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Provost’s Message: Planning for the Fall Semester and FY21

Dear faculty:

Thank you for your continuing commitment to educate our students as we manage the challenging circumstances caused by COVID-19. Delivery of the curriculum by online learning is proceeding well, and I believe that processes and revised policies are now in place to allow students to complete the spring semester successfully.

As you finish the spring semester, I do not want you to be overburdened by tasks associated with assessment of institutional effectiveness. You have already been notified that collection of Pathways assessment data has been suspended, and that I accepted recommendations made by the Faculty Senate relating to student evaluations of teaching. As I mentioned in a previous communication, we will not let unavoidable circumstances caused by COVID-19 have an adverse impact on a faculty member’s career. The adjustments made to the assessment program are being documented and are calibrated in accordance with guidance received from our accrediting body, SACSCOC.

Plans for the summer have now been confirmed. All instructional and other activities will be delivered online, including summer sessions, Summer Academy, new student orientation, conferences and camps. I have encouraged colleges to expand course offerings in the summer sessions if feasible, to demonstrate our ongoing commitment to Virginia Tech’s educational mission and to provide students opportunities to sustain their academic progress, especially if the spring semester turns out to be academically challenging for some of them. Should colleges anticipate the need for additional funding to hire instructors beyond those budgeted, the Academic Resource Management unit in the Provost’s Office will work with deans and department heads to advance summer-earmarked revenue budgets.

Planning for the fall semester has started and I look forward to continuing to engage the university-level academic leadership, deans and Faculty Senate as we think through the details. Acknowledging that Virginia Tech’s reputation for excellence in teaching is closely tied to its on-campus learning community, we will do our best to deliver the curriculum in-person. You have already demonstrated both your willingness and ability to deliver a fully-online curriculum, and we may need to do this again if we are unable to deliver in-person instruction without a resurgence in COVID-19 occurring. However, considering that online learning does not lend itself easily to experiential learning, including field work, wet laboratories, artistic performances and research, we must make every effort to integrate these in-person experiences into the curriculum, but do so in a manner that satisfies our high-priority commitment to the health safety of students, faculty, and staff while maintaining our academic standards. To achieve this goal of offering in-person experiential learning in the fall, we will need to employ public health measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 infections and protect individuals who are at a greater risk of contracting serious disease. Obviously, there are many details that still need to be worked out, but I want you to be aware of the plans being developed at this time. It is also important that you be informed that, even though we are planning to deliver in-person learning in the fall, there is a risk that this may not be feasible. Knowing this, I encourage you to use any time that you may have available this spring to prepare for the possibility of teaching online in the fall as a back-up plan.

In anticipation of the need to implement budget cuts in FY21, colleges and departments have received a memo directing them to limit non-essential spending and personnel hiring. These actions will enable academic units and the university to carry over to the next fiscal year fund balances that can then be used to mitigate the financial impacts of COVID-19. We do not yet know how much budgets will need to be reduced, as we have not yet received specific direction from the state. Nevertheless, to be sure that we are prepared, colleges will soon receive instructions from the Chief Business Officer to draft preliminary plans for managing multiple budget reduction scenarios. While these scenarios will provide across-the-board target ranges for cuts to colleges and VP areas, I anticipate that the PIBB model and the university strategic plan will be used to align actual reductions to the individual circumstances relevant to each college or VP area.    

We appreciate the financial assistance received from the federal government through the CARES Act. Half of the approximately $19M allocated to Virginia Tech must be used for direct student support, and the balance will be used primarily to address extraordinary emergency response expenses and expenses not covered by revenues across several university operations. I was pleased to learn yesterday that another stimulus bill is moving through Congress that is likely to benefit universities. While federal funding will provide much needed financial assistance to students and the university, it is not expected to address fully the financial challenges ahead so it is important that we limit expenditures to those that are essential. Please note that the Tech Talent Investment Program taps an unrestricted state funding source that is separate from the funding that is appropriated for support of the rest of the university. Consequently, hiring of computer science and computer engineering faculty and design of the innovation campus in Alexandria continue to move forward in accordance with the university’s agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia.

As you well know, there are many uncertainties relating to COVID-19 projection models, the details of our academic planning for the fall semester, and the financial challenges that we will have to manage during the next year, but there are also certainties upon which we can depend. These include the resilience of our community and our collective commitment to move forward our teaching, research, and outreach missions. Thank you for demonstrating that commitment in so many ways, every day.