To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Post Docs
From: Clarence Lang
Date: May 13, 2020
I trust that your week is going well now that the spring semester has drawn to a close. In that vein, I hope that you were able to enjoy Penn State’s first University-wide virtual spring commencement this past weekend. The live-streamed event had an estimated 92,000 viewers, which does not begin to capture the number of people who watched it from shared screens.
As someone who “attended” the commencement activities of each of our college’s departments, programs, and schools, I was deeply impressed by the diversity and high quality of the programs, videos, audio recordings, and other features that staff and faculty assembled to honor our graduates. (All of these materials, incidentally, are accessible by department/program at la.psu.edu/commencement.) There is no question that you represented Liberal Arts wonderfully, and I am confident that you made our students proud. I am grateful for the time, effort, and creativity you invested in this work. Thank you.
We also owe plaudits to our college’s student services and strategic communications teams for producing our spring commencement program and carefully coordinating the virtual festivities. Further, I want to recognize Randy Houston, one of our esteemed alums who generously provided us with a special message as president of the Penn State Alumni Association; and Awaly Diallo, who served honorably as this year’s college student marshal. (You can find both of their messages, and mine, here.) Although I look forward to inviting Awaly and the rest of the Class of 2020 back for in-person galas when public health guidelines allow, the lively virtual celebrations of your departments, programs, and schools have established great templates for future graduation gatherings. Given the imaginative ways in which we used available technology this year, it makes sense that commencement exercises in our college should continue to incorporate technological enhancements in the future and not return to “normal” at all.
More immediately, I need to share two important updates that warrant your attention in our rapidly evolving circumstances as a University.
First, many of you have been awaiting guidance on the reappointment process for fixed-term faculty. (Guidance on reappointment letters for fixed-term staff employees will follow in another week or so, but this is definitely forthcoming.) The Dean’s Office has received University permission to proceed toward a fixed-term faculty reappointment process, and departments will soon receive notices to draft reappointment letters when we have final approval. All units are being required to add new language in letters of (re)appointment for fixed-term faculty and fixed-term staff positions that make more explicit the University’s ability to terminate these appointments for cause at any time, including in the event of serious budgetary or enrollment setbacks. This new language will also specify the University’s right to institute pay reductions or furloughs at its discretion.
I am keenly aware of how concerning this new language will be for many of you who are already anxious about the University’s budgetary state of affairs. What I can say is that Penn State has no current plans to terminate either fixed-term staff or fixed-term faculty, or impose pay reductions or furloughs – this language has been added to allow for flexibility in the event that such measures became completely unavoidable. Further, if we were faced with such contingencies, any decision not to offer a new contract, or terminate fixed-term staff or fixed-term faculty would be highly scrutinized at the college and University level before any action could be taken. More to the point, our dean’s office considers both our fixed-term faculty and fixed-term staff to be vital to our college’s instructional and research missions. The goal remains to retain our college’s employees to the fullest extent possible, even as Liberal Arts faces significant financial difficulty and possible reductions in enrollment.
Second, the provost and senior vice president for finance and business have endorsed changes in the procurement of goods, services, and University travel, which our college and our counterparts are being required to implement. no purchasing power until further notice.
The University is adopting these emergency measures for two primary reasons: to focus spending on research and mission-critical activities; and to direct as many purchases as possible through the eBuy system in order to take advantage of negotiated pricing. Given the size of our college, and the wide range of our purchasing needs, we need guidelines that make practical sense for us. Toward that end, our financial officer, Jeff Lieb, will be contacting your units to request your nominee for a single “super user.” Once the dean’s office has these responses, we will make final determinations and communicate those back to you as we put this new purchasing process in place.
In terms of travel, the University’s travel restrictions have been extended through June 30. In the meantime, our college has been tasked with developing an internal pre-approval plan for all travel anticipated to begin after the end of June. In a similar fashion to purchasing, I will continue to work with our college’s finance office to establish reasonable, workable protocols.
To be sure, we are confronting a number of challenges, and we often do not control the conditions under which we have to pivot – sometimes quite suddenly. At the same time, members of our dean’s office team remain involved in the University’s enrollment management and semester/summer course delivery subcommittee, one of the important groups coordinating campus-level planning in the short and intermediate term. Indeed, one of the issues that recently surfaced in this group was concern about Penn State students living in urban, densely populated COVID-19 “red zones” being disadvantaged in retrieving their residence hall belongings under the University’s newly announced move-out policy. We have also worked actively to encourage the active inclusion of key representatives from our college in the longer-term planning being led by the provost’s new task groups regarding return to campus and community, return to work, and public health.
As we enter the summer, I will keep you updated as more developments emerge, but I wish to reiterate that our core principles remain steady: prioritizing our people; delivering our academic mission; maintaining our commitment to equity and inclusion; communicating in a consistent and transparent manner; and investing strategically in the long-term success of Liberal Arts at Penn State.
Take good care for now.