To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Post Docs
From: Clarence Lang
Date: May 6, 2020
I trust that your finals week is going well as we approach our University’s first virtual commencement ceremony.
May 9 figuratively marks the close of an extraordinarily eventful academic year at Penn State – one that none of us could have imagined in September would end like this. Moving forward, there are some things that we can anticipate happening in the short term. We can expect to continue working remotely at least through May, for instance, while Maymester, Summer Session I, and possibly Summer Session II courses will be delivered virtually. Similarly, we can count on summer camp programs, conferences, and other in-person events not being held at least through June 19, and domestic travel remaining restricted until at least June 30. As President Barron announced a few weeks ago, we can also trust that current University employees who do not have work they can perform will still receive 50 percent of their salary, and benefits based on this adjustment, through the end of June.
At the same time, there are a number of details that are not as straightforward. We cannot predict when international travel – currently suspended indefinitely – will resume as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Although the University has frozen tuition rates for the 2020-21 academic year, we will not have a good idea until mid-June whether we are on track for on-campus fall instruction. Even if this does occur, we do not yet know how we would stage a safe return to work, except that it will require a deliberate, incremental approach different from the abrupt way in which we had to transition to our current remote environment. Fortunately, the University has formed three new task groups on public health and science assessment, return to work, and return to campus and community to provide some necessary thought-work and planning.
Further, with a projected loss of over $100 million in revenue since March, and an additional $160 million estimated to be lost in the next fiscal year, we do not know the full extent of the measures the University may be compelled to explore in the next several months. In the case of Liberal Arts, the 3 percent cut that we must make to our budget for fiscal year 2020-21 amounts to approximately $2.3 million, and this rescission will dramatically affect our capacity to pursue such aims as hiring new faculty and staff, filling position vacancies, approving space renovations, and launching major college-wide initiatives.
That said, I remain stubbornly encouraged. Yes, we are entering turbulent financial weather; but, the University’s adoption of the System for Integrated Management, Budgeting and Accounting (SIMBA) will lend greater transparency to our expenditures and balances. Meanwhile, the surge in our college’s undergraduate paid accepts (up nearly 30 percent) is a welcome development that I attribute to both the work of our Undergraduate Studies team and Penn State’s sturdy reputation. Although it is still too early to predict what our “melt” might be in the fall, our summer enrollments are strong and our trajectory toward August is promising. And while our embedded programs remain on hold, the college’s Career Enrichment Network maintains its focus on building our students’ skills, enhancing their insights, and coaching them on their resumés and CVs. Along with this, our college has created a Liberal Arts Emergency Fund for both undergraduate and graduate students, which I hope you will consider supporting along with the University’s Employee Special Assistance Fund.
As I near the end of my first year as dean, I am proud of the connections that I have made with Liberal Arts alumni and am confident in the progress that our Alumni Relations and Development team is making towards reaching our college’s $85-million capital campaign goal. I also value the many interactions I have had with students, staff and faculty, and I hope that the recent series of Dean’s Office “check-ins” has helped to establish the long-term relationships that I want to build with you and other Liberal Arts constituencies. Your academic heads and directors have been healthy advocates of their units, and I look forward to staying in communication with them over the summer as we attend to the college’s budget in concert with our finance officer and our strategic plan with input from your colleagues.
Our Liberal Arts Teaching Group, Office of Digital Pedagogy and Scholarship, Filippelli Institute for e-Education and Outreach, and Information Technology team have been exemplary resources for teaching and learning with technology. Likewise, our HR team and Staff Advisory Committee (SAC) have kept staff employees engaged in regular workshops and events. Consistent with this year’s Liberal Arts cascading staff goal and funded by a modest grant from the University’s Equal Opportunity Planning Committee, our college’s HR strategic partner, director of diversity and inclusion, and SAC leadership in 2020-21 will be coordinating bi-monthly lunchtime sessions geared toward promoting cultural awareness and competency, and skills building, among Liberal Arts staff employees.
Meanwhile, our Dean’s Office staff has done a faithful job of anchoring vital administrative operations (including appointments, promotion and tenure, sabbatical leaves, public events, data analysis, space management, creation and revision of policy, college committee elections) and assisting me with experimental efforts like the Dean’s Advisory Group on the Evaluation of Teaching, and the Dean’s Leadership Advisory Group. Through the Research and Graduate Studies Office, our college has piloted a writing group for assistant and associate professors. In concert with the Office of Educational Equity, our college will be piloting a Midcareer Faculty Advancement Program of mentoring, coaching, professional development, and research support aimed at moving associate professors more rapidly to promotion to full. Although the emphasis will be on supporting humanities and social science faculty who identify as African American, American Indian, Latinx, or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, this pilot will also serve faculty with a demonstrated record of service commitment to equity and inclusion in higher education. Both trials are conceived as part of a larger effort to normalize mentoring for all pre-tenure and mid-career faculty.
The most heartening occurrence by far has been the spontaneous organization on the part of our Liberal Arts community to respond to this outbreak and its effects. In addition to forming mutual aid networks targeted to your departments, some of you have joined community efforts in the borough. Liberal Arts patrons like Sue Paterno have made generous gifts to the Lion Pantry and the University’s student emergency funds; others, like Gene and Roz Chaiken, have helped to distribute refurbished ventilators to medical facilities. One of our new alums, Brandon Bernicker, and one of our college’s current student “Change Makers,” Ezra Gershanok, co-founded a non-profit that distributes face masks to shelters, retirement homes, food pantries, and county jails. From a research and teaching standpoint, numerous faculty from all disciplines are delivering critical perspectives on the social, historical, psychological, political, and economic contexts, and consequences, of COVID-19 – which we will be showcasing in due course to incoming students, alumni, and other publics. In theory as well as practice, we continue to demonstrate the value that the liberal arts bring to emergent challenges surrounding work and wellness, sustainability, interpersonal and intergroup communications, social difference and inequality, empathy, and ethical citizenship.
As the Dean’s Office begins the work of crafting our college’s next five-year strategic plan, I look forward to maintaining the priority areas that I have shared with you over the course of this academic year: access, affordability, and career preparation for our students; research productivity, scholarly impact, and career advancement for our faculty; recognition and ongoing professional development for our staff; and equity in our daily functions and decision-making. To be sure, these priorities will have different meanings in the ruptures created by COVID-19. For instance, what opportunities does this moment create for exploring more formal, longer-term telecommuting work arrangements for staff, and others, as we settle into a new “normal”? How does “career readiness” for undergraduates, and professional training for graduate students, look against a rapidly changing economic backdrop? And what measures do we need to take to maintain inclusive learning in an environment where remote teaching may become more frequent? Thankfully, the University’s Zoom security updates, scheduled to go into effect May 11, will counteract disruptive “Zoom-bombing” incidents that impose hazardous work and learning conditions onto instructors and students.
I am both vexed and energized by questions and challenges like these, and I look forward to us tackling them together as this academic year transitions to the next. There is no question that we are traveling into rough headwinds; but as always, I am grateful for your forbearance, feedback, leadership, and support. Congratulations and thank you for all your hard work for our college, and Penn State, during 2019-20. If you can, enjoy this weekend’s commencement, take some time for well-deserved rest, and stay healthy and safe.
See you again very soon.