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Update on One Emerson Planning

Dear Faculty,

I am writing to follow up on the recent announcement of our One Emerson Flex Learning framework as well as address concerns from the Faculty Forum and preview anticipated financial impacts of COVID-19 on the College.

While there is much that we do not know about the future, we do know that we will be living with COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed, produced and administered to 300 million Americans – a development that is not likely to occur in the near future. In the meantime, all of us will be adapting to the virus as the economy reopens and familiar aspects of human society begin to repopulate.

On Friday, 19 June, the Governor of Massachusetts announced that the public health criteria and safety guidelines were favorable enough to move to the next stage of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan.  If health criteria and safety guidelines continue to improve, the Governor will permit the Commonwealth to move to the third phase in three to four weeks where we will remain until a vaccine is available.

As you know, colleges and universities are making plans to re-open in the Fall. Of the more than 1,000 institutions of higher learning who have indicated their Fall Term opening plans, two-thirds are planning to open in-residence and one in ten are proposing a hybrid model, the category, into which our One Emerson Flex Learning framework falls. Rather than an all in-person model, we devised a hybrid model because it significantly reduces risk and provides the highest degree of health and safety for our community. The remaining colleges and universities are waiting to decide (6%), considering a range of scenarios (9%) or planning for an online course delivery (8%). To date, most of the Boston area residential universities and colleges are planning to open in the Fall with some form of in-person and online course delivery.

Our Work

The Faculty Forum illumined important issues, chief among them is that some faculty have felt left out of the decision-making process, despite the establishment of a shared governance working group that included faculty representation, with two faculty union leaders, and the head of faculty assembly at that time.

The Forum made clear that we need to do a better job of communicating to faculty, recognizing the distinctively critical roles that they play at the College. Faculty want to know that they are heard and that their concerns and questions are seriously considered in the College’s reopening plans.

Faculty, especially those in high-risk categories, want to feel safe when they return to campus. The HR process for those seeking ADA accommodations as well as those seeking temporary workplace alterations based on the COVID-19 context provides a private way to address those concerns. Deans and department chairs will only be involved in identifying teaching options.

Establishing a testing and tracing program will help provide the College with the data we need to ensure the safety of our community. Emerson plans to participate in the Safe for School Testing Program offered by the Broad Institute, joining several other independent colleges and universities; we are currently evaluating additional enhanced testing and tracing programs, including daily symptom checking for anyone coming to campus via a wellness app. More information will be shared as soon as it is available.

Several elements related to the design of the curriculum as well as re-population measures, such as the all-important health and safety protocols are in the process of being finalized. I appreciate your patience as faculty, staff and senior academic administrators continue to seek resolution and clarification of these key areas.  

I sincerely wish we had all the answers to all the good questions now. However, that will not be possible given the complexity and scope of re-populating the campus and putting into place measures that will, as best we can, ensure the safety and well-being of those who teach, learn and work at Emerson. We will keep the lines of communication open even through periods of uncertainty. To that end, I have asked Professor Heather May to schedule a Faculty Forum for later this week. Details will be forthcoming.

Some faculty have asked that they have an opportunity to meet with our epidemiological consultants. We will be arranging these meetings with each of our schools.

Now that we have determined the One Emerson Flex Learning framework for the fall 2020 term, a number of teams across campus are working to develop guidelines and testing protocols that will help ensure the safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff. As I said when we last met, specific iterations of the Flex Learning framework must perforce be discussed and resolved in the faculty departments, working collaboratively, of course, with the Provost, deans and chairs, because of each department’s distinctive pedagogy and curriculum.  

Understandably, many of you have questions about what the fall term will look like, and these questions are being actively addressed and answered by multiple areas across the College, including Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, Facilities, Enrollment, and Human Resources within the One Emerson Flex Learning framework.  As Provost Whelan has said, we will need to work together to arrive at answers and find creative solutions in an ever-changing environment resulting from COVID-19. The framework will be informed, in part, by the constraints of our de-densified academic spaces and our goal to ensure that we put into place the best possible health and safety protocols. Nevertheless, I am assured that Flex Learning will include flexibility in course delivery within the hybrid framework and available socially-distanced classrooms; online classes for international students, students with medical/COVID-19 concerns, winter term students, and graduate students will also need to be developed. Curricular options will be determined at the department level rather than broadly across the entire College curriculum.

At the same time, we know that there are specific actions we can and will take to mitigate health risks to our community, for example, making use of non-traditional spaces like theatres for de-densified classroom learning; establishing testing and contact tracing protocols; and requiring the use of masks or face shields, as well as protective measures built into our campus spaces. Detailed information on these actions, guidelines, and processes will be included in a Return to Campus Guide, which will be shared with our community in early July.

Financial Impact

Another critical step in our recovery process is to evaluate and solve for the short- and long-term financial impact of COVID-19 on the College. This process is well underway with Emerson’s Board of Trustees, the administrative COVID-19 Response and Recovery group and the COVID-19 Core leadership group of faculty, students, and staff, which includes all the unions at the College. Although demand for an Emerson education has never been greater, with record deposits for the incoming first-year class and very strong continuing undergraduate and graduate school registrations, Emerson is not immune to the deleterious effects that the pandemic has had on the financial health of colleges across the country. Our enrollment has been one of our greatest strengths as we annually exceed enrollment targets and create new revenue programs. However, the impact of the 2020 spring term room and board refunds and the downward pressure on tuition, room and board charges have already created and will continue to create significant revenue losses.

While we have already taken steps to close a $7M shortfall for the Spring 2020 term, we will need to resolve the impact of projected FY ’20-21 revenue losses of $33 – $76M, depending on various undergraduate, graduate and international student enrollment models. The revenue losses for a FY ’20-21 online-only course delivery would be significantly more depending on various models. Addressing these losses is a chief priority for us all, and we are closely reviewing an extensive list of mitigating financial reductions to ensure that Emerson continues to thrive. In collaboration with the unions and our community, we anticipate that we will be able to announce these reductions in early July, 2020.

At the next faculty forum, we can discuss these and other issues.

Our priorities remain the same:  reduce risks, support the safety of our community, and continue to provide a high-quality educational experience that will prepare our students for meaningful futures.  I continue to believe that our One Emerson culture will sustain us as we work together to meet our challenges head on with intelligence, innovation, resolve and a fierce urgency.

Lee Pelton

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