President Dobkin's Spring Address to Campus

April 15, 2020

Good morning. Thank you for joining me. I’m sure you’ve gotten plenty of screen time lately, and I’m glad you’re willing to spend a bit of that time with me. I’d like to share a few thoughts and updates with you and then take whatever questions you might have, either through the chat feature or by jumping into a conversation with me.

First, let’s acknowledge the incredible work of our community over the last 2 months in responding to the coronavirus. I know it’s not over and there’s more to come, but we’ve had several staff and faculty and working tirelessly as part of a COVID-19 response team. This group, coordinated by Bri Buckley, has included Chanae Allred, Richard Brockmyer, Jeff Brown, John Contreras, Sara Demko, Kenton Gregory, April Greener, Laura Kendellen, Han Kim, Aaron Lewis, Holly Patterson, Anthony Russell, Natalie Seely, Traci Siriprathane, Sheryl Steadman, Emily Swanson, Jessica Sweitzer, Alison Vasquez, and the President’s Cabinet members. All of these people have contributed to our coordinated and prompt responses to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

I hope you’re weathering this new kind of storm in good health and safety. While the virus continues to affect everyone, it affects everyone differently. The risk of infection varies for individuals, their loved ones, and vulnerable populations. Most households have lost income, some with devastating impact. Homeschooling has taken on new meaning. Some people are enjoying solitude; others are withering without social contact. Every life has been disrupted, and no one knows how much more our world will change.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, we are rediscovering or learning new things about ourselves and each other. I’ll bet that we’re doing more of this than most places, because we’re all invested in learning. We believe in learning, growth, flexibility, and innovation.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, we have successfully completed an accreditation visit. Our regional accrediting agencies help ensure the quality and sustainability of the education we provide, and their endorsement enables our students’ access to federal aid. We have yet to receive the visiting team’s report, but their initial commendations and recommendations were consistent with our expectations. I attribute the smoothness of the visit to the incredible work done in preparation, from Lance Newman and Paul Presson’s organization, writing, and leadership, to the many people across campus who contributed to various sections of the self-study. Thank you to all who participated in the interview process, to Nichole Greenwood’s support in data collection and analysis, and to Leslie Freeman for handling meeting logistics. Virtual accreditation visits are new to everyone, and I think we set a high bar.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, our students are continuing their academic progress. Students and faculty alike are navigating new learning modalities, adjusting to fluctuating internet bandwidth and family competition for access, and doing what they can to create engaging interactions. There’s plenty to grieve as we miss real time and place experiences both in the classroom and beyond, and particularly for our students whose graduation festivities have been postponed. I’m hopeful that we can have an on-campus commencement and graduate hoodings in the fall, but it’s still too early to tell. In the meantime, there’s still much to celebrate in the achievements of our students and faculty.

As we celebrate, we must also recognize that the pandemic has magnified social inequities, as the most vulnerable among us suffer the greatest impacts of illness, unemployment, and food insecurity. For many of our students, particularly Utah’s women, staying home doesn’t necessarily mean staying safe. It means providing care for elders, children, and siblings; cooking, cleaning, and homeschooling; and trying to practice self-care as their own work comes last. Their experiences underscore the need not only to return to in-person, in-school instruction, but to keep our diversity, equity and inclusion commitments, plans and progress intact.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, we are keeping college operations going and planning for the future. Our Admissions staff, in partnership with staff, students, and faculty, has been contacting admitted students, generating virtual experiences, showcasing Westminster, and sustaining interest for the fall. We won’t know our new student numbers until well into the summer, as families weigh risks and financial uncertainty against the promise of a Westminster education. But we do continue to receive new student deposits, and our fall continuing student registration is strong. Thank you to the faculty and staff who have kept in close and regular contact with students, helping them to plan for the fall.

Our food service provider, Bon Appétit, continues to adjust to our changing campus population and create dining options from Shaw. Our buildings and grounds crews continue to maintain and improve our physical infrastructure. Our Information Services staff has been providing the support necessary for critical back office functions; we’d be lost without their expertise and dedication. Our bills are getting paid, our buildings are getting cleaned, and our messages are getting out. Thank you to everyone who is helping to keep the college open and operational.

Finally, the shift to remote work was sudden, disruptive, and imperfect, but the community responsiveness has been exemplary. Despite encouraging students to stay home nearly 5 weeks ago and moving to remote instruction on March 23, we have kept most of our employees on our payroll and are continuing full health care coverage for the handful of staff for whom no work is available. We have not instituted hiring freezes or layoffs. How long this continues will depend on whether we receive federal relief funding, when we fully reopen, and the number of students we are serving. We should be receiving emergency aid for our students soon, and we will use that to provide support for partial refunds of room and board to residential students, and for emergency aid to help all students with food, housing, transportation, health and child care costs. We are also pursuing every possible avenue for relief funds at state and federal levels to help sustain our personnel and operational costs, and asking for restraint in end-of-year spending.

Of course, we can’t stay open and operational indefinitely without students on our campus. We need to consider the implications of a delayed start to the next academic year, or another term of remote instruction, though I don’t think those things will happen. Call me an optimist, but I hope that, before the end of summer, testing and treatment will have progressed to the point of better protecting those at highest risk of contracting the coronavirus. I think that most of the current restrictions on travel, large gatherings, and social activities will be lifted. I think that everyone will have better appreciation for our teachers, be more interested in health care reforms, be tired of their own cooking, and be ready for new adventures in education. And we need to be ready for that possibility.

So, at the same time we deal with ever-changing, daily challenges we also need to continue our planning for the future. I recently invited staff and faculty to participate in strategic planning work over summer and received far more interest than I anticipated. This is a great show of support for and interest in Westminster’s future. We know where our areas of focus still need to be: enrollment, student success and signature experiences, and alignment of our programs with student interest and market needs.

I anticipate that the group working on a signature student experience will be bringing together our current strengths in directed research and creative works, internships, professional activity and mentoring with our unique location and environment. The group charged with recruitment, retention, and success of students will establish realistic enrollment targets, and define student success and wellness, along with the support needed to achieve it, consistent with the college’s mission and resources. Finally, the curriculum alignment group will continue work begun last fall on the use of data regarding student interest, market needs, and existing program strengths to inform recommendations about academic programs, as well as working to achieve more sustainable student-to-faculty ratios. Our Planning & Priorities Committee will oversee the process, and we’re working on a way to involve everyone who’s expressed interest in participating over the summer as either organizers or key partners.

How we approach strategic planning will undoubtedly be influenced by the pandemic, but it’s still too early to know the long-term financial impact, or what we, or our students, will have learned from the crisis. We have to move forward while knowing that plans may change. Regardless of whether there will ever be a complete “back to normal,” we will recreate the learning environments that best serve our students. Liberal learning, perhaps augmented by increased technology-assisted instruction in the future, will continue to be our calling.

In the meantime, take note of what you and our students are missing right now, and take note of what they’re not. Think about what we absolutely must be doing in the fall, and what might not be so critical. Find the things that bring you joy, and make time for them – if not now, then once the pandemic subsides.

Thank you for your generous commitments now, and your bravery in facing the future together.