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"We Are WPI" Virtual Town Hall

DEPARTMENT(S): 
March 31, 2020

At a live-streamed virtual town hall meeting hosted by President Laurie Leshin on March 24, members of the WPI community had an opportunity to learn more about the work behind WPI's efforts to manage the impact of COVID-19 on campus operations and ways we are looking towards the future. (Detailed, up-to-date information about WPI's response can be found at the COVID-19 website.)

WPI Virtual Town Meeting - Spring 2020

Virtual Town Hall Conversation with President Leshin

Some of the questions President Leshin received from the community included:

One popular question is about WPI Forward and how that might be impacted going forward, including decisions and communications.

President Leshin:

Here's the way I would think about that right now: the main things we were doing in WPI Forward were trying to get smarter, gathering a lot of information about understanding our operations better, and being in a position to make decisions if we need to. The main impact of the current situation is that the uncertainty about next year just got a lot higher and the potential gap got bigger too. Because it's more of an emergency situation, we are more prepared to take emergency measures to manage it. We will keep you posted.

In the meantime, I think studying and understanding our operations better, and once we have a little bit of mind space cleared up after we get D-Term going, it's something we should continue to look at. I will be reporting back to you on where we are with that thinking. We're going to do everything we can to avoid drastic actions that impact people's jobs. There's never been a more important moment for us to pull together and think about, if we are having a challenge as an institution, how we can maybe share some of that pain across the board so that we can protect people as best we can.

The principles we were talking about there are the same, as we think about how we'll handle a potentially bigger disruption. It's not a particularly satisfying answer, I understand that. But as of right now, that's all I can say. It's likely that some of the projects will slow down as a result of that in terms of just the data gathering. Some of the academic portfolio work—we're just not going to be able to do some of that while everybody's focused on delivering the education in D-Term, and that's fine. We will adapt this to our current situation as best as we possibly can. Keeping that north star set of guidelines front and center is about keeping our WPI family together.

You've mentioned that all the WPI employees will be paid, but does that include service staff contracted through Chartwells?

President Leshin:

Chartwells' employees are not WPI employees. Many of you may already be aware that we've dramatically scaled back any food service on campus. I think many of those folks have been laid off. But Chartwells does have a mechanism by which they connect those folks with unemployment. They're looking at boosting benefits. So those folks are getting help and support in that.

Of course, the important thing about our current state of being remote from campus is to hope to slow the spread of this virus such that we can more quickly come back to full operations. The very best thing we can do for these folks is actually come back to full operations quickly.

Will we be collecting the online courses to possibly reuse them as an online alternative in the future?

President Leshin:

We're learning a lot in a really short period of time about online delivery, even at the undergraduate level. I think there will be a time and place for reflection on how that's gone, what worked well and what didn't, and how we might use some of what we've learned in the future. We do not have specific plans right now about reusing the online content that we are generating here, but I believe that all of it is savable. It's like when you teach an in-person class, maybe the next year you use the same notes or you update them a little bit. This is providing us a huge foundation for potentially doing more of this in the future.

However, there are no conversations going on right now in leadership about our becoming some remote institution as opposed to a largely residential, in-person, undergraduate institution. This gives us another tool in our toolkit to be able to serve our students as best we can. There are some classes where this might well be a great way of serving our students, and there are other classes where we don't want to do that again. So we'll be learning from this whole experience how to do that.

I'm really impressed with our IQP teams. These students and faculty advisors who first were told they couldn't go abroad and to be prepared to work from here in Worcester on their project, now are being told they can't come to campus and meet. They have completely risen to the occasion. We will learn a ton about those things that are most "core" to us and how we can intersect those with the latest technology and good pedagogy online.

There are a couple of questions around the effects on construction on campus and general maintenance.

President Leshin:

The CERT team is tracking our major construction projects on campus. Things like the new academic building and the Kaven Hall renovation—there have been some specific questions about that. The status as of today is that the top major projects are proceeding. The construction companies have interpreted the governor's message as that they can still come to work as long as they're doing social distancing and staying safe.

For example, the new academic building is moving ahead for now. We'll just have to see where this goes. We have a big upgrade going on in Kaven that was supposed to start at the beginning of the summer. In order to do that, a lot of faculty labs have to get packed up because some of them will have to be offline for a while or moved out.

But, we will not proceed with that unless we can do this in a way that respects work of the faculty and make sure they're going to be able to be there and be a part of the transitions for their lab. So, we will manage that as best we can. If it means we have to delay, we'll delay. We'll figure it out. But we're not going to be doing things unilaterally without incorporating the stakeholders who are in those buildings and in those decisions. We're working very closely with Carrick Eggleston of Civil and Environmental Engineering and we'll continue to do that.

The other project is our residence hall that's meant to go up on the Salisbury Estates site. That construction was meant to start in summer or even maybe a little before that. We are reevaluating that at this point. We have a few more weeks until it really is the right time to make the call on that. Given the uncertainty of where all this is headed, it might be smart to delay it for a bit. If we decide to do that, I will let you know. There are teams actively working that.

 

We have a question around presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in the campus community, and how the community can be notified about that.

President Leshin:

We have all along said that when positive tests come in, we will notify the community. Here's a little lesson in how this jargon has evolved: there used to be this thing called “presumptive positive” and “confirmed.” The “presumptive positive” was when the state lab had a positive, but it wasn't confirmed until the CDC confirmed it. They got rid of those terms a week or so ago. So now, if you get a positive test, it's a positive test. We will let the community know when/if a member of our community tests positive, assuming that person has been on or anywhere near campus in recent times. Regina Roberto sent out a link to a form for anybody who thinks they've been exposed and who has been tested. Please fill out that form—I can't require you to do it, but I'm asking you to do it. Regina will follow up with you and find out all the information. If anybody does test positive—and if there are close contacts that we need to inform, we will do that—and we'll continue to coordinate with public health officials on all of that.

We have a question about letters of reappointment for postdocs and other NTT faculty, especially international scholars. Deb Graves from the Provost's Office did weigh in, saying that office is aware.

President Leshin:

I am aware of the issue. Once we get the term launched these next couple of days, we will be working with the Provost's Office on that. They are collaborating very well with Human Resources and we're all aware of some of the timing issues there and, I promise you, we'll work it as fast as we can.

There are some follow-up questions ... Federal Work-Study.

President Leshin:

Our Federal Work-Study students will continue to be paid—as are all of our student employees, whether or not they can perform their duties remotely. All student workers are being paid. Their levels next year depend on getting paid this year. We've received guidance from the Department of Education. We are following it, and all those students will be paid. If you're a supervisor of one of those employees, please look at the guidance that Talent & Inclusion sent out about how to enter their time and approve it. Please make sure you're following that guidance—or if you have questions, reach out to Talent & Inclusion about that.

There's a question about communications and where staff and faculty could reference communications in a central location.President Leshin:

Go to any webpage at wpi.edu and, at the top, you will see a banner that links to our COVID-19 website. All our prior communications with the community are there. There's a ton of frequently asked questions that the the Marketing Communications team, General Counsel, Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and others are working really hard to update. So, check back often. If you have a new question—if something's changed—check there first, and we'll make sure that we've got the resources there for faculty, staff, and students.

Can grant-funded positions be recruited for or is all hiring frozen?

President Leshin:

We're working on that specific question. I've asked Academic Affairs and Talent & Inclusion to figure out our policy there. My guess is that if those folks are soft money and they can work remotely, we will figure out a way to get them on board. So stay tuned—there'll be some guidance on that very shortly.

There is a question around admitted students and about tuition for next year, and when that may be released.

President Leshin:

Normally around this time we are sending what we call our tuition letter, which shares our tuition for the next year. At its February meeting, the Board of Trustees did vote on a tuition increase for next year. We will come to a final decision about that tuition and we will get a tuition letter out very soon thereafter.

I think if we are headed into anything like the economic downturn it looks like we're in, I think we're going to have to reconsider what we were thinking about for a tuition increase. Of course that impacts our budget. We're balancing those things and we're going to take a renewed look at that by the end of next week. There's a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board a week from Friday and we will be bringing to them a recommendation about what to do, so stay tuned on that, just a little bit more time.

Circling back to the question about move-in for Class of 2024 …

President Leshin:

Obviously, the rooms are full of stuff from the classes of 2023 and earlier right now. We're going to have to figure out how we get the current students back to campus to move out before we can even think about moving students in. I'm pretty confident we'll be able to do that at some point in the coming month, but we've got to work some of those scenarios. A lot depends on where we think we'll be for start-up classes, so we're not there yet. You need to give us probably a couple more weeks to work our way through that. We'll check in with all of you on our latest thinking there—whether we would think about a pushback, a move-in date, and even a start date. I think those things are possible, but we have not discussed them in detail.

So, patience is what we need right now. Again, trying to keep my finger in the dam until D-Term really gets up and going. Then we're going to pivot and start looking at some of these longer term questions. But thank you for everything you can do to tell any students you're hearing from—whether it's about future tuition or a move in-date – that we're working on ALL those issues and we will be back in touch with students as we have those answers. It will be weeks—not months—but we will continue to work these things.

Will undergraduate summer fellowships continue if it can be done remotely?

President Leshin:

I think that that's the kind of stuff that we can work our way through—the kind of stuff we should get really creative about—and I am open to creativity at this moment, especially for things that can be done remotely. I see no reason why not.

Sagamore is on the list of projects we have currently continuing. So that's the plan, as long as we can.

We have a question about any potential adjustment to schedules for employees who are without childcare during this time.

President Leshin:

We're going to be as flexible as we can possibly be. Thank you for raising that question. My biggest shout-out of the day goes to parents of young children who are trying to both work and deal with this … a house full of young children who don't necessarily get what's going on here … I am in awe of you. I don't know how you do it. It's amazing. We will do everything we can to be flexible. If you need some accommodation, please talk with your supervisor first. If that's not getting you where you need to be, reach out to Talent & Inclusion, and we will do all we can to help support you.

What are you doing to take care of yourself?

President Leshin:
I am mostly staying home, as I hope most of you are—and trying to get some exercise and not sit in the chair and do meetings all day, but actually take regular breaks. And I'm doing fine. I don't know if people saw, today it was announced that the president of Harvard and his wife are infected and have some symptoms. That's a good wake up call for us all. So, I am attempting to isolate away from everyone except my husband and my dog and my cat. Thank you for your concern. I'm taking good care of myself. Thank you.