Leadership Discusses COVID-19 Budget Impact with Faculty Senate

Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights, President Thomas LeBlanc and Provost M. Brian Blake addressed the Senate during its first meeting of the 2020-21 session.

May 11, 2020

The George Washington University will experience significant financial losses in the next fiscal year, estimated between $100 million and $300 million depending on how “normal” it is able to safely operate, President Thomas LeBlanc told the Faculty Senate on Friday.

Broadly, three scenarios for operations beginning in the fall “capture the range of possibilities that we see for the coming year,” Dr. LeBlanc said.

The first—which the university is working toward—is a return to on-campus instruction and a residential academic experience with necessary public health measures in place. The second would involve a mixture of online and on-campus instruction. The third would be fully online.

Under the scenarios, there is a gap between expected revenue and expenses of $100 million, $200 million and $300 million, respectively, for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1. This is in addition to the $25 million net financial loss the university will experience in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“We’re going to have to figure out some very tough choices to mitigate the financial impact,” Dr. LeBlanc said, adding that the university will need to look closely at personnel and compensation because it is a significant portion of the budget. 

Actions could include pay or benefits reductions, early retirement options, furloughs, layoffs, reorganizations, consolidations or reductions in travel and other categories, said Dr. LeBlanc, who also shared an update on the budget in a letter to the GW community on Monday.

At this time, no new decisions on budget actions have been made beyond what was previously announced last month.

“I’m very conscious of the consequences of the decisions we have to make on people,” Dr. LeBlanc said, adding that he worries about the well-being of the GW community just as he worries about his family. “I take it very seriously.”

In the coming weeks, Dr. LeBlanc said, he is working with vice presidents of administrative units on cost-saving plans and Provost M. Brian Blake is working with deans on school plans. Both will also be consulting regularly with the Faculty Senate and its leadership and committees as well as the Board of Trustees.

In questions and comments, faculty senators emphasized the importance of being involved in discussions about both budget and academic operations planning, particularly as decisions are made in the immediate weeks and months ahead. Dr. LeBlanc said Friday’s discussion was the first of what will be a number of conversations with faculty, with more detailed information to come.

Efforts also are underway to establish necessary public health processes and protocols before returning to on-campus operations, Dr. LeBlanc said.

“We cannot invite our employees back to campus, our students back in residence, our faculty back in their offices, unless we have testing, tracing and a quarantine capability,” Dr. LeBlanc said, and GW’s public health and medical experts are working “furiously” on these efforts.

Dr. Blake, meanwhile, is leading contingency planning teams of students, faculty, staff and leadership who have been discussing operating scenarios and their impacts on enrollment and retention, academic programming, student life, public health, research and the budget.

Planning will include consultation with the Senate and its committees.

“We’re going to have to work very quickly,” Dr. Blake said. “We have a number of ideas, many groups have met with students and faculty … students really want to come back.”

One important consideration in this planning is providing alternative academic options for individuals who cannot or should not come back to campus, such as international students who cannot travel or members of vulnerable populations who are at heightened risk for complications from COVID-19.

The university will provide another update on fall planning this month and hopes to make a final decision on fall operations by June 15 to allow the GW community time to prepare, Dr. LeBlanc said.

Board chair remarks
Chair of the Board of Trustees Grace Speights, J.D. ’82, thanked the faculty, Dr. LeBlanc and the administration for their roles in responding to COVID-19.

“I know that virtual instruction comes with a lot of challenges, but it’s been incredible to see the faculty come together so quickly to ensure our students continue to get a great education,” Ms. Speights said.

Ms. Speights noted the board would be closely involved in operations and budget planning as part of its fiduciary responsibility.

“We will have significant revenue losses,” Ms. Speights said. “There is no doubt about that.”

One action Ms. Speights added would not be prudent in mitigating losses is using funds from the endowment or reserves, as it would sacrifice GW’s long-term future. She also assured faculty there would be transparency through the “thoughtful” planning processes, and recognized the importance of faculty input.

Additionally, Ms. Speights provided a brief update on the board’s Task Force on Naming as well as the Environmental, Social and Governance Responsibility (ESG) Task Force, and encouraged faculty participation. The naming task force recently held town halls to solicit input. The ESG task force will share a draft statement of investment responsibility with the GW community later this month for feedback.

Closing her remarks, Ms. Speights emphasized communication and transparency with faculty and the university’s commitment to health and safety.

“It is now more important than ever that we come together as a community,” Ms. Speights said.

Provost’s remarks
Dr. Blake thanked the faculty for their extra dedication to students this semester and for being actively involved in the planning processes.

He also noted the U.S. Department of Education recently released new Title IX regulations. GW is reviewing the regulations and will continue to support and promote the well-being of the community, he said.

Executive committee chair report
Associate Professor of Finance Arthur Wilson, the new chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, said there was much work ahead for the Senate and concern about the coming year.

“This is of course a time of great danger for the university and for many of us,” Dr. Wilson said. “But it’s also a time of great opportunity if we can identify and seize it. We need to make sure that we come out of this a stronger institution, not a shadow of what we were.”

Chair’s remarks
Dr. LeBlanc thanked all faculty for everything they have done to transition to virtual learning and support students, in addition to the efforts of GW’s health and safety experts and medical providers.

He also thanked the new Senate for offering to serve over the coming year.   

“There’s some difficult times ahead, some difficult decisions,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together and having a lot of conversations. I know that all of you will bring to those conversations a spirit of what’s in the best interest of this university. As we think about celebrating our 200th anniversary we should be making decisions that guarantees our 300th anniversary. I know that we’ll work together to do that.”

Dr. LeBlanc encouraged all faculty to be engaged in the contingency planning processes, including by sharing ideas by email to [email protected]

Other Faculty Senate news

  • The Senate passed two resolutions. The first recommends updating the current first-year academic forgiveness policy to allow all undergraduates to “repeat for credit and grade forgiveness three undergraduate-level courses taken at GW in which they received a grade of D+ or below.”

    The second resolution establishes that the Senate and its committees will schedule meetings over the summer to discuss the university’s ongoing response to COVID-19, and it emphasizes consultation between the Senate and administration on matters of shared governance including in the areas of instruction and research.
  • Dr. LeBlanc said GW has been allocated approximately $9.1 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

    Roughly $4.5 million is available to be distributed directly to students facing financial hardships due to COVID-19. The other portion can be used by GW to cover institutional expenses related to the pandemic.

    Universities may accept or decline the funding they are allocated, Dr. LeBlanc added, and GW is considering several factors in making this determination as well as how the university would distribute funds based on demonstrated student need.
  • The Senate approved rosters for standing committees and faculty appointments for university committees.