction in general funds for the 2021 fiscal year. We sincerely hope that a reduction of this size will not be needed, but we have to be prepared in case it is. This planning effort will help us assess what the effects of such a cut would be in individual units. We will carefully consider units’ plans, along with potential university-wide budget cutting steps, and consult with the Board of Trustees before making budget decisions.

As we make decisions for Stanford, we will be guided by a set of principles that I shared with the Board of Trustees last week. I want to share them with all of you, as well:

Our mission is to advance knowledge and accelerate solutions for humanity, and educate students for a life of purpose.

Our success depends on attracting and enabling the best faculty, researchers and students, and supporting them with the best staff.

In setting priorities, we will strive to:

  • Ensure continuity in our research and teaching;
  • Ensure continued access for students, including through robust financial aid;
  • Anchor decisions in respect and concern for our community, and an understanding of the broader societal context in which they are made; and
  • Position Stanford for a strong recovery in the near term and steward our resources wisely for the long term.

We continue to navigate a period of great uncertainty, in our personal lives and in our university. Nevertheless, I am constantly inspired by the resilient history of our institution and the thriving spirit of our Stanford community, ever-present and palpable despite the physical distances between us. Stanford’s greatest days still lie ahead of us. I look forward to working with you as we weather this crisis and plan for a confident future.

Best wishes,
Marc Tessier-Lavigne