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Friday, May 8, 2020
Dear VCU students, faculty and staff,
There are several items to update you on as we continue to advance our mission through the COVID-19 crisis.
First, let me take a moment to celebrate our 5,000 students who will receive their degrees over the next few days. I am always proud of our graduates, but I am particularly proud of this year’s cohort who have been inspiring in their persistence, resilience and courage to complete their work under very difficult circumstances. They have met an historic challenge with grace and fortitude. They are role models for all of us in dealing with this global pandemic and its impacts.
If any class should be celebrated on a grand scale, it is the class of 2020. Unfortunately, we can’t be with them in person. But please join in the virtual commencement to offer your congratulations and best wishes to a truly remarkable class. Hopefully we will all be able to celebrate in person at the December commencement.
COVID Financial Impacts
Our students and their families have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Many face tough financial situations that threaten their plans to start or continue their college educations.
We vigorously advocated for student financial relief with federal and state officials and have received $10 million in federal CARES Act funding for students suffering hardships during the pandemic. The VCU Federal Emergency Relief Fund is available for students to apply for aid under this program. In addition, the Virtual Student Services Center is now available 24/7 for students to ask questions and get information.
We learned during the great recession that we cannot ask our students to bear the brunt of a financial burden caused by economic conditions. Today, the Board of Visitors approved our recommendation to freeze undergraduate and graduate tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year. There will be no tuition increase for in-state or out-of-state undergraduate and graduate students. This is the second year in a row that there will be no undergraduate tuition increase. The board approved a modest increase in mandatory fees, about $56 per semester, necessitated by student service related expenses, contractual costs and health benefits. Details are available at the MyTuition website.
The Board of Visitors will consider the full budget at its June 5 meeting when the university has a better financial picture, including enrollment numbers. We will not know the level of state support for the coming academic year until late summer or early fall when the General Assembly reconvenes to approve the state budget.
Even with those uncertainties it is clear that VCU is not immune to the perilous national and state economies. Our projected budget deficit is of historic proportions. The costs associated with COVID-19 are enormous. In mid-April they eclipsed $50 million, including $13 million in lost revenue principally due to refunds and credits to students. These costs are mounting every day.
To give some perspective, 1% of undergraduate tuition this year generated about $2.7 million. Tuition increases will not solve a budget shortfall of this magnitude.
The budget proposal to be considered by the board in June will necessarily include painful measures to address this serious financial situation:
- The hiring and salary freeze will continue indefinitely
- University vice presidents have been asked to submit budget plans that incorporate permanent cost reductions
- While we cannot make guarantees, we want to protect jobs as much as possible. However, there is a strong possibility for a furlough in the coming year that affects all university employees – faculty and staff – as well as senior leadership. All of us.
All aspects of the university budget are being examined for reductions and reallocations to maintain our financial stability and support our core missions. The financial news is not easy to deliver, but you deserve to know where VCU stands. We will keep you updated as our financial situation and resulting actions become clearer.
Return to Campus
University officials are working around the clock to prepare VCU for a safe, phased return to campus for the fall semester. Life with COVID-19 will be a new normal for us, and we are reassessing how we teach, interact with one another and conduct daily life on campus. We have learned a lot from our own health system as it reactivates its clinical services. Higher education should be prepared to lead the way with models of moving forward as safely as possible in uncertain and daunting circumstances.
Our number one priority is safety. This is the basis for the guidelines established for our return to campus:
- We will follow CDC, state and VCU Health guidance
- We will evaluate personal protective equipment (PPE), supplies, policies, procedures, education, and screening, tracing and testing protocols to implement a phased plan for our return
- We will continue physical distancing practices
- We will provide clean and sanitized facilities in line with CDC guidelines
- We will work to accommodate vulnerable members of the VCU and Richmond community
- We will be flexible to address new situations, including expected waves of COVID-19 and changes in requirements, guidelines and best practices
Some of our health sciences students will return to their clinical placements and training before the start of the fall semester, and their return will be under similar safety considerations as described above. Clinical placements will resume per state guidance and will be safely supported by VCU Health and other established clinical training sites in adherence with safety expectations at each clinical facility.
It will be important to have input from students, faculty and staff in our planning. We will continue to conduct various surveys and talk to student, faculty and staff groups and organizations.
VCU Health and its courageous front line staff have provided remarkable care and service to the Commonwealth of Virginia throughout the COVID-19 crisis. With the hospital safely containing the treatment of COVID-19 patients, VCU Health has a phased yet full reactivation of its clinical services, resuming non-emergency surgeries and ambulatory care. The clinical reactivation is critical to our mission as the region’s safety net hospital. We are in a public health crisis and cannot let people fall through the cracks or get behind in their medical treatments. VCU Health will be very helpful in VCU’s reopening and we are fortunate to be connected to a world-class academic medical center.
As universities and colleges contend with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. Department of Education just released its final rule regarding higher education’s obligations under Title IX to prevent and respond to unlawful sex discrimination – in particular sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The most significant change is a requirement for a live hearing with an opportunity for a party’s advisor – who may be an attorney – to cross examine the other party and witnesses. If the party does not have an advisor, we must provide one without fee or charge. Our initial sense is that this change will make the process more adversarial and court-like and it likely will make our hearings significantly longer and more costly. Our legal and Title IX experts are reviewing and analyzing the final regulations to understand the full impact of the changes and advise the university community.
Make it Real Campaign for VCU
I want to end my report to you on a positive note. The Make it Real Campaign for VCU, which officially concludes at the end of June, stands at $824 million - about 110% of the $750 million goal. As these funds mature over the years, they will provide endowed scholarships and other student support, endowed chairs and professorships, and endowed faculty support and research funds. I’m looking forward to celebrating the success of the campaign and am very grateful to the thousands of donors - many of them VCU and VCU Health faculty and staff - who continue to support our students, our patients and our mission.
None of us has been through anything like this before – a worldwide pandemic that has changed our lives forever. What hasn’t changed is the indelible spirit of the VCU community. In the midst of immense personal and professional challenges, our students, faculty, staff and health care team members have come together as one VCU to carry out our mission with passion and compassion for each other and those we serve.
President, VCU and VCU Health System