April 20, 2020

To Faculty and Staff Colleagues:

It has now been more than a month since we moved classes online and shifted all non-essential staff to remote work, and, like all of you, I have settled into new routines. Teams and Webex meetings are the new normal for many of us, as are homemade lunches and inhabiting a more confined world. Meanwhile, our essential employees are still reporting to campus to keep it and the small population of students and employees who remain safe. And they are doing a great job! 

I am mindful, of course, that for too many of us, the new routines have been punctuated by great suffering and loss in our own families or among friends. I am sorry for these losses which I’m sure are painful.  Many of you have family members and friends who are experiencing great economic hardship as a result of this pandemic, as well.  

Signs of Hope

So in these challenging times, more than ever, we all need to look for signs of hope to sustain us in our daily lives. Fortunately, there are plenty of these right here in our own William Paterson community. Whether as volunteers or career professionals, our nursing faculty, students, and alumni are on the front lines testing and treating COVID-19 patients. Other faculty are volunteering to provide mental health counseling to health care workers. Our faculty and alumni are taking the lead in developing and delivering online education curricula for K-12 and college students in New Jersey and around the world. Several faculty members are sharing their expertise through news stories to help the public understand the pandemic and protect their families. I’m sure we’re all aware of many other acts of caring and kindness, big and small, in our own families and neighborhoods.  

Recently, I have also found signs of hope in the handful of classes that I dropped into online. I wanted to say hello to faculty and students, ask how they were doing, and offer whatever encouragement I could. What I found were Pioneers deeply engaged in teaching and learning and supporting one another. We should all take great pride and be amazed at how quickly and effectively we transitioned to remote work with a shared dedication to doing what is best for our current and prospective students, as well as our institution overall.  Thank you all for your hard work. 

What Comes Next
We have all faced crises before, as individuals and as a community. Certainly, this situation, which is playing out over months, is unique. While we are all understandably wondering when things will return to our familiar ways of life, we also recognize that, in some instances, the “normal” that we knew as recently as last month may take some extended time to come back. The question then, of course, is what comes next?

I have said from the start that we will return to campus, and we will. When that happens will ultimately be driven by federal and state guidance and based on the data and science. I am encouraged by the leadership that Governor Murphy and his counterparts have displayed in coordinating planning and laying out criteria for reopening schools and businesses, including widely available testing and contact tracing. We have already moved the first summer session online and are planning for the likelihood that the balance of summer courses will follow. For now, we know that face-to-face classes won’t return to our campus before July 1. I will update everyone on this and work schedules for staff on Friday, May 1.

Fiscal Outlook

While resilience must be the defining word of our time, the extent of the financial challenges we are facing as a result of the pandemic is becoming more clear. Overall, we are projecting a drop in revenue of approximately $12.66 million for this fiscal year. Some of that gap will be filled by the $4.9 million in CARES Act funding that will come to the University. Our hope is that the potential release of additional State funding that we are due, plus new federal aid programs now being considered, will further close that gap. We are also gaining some budgetary relief from non-salary money that has been unspent because the physical campus is not in operation.  

I want to reiterate that there are no plans for layoffs or furloughs this fiscal year, but clearly the level of fiscal uncertainty makes it more imperative than ever that we all do everything we can to meet our enrollment and retention goals. Given everything that our students are dealing with, it is understandable that registration for the Fall semester might not be a priority at this time, but we are currently running 9.3% behind the registration numbers from this time last year. This decrease is consistent with trends that we are seeing at other colleges like us around the country.   

We know that public higher education nationally was already facing great challenges before the pandemic. Now, with colleges and universities everywhere moving classes online at least through the Spring semester and people confined to their homes and immediate neighborhoods, the future of both public and private campus-based higher education is harder than ever to predict.

Opportunities to Strengthen William Paterson

However, there are opportunities that we can seize upon. For example, some experts predict that, after the pandemic ends, prospective students and families will be more interested in comprehensive academic and social support services, which would play to our strengths. Certainly, the economic pain that is hitting so many families will make it harder for many students to pay for college. Those who do enroll, however, may be more likely to attend an affordable college closer to home, which also suits schools like ours. 

Enrolling the Class of 2024 won’t be easy, but our team is hard at work doing that right now. Our admissions professionals are working on a series of virtual events – including Accepted Students Day on April 25 and an Open House on May 9 – designed to present the vibrancy and promise of our University to prospective students. The good news is that our incoming freshmen continue to engage in our enrollment cycle, which is promising. The number of students accepting merit scholarship awards has increased slightly, as well. 

For universities that plan properly and respond wisely to our new circumstances, the opportunity is there to emerge a stronger institution better able to serve more students. That is what I am focused on right now, strategically looking at a variety of scenarios that will play to our strengths moving forward.

Tomorrow's Online Town Hall

I want to remind you of the online Town Hall that I will be hosting for faculty and staff tomorrow, Tuesday, April 21 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. Please join us at this link,  https://wpunj.edu/president/facultystafftownhall,   for further updates on some of the topics I’ve covered here, as well as an opportunity to ask questions of me and other senior administrators. 

Thank you, and be well.

Richard J. Helldobler, Ph.D.