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Virtual Student Town Hall with President Leshin

DEPARTMENT(S): 
April 15, 2020

At an April 7 Virtual Student Town Hall, President Laurie Leshin updated the student body on the impacts of COVID-19 on different aspects of student life at WPI. The event was live-streamed and gave students opportunities to ask questions and come together as a community virtually.

Student Town Hall Meeting - Spring 2020

 

Virtual Student Town Hall Q&A Session with President Leshin

President Leshin received many questions after her remarks to students at the Town Hall. The following is a transcript of the Q&A.

Emily Perlow, Assistant Dean of Students:

We have a number of questions. One is, "This has been really helpful and, as the situation continues to evolve, will there be more town halls like this?"

President Leshin:

Yes, absolutely. I'm happy to do this. If you all find it helpful, let us know and we're happy to do more. I'm doing them for the faculty and staff every other week. We could set up a cadence like that, and as long as we're getting good attendance, I'm happy to do them. I would say the other thing to do is to check your email regularly because when we have something important and breaking to share with you, we do it by email. You can also check on the virtual learning website and the COVID website where every message we sent you by email also gets posted on the coronavirus website—so you can always go there. But I'm happy to do these town halls and I'm really happy to hear your questions as well. Again, if we don't get to all your answers today, we will follow up and answer the questions because we can save the Q&A list.

Emily Perlow:

We also had some great questions from folks about ways we're reaching out in helping the community. You showed some photos of some of the donations that we've been making. Students were asking about how they could participate or how they could be helpful there.

President Leshin:

We can get some information out to you about that. We do have a group that's coordinating, for example, the people that are sewing masks. That's one great way you can help. We also have a group that's doing 3D printing of PPE. They are 3D printing masks right now. We only allow one employee at a time go in to work on it. They've printed hundreds of masks. We can get some guidance from those two groups to send out to students who might have 3D printers at home—or other ways of participating. Especially if you're here in Massachusetts, that's great. If not, if you want to make things, make masks. There are undoubtedly local organizations that you can give to. You don't have to give them through us. There's so many people who can use these masks. By the way, now the CDC is recommending that we ALL wear them when we're out in public—at least for a while. So, you can make them for your friends and family—that would be a nice thing to do too.

Emily Perlow:

Another question centered around A-Term projects and moving into B, C, and D-Terms for the Global Projects Program. Some students were asking about rumors that they were going to be canceled for the whole year. What was happening for A-term? Can you address that information?

President Leshin:

I can. Dean Rissmiller can jump in if I say anything wrong. No decisions have been made yet about A-Term and certainly nothing beyond that in terms of the global projects. What I will say is that the A-Term students who are doing the IQP in A-term are in the prep course right now in ID2050. I believe what's happening is—as they prepare their projects—they are planning for flexibility, which I think is probably the best any of us can do right now. So, they're planning on projects that—if they had to—they could complete remotely. We really hope they won't have to, but they might. We're just going to have to see how this thing evolves. I think we'll have a much better sense in a month—or so I hope. But for now, they're planning to, so that they can succeed either way. But no decisions have been made about IQPs for the full year. Kent, I hope I'm right about that.

Dean Kent Rissmiller:

That's correct, Laurie. Thank you.

Emily Perlow:

So we could expect lots of students with some uncertainty around housing—lots of questions about when will they be able to get back into housing to get their belongings? Can you provide any information there?

President Leshin:

I don't have any specific information yet, but I will say that there is a group of dedicated and smart people working on it—working on ideas for our students who are far away who may not be able to easily come back to have a company come in and pack and ship their things or pack and store their things. And then—thinking about for those who ARE able to come back—how we could phase that when it is safe to do so. So, stay tuned—I think in the coming week, even, you will start to hear some of our early thinking about those plans.

Emily Perlow:

Excellent.

President Laurie Leshin:

I'm sorry about that. I know it stinks not to have your stuff. It's one of the hardest things about this, I agree.

Emily Perlow:

We also have a lot of students thinking about Admitted Students Day—asking about what the plan is for that. Particularly, a lot of clubs tend to recruit students during that time—they're asking how they can be involved.

President Leshin:

Oh, Admitted Students Day clubs. That's a great idea. So here's the good news. We are recruiting students for the Class of 2024, really actively right now. This is kind of the last month of that. The deadline for deposits is May 1st and we're looking really good. We already have over 450 students committed to next year's class, which is kind of amazing in these uncertain times. In mid-April there will be a very specific set of Admitted Students kind of activities that students and their parents can do virtually. I will bring the question about how clubs can be more involved in that back to our Admissions team and have them reach out to you all through Student Activities because I think that's a really, really great idea. Thank you for raising it. They may well be doing some of that, but my guess is there could be more we can do. Stay tuned there.

Emily Perlow:

We've got some good questions about the “pass/fail” option for students. Particularly folks with questions about projects and whether those “pass/fail” counts for projects as well as some of the mechanics around that.

President Leshin:

I'm going to start—and then ask Dean Heinricher to jump in because I don't want to get it wrong. The current updated grading policy with pass/NR applies only to classes—it doesn't apply to projects. But they are working on an updated grading policy for projects—so stay tuned. There'll be more information about that within a week or two, I hope. Again, that's in our faculty governance system and they are working on it. Dean Heinricher can speak a bit to the impact on things like honors. Here's my take on the updated grading policy for classes. It's a very WPI approach—which is, it's very, very flexible and it's very much in your hands to drive. It's very student-driven.

So, you can choose this for one course, for all your courses, or for none of your courses. You can wait until quite late after the courses—after you know what your grade would be—to make this decision. I believe it's after you know what your grade would be. It really is meant to help you be in charge of your decision. It's important that you consult with your academic advisor—or someone in Academic Advising perhaps—to think it through … like if you're someone who wants to go to medical school, they might have a certain way of treating a pass when they calculate your GPA that maybe you wouldn't want to do it. For others that may not make a big difference and so—why not in this moment of stress—perhaps take a different path. Dean Heinricher, can you jump in a little bit here?

Dean Art Heinricher:

I think you nailed it. The procedure that's coming through the academic policy right now for projects mirrors ... the projects will mirror the course and that is after you have seen your grade … students will have the option to switch to the “pass” in our rating approach. What makes projects a little bit more confusing is you actually get two different grades. You get your term grade and you also get the CDR grade. The current proposal is that you'll have the option for both.

President Leshin:

Can you say a little bit more about why a student might choose a grade—rather than a pass—and how that might impact honors for graduation?

Art Heinricher:

What you just said is probably the most important example. There are specific classes. For example, if you're in a BS/MS program and you're taking an undergraduate class that you wish to use for both degrees, then quite often the grade of B or higher is required for it to count on the graduate side. There are similar constraints on how specific grad programs look at specific gateway courses. So that's a discussion to have with your advisor.

President Leshin:

Right.

Art Heinricher:

Now regarding honors, WPI does the calculation based on the number of A grades. So a key point for all the students to consider is, if you decide to opt for a “pass” grade on one of your projects, under the current policy, you are not eligible for high distinction. You would still be eligible for distinction but high distinction requires the grade of A on IQP, MQP, and your humanities and arts requirement.

President Leshin:

Okay. That's really helpful.

Emily Perlow:

We have a great question here about how a portion of student tuition helps support some of our facilities infrastructure. A student is asking: how are we planning to improve our facility and infrastructure and how are those dollars being allocated for projects moving forward?

President Leshin:

I think I understand the question. I would say two things about it. One, all the people who take care of our facilities—even though our facilities are not being used as much as usual—are still on our payroll. Nobody's been furloughed, nobody's been laid off. We are making sure that our WPI family is staying together in this moment for as long as we possibly can.

Two, we have been doing enhanced cleaning—especially when there were more people on campus. Our custodial staff was doing incredible work to make sure that we were cleaning every doorknob especially well and making sure that our chances of transmitting germs on the campus were really low. As such, we have had no cases from people who have been on the campus—which is truly incredible. In addition, we have capital projects on the campus that are new buildings. For example, the new academic building going in next to the library. For now, that is proceeding—although I will say it is slowing down and it's likely to slow down pretty far for at least a few weeks' time coming up.

There's been some guidance from the state about whether or not construction projects can continue and we're working our way through and making sure that the construction workers that are on our campus are as safe as they can possibly be. We're likely to see some slowdowns in certain projects. I can tell you the Harrington renovation is ongoing at the moment. Again, that may slow down for a few weeks but then as soon as it's safe to do so, we'll pick those things back up.

Tomorrow we'll formally announce that the new residence hall we were planning for Salisbury Estates is going to be delayed by a year—since it hasn't started yet. It seems smart at this point as there's so much uncertainty about the future to just wait a year on that. So stay tuned. We'll be sharing more updates as we go forward. But we greatly appreciate having all of you as our students and the tuition that you pay supports the campus operation. Most of what it supports are the people that you see every day teaching your courses and supporting you in your efforts. We do appreciate that.

Emily Perlow: 

One of the other things it supports is student jobs. We've got a number of different questions around student employment. One of them is: will students without Federal Work-Study be able to keep their jobs?

President Leshin:

We've committed to pay everybody—all current student workers, whether or not they can work remotely. We've committed to pay them through the end of the academic year, which is normally what students work. As for work that includes Work-Study students and non-Work-Study students, we want to make sure especially that the Work-Study students are paid so they can keep their levels for future years. We're still working on plans for summer, so stay tuned on some of that. But through the academic year—yes, all student employees are keeping their jobs and are getting paid.

Emily Perlow:

With regard to graduate students – we've got a number of questions about folks who have TA positions or RA positions—particularly those working in labs. Have we given any thought to what that future situation may look like for those students?

President Leshin:

For a graduate student funded on a grant, a lot of the funding agencies have provided some flexibility for our PIs to be able to continue to pay them—and we're working on those all the time. For those who were supposed to have summer support, maybe they're not TAs now or not research assistants now, but will be in the summer … we're working on making sure those folks can get hired, assuming the funding agency allows or if the work can be done remotely.

I'm also hoping that at some point in the summer, we will be starting to reopen. All of these things are contributing to a more positive stance there, but we're working through those and through the research office on a case-by-case basis. I realized that the research slowdown—especially for PhD students—is a huge challenge. I hope you're all being able to get some things done, some learning done, some writing done while you're remote—our goal is to get you back in the labs as soon as we possibly can. As soon as it's safe to do so, we absolutely will.

We will be looking out for grad students. By the way, as we're offering more summer courses, we'll need more TAs and PLAs—and that's another opportunity for student employment in the summer.

Emily Perlow:

Excellent. So as we think about the transition to reopening, there are a lot of questions about what that process will look like. Can we speak a bit as to what's in place to help us prepare for that?

President Leshin:

I'll talk about the CERT a little bit. We have a group—maybe you've seen it in some of the messages we sent to you—called the Coronavirus Emergency Response Team—which has been together since late January, as we saw this pandemic coming. In these past weeks, CERT members have been making the big decisions about closing down the campus, going fully remote, and things like that. The phase they are in now is thinking about what this will look like when we reopen. What would be some triggers for us to know that it's safe to reopen: (a) that the state ban on non-essential businesses is lifted, (b) that we have enough materials to keep the campus running, (c) that we don't have a huge number of employees who are ill. These kinds of things would allow us to get the campus reopened.

They are just starting that work now but, over the next couple of weeks, I think we're going to get our heads around what's it really going to take to get the campus reopened. I'm not saying we're going to reopen the campus in the next couple of weeks. I want to be clear—I think it's unlikely that we would reopen the campus before May 4, which is the current period the state has ordered non-essential businesses to stay closed. If the state decides to open earlier, we can consider that. We want to be in a position to do that. But for now, what we're doing is planning. We're planning for that reopen date.

Would it be all at once? Flip a switch and all of a sudden everybody's back? Probably not. We would probably do it in some kind of a staged way. We would probably want the custodial staff to come in and make sure everything is really clean and ready to go. We might want certain other staff offices to open early to make sure the campus is ready to receive us. Then we might come back in a sort of a staggered or phased fashion where some people in each office are still working remotely for a while, because we want to try to de-densify socially, to distance safely the way we operate the campus. All those things are on our agenda. Those are things we're thinking about. As we get closer to that time, we will definitely let you know.

Emily Perlow:

We have some good questions from folks about starting MQPs in A-Term. Perhaps maybe Art could help address that.

President Leshin:

I think that's great. I know it can be a challenge to do that remotely. Dean Heinricher, what do you suggest?

Art Heinricher:

I agree it's a challenge but I do think we've got to figure out how to encourage all the students to reach out to their faculty advisors, reach out to the professors in their classes. So when they're having that ZOOM discussion with the professor about a class or going to office hours, this is exactly the kind of questions they should be asking … making those connections.

President Leshin:

Faculty members are very open to hearing from students. There's a faculty email list where they're talking about how their teaching is going and how much they feel for all of you and how proud they are to be able to be with you in these really difficult times. Emily, I see a question about PLAs (peer learning assistants). May I answer that one?

Dean Heinricher:

Go for it.

President Leshin:

PLAs are seeing massive increases and some PLAs are seeing a big increase in their course quality. I think this is actually a good one. This is the kind of feedback we really need and need to manage. Art, I don't know if you have initial thoughts on that—but we need to know where it's happening so we can think about how we can help and support—because it's not fair if too much of that burden is falling on PLAs.

Art Heinricher:

I agree. This is feedback we need.

Emily Perlow:

There's also a couple of questions about if students have a concern about a course, would virtual@wpi.edu be the place for them to go?

President Leshin:

Yes, absolutely.

Emily Perlow:

Excellent. We know a lot of students are seeing their internships (not the offers) being rescinded right now and we're seeing unemployment within those families. We've had a number of questions about "if my financial circumstances change, what's available to help me if I'm worried about something now"—or "about my bill" that may be due in August.

Presiden Leshin:

We're expecting that. We're expecting that many families will be impacted by the circumstances they find themselves in—and we are here to help. Students may reach out to one of two places. If their family's financial circumstances have significantly changed, they can call or email Student Aid and Financial Literacy and ask for an appeal process. If the family situation is significantly changed, we can relook at aid for folks. They can also do that through Dean of Students Office if they have more familiar connections there. Or they can email deanofstudents@wpi.edu and get connected into that process.

Again, we're expecting to hear from a lot of folks and we want to be as helpful as we possibly can. The last thing I'll say—if there is something I would describe as a relatively small emergency need (like a thousand dollars or less for something), we have an emergency fund for students that our alumni have been donating to. I've donated to it—lots of our alums have given money to it. You may reach out to dean-of-students@wpi.edu, and let them know of the challenge and we've got a process we'll go through to see about helping people with short-term financial difficulty.

Emily Perlow:

In that same vein, we've seen a few questions like, "What about my job when I get back to campus in the fall? My Work-Study job or my student employment job?

President Leshin:

Again, it's our hope that those will be there waiting for you, but we haven't made any decisions about fall yet—I don't think we will for quite a bit of time. I'm hoping we're going to get past this peak in the virus and then see where we are on the other side of it. But again, I hope that the vast majority of those will be here. No guarantees right now. I'm sorry, but that's the thought. Certainly, for you Work-Study students, we will do absolutely everything to try to help with that.

Emily Perlow:

Perhaps this is a question for Casey Wall — if a student lives off campus and is looking for housing over this coming summer—will there be options available to them?

President Leshin:

Yes, I would say reach out to Residential Services about that, or they can send such a question to coronavirusquestion@wpi.edu. Again, the folks in Student Affairs are looking at those questions—they'll make sure it gets to the right person.

Emily Perlow:

I think many of our other questions are more individual in nature. It might be best to field them one-on-one. I think we can continue to make the commitment that we'll follow up with everyone who posts a question.

President Leshin:

May I say something about Senior Week here. I am going to meet later this week with our team that is looking at Commencement and how we're going to handle that. I do not know yet. I will find out in a few days if they are also thinking about Senior Week. I'm not sure we'll be able to recreate the entire thing. But my hope is that we'll be able to recreate some of the experiences that you all would have had.

We're going to be as creative as we possibly can here. We love you all and we're so proud of the work that you have done to get to this point. You absolutely deserve that Senior Week and you absolutely deserve that Commencement. We're going to do everything we can think of to give it to you.

Emily Perlow:

We have a late-breaking question about course registration times: Since the times are set in eastern time, but we have folks all over the globe, some are having difficulty with the "time that they're assigned." — They should email registrar@wpi.edu to talk about their specific circumstances—or email ​Virtual@wpi.edu .

President Leshin:

Yes, if they send that through virtual@wpi.edu, it will get to the right place. Any question you have about anything academic for the rest of the term, should be sent to virtual@wpi.edu  and it will get to the right place.

Emily Perlow:

You had mentioned that we'll have more summer courses. Those are still to be added, correct?

President Leshin:

Correct. There are some that are still getting added. I'm pushing folks to do that more quickly. But yes, keep checking back. We'll keep registration open for both E1 and E2.

Art Heinricher:

Send us what you want to see on the schedule. Go to virtual@wpi.edu and tell us what you want to add. It's the best way we can figure it out.

Emily Perlow:

We have a great comment here about some of these individual questions and whether they'll be posted publicly. Many of these are answered in the FAQs—on the CORONAVIRUS website. That would be a great place for folks to look first and foremost  ... and if your question is still not answered, you should email coronavirusquestions@wpi.edu.

President Leshin:

Thank you so much for being a part of this. Thanks to the team who supported this and to Emily Perlow, the IT folks, and the academic folks who helped answer questions here. Thanks to all of you for signing in—and please stay healthy, stay safe, stay connected. We are WPI. We love you. We'll be in touch. We'll try to do this again. Thanks so much. Bye.