Dear WPI Colleagues,
This week I have had the privilege of engaging in four Town Hall discussions with our WPI community: returning students and parents, Class of 2024 students and parents, faculty and staff, and WPI alumni. In total, we engaged with about 2,500 people in the past two days! It’s been energizing to share our progress and hear lots of input and ideas that are critical to the complex and intensive work of planning to bring our community back to campus.
The Town Halls were tailored slightly for each audience. This message recaps what was discussed at yesterday’s session for faculty and staff.
Black Lives Matter. Our nation is in a time of turmoil. The peaceful gatherings currently taking place and the critical thinking being done are so important as we work together toward eliminating racism and racial inequality. Right here in Worcester and in our campus community our colleagues are making their voices heard in the fight for justice. We have more work to do to make WPI a greater part of the solution to this centuries-long problem. We are listening to many voices right now and will be in touch in the coming days and weeks with more action-oriented plans. We need everyone’s collaboration if we are to unpack and ultimately address cultural and systemic issues here on our own campus, and I have heard all too real stories of racial discrimination and bias from students, alumni, faculty, and staff of color. We must face this reality and do the work to become the community we all wish to be.
As we consider the broader fight for justice, we are also continuing our work, led by the Coronavirus Emergency Response Team (CERT), to bring members of our community back to campus. Massachusetts is beginning to reopen, and so must we. As we do, we will keep the health and safety of our community first and foremost in our minds.
We will formally announce our intentions for fall on July 1, and as that date approaches, the pace of our planning work within the CERT has intensified. I’m pleased to report that our slow and measured approach—aligned with national, state, and local guidelines—is working: Following a very careful process, we now have almost 40 research labs back in operation, with more than 100 faculty, graduate students, postdocs, and staff working on campus, socially distanced and in shifts. The research they can do remotely is still being done remotely—and remote working for all of us will continue as needed, to help de-densify campus in the weeks and months ahead.
Returning to campus is something I did officially this week, broadcasting my various town halls from my office in Boynton Hall. And after these past few months, this small step for me is important because, as long as we can be there safely, I know our home on the Hill is where so many of us want to be. I was the only one in the office, I have completed safety and health training, I rarely got within six feet of anyone else on campus, and I had my face covering on when out and about. I also held a leadership team meeting on campus this past week, with each of us wearing face coverings and sitting at a separate table on the patio behind the Rubin Campus Center. It was different—but it was important and useful to be together in person again.
Our new year will come with a new normal, and many of you will soon experience that difference. In the weeks ahead, and with the help of guidance, templates, and supporting documents, division and department heads will be creating reopening plans for their offices so that some staff and faculty can begin returning to campus from early July through August. Again, we are taking a phased approach, starting with those offices that are student-facing and really need to have a presence on campus as we prepare for fall. Department reopening plans will be reviewed, adjusted, and approved; progress on operations will be evaluated as we move through each step. You will have at least two weeks' notice, sometimes longer, to make arrangements when your department returns to campus. This slow and measured approach will help us work with those who require accommodations, and with those who are not able to return. Details on which offices are opening when can be found here. And note that even if your office reopens, you may or may not be returning in person initially. Many people can continue to work from home, and should do so. This will be captured in the department-specific plans.
New safety protocols and expectations aimed at slowing the spread of this contagious virus will be in place and, in order to be successful, we’ll all need to remind ourselves and each other of the importance of hand washing, face covering, keeping appropriate social distance, and not going to class or work when feeling sick. Everyone will go through training, will be required to self-check their symptoms, and, while student-facing faculty and staff will be expected to come to campus. In the Return to Campus guidance , there is direction on what to do if you have a disability, or an underlying health condition, or live with someone with an underlying health condition, and believe you are at risk coming to campus to work.
Monday, August 31, will mark the start of our new academic year , regardless of the decision we make about the delivery of instruction in the fall. This updated academic calendar includes instruction on Labor Day (there will be a replacement holiday added), we’ll have a shorter break between A- and B-Term and—if public health trends or other factors make it necessary—we'll have the ability to be remote for the two weeks after Thanksgiving. B-Term will end earlier than usual and the winter break will be longer. Our goal is to minimize breaks to help minimize the chances of bringing back illness through travel, and maximize in-person instruction and campus life. We will be offering flexible options to our students—and I greatly appreciate all of the faculty who are engaging in professional development this summer to ensure academic excellence whatever the mode of learning.
Maintaining our first-rate student experience, while implementing health and safety protocols, is driving the good work of Residential Services and the rest of our Student Life teams. They are working through a variety of scenarios that will reduce population density and create extra space in the residence halls, and create family-like “pods” for dining, living, and studying. We’re also working to determine how to reimagine and provide guidelines for student and campus events and activities.
Our financial status is stable, and there are no changes to prior plans, which include the restrictions on non-essential spending in alignment with the FY21 budget passed by the Board of Trustees in May. We are working on a process for pre-approval of expenses over $1,000 to help in our conservative fiscal management in the coming months.
The early retirement incentive program resulted in 47 staff and 13 faculty choosing to retire—those numbers may change as paperwork in finalized. I know it is difficult that we cannot appropriately celebrate these individuals and their service before they leave, but we will make the time and space for that at a future date. Some reorganization is being worked at the division level to manage these vacancies.
As you might imagine, ensuring social distancing on a college campus requires a lot of thoughtful and creative work, and it is a major focus as we consider student and employee needs. Your engagement—with planning and through individual efforts to enable us to continue to support the progress of our students in their academic endeavors—is of paramount importance. Please send your questions and ideas to WeAreWPI@wpi.edu.
Thank you for your continued support and partnership in this important work. I’m looking forward to the next steps we will all take together.
Stay safe and be well.