Dear Southwestern Friends,

There are few opening lines in literature more familiar than those penned by Charles Dickens to introduce A Tale of Two Cities.  You know them, of course: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” as you also know a few of the words that follow: “it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of Hope.”  These are words that have a special resonance right now, across our country and our world and across the Southwestern University campus.

The Darkness is too obvious to us to require description.  Our hearts go out to individuals and families everywhere who are afflicted by fear, illness, and loss.  We grieve over the lives lost.  We worry for those who are struggling in the face of lost work and income and, especially, for those who had little to start with and find themselves particularly vulnerable.  And we share in the anxiety of many who wonder how and when we will come out on the other side of the pandemic. It is the worst of times.

At the same time, we celebrate the heroism of those on the front lines of medical response, in hospitals, ambulances, and on the streets.  We are grateful for the neighbors checking on the ill, the isolated, and the infirm.  We appreciate the donations of time and money that fellow citizens make to foodbanks and other organizations offering relief.  We celebrate newly-rediscovered sense of community as we try to protect one another by simply staying out of one another’s way.  It is a time of Hope.

At Southwestern, we miss the liveliness of classroom discussions, the bustling activity of student laboratories, and the sound and motion of fine arts studios.  It doesn’t seem right to be without our usual student activities, athletic events, and artistic performances. We lament the absence of campus tours by excited groups of prospective students and their families.  And we miss being in close proximity to our campus colleagues.

Yet, Southwestern is very actively pursuing its mission of educating young people in the liberal arts and sciences.  Southwestern faculty made good use of an extra week of spring break to redesign their on-going spring semester courses and adapt them for remote delivery.  Faculty colleagues adopted a mix of synchronous (meeting a class by electronic visual media at a particular time) and asynchronous (posting videos, assignments, and lectures available to students as they choose) instruction, depending upon the nature of the course and their own experience.  By these means, they have been able to engage students in the essentials of each class and complete the last third of the semester, ensuring that seniors stay on track to graduate and other students are prepared for the courses they will take next academic year.  Because Southwestern classes are small and interactive and faculty and students know one another well, we have been able to pivot to new styles of teaching and learning much easier than some.  My hat is off to faculty colleagues who are staying with their students while juggling childcare and, in some cases, eldercare. And kudos to our adaptable students, as well!

The other work of the University goes on, too.  Faculty advisors have been available to students participating in fall course registration this week.  Coaches are meeting virtually with members of their teams.  Peer-to-peer student consultations are taking place.  Career and internship advising is underway.  Pirate Yoga, an evening Quarantine Quizz Show, and Netflix parties help keep students connected with one another.  “Quarantunes” solicits the sharing of customized music playlists from members of the University community.  Staff from offices across the University are working from home or, if essential, coming to campus in small, staggered shifts.  The resourceful Office of Admissions has prepared virtual campus tours and admitted student events, and admissions and financial aid officers are reaching out by phone, letter, and e-mail to prospective Pirates.  Facilities’ staff are ensuring that campus grounds and buildings are being maintained.  The “best” of times? Well, maybe not, but certainly a time to celebrate the inventiveness and dedication of Southwesterners.

Like other colleges and universities, Southwestern has found its resources challenged during this extraordinary time.  More than two and quarter million dollars was credited or rebated to students for unused room and board.  Only a small fraction of this was recouped in unpurchased food or unused utilities.  Summer camps and programs had to be eliminated or curtailed, a loss of both revenue and public exposure to prospective students.  At the same time, there have been new demands upon Information Technology services as we adopt new teaching methods.  Southwestern’s endowment resources have been carefully stewarded and have held up well, yet they are not immune to the direction of the capital markets.

To adapt to these unbudgeted expenses and to be prepared for future eventualities, we suspended major summer campus renovation and maintenance projects.  We have canceled all but the most important expenditures and, of course, University-sponsored travel has been eliminated.  In the midst of the spring semester, our faculty and staff are fully engaged, albeit remotely, and this remains an ongoing and essential expense in the current fiscal year.  For all the challenges, we are fortunate that over the last half dozen years, strong investment management, effective fundraising, and prudent budgeting have put Southwestern in a better place to weather the storm than in the past.

We are actively considering the year ahead.  Our hearts tell us that we want to have students, faculty, and staff together on campus as soon as possible to resume the face-to-face experiences that are at the core of a Southwestern education.  And, in fact, we are developing a plan for that.  Our heads tell us that the information is not yet available that allows us to make a final decision.  We need to have back-up plans, too, that provide for education by other means, if necessary.  We will announce the course we intend to pursue as soon as the omens become clearer to us, hopefully no later than the end of June.

In these last weeks, we’ve found that several principles guide our decision-making. We strive to protect the physical and emotional health of SU’s students, faculty, and staff.  We are committed to sustaining and promoting Southwestern’s distinguishing educational value proposition that is facilitated by personal interchange on a residential campus.  We employ good financial and material stewardship.  And we respect the governing practices of the university, placing high value on collaboration and transparent communication.

“Hope” is forward-looking, and Southwestern is forward-looking, too.  We’ve embodied that in the successfully-completed search for the 16th President of the University.  Dr. Laura E. Skandera Trombley brings to us a wealth of talent, energy, and experience in higher education leadership.  I look forward to a seamless handoff to Dr. Trombley this summer as we advance into Southwestern’s exciting future. Among the new President’s first, joyous tasks will be presiding over Commencement for the Class of 2020 at Homecoming on October 25th.

Wishing you health and safety–

Dale T. Knobel
Interim President