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Gee: Mountaineer values continue to guide us in COVID-19 response

April 23, 2020

Dear West Virginia University Community,

As we near the end of another week of social distancing measures to keep our community safe, perhaps the novelty of the crisis in which we find ourselves has become a bit frayed. However, we must stay the course and take pride in knowing that we are adapting in ways we never thought possible. Change – especially unwanted or unforeseen – is always challenging. And even if we approach each day with a positive outlook, there are times when, as they say, the struggle is real.

Though I know we all yearn for the time when we will return to campus, I also know that we are doing the right thing for the right reasons. In March, we acted swiftly. And in doing so, we undoubtedly saved lives. It is a real-life example of the Mountaineer grit we so often use to describe ourselves. And I am immensely proud of the efforts and contributions each one of you has made to keep our campuses and communities safe and healthy.

This pandemic also has elevated our commitment to our land-grant mission. We have designed protective medical face shields to assist our healthcare workers. We have posted how-to gardening videos on social media for our families. And we have loaned Dr. Clay Marsh to the State of West Virginia as the Coronavirus Czar. These are but a few examples of the many ways we have led during this time. Our contributions underscore the value West Virginia University brings to the state, and indeed, to the country.

As a land-grant, public institution, it is our mission to serve all 1.8 million people of our state. As an R1 research institution, it is our calling to bring the very best of ideas and solutions to bear with the hopes of instigating change and providing hope for the future.

Our sense of purpose has never been more clearly defined. But as we follow that polar star, we must do so with a mind toward dutiful preservation. We have seen numerous articles within higher education delivering a cautionary tale. There are very real and sobering financial implications for institutions of higher learning due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, it is our responsibility to take every measure possible to protect our students, our faculty and staff, and this University we all cherish.

We are very grateful to our Congressional delegation for negotiating a deal that brought over $20 million in funding to West Virginia University under the CARES Act. We are using those funds to directly benefit our students. We are dedicating $10 million for cash grants to provide direct financial assistance, with the remaining $10 million being used to offset part of the refunds we are providing to our students for housing and dining plans.

However, let me be clear those funds will not protect us from financial hardships. Just as our peers across the country are experiencing, the end of this fiscal year will be a challenging one for our University. Even with the significant support under the CARES Act, we must be prepared for serious declines in several of our major sources of revenue including tuition and fees, summer camp revenues, gifts, grant activity and athletics.

While our revenues will decline, we have taken several proactive measures to mitigate those losses. With our inability to travel, our travel expenses have reduced considerably. We have heeded the request to limit spending to only those needs that are essential and critical to the operation of the University. Our supply and service expenses for this quarter are down significantly. We also have limited hiring to only those positions in which the search process was well underway or those deemed critical to the institution.

In addition, I will be giving back 10 percent of my salary to the University community. I have asked other senior administrators to reduce their salaries or make a comparable charitable contribution to the University. All agreed to do so without waver.

And on May 5, alumni and friends will have the opportunity to provide direct scholarship support for our students during #GivingTuesdayNow, a global day of giving created to help meet the unprecedented need caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The WVU Foundation will host a 24-hour online fundraising event to benefit the Gray Student Emergency Fund, which provides emergency financial aid and unrestricted scholarship support to students experiencing a sudden financial hardship.

So, despite an uncertain future, this I know: As a campus community, I am incredibly proud of the sacrifices you have made and the initiative you have shown. Together, our concerted efforts will make a lasting difference for our long-term financial health.

We will weather this storm.

And as we look toward the future, I know there are more questions than answers. To begin framing what the fall might hold, a team of senior leaders is developing contingency plans based on a variety of scenarios. Leaning on the public health information we have at this time, we are examining three academic instruction scenarios:

  • on-campus instruction with social distancing measures in place;
  • delayed arrival on campus with partial online instruction; or
  • online instruction for the fall semester.

I want you to know this: We are working relentlessly every day because I want to bring our campus back to life this fall – if our health care professionals believe we can do so in a safe manner. We will be prepared to provide our students with a world-class education, regardless of the format, in the safest ways possible. We are investigating a variety of solutions from obtaining personal protective equipment for our staff and students to reviewing measures to implement testing, tracing and isolation as necessary. There will be a new normal, and we will navigate it together as Mountaineers.

The team is also reviewing various financial simulations. Research shows that institutions could see significant reductions in enrollment this fall. We have previously shared how even a slight change in enrollment creates a substantial impact on our budget. To prepare, the financial team continues to run various models to better understand the fiscal ramifications should we see enrollment numbers shift dramatically. And today during the Campus Conversation, details regarding a possible furlough were shared. In the coming weeks, we will work with our Board of Governors to respond and take appropriate budgetary action based on how our revenues and enrollment develop.

I share this to reassure you that as a University, we are moving forward. Though we may not know what lies ahead, we will prepare – and we will be ready. When faced with a challenge, we can either seize the moment with ingenuity, or we can freeze with fear. We must always choose the former.

And when seizing the moment, we need look no further than our Mountaineer values to guide us. It is in these moments of uncertainty that our values provide clarity. And with

clarity, the decisions we have made – and will have to make – will be done so with our greater purpose firmly in our minds and forever in our hearts.

Warmest regards,

E. Gordon Gee signature

E. Gordon Gee
President, West Virginia University