A Message from President Thomas J. LeBlanc: Planning for GW’s Future in a COVID-19 World

April 27, 2020

To the George Washington University Community:

In the course of only one month, we have experienced a monumental shift in our world, and we are feeling the impact on every aspect of our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present untold challenges­—on individuals, families, communities and institutions, including our university.

GW’s responsibility to you in times of crisis is always first to protect your safety. This has driven our decisions to move to virtual learning and teleworking and to ask that our students not return to campus for the time being. Many members of our community, especially our designated on-site staff, public health faculty and medical providers, have been and will remain resolutely focused on fulfilling our responsibility to your safety.

At the same time, many others at GW have been diligently preparing for what is to come and to help our university weather what will be more difficulties ahead, including with our finances. In many ways, our path forward, and that of every other university, is uncharted.

Still, we have worked in the short-term to control what we can control. In March, we notified you of some of the immediate actions that were necessary and prudent given financial losses to date and the uncertainty of the spread of the virus. We suspended all nonessential hiring and noncritical capital projects, and we subsequently determined that we would pause strategic planning for the foreseeable future. I have also requested that all university leadership implement cost savings and avoid expenditures in our operations wherever possible.

These actions have helped us through this initial period, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we should expect and plan for significant and ongoing financial challenges well into the future.  In recognition of these challenges, the senior leadership (President, Provost, EVP/CFO, Vice Presidents, Deans and Director of Athletics) will take a reduction in salary. These changes will take effect on July 1 and continue at least through the remainder of the calendar year, at which point we plan to reassess all of our financial decisions based on the university’s financial health. I want to thank the leadership for their commitment to GW’s long-term success.

One additional step we are now taking, after careful consideration, is to freeze all salaries and not award merit increases this year to faculty and staff. I understand this is disappointing news, but we believe it is a necessary step to sustain our operations and limit further impact on our faculty and staff as much as possible. We will still recognize the contributions of our faculty and staff through a performance management process this year, and these important conversations will happen in a revised and abbreviated form. You will be hearing more about our plans from Human Resources and Faculty Affairs.

At this time, we are not planning immediate layoffs or furloughs. We will do everything we can to utilize these types of personnel actions only if necessary, but there may come a time when we will need to exercise these options, as other universities have done. While I do not want to add to the anxiety so many of you are experiencing, I want to be honest about the seriousness of the situation in which we find ourselves.

To prepare for the long-term, we have convened several working groups to focus on contingency planning and how we can be a more efficient and resilient institution given current and future effects on our enrollment and revenue. Having made decisions about our spring and summer operations, we are now focused on fall. While we continue to plan for in-person instruction and a residential academic experience for the fall semester, we must plan for all possibilities. Provost Brian Blake and EVP and CFO Mark Diaz are working closely with the university’s deans and other university leaders on this effort. Cross-functional teams are looking closely at enrollment and retention, academic programming, student life, public health, research and the budget. They will provide recommendations to leadership soon, and we will keep you updated. If you have a suggestion for our contingency planning or cost reductions, please email [email protected]. We will read and consider every idea.

As we plan, some have wondered whether using more funding from our endowment or postponing the Thurston renovation could help, and I do want to provide some context about our thinking on these areas.

First, our fiduciary responsibility to GW’s long-term health and various legally binding agreements prevent us from using the endowment as one would an emergency fund. When we face prolonged challenges like this crisis, we must find other solutions to meet our needs. With respect to the Thurston Hall renovation, we consider the project critical. Without needed updates, Thurston can no longer safely house students, and the long-term need for a hall that supports high-quality undergraduate residential education will remain even after this crisis. We will move forward with the renovation subject to ongoing evaluation.

I understand there is a lot of concern about what the future holds, and I sincerely thank you for your patience, understanding and flexibility while we all navigate this new path together.

As our response to COVID-19 continues, we will need to take additional actions that affect our community. I want to assure you that we will comprehensively review and consider all options before making new budget decisions. We will listen to our staff and students, and we will consult meaningfully with faculty on matters of shared governance. Most importantly, we will be guided by our commitments to your safety, to the care of our GW community, and especially to our values of integrity, diversity, and courage.

Before this crisis, there was a need in our world for GW’s core missions of teaching and research. During this crisis, the need has only intensified. And despite the uncertainty of the future, we can be sure of one thing: our community will rise to the challenge and continue to Raise High.

Sincerely,

Thomas J. LeBlanc