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Looking Forward

Dear Friends,

I hope you are safe and well, and doing what you can to take care of yourself and your loved ones during this unsettling time. Many of us have found it all too easy to succumb to fear and anxiety right now; I am working intentionally to acknowledge those feelings when they arise and then to find ways to address them. And though we are doing our part to fight the spread of this virus, maintaining social distance and being separate from one another adds to the challenge.

But with the arrival of springtime on our campus, I am reminded that there is still beauty to be found. Like you, I have learned of stories of love, hope, care, and resiliency, all inspired by this global crisis. And let us remember that the College itself has always been resilient: Swarthmore was founded during the U.S. Civil War. The College persisted through World War I, when the lack of students threatened its existence, and the 1918–19 influenza pandemic. Despite widespread anti-Asian sentiment during and after World War II, we welcomed Japanese American students to study here, and we took principled stands against McCarthyism. In other words, through moral, financial, and existential crises, Swarthmore has not only persevered, but has done so guided by our values.

I want to reiterate my gratitude for your commitment to the College, to our students, and to one another. I cannot enumerate all the ways you’ve inspired me and so many others through your commitment to our community — the staff members who’ve stepped forward to ensure that our students could return home and that those who have to stay on campus remain safe; our faculty who’ve quickly adapted their courses for online instruction; our students who have lost memories and experiences, yet have found other ways of connecting, learning, and creating. We have been tested, but our resiliency is sustaining us and carrying us forward. 

Below are several key updates on how we are addressing the disruption brought about by COVID-19. This virus brings with it a level of uncertainty and unpredictability that makes planning for the months ahead a challenge. We will continue to do our best, but please understand that our efforts will necessarily be tentative, iterative, and adaptive.

  • After working to help students get home or to other safe environments away from campus, we are providing for just over 90 students who have no other safe place to go at this time.
  • A small number of staff members continue to report to work — many on a reduced schedule and with additional precautions in place — to ensure the safety of our students and our campus. 
  • Commencement 2020 is being reenvisioned with the help of the senior class officers and Student Government Organization leaders. We are determining the best ways to make our virtual ceremony on May 24 meaningful while also assessing the best time and format for an in-person Commencement for the Class of 2020.
  • Summer programming is being evaluated while we determine what is possible to do in-person or virtually. While funding for summer programming is secure, we do not yet have a sense of when it will be safe or feasible to invite people to campus. We plan to make decisions about our various summer programs between April 15 and May 1, and we will try to preserve as many opportunities as possible, even if some have to be conducted remotely.
  • We recognize that summer experiences are critically important to our students’ academic programs. We want to assure any student who has been awarded summer funding that the College has no plans of rescinding this funding and is seeking safe ways for students to be able to pursue projects this summer. Our top priorities at this time are to ensure the safety of our community while continuing to provide the highest quality of academic programs possible. Recognizing the wide range of summer experiences and related circumstances — such as travel, work with external organizations, lab research, and internships — we realize that many of these plans may need to be reimagined under the current circumstances. We also recognize that some projects may no longer be feasible and/or may need to be postponed. For those students who have received an offer of summer funding, the department, center, or faculty sponsoring your experience will work directly with you in the coming weeks to develop a plan.
  • In addition to ensuring our students were able to relocate to safe alternatives to on-campus housing, we have offered credits for room and board charges, including to fully aided students who paid no fees to the College. We have also guaranteed that work-aided students will receive a base pay regardless of whether they can continue to work remotely for the remainder of the semester. And we have committed to paying all employees, including non-benefited employees, through the end of the semester, even if work is unavailable to them.
  • These and other expressions of our values come at a significant cost. In the immediate term, we expect that certain savings — such as catering and travel expenditures — for the duration of the semester will help offset some of those expenses. In light of the College’s prohibition on travel, we also ask faculty and staff to cancel all work-related travel through June 30 and seek refunds wherever possible. Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown will provide additional details later this week about other ways we can work to reduce costs without sacrificing what is most important during this time.
  • In addition to the costs described above, the downturn in the global financial markets has substantially reduced our endowment. That’s significant because we rely on our endowment to fund more than half of our annual budget; it enables us to live into our mission. While we remain financially secure, the financial implications of COVID-19 will affect our budget in the years to come. As such, I am appointing a Financial Study Group, consisting of members of the faculty, my senior staff, and of the Board of Managers, to consider the immediate, short-term, and long-term financial implications of the current situation. This group will advise me and the Board on how the College and the Managers should make disciplined decisions, guided by the College’s mission and values, and remain responsive to the uncertainties we face as a result of this global pandemic and market activity. 
  • Likewise, the COVID-19 Planning Group, my senior staff, various faculty committees, and many others are engaged in conversations to ensure we are prepared to provide academic continuity through a range of scenarios related to when the threat of COVID-19 will subside and we can resume normal operations.

As I conclude, let me reiterate my deep appreciation for the ways in which this community has risen to the unprecedented challenges of the moment. I also want to remind all of us that, while we cannot anticipate the impact this pandemic will have on our lives and our world, we will get through this. Scientists and researchers around the globe are united in their efforts to develop both a vaccine for COVID-19 and treatments for those who become ill. Data suggests that mitigation efforts are working to bend the curve. I look forward to the time when we will see one another again, and share a laugh, or a drink, or even, dare I say, a hug.

Until then, please continue to take care of yourselves and your loved ones.


Val Smith