August 14, 2020
Dear Faculty and Staff:
As I am sure many of you are aware, Governor Murphy on Wednesday announced that “in-person instruction may fully resume as long as social distancing and other protections are strictly adhered to.” As a result of his newly-signed Executive Order No. 175, we will implement a phased approach to our Reopening Plan with its mix of hybrid, HyFlex, fully-online, and regular on-campus courses, as well as in-person lab and equipment-based courses.
The Governor has also mandated that Universities “provide students with the option of participation via remote instruction to the extent practicable.” This will, of course, impact faculty teaching courses that are not online or HyFlex. If there are other course sections with online or HyFlex modalities, students could be moved into one of those. In courses where there is only the one section type, faculty would need to address how such a student could participate in the course with online content.
I am aware that this will cause more work for the faculty member, but it is a scenario for which we should all be prepared. The original Instructional Plan posted to the Provost’s Office website advised that “courses should be prepared in a way that enable students to participate remotely if/as necessary.” Please bear in mind that – the Governor’s Executive Order aside – we would be legally required to provide such online content to any student with an approved ADA accommodation, should a HyFlex or online option not be available.
I want you to know that your unions and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee have been your strong advocates. They have expressed your concerns to me about a return to campus. I have heard them, and those concerns weigh heavily on me as someone entrusted to protect our community and to serve this special place that we all care about so deeply – our William Paterson University. Our shared priority is to do what is best for our students and support their success through graduation and beyond.
It is also my responsibility, as your President, to make sure we engage in best practices to maintain public health and safety, while remaining financially solvent now and in the future. Some Universities that have announced remote semesters have taken enrollment hits, which I am trying to avoid to the greatest extent possible. We have already seen some freshmen withdraw when faced with the prospect of a fully-online semester. We have also had students withdraw their places in our residence halls for the same reason. I remain concerned that, whatever path we take, there will be reductions in enrollment.
I want to remind you that the budget outlook remains uncertain after September. State appropriations have yet to be defined, applications for funds from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) have yet to be released, and further help from the Federal Government remains unclear at this time. Also, we have become more tuition dependent, not less. I remain committed to saving as many jobs as I can, but enrollment drops without assurances of additional State or federal aid will almost certainly require a reduction in our workforce.
There are no completely good choices here. If we keep everyone remote, we will see a further drop in enrollment, along with the potential for a decline in State support and without any assurance of federal help, which would surely result in job losses. Implementing our Stage 3 Reopening Plan and bringing everyone back – even with social distancing protocols – comes with the understanding that some people fear for their health. This is exactly what the political theorist Michael Walzer refers to in “Political Action: the Problem of Dirty Hands,” when he writes about a situation where a leader must choose between two courses of action, both of which may seem wrong for them to take. My argument as laid out above illustrates the dilemma.
Those of you in union, faculty, and staff leadership positions who have worked with me know that I try my best to get to the middle on issues, wherever possible. That is what I am aiming for with this decision, knowing full well that some, perhaps many, will be unhappy as a result.
We will implement our Stage 3 plans for all 1000-level freshmen cohorted courses on August 24th. First-year students deserve a good start, with good connections, strong academic support, and as much of a collegiate experience as we can provide in the current environment. Faculty teaching 2000-, 3000-, and 4000-level classes, as well as 1000-level classes that are not part of a freshmen cohort, may elect to stay wholly online for the first three weeks of the semester or move into our Reopening Plan from the beginning of the semester. Provost Powers will be communicating with you shortly with guidance for working out your course details with your chairs and deans and communicating them to your students.
Students have expressed concern about online instruction, given the difficulty many had with the abrupt shift to remote learning that we were forced to undertake in the Spring. I know that faculty and IRT staff, in particular, have been working hard to make online instruction even more effective. Given that remote learning will remain a part of most students’ academic experience this fall, I ask that we all recognize those concerns and do everything we can to engage and reassure students who might struggle in an online environment.
As for the on-campus components of the Fall semester, I am fully confident that our comprehensive Reopening Plan will allow for us all to resume our work and studies while keeping our community healthy and safe. On that front, I am pleased to share that the University has contracted with a respected testing firm to make COVID-19 testing available to all resident students with no out-of-pocket expense. We have also engaged a well-regarded contact tracing firm to quickly track down any impacted individuals, should we learn of an exposure on campus.
The pandemic is far from over, but I am pleased that New Jersey’s residents and its leadership have listened to and followed the science and taken the important steps necessary to get the virus sufficiently under control to allow us to return to campus, where we will endeavor to give our students the great education they deserve. I thank all of you for your continued dedication to our students and the University, and I look forward to seeing you all on campus soon, wearing your face coverings. I’ll be wearing mine! Until then, stay cool, and enjoy the rest of your summer.