State of the University Address—May 6, 2020

A live address to the Montclair State University community from President Susan A. Cole

Greetings to the Montclair State University community. I earnestly hope that this message finds you in good health. For those among you who are dealing with illness or hardships associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, I send the concern and best wishes of the whole University community and express our desire that the days ahead will be better for you and your families.

As is apparent to all of us, this occasion is quite different from my usual annual Spring Address when we have gathered together to review and celebrate the accomplishments of the year, to set out some of our important aspirations for the months ahead, to reflect on whatever enlightenment the past year has brought us, and to take a moment to enjoy the blossoming of the campus and the consumption of ice cream with colleagues.

Today is a more muted occasion. Montclair State University has endured through two world wars, the Great Depression, extreme weather events, the tragedy of 9/11, and many other difficult times during its 112-year history. But this time is the first in which we have had to address such a difficult situation without being able to be together in the fellowship of our University community. So, this is not a normal Spring Address. I speak today on the State of the University, as we stand at the center of the coronavirus pandemic, each of us in our separated spaces, so that we may have a shared understanding of the current circumstances and the way forward from this point to assure a vibrant future for this University.

I start with the more significant of the realities. At the beginning of the current fiscal year, Governor Murphy signed into law a budget that included $47.1 million in direct operating appropriation for the University. In an effort to address its financial challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, the state has cut its already modest support for public higher education. As a result, that $47.1 million appropriation has now declined to $34.8 million, a $12.3 million loss, or 26% of our operating appropriation. The University suffered that loss at the exact moment when it had to absorb approximately $22 million in unanticipated new expenditures and losses of revenue directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic, creating a total negative effect, to date, of over $34 million and growing. That financial loss, by itself, were it a confined, one moment in time, and relatively straightforward financial event would be a very serious, but manageable event, one that could be addressed by disappointing, but not catastrophic, reductions in expenditures and somewhat larger than usual tuition and fee increases for students, an option that would be completely inappropriate at this time.

However, our current situation is not that kind of event. It is not a confined, one moment in time, straightforward financial event. At this moment in time, we have absolutely no idea what state appropriations are likely to be in the fiscal year that begins in two months. The University received $20 million in federal support under the CARES Act, half of that sum for emergency financial aid to students and half to address the institution’s coronavirus expenses. We are grateful for that help, but is not sufficient to address the situation. We cannot yet know with any certainty what the arc of the coronavirus event will be in this region. We cannot clearly estimate what the continuing costs will be of the University’s required response to the health crisis, although we know there will be additional costs. We have moved from an operating mode where we could predict student enrollments to a situation of considerable uncertainty in regard to enrollment. In short, our current circumstances constitute a much bigger and much more complex and challenging situation, one that occurs within the context of the magnitude of the external economic situation and the challenge this crisis has posed to the identity and mission of this institution.

First, the economic impact of the coronavirus in this region is immense and continuing to grow. I have confidence that the state’s economy will be rebuilt, but it will not happen in a day or in a year. It will take time. One aspect of the impact on the University of New Jersey’s economic collapse will be the likely inability, for some time, for the state to provide adequate support to its public universities. But that will not be the most significant economic impact. New Jersey has, for a long time, been steadily shifting the cost of public higher education from the state to the students and their families, and that unfortunate public policy has left New Jersey students with among the highest public tuition levels in the nation, and, now with the economic consequence of Covid-19, there will be great financial pressure on New Jersey students.

Student tuition and fees account for approximately 77% of the University’s total revenue. Well before Covid-19, affordability of public higher education was already a serious problem in New Jersey. With the worst unemployment in the state since the Great Depression, there is absolutely no question in my mind that the biggest challenge the University faces from the economic impact of the pandemic is that large numbers of our students will feel that they can no longer afford to attend Montclair State University, or at least not now, and, given its diminished state support, the University will not have sufficient resources to address what will certainly be a very significant increase in financial need by our students.

So, this is the first major contextual threat. As we stand here today, we do not know and, more importantly, our students do not know if they can afford to go to college and they are less sure that they should go to college now. Not every institution in the state or in the nation has that problem to the same degree. But given the demographics of our student population and given that the unemployment numbers will have created a whole new group of middle-class students who are newly needy because of loss of jobs in their families, we must solve for that problem if we are going to have students in the fall and in succeeding terms. In other words, there is absolutely no way that the financial dilemma of the University can be solved, nor should it be solved, by tuition increases, nor is it likely to be solved by large enrollment increases.

The second major contextual issue goes back to the point I noted at the beginning. For the first time in its history, the University community cannot be together – the students, the faculty, and the staff have all been banished, most of the buildings, laboratories, studios, computer centers, library, lecture halls, performance and athletic spaces, and most of the residence halls have been shuttered. This circumstance is what it would be like if a war were being fought on our soil; indeed, some have compared the battle against Covid-19 to a war. The profound impact of this aspect of the current circumstances for the University is that the very strategies used to address the pandemic have put in jeopardy the actual foundation and identity of the University and its mission.

How amazing and impressive it was that we, along with universities across the nation and beyond, were able, within a period of about two weeks, to transform our entire instructional program from face-to-face learning to fully remote instructional modes. I recall media coverage talking about the “switch” to online learning as though, somehow, we just flipped a switch. We know that was not so. The effort, by faculty, by technology staff, by advisors, and by our students was enormous and demonstrated both creativity and commitment. But now, as students and faculty approach the end of this spring term, we know, more certainly than ever, that the educational process, absent the critical leavening of community, does not yield the kind of teaching, learning, and research that we want to provide, and our students, particularly our undergraduate students, have made it quite clear that it is not the kind of learning that they want or need. While we able to provide effective educational experiences to enable students to continue progress toward their degrees, they sorely miss the presence of a learning community in which they can truly thrive.

So, yes, with the extraordinary efforts of all those people, from Information Technology, the faculty, our Health Services, our Physical Plant personnel, our advisors and student support staff, and so many others, we saved this academic term for our students, who could ill-afford to have lost this semester, but we need our community of teachers and learners back. We need our laboratories and our studios, our classrooms and lecture halls; we need our campus; and, most important, we need each other. We need our colleagues and our students, and our students need each other and they need us. There may be some institutions that see a viable future for themselves going forward as largely online institutions. Some institutions had made that transition before Covid-19. But I am certain that is not Montclair State’s future. It would not be consistent with our identity or our mission. It would not serve our state or our nation well, and, while online learning is a beneficial option for some of our students, it is not the best option for the great majority of our student population. It would not serve our faculty or support their ability to continue their research and the pursuit of new knowledge, nor their passion to teach and mentor students, those very endeavors that define who they are. We could make that transition, but to do so would not be anywhere close to the best service that Montclair State University can provide to society. We have heard that angels can dance on the head of a pin, but is dancing on the head of a pin the best use of an angel’s time and resources? We have proven that we can dance on the head of a virtual pin, but now we need to stop. We need to get back to building and being the University that for 112 years has dedicated itself to supporting the progress of our state and the larger nation and world, back to helping determined students realize their potential, get back to the work of leveling the playing field for all segments of the population who come to us with the desire and the ability to prepare themselves for constructive engagement in the world.

If we accept that core principle, then, given the practical realities of where we are, what must we do?

Task number one, instructional plans for the fall: This summer, we are ready to run a robust wholly remote summer session. The fall is the major effort before us. Each college, school, and disciplinary area already has made a good start in reviewing and reassessing its instructional program for the fall. In order to achieve savings and efficiencies, the course offerings have been tightened up considerably, with critical attention given to assuring that we offer and appropriately schedule those courses required for student progress to the degree. That was step one. Now each college and school dean or director will lead a second stage of planning for the fall term that will prepare us for three alternative scenarios, driven by the external realities of the state’s health situation and any related requirements pursuant to governmental regulation.

Under scenario A, the University is fully open, or close to fully open in September, with relatively normal instructional protocols in place. Under scenario B, the University is open, but there are health-related protocols and constraints placed on our instructional activities that require a hybrid model for all or most instruction, that is, a combination of face-to-face and remote learning. Under scenario C, the University is forced, once again, to rely solely on remote learning methodologies. What I yearn for is scenario A; what I think is most likely is scenario B; and what I despair to see again is scenario C. But we need to be ready to go with all three scenarios, and, while the circumstances, as they unfold and change over the next two to three months may cause us to think it will be A, B, or C, it is my judgment that we will not truly know with any certainty which way we will go until the end of July. So, to repeat, we need a plan in place for all three possibilities, and, this time, we have more than two weeks to do it.

To accomplish this task, I have asked each college and school dean and director to lead a planning effort, working with their faculty and staff to develop a complete plan for those three instructional scenarios, building on the foundation of the instructional plans that have already been completed for the fall. The provost’s office will provide coordinative guidance to the process to insure sharing across colleges and schools of the best ideas, to assure consistency, where there should be consistency, and to encourage specialized plans where those are required by the particular needs of a specific discipline. While the academic units are working on these plans, the finance and budget units will be working side by side with them to understand the financial implications of the various plans.

Task number two, student recruitment, enrollment, and advisement: Between now and September, the University will be heavily focused on driving recruitment and enrollment initiatives, and there has never been a greater need for strong and responsive student advising. As you may imagine, this work is exceedingly challenging now. Not only are high touch, on-campus admissions, enrollment and advising processes now restricted to a wholly online process, the other challenges I spoke about earlier are having a heavy impact throughout the state and the nation on student enrollment. Students are uncertain about the future. They can’t visit the campuses they had intended to visit, they do not know if they will be able to afford to go to college because of their own loss of jobs or unemployment in their families, they do not know if campuses will be open, which they want, or functioning online, which they don’t want, and many are feeling depressed, isolated and unsure of their future. In short, the upcoming fall enrollment season is, as I have said, a very uncertain one. A large team of people, from Undergraduate Admissions, Communications & Marketing, Financial Aid, and all the student support, advising and Information Technology services, as well as the Graduate School, are working hard every day at outreach to students and at trying to address their concerns, their questions, and their financial and other needs. We are finalizing a plan to enable us to get the $10 million in CARES Act emergency financial aid to students both this spring and throughout next year. As welcome as those federal funds are, they will not be enough to address the need. In that regard, I want all of you to know that there is a whole community of alumni and supporters out there who have continued to stay in contact with the University and who have continued to provide both generous support for scholarships and personal messages of encouragement to our students. We are so grateful that they are standing with us as we work through this crisis.

Task number three, campus life planning: Just as we need to develop multiple scenarios for instruction for the fall, we will also need multiple scenarios for all the major areas of campus life. For example, will our residential halls be open with near to normal operating protocols; or will they be serving a reduced population with adjusted health-related protocols; or will the residence halls stay closed? What will be the plan for food service on campus, for athletics and performing arts programs, for all other campus activities. We are working on all these alternative scenarios and tracking their very significant cost implications.

Task number four, health and safety protocols: A small group of campus experts have been serving as our advance team to identify the most critical health and safety issues for the campus, and I am expanding this group to advise me on the development of our protocols for use when the campus begins to open. Their work, based on developing and changing external and internal factors, will address such matters as on-campus Covid-19 testing, contact tracing, PPE availability, health services, informed consent requirements, and, of course, social distancing protocols for instruction, working on campus, residential life, food services, campus activities, and so forth.

Task number five, creating a viable financial structure for FY 2021: As I noted earlier, the University is not in any way in a period of business as usual. If we are to get to the other side of this crisis with the core institution intact, I would not be being forthright with you if I did not say that we are going to have to take some painful actions to mitigate the current financial adversity. We are trying to preserve almost all of the University’s full-time regular employees. However, we are eliminating most temporary positions, and we have implemented a strict hiring freeze, with exceptions only for critically needed positions, including those new faculty and critical leadership positions whose recruitment we have completed. Because of the required shut down of a number of on-campus operations, we have a significant number of employees whose jobs have essentially disappeared, some of whom may be furloughed until their units can be re-opened. We have eliminated virtually all travel expenses, and we have closed down procurement of all but the most essential of materials. We have deferred most repair, maintenance and renovation projects, with exception only of a small number of projects that are necessary to preserve the University’s infrastructure and avoid the significantly increased costs that delay would incur. The College Hall renovation is very close to completion and will be continued.

We must run as efficiently as possible, and we must strategically shift all available resources to our five critical and essential priorities. Those priorities are: quality instruction, research continuity, enrolling and enabling students to continue their education successfully, the health and safety of our students and employees, and sustaining our educational community. These elements represent the core and we must save the core so that, when we are on the other side of this crisis – and we will get to the other side of it – the University that stands is focused and strong, thinner than it was, but healthy and secure in the continuation of our mission. And once we are there, or close to there, perhaps in 18 months from now, then, little by little, we can begin to take up some of the projects we may have set aside for a while. We will be able to start to grow and build again, to put on a little weight, to dress up again, and even splurge on a piece or two of bling – because this is Jersey and we like our bling.  Although, for us, bling usually means some fancy kind of microscope.

The journey ahead is going to be a tough one, but I remind you that everything this University accomplished over the decades has been by its own labor. Over its century long history, this institution has always worked to a vision and a mission that grew and evolved to meet the changing needs of society. And all that effort and growth came from the internal imperative of successive generations of people just like all of us, that is, smart people, committed and decent people, hardworking people, who believed profoundly in the importance of the work that we do. Well, we are the people now. This university is in our hands now, and our students and the next generations of students are in our hands now, and our job, working together, is to deliver the University and its students safely through this crisis and into the future.

I thank you for all that you have done and will do. I thank you for your fortitude and courage in difficult times. I miss you all profoundly, and I look forward to the time when we will all be able to be together again.