To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Post Docs
From: Clarence Lang
Date: April 20, 2020
I hope that your week is off to a promising start.
Thank you to those who were able to participate in today’s Liberal Arts Faculty and Staff “Check-in,” and share questions and concerns about how our college and University leaders are responding to the COVID-19 crisis. For those of you who were unable to attend, a recording of the event is now available on the college’s YouTube channel; we will also have a link posted to the college’s Remote Resources page by early tomorrow. My office will host similar virtual gatherings this week with our college’s students and alumni volunteer leaders. I look forward to sharing the feedback that we gather from these events, as well.
One encouraging update for now involves the results of a recent remote learning survey of undergraduate students conducted by the dean’s office. Of the more than 200 students who responded, a large majority reported that they have been able to access course materials (86 percent), participate in live-streamed classes and discussions (78 percent), and find help when having trouble with remote coursework (79 percent). They also noted that they have been able to contact and schedule appointments with their advisers (94 percent), and they thought that our college’s communications regarding the transition to remote learning have been clear (83 percent). In my view, these results demonstrate the adaptability of our students, the resilience of Liberal Arts, and the exemplary job that you have done in pivoting to remote teaching, learning, and administrative work since spring break. I cannot thank you enough for your dedication to our students, efficiency, and overall professional diligence.
That said, our students have not been happy about having to move to the remote learning environment; more than three-fourths of them expressed a preference to be on campus. This should come as no surprise – I expect that most of us share the same sentiment. Their other complaint was that instructors added extra assignments when our courses went remote, making an already challenging learning environment more difficult. This is a criticism to keep firmly in mind as Penn State’s remote teaching continues at least into the summer.
Many of our graduating students also shared their disappointment about the May 9 virtual celebration planned for what would have been spring commencement. This decision, of course, is necessary due to the ongoing need for physical distancing and Governor Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order. To be clear, the May 9 affair is simply a way to recognize our graduates on the weekend commencement was to occur – it is not intended to “replace” an in-person ceremony. We in the dean’s office will continue to assure students – and we want to assure you – that Penn State has every intention of hosting an on-campus commencement event for the spring Class of 2020 just as soon as it is safe to do so. Consequently, we anticipate honoring our students not once, but twice, in the coming period.
Although remote learning and teaching will continue for a while longer past the spring, and summer study abroad experiences that have been cancelled, we are not yet sure when staff and faculty will be able to begin returning to campus or how this process might look. Neither do we know the full scope of the effects the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the state budget, our university’s state appropriation, fall enrollments and, most critically, revenues. In response, the University has implemented a hiring freeze, with exceptions to be approved by the provost’s office. Along with other colleges, further, Liberal Arts has been asked to submit a budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year with a 3 percent reduction.
I understand the multiple ways that this unfolding crisis causes uncertainty and anxiety. As my office receives updates about our collective situation, I will share them in as timely and transparent a manner as possible. You should know, too, that the dean’s office remains committed to considering all available avenues to limit the impact of this emergency on all of our students, staff, and faculty. One significant new development that reinforces this commitment is the $55 million in Higher Education Emergency Relief funding that the federal government awarded our University. Roughly half of these funds will go to emergency financial aid grants to students, while the remaining $27.5 million will go toward covering costs associated with changes to course delivery and campus operations, including a pledge to “use these federal stimulus funds to support employees and lessen the impacts of the pandemic on the University’s workforce.”
In the meantime, we will focus on our longstanding and emerging priorities as a college and accomplish them to the best of our abilities in this environment. This list of priorities includes
- continuing to recruit and expertly advise undergraduate students;
- offering virtual programming and facilitating virtual internship experiences through our Career Enrichment Network;
- creating and promoting emergency assistance funds for those facing extreme financial circumstances;
- supporting and assisting members of our international student population who have not been able to return home;
- fostering and maintaining an equitable and inclusive climate;
- recruiting and retaining leading faculty, and honoring appointment offers that we have already made;
- working closely with department heads and other unit leaders to address your continuing questions and concerns; and
- collaborating with the provost’s office and other University partners to make sure that our college’s interests are visible and represented in high-level conversations.
I will close by conveying my excitement about the timely research that many of our faculty are beginning to do on the various dimensions of this COVID-19 catastrophe. For example:
- Mark Anner (Labor and Employment Relations) recently published a study detailing how some global retailers have been refusing to pay millions of mostly female apparel factory workers the wages owed them for completed work. This exposé has goaded many of these retailers into restoring these wages.
- Ray Block (Political Science and African American Studies) participated in a virtual town hall last week sponsored by the National Council of Black Political Scientists. Ray discussed the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African American communities, and the effects of this on public opinion.
- Tima Moldogaziev (Public Policy) was part of a team of scholars assessing the White House’s branding around the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act stimulus.
Others of you surely are engaged in public-facing scholarly work, and I welcome opportunities to learn more about it. Among other things, these initiatives are powerful reminders that our college has a future beyond this moment, and that we are poised to provide vital commentary on all that will have occurred. And while no one can say for certain what this future will bring, I will say this again: We will get through this, we will learn from this, and we will be more creative, more nimble, and tougher.