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Paxson, Locke discuss fall plans, budgeting at BUCC meeting

Administrators also reflect on University contributions to COVID-19 crisis, transition to remote learning

President Christina Paxson P’19 recapped the financial and academic decisions made by the University in recent weeks in response to COVID-19 at a Brown University Community Council meeting April 8 over Zoom. Other administrators gave updates on student life, employment and the transition to remote learning.

Paxson opened the meeting by discussing the various initiatives the University has started to support the Providence community as well as health care workers. Aside from reiterating the University’s recent commitment to provide 24,000 meals to more than 1,600 Providence residents in the next two months, Paxson discussed the University’s COVID-19 seed fund, which is used to help fast-track research projects. 

“If you look across this community and you see what people are doing just because it's the right thing to do, it's quite incredible,” Paxson said. “For example, many departments are actually making supplies to support our frontline health care providers.”

The chemistry department is producing hand sanitizer, while the School of Engineering has started a project to 3D print ventilators to help combat the nationwide shortage. The University has also donated thousands of masks, such as those kept in the libraries for “looking at books and manuscripts that are older and might have mold in them,” Paxson said. 

Paxson also explained how the University’s long-standing core crisis team was activated to navigate the initial steps of helping students return home and transition to remote learning. Now, the University has returned to decision-making through its normal committees in addition to a few new committees focused on specific responses to the pandemic, such as a remote learning committee led by Provost Richard Locke P'18 and a special Corporation finance committee.

Paxson later spoke about how the University is working toward an on-campus fall semester “unless it's absolutely impossible for health reasons.” She referred to epidemiological forecasts that suggest that “things will start to reopen over the summer” and that “we should be able to have a fall semester on campus.”

“I'm also hearing, though, that there may be sporadic outbreaks of the disease for the year, maybe a year and a half, up until a vaccine is done,” Paxson said. “That's why we need to have the plan for public health  … that lets us be a residential community while still having this virus out there.”

In his presentation, Locke discussed the financial implications of the COVID-19 outbreak, stating that the money the University has spent due to COVID-19 is “$22 million that was not budgeted in this year's annual budget.” On Monday, Paxson wrote that the University would have to make "tough" financial choices due to these expenses and projected losses, The Herald previously reported.

“This was $22 million dollars that we felt we needed to spend because it was the right thing to do,” Locke said. “It was the right thing to do to support our students to give refunds, to give them the kind of support that they needed, to support our staff and to really make sure that we could transition this community as quickly and safely as possible.”

The University has estimated that further costs could amount to “maybe another $50 million of expenses” when taking into account a projected 12 percent increase to the financial aid budget to support families whose financial circumstances have changed, a loss of revenue if Summer@Brown cannot happen as usual, projected additional support for graduate students and more, Locke said. 

But Locke added that the University should be able to weather these financial hits. “While the expenses that we've incurred (and) the loss of revenues that we expect are really great, we're actually in good shape,” Locke continued. Due to the “tremendous returns of our endowment” and “tremendously successful fundraising years … our situation is such that we actually have the cash we need to cover these expenses.” 

The University plans to continue to support undergraduate and graduate students with financial aid and stipends as normal, and they are “going to be really laser-focused on” avoiding lay-offs, Paxson said. 

“We're really fortunate, I think, compared to many institutes of higher education,” Paxson said. “Brown has an endowment. It's not quite as big as many of our peers, but it's healthy.”

Additionally, Locke focused on how students and faculty have been adapting to remote learning. The University conducted 26,813 Zoom meetings in March compared to 7,245 in February, Locke said. Last week, 1,125 people signed up for Zoom accounts through Brown, and the University account saw a collective 3,235,228 minutes spent in Zoom meetings. 

“We have lab courses, performance classes, studio classes, seminars, large lecture classes, and the idea that we're going to suddenly move them onto Canvas and Zoom and a few other platforms presented challenges,” Locke said. “I think it's really quite remarkable to see how quickly we were able to transition to this remote teaching and learning.”

One of the major challenges the University has been grappling with is how to ensure that all students have access to their classes. A survey sent out by the Office of the Dean of the College found that while 95 percent of students have access to a laptop or desktop, only about 70 percent of students thought that they could reliably join live classes over Zoom. 

“The Dean of the College and the Graduate School dean had been really working with faculty to try to encourage them to engage in asynchronous learning where possible, or using a variety of different platforms to deliver instruction,” Locke said. “We'll be probably reaching out to the students once again, checking in on how it is going and how we can help.”

Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes emphasized how the University has been trying to make sure students are aware of the resources they still have digital access to, including telehealth appointments and the nursing 24-hour help line through Health Services and virtual CAPS appointments. 

“They may look and feel a little different, but they are still there and still accessible,” Estes said. 

The Office of Campus Life is also working to come up with ways for students to virtually engage in the Brown community. Various cultural centers on campus have started conducting virtual gatherings, and the bereavement group run by chaplains has transitioned to an online format.

“We want to be in a place where if students are able to (and) are ready to engage and to break down some of the isolation that some might be feeling with some connection that we're in a position to try and make that happen,” Estes said. 

In the final presentation, Vice President of Human Resources Amanda Bailey reviewed staffing headcounts and how they have been affected by the transition to remote working. The work assignments of student workers, seasonal and intermittent staff and staffing agency temporary employees whose work assignments could not be transitioned to online ended on April 4. Bailey explained how workers in all three of these categories can apply for unemployment benefits through the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. 



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