July 17, 2024

A message from President Paino

A message from the Office of the President. 

Dear Colleagues,

As of this month, we have lived and worked under the threat of COVID-19 for a year, and the range of our experiences and emotions over these past twelve months is hard to describe. When we transitioned to remote learning and work in March 2020, it was impossible to imagine the lengthy, tumultuous road ahead. In fact, our initial announcement to campus contained the hope that we might return to our normal routines within weeks. That hope was quickly quashed as we slowly realized the scope and impact this pandemic would have on our daily lives.

Writing today, I feel both the deepest gratitude possible for each of you and hope for our future. I know this past year has presented immense challenges for each member of this community, and I appreciate the grace you have extended to one another amid the ebb and flow of a public health crisis that revealed the high cost of our nation’s racial and economic disparities.

As a community we need to look back over this past year and mourn what we have lost, but we also need to find strength in what we have endured and believe in the hope that brings us together and propels us forward.

In this email, you will find an in-depth outlook on what I believe the future can hold for UMW and all of us. I won’t offer false promises, but I will attempt to share the current state of the University, including both the obstacles and opportunities ahead, as well as reasons I am confident we will emerge stronger than ever.

 

Current State of Affairs

Trust is a prerequisite if, as a nation and community, we expect to solve problems, meet challenges, and accomplish big things. It is particularly difficult to build trust when we are physically separated from one another, so I write in a sincere effort at transparency and honest communication. Because this needs to be a dialogue, at the end of this message there will be an invitation to an upcoming University town hall meeting.

Your commitment to our COVID-19 protocols – Monitoring, Masking, Distancing, and Cleaning (MMDC) – is testament to the strength of this community and our care for one another and the greater community in which we are a part. If everyone followed your example, I am confident that we as a nation would be much nearer to the end of this pandemic. Despite a plateauing of cases this past week, it appears a broader adherence to these protocols and the quickening pace of vaccinations has the country trending in a positive direction. With the approval of a third vaccine, many experts predict we could near herd immunity by sometime this summer.

I take no pleasure in constantly moderating such optimism with words of caution, but it is important that we recognize we cannot yet relax our commitment to MMDC. Despite Governor Northam’s loosening of some state-imposed restrictions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is making it clear that the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is still far too high for any relaxation of our standards. Models predict a possible fourth surge of the virus this spring if we let down our guard prematurely. With still roughly 65,000 cases and nearly 2,000 deaths per day as well as the threat of new variants of the virus, it is critical that we continue to wear masks and limit the size of social gatherings.

Jeff McClurken serves on a Department of Education/Virginia Department of Health working group, and he vigorously advocates for those working in higher education to have quicker and greater access to vaccinations. Please continue to read the weekly updates that he and Tim O’Donnell provide for more information regarding the distribution of vaccines and other news as it relates to the virus.

I do want to encourage each of you to sign up for a vaccine as soon as you are eligible. They are safe and highly effective. Please go to vaccinate.virginia.gov to get on the Vaccinate Virginia list as soon as possible. Even if it takes a while to get your shot, it is wise to get in the queue. The miracle of getting three safe and effective vaccines approved by the FDA within a year is an incredible scientific achievement. Getting vaccinated is what gives us the greatest hope of returning to the social life we all miss and crave.

 

Preparing for the Future

Several of you are wondering how and when most employees will return to campus. Across the world a digital acceleration has pushed organizations to create workable – albeit stopgap – means of continuing operations. UMW did this in less time than most. When a level of normalcy returns, we will examine what can be continued long term, and what was only a means of getting us through a perilous time. This examination will be framed through the lens of what allows us to best serve students and our mission as a public liberal arts university. To that end, I will soon begin appointing working groups from across the University to explore the future of work, the future of learning, and the future of student support and campus life at UMW. Their deliberations will lay the foundation for the next iteration of our strategic vision.

Our plan is for the University to be fully operational as we welcome the return of all students, face-to-face classes, and a vibrant campus life in the fall. It is hard to predict the prevalence and impact of the virus and what precautions will still need to be followed by August, but we can expect that those protocols will be modest compared to what we have had to follow this past year.

Students are understandably eager to enjoy the full measure of a UMW campus experience, and we are eager to deliver it to them. All of us must work together to give our students an experience that was worth the wait. By the time they return to campus in August, Virginia Hall and Palmieri Plaza will be fully renovated, and Seacobeck Hall will be ready shortly thereafter, with a scheduled opening by January 2022. In addition, beginning on May 10, we will tackle a long overdue infrastructure project that will address the aged and fragile condition of our water and steam lines. This project will cause a major disruption on campus, but it is essential for stabilization of our infrastructure. Most of this work will be finished by the time our students arrive in August.

 

What We Need to Better Understand

The pandemic has accelerated many of the forces that were already threatening higher education. There will be additional impact we can’t predict. We don’t know how the pandemic will have shaped the psyche of students – or any of us – until we are fully together. We won’t know how students’ needs have shifted or evolved during this time. It remains to be seen whether new students will be prepared for college demands after the myriad ways secondary schools responded to instruction during the pandemic. We have yet to determine what services they need, what support they will want, or even what fields of study they will demand. And we don’t know how many students we will serve. In all likelihood, we will not fully know our enrollment and occupancy in residence halls until August.

This means we have to remain conservative in preparing our FY22 budget. While this year’s legislative session produced good news for UMW (see below), more than 70 percent of our operating budget comes from tuition and fees. The unpredictability of our current situation makes previous years’ experiences less useful in establishing a precedent for next year’s budget. We will have to delay some of our decisions about positions and operating budgets until this summer.

 

Turning the Corner Towards Hope

Despite the sobering issues with which we have to contend, I am confident we will rise to the occasion. As a community we have pulled together to meet enormous challenges. Our plans and execution have stood up against larger and better resourced schools. The state has commended us, legislators have lauded us, and parents have thanked us. We have made mistakes, but given the fluidity of the environment in which we have operated, those are unavoidable. Each step of the way we have remained true to our principles by keeping the health and well-being of our students and community at the forefront of our decision making. We have done so while remaining committed to our mission of educating and serving students to become productive and engaged citizens.

As a result of your commitment and sacrifices, we have momentum. The General Assembly (GA) has passed a unified budget that includes a significant investment in UMW and its future. Although the budget is not finalized until Governor Northam approves it, the GA budget addresses all of our requests and even provides support beyond our very high expectations. The Governor has until the end of March to either sign, amend or veto legislation that was communicated to him from the General Assembly. The GA-approved budget includes the following for UMW:

  • $3.3 million for access and affordability

This support to our base budget allows us to keep the cost of attendance down which is especially important as many families are struggling financially amid the pandemic.

  • $4.5 million in general fund planning dollars for a new theatre and renovation of Melchers, duPont, and Pollard Halls

Members of the General Assembly are aware of the severe limitations of duPont, Melchers, and Pollard Halls to adequately serve the needs of our students and faculty. Not only were these facilities built when our population was one-fourth its current size, but the overstretched facilities are neither ADA-compliant nor an optimal learning environment. The arts are central to our liberal arts mission, and this investment demonstrates that public officials recognize their value to our students, communities, and democracy. This is an important first step in what will become a major capital improvement project, which will profoundly reshape and modernize our campus, contribute to the surrounding community, and help us more effectively recruit the next generation of students to UMW.

  • $568,000 toward a collaborative workforce development initiative

This funding will assist us in our ongoing partnership with the local school districts of Spotsylvania, Stafford, and Fredericksburg, as well as Germanna Community College, to offer accelerated and affordable degree pathways in computer science, nursing, and teacher preparation.

  • $740,000 for unavoidable COVID-related costs

COVID has added considerable expenses, forcing UMW to redirect precious resources in order to reopen and serve students. This allocation will help offset some of those unavoidable costs for supplies, services, and other unbudgeted expenses.

  • 5 percent salary increase for state employees

Although UMW must cover over half the costs associated with this pay increase, this is the happiest news of all. Put simply, our faculty and staff deserve this pay increase. The bill did have a provision that allowed for the exemption of certain higher education employees, but UMW is committed to give each and every employee, whether faculty or staff, this 5 percent pay increase. If the governor approves the state budget, this increase in pay becomes effective June 10, 2021.

I would like to thank the Board of Visitors, former BOV members, as well as the Alumni Association and UMW Foundation Board members, for their advocacy during this legislative session. Former state Senator and current Board member, Edd Houck, led the charge to empower this coalition of UMW supporters that yielded more than 400 budget advocacy communications to key General Assembly members during the legislative session.

In addition to UMW’s legislative success, we can look forward to this spring when we begin working in earnest on our new brand rollout set for this fall. Although COVID delayed our efforts by nearly a year, I believe – and all of you who have participated in testing the concept told us – it will be worth the wait. More than 7,000 people have led us to this point through their input and insights, and we believe the brand will be an authentic and inspiring representation of our community. Branding gives us the opportunity to tell the world what makes UMW special and why our work matters.

 

A Time to Celebrate, A Time to Talk

Graduates, students, families, faculty and staff are all eager to recognize the accomplishments of the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021. As everyone knows, we postponed commencement for the Class of 2020 in hopes of giving them the joy of a traditional Ball Circle ceremony with all the appropriate pomp and circumstance. Due to the ongoing restrictions around social gatherings, we ultimately postponed this event until May 6, two days before the scheduled Class of 2021 commencement. However, while the Governor has eased some restrictions, all public and private in-person gatherings are limited to 10 individuals indoors and 25 individuals outdoors. We have been instructed that this restriction applies to commencements. This presents a great hurdle, so we are exploring a variety of possibilities to celebrate our graduates, including virtual, hybrid, and a series of smaller in-person ceremonies.

We desperately want to give the graduates of both classes, as well as their families and friends, this moment to commemorate all that they have accomplished amid incredibly challenging circumstances. We continue to work with government officials and consult with other universities to determine what is possible. Expect an official announcement in the coming days regarding plans for both graduation ceremonies.

Finally, as a follow up to this communication, I would like to invite you to a virtual town hall on Tuesday, March 9 at 4 p.m. This will be an opportunity for you to ask questions, raise concerns, and present thoughts and ideas for how best to move UMW forward. Register and submit questions via Zoom or watch on YouTube.

Thank you for persevering over the last year and for keeping the faith and the fellowship that makes UMW an amazing place to learn, work, and serve. I am grateful for each of you. We are moving toward a brighter future; one day soon we will look back at this time as a test that allowed us to emerge stronger than ever.

 

Sincerely,

Troy