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The Road Ahead: Recovery and Defining a New Normal

This is an important, detailed communication from President Keenan regarding the university’s plans for recovery.


Dear Colleagues,

As you may recall from my previous messages to you, our university has responded with remarkable courage, compassion and determination to the monumental challenges posed by the pandemic. While Salem State’s response to the challenges caused by COVID-19 continues to be a point of shared Viking pride, we are entering a new difficult time—planning for our recovery and defining our new normal. At the outset, I also want to apologize for the length of this email; however, I believe this extensive communication and transparency is warranted in such an unprecedented time for our campus.

In my April 6 open forum remarks, I shared that our work to address the COVID-19 pandemic is comprised of three phases: (I) addressing the immediate safety and well-being of our campus; (II) continuity of operations and preparing for the surge; and (III), planning for the recovery of the pandemic’s impact. As Phase II continues, we have also begun Phase III: Planning for the recovery.

We enter this phase with a number of questions to which it’s impossible to have answers right now: Will it be safe for all classes to resume in-seat for the fall? When will large gatherings (>50) be allowed? Will there be a resurgence of COVID-19 this winter, or when will social distancing restrictions be lifted? What impact will all of this have on our enrollment and budget?

The list of questions goes on, and a clearer picture will not emerge until the facts do. Gene Labonte, assistant vice president of public safety and risk management, and Elisa Castillo, assistant dean of students for wellness, continue to closely monitor information provided by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Close monitoring will provide us with the data and knowledge needed to change course accordingly, however this information cannot be available soon enough.

This puts us in a very challenging position as we plan to return in the fall and craft a balanced budget for FY21. What we can do at this time is prepare for multiple scenarios so that no matter what occurs, we are prepared to move forward in a way that limits further disruption for our students and campus.

Integrated Planning Efforts

There are two, integrated recovery planning efforts currently underway, led by Karen House, vice president for finance and facilities and Gene Labonte, assistant vice president for public safety and risk management: (1) a financial strategic planning revenue assessment and (2) detailed operational planning. Together, the results of these plans will inform how the university operates next year as well as how the university allocates its FY21 budget. In a cross-campus effort, Karen and Gene are joined in this work by faculty and administrator experts in these areas.

Financial strategic planning, led by Karen House: a revenue assessment for FY21 will develop three financial models: best, middle and worst case. This work is based upon planning assumptions provided primarily by our faculty, applying their areas of expertise, across a variety of planning dimensions:

  • Health Policy and Externally Imposed Restrictions (Yvonne Vissing, Kathleen Adee, and Gene Labonte)
  • Economic Impact (Kenneth Ardon; investment advisors)
  • Psychology (Darlene Crone-Todd and colleagues)
  • Historical Perspective (Andrew Darrien and colleagues)
  • Higher Education industry (Steven Oliver, Vijay Kanagala, Nicole Harris)

Functional leaders (“Subject Matter Experts or SMEs”) responsible for Salem State’s key revenue components (including enrollment, state appropriation, housing and dining, investments, donations) are considering the planning assumptions and answering questions such as: What are the risks that need to be avoided? What opportunities can be leveraged? What resources are required? What barriers to avoiding risks or realizing opportunities must be overcome? The SMEs are developing narrative responses to these questions and a set of quantified projections for best – middle – and worst financial cases, all of which will inform the FY21 budget. The faculty experts have or will share their thoughts in writing and are discussing these planning assumptions with the university’s budget committee.

The budget committee is being expanded to include representatives from the university’s contract committees and key, relevant advisory committees, to ensure that the budgetary data is transparent, and planning/decisions are informed by community input. A Polaris channel is being established to share budget committee materials with interested campus community members.

At the same time, detailed operational planning led by Gene Labonte is underway as well. This work is addressing a variety of specific topics for each of three potential scenarios, organized by the following working groups:

  • Health and Safety – Elisa Castillo, assistant dean of students for wellness
  • Academic Affairs – David Silva, provost and academic vice president; and Emerson Baker, vice provost
  • Student and Residential Life – Carla Panzella, associate vice president and dean of students
  • Human Resources and Information Technology – Mark Quigley, assistant vice president for human resources and equal opportunity; and Curt King, chief information officer

The operational scenarios being contemplated by these working groups are as follows:

Scenario 1: Most classes proceed in-seat this fall and residence halls are open.

Scenario 2: All classes are online for part of the fall semester and in-seat for another portion of the semester, with residence halls being open while students are in-seat.

Scenario 3: Instruction is entirely online for the fall semester and residence halls are closed (with limited exceptions, as we have now, for students who need to remain on campus).

The working groups’ ideas and the financial modeling efforts will inform each other as the university develops an integrated operational and financial plan with contingency options. How we operate will, of course, be influenced by new developments in the course of the pandemic and the economy. The goal of the integrated planning work that has been described is to pursue our mission safely and prudently, and to position the university to be nimble when new information and opportunities are presented. Please know that even in the best-case scenario, we expect there will be a “new normal.”

I want to thank everyone for contributing their time and expertise to fully understanding what recovery will require in the fall and beyond. Faculty experts in other areas are encouraged to contact the working groups leaders to offer budget or operational suggestions.

Budgetary Impact of COVID-19

In the current year, FY20, $6.5 million in Federal CARES funding was allocated to our community; half as financial aid grants to students and half to the university to (partially) address costs of the pandemic-related disruption in spring 2020. The $3.25 million share for the university is insufficient to cover the $4.8 million in student housing, dining and parking refunds that are currently being processed, and does not provide any funding for the other coronavirus impacts such as technology, cleaning, communications, and reduced revenue caused by cancellation of in-person and group events.

Information about the FY21 budget, which begins July 1, will be communicated to the campus as the planning work advances. What is clear is that our key revenues are all under significant pressure due to the pandemic and the economic fallout. An initial formulaic estimate provided a worst-case financial scenario with a $28 million budget gap. Some of the variables include:

  • Assistance from the federal government: the COP (Council of Presidents) is working with our federal delegation on the next stimulus bill intended to help offset states’ substantial losses due to COVID-19.
  • How will the pandemic affect our state appropriations? As you may recall, our campus has also been very active at the state level advocating for support—including the Cherish Act and more recently the We.Belong.Here. initiative. State budget experts, however, are already projecting a deficit for FY21 in the $4-6 billion range and cuts in state appropriations are likely.
  • What impact will this pandemic have on our enrollment? The economic devastation brought by this pandemic will affect the ability of many students to pay. Over 650,000 people have already applied for unemployment here in the Commonwealth. Across the country, the number has reached 26 million over the last five weeks. Our financial aid office has been working closely with students and families to address these needs and to provide them with payment options. We also believe that students will have an increased interest in remaining close to home and choose Salem State as a result. Our strong regional reputation will help us recruit students who may have been considering another educational institution.
  • Will students feel safe and financially secure enough to live in our on-campus housing and participate in the dining program? At this time, these are unknowns as we have pushed out our fall housing registration until May and we believe interest in these programs will be determined by the manner in which classes are held—in-person, remote or hybrid.

Due to revenue declines, there are many difficult decisions to be made to balance the budget. For example, we have received numerous questions about whether there will be layoffs or furloughs. While there are still too many unknowns about FY21, unfortunately, everything must be on the table as the significant budgetary impact of this pandemic comes into focus. Given what we know about the state budget and the uncertainty related to any federal stimulus intended to bolster these state budgets, it seems likely at this time that furloughs could be a part of solving our budget deficit as it has been the case on campuses all across the country. As the potential for furloughs is explored, conversations with the bargaining unions will happen. Any furlough plan will be crafted with equity as a top priority—starting with me and senior leadership. At this point, I can only promise ongoing communication and transparency as this situation unfolds. While retrenchment cannot be ruled out, it remains my goal to resort to this measure only as the absolute last option. Salem State is not unique in our financial situation and every university is struggling with this new reality. However, I will tell you that every decision I make is through the lens of serving our students well now and ensuring that Salem State will be here to serve students far into the future.  

The Emotional Toll of a Pandemic

As we plan for significant decisions about the fall semester and beyond, I realize that for many on our campus, there are much larger concerns. Our students, faculty and staff will return with the emotional toll that this virus is having. With the help of Dr. Crone-Todd and the psychology department, we are working to better understand this toll so that we can support our students and one another.

Many thanks go to Student Life, Inclusive Excellence, Center for Research and Creative Activities, and Human Resources who have created “Bringing SSU to You!” through virtual gatherings and activities so that we can continue much needed human connections, albeit virtually. There have also been official and community-created support systems for our faculty and staff members. These efforts include community-gathered resources by the employee resource groups and other campus committees to social media groups created by individuals.

Our Student Life division is supporting students in a multitude of ways. This includes outreach efforts to every student through a care case management system to answer questions and connect them with supports including counseling and health care, financial assistance, access to technology, and connection with virtual events and programs. Close to 80 staff members have reached out to all traditional undergraduate, continuing education and graduate students and so far, 1,100 student appointments have resulted from these efforts.

We have also reached out to those students that have been impacted by the coronavirus since leaving campus to make sure they have access to health care, can follow public health guidance, and are able to finish the semester. In addition, we are supporting the more than 100 students who remain living on campus. Residence halls have been reconfigured to create singles for all students, and the food pantry has been moved into a residence hall to support student needs for food and personal supplies.

We have also launched efforts to help support students’ financial and physical well-being, which is of course connected to their emotional well-being. These efforts include the student emergency fund, which is being supported through Viking Warrior Day (begins today at 5:06 pm and through tomorrow), and a fundraiser for the SSU Food Pantry.

“Recovery” from this virus will not occur when social distancing restrictions are lifted, nor when the fall semester concludes. Planning for recovery will go beyond the fall, and beyond operational needs. In a feat that was nothing short of amazing, our faculty members have endeavored to provide a high-quality educational experience to our students despite the challenges this pandemic presents in their own lives. In addition, the previously mentioned care case management system implemented by Student Life has provided crucial help during this unprecedented time. This has not only allowed academic progress to continue; it has shown students that in a time of great uncertainty, we remain here for them.

Since its founding in 1854, Salem State has navigated many difficult periods—wars, economic uncertainties, civil unrests, and even other pandemics—and we have repeatedly demonstrated our strength and ability to adapt to changing times. I know the recovery will be long and include unexpected turns, but this semester has also proven what we can all accomplish together. Like our students, we are resilient and gritty Vikings. I have every confidence that we will conquer the COVID challenge and come out an even stronger institution. We will keep you informed every step of the way.

Thank you,

John D. Keenan

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