COVID-19 Update: Message from Chancellor Watson

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UW-Whitewater photo/Craig Schreiner

UW-Whitewater Chancellor Dwight C. Watson listens as social work student Nia Mooney reads a spoken word poem she wrote. UW-Whitewater welcomed Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes as the Black History Month keynote speaker on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.

Dear Warhawks,

UW-Whitewater faces a challenging juncture in the life of this legacy university. Our campuses are different places today from a month ago, and much different from six months ago. I wish I could report that the challenges are coming to an end. They are not. In reality, the difficulties facing individuals and the institution have just begun and will only intensify. In the coming days we, as a university community, will need to make decisions regarding some immediate and critical situations.

Those include:

– UW-Whitewater’s financial health.
– The spring 2020 commencement ceremonies.
– Issues related to course grades and evaluations.
– The future of summer courses, camps and conferences.
– The fall 2020 semester.

My leadership style is one of consultation, collaboration and contemplation. I am most comfortable moving forward when we have looked at issues from many sides and considered the potential ramifications of each scenario. Much consideration is given to the impact every decision will have on our students, faculty and staff, as well as the overall health of the university. Each decision is reviewed through the lenses of care and safety, financial liquidity, student and personnel care, and operational continuity.

believe in times such as these, steady leadership is critical. That does not mean we don’t understand the urgency of situations or that we don’t recognize the additional stress the not knowing may cause. In the end, I believe we need to make the best decisions now to position UW-Whitewater for a strong and vibrant future.

Let’s address each of those five areas of decision points.

Financial health:

We have worked for the last two fiscal years to build a sustainable financial model. We have substantially addressed the budget shortfall that resulted from the diminishing revenue from declining enrollment. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in expenses and loss of revenue that is nearing $9 million.
The scope and the severity of the situation is deeply concerning. Yet, we enter this crisis on a better footing because of the work we’ve already done to reduce and redirect funds by implementing operational efficiencies and developing new revenue sources that enhance the quality of services to students, faculty and staff, and reducing unbudgeted expenses and operating budget expenses.

We do not know the full impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the greater economy and the university’s financial situation. We must prepare for additional reductions in many of our major sources of income including tuition and housing and dining revenue.

On Thursday, UW System President Ray Cross signed an amendment to UW System policy giving campuses the authority to enact furloughs and layoffs. Universities will manage this flexibility in a way that best meets their financial needs.

Details on how furloughs will be deployed at UW-Whitewater campuses will be released next week.

What is a furlough? Unlike a layoff, a furlough is an unpaid leave from employment that not only continues an employee’s benefits, including health insurance, vacation and sick leave accrual, but it also holds the employee’s position so that at the end of the furlough the expectation is that the employee will return to work. UW System has provided a Frequently Asked Questions document that may address additional questions.

Given the critical state of the nation’s and the state’s workforce situation, university leadership believes furloughs are the best option at this time rather than laying off employees. Please understand, that as this situation continues, we may need to use layoffs, and additional sacrifices may be asked of us.

These are not the only steps we are taking to protect the long-term financial health of the university. Other steps may include:
Pausing hiring except for essential personnel in order to conserve resources to support existing employees.

Suspending any unmandated salary increases for the coming academic year.

Submiting our Fiscal Year 2021 budget as planned, without consideration of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic will have on our university. We will, however, need to make additional budget adjustments as this crisis unfolds.

Eliminating any purchases or expenditures through the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 2020). Please work with your supervisor to determine if a purchase is essential.

Continuing our operational excellence efforts, including the work of the Process Improvement Advisory Team (PIAT) to continue to identify and implement cost savings.

This is sobering news. I understand that. However, given the impact that we are already experiencing from the COVID-19 crisis, we must leverage all viable options to preserve our operations while responsibly managing our finances.

Our spring 2020 commencement ceremonies:

From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew that there would be much concern regarding the status of commencement. Our decision to postpone the May ceremonies at both our Whitewater and Rock County campuses was in line with Gov. Evers’ Safer at Home order. We sent out a survey asking for input on how we should proceed. Our intention has always been to celebrate, in one form or another, the amazing accomplishments of every single May 2020 graduate. This is also a historic commencement for our university. It was 150 years ago that we celebrated our very first graduation.

I have asked the Commencement Committee to review the survey findings and offer suggestions for commencement celebrations and ceremonies. The committee will make recommendations to the Cabinet next week. We will evaluate those recommendations and communicate the plan as soon as possible.

To our graduating students and your family and friends, we are so proud of each of you. This is not the final semester you envisioned for yourself, or we for you. Rest assured we will celebrate you, your achievements and your contributions to UW-Whitewater.

Issues related to course grades and evaluations:

Undergraduate students will have the option to switch to “satisfactory” or “no credit” in most courses. Students will be able to make this decision by May 27, and I urge them to consult with their advisers before making their decisions. Students have requested this adjustment and we hope that this measure reduces the stress that our students are feeling during this transitional time.

Course evaluations should proceed in a way that honors student voice as well as instructor choice. As details are worked out we will share additional information with the campuses.

Decisions regarding summer courses and camps:

All summer 2020 courses originally scheduled as face-to-face or hybrid courses will change to alternate delivery forms. These courses may require synchronous online meetings during the scheduled class times. Instructors will contact enrolled students with course details.

Students should work with their advisors for course selection and to answer questions.

All courses originally scheduled as online will proceed as scheduled.

UW-Whitewater typically hosts nearly 8,000 campers each summer and also hosts many conferences. A decision regarding the future of camps and conferences will be made by May 15.

The fall 2020 semester:

“What will the fall semester look like?” I hear this question over and over. The simple and honest answer is, I don’t know. The health and safety of our community will be paramount in any decisions regarding the fall semester. We make a promise to our students and their families that we will provide safe environments for them to live and learn. We also make that same commitment to our faculty and staff. We will deliver on that promise as best as we can and we will not knowingly put anyone at risk.

You may have heard that universities across the country are planning for continued alternative delivery of courses for the fall semester.

Discussions are in the early stages on this campus and in the UW System. While no firm actions have been taken, I can tell you the fall semester is on the minds of the entire leadership team. Our hope is that we will return to our campuses under whatever scenario the new normal presents. We want our incoming students to experience the joys of beginning their higher education experience, to find their passions, to begin the transformation into their future selves. We want our campuses to return to a vibrant and engaged community within a community as we once again congregate as the Warhawk Family.

You may have questions or suggestions for me and the Cabinet. I’d ask that you send those emails to Chief of Staff Kari Heidenreich at
[email protected]

We have many challenges ahead of us. My desire is that we face those challenges together in a collaborative and consultative way. With precision and a firm course based on care and safety, financial liquidity, student and personnel care, and operational continuity, UW-Whitewater will come through this on the other side. We will not be the same place we were a month ago, or six months ago, but we will always be a caring community where we honor each individual and we embrace the scholarly work of teaching and learning.

Sincerely,
Dr. Dwight C. Watson
Chancellor

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