Presidential Update for Spring 2021
Dear Southwestern community members,
I want to take a moment to pause and reflect on the challenging events of last week. For those of you who went days without power or water or who experienced damage to your homes during the storms of last week, please know that you are in my thoughts. I was reminded again of the power of this united community and am so proud that we all stand in support of one another.
Our campus has not been immune to the impact of these events. Both our beautiful grounds and nearly every building on campus were affected by this terrible storm. Over the past week, fire suppression systems across campus leaked due to the freezing cold. Ceilings in some residence halls and fraternity houses fell due to bursting pipes, and a small number of classrooms were damaged. Many of our beloved live oaks and other trees shattered, and branches broke from the weight of the ice. The McCombs Campus Center, Fine Arts Center, F.W. Olin Building, and Athletics Field House all have flood damage to varying degrees. Due to power loss and interruptions, three out of our four generators failed, core network equipment was damaged, and additional hardware failures occurred. The data center lost power, which meant the internet, Moodle, and our website all were down for most of the week.
All events, meetings, and classes were cancelled, as were all athletic events across our conferences. Due to the storm, athletics had a total of 39 weather-related postponements and cancellations. Each of these missed games will be evaluated to determine if they can be rescheduled.
Our collective response to this catastrophe will also go down in history. Mark Twain once said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, Twain was wrong this time. Our staff did everything, including leaving their homes and families to come to campus, remaining on campus night after night, and working around the clock to make sure that our students would be kept safe and that food and potable water would be plentiful.
All network services were restored by the end of day Thursday. Our staff sanded pathways, drained water lines, cleared snow and ice, moved fallen branches, worked on our IT infrastructure, removed debris out of rooms, and relocated affected students into safe and dry rooms. They were on our campus working while many of them did not have electricity, drinking water, or heat at home. I thank each and every one of them for their outstanding work and dedication over the past week.
I also want to thank the senior staff for their calm in the eye of the storm, steadfast efforts, and quick and effective decision-making. We are now well into the recovery stage and will apply for federal assistance and work with our insurance carriers for expense coverage. We also will be reviewing our practices and policies in order to ensure we are prepared for future natural disasters and network interruptions.
Last week I had prepared a very different letter to send to all of you about the exciting and positive things underway on campus, and I will include that information now.
We have a record spring enrollment. Last year’s total student count was 1,430, and the full-time student equivalent (FTE) was 1,414. This year’s student count is 1,439, and the FTE is 1,426. I account for this growth in a few ways: first, the continuing good work by the admissions staff; second, the dedication of our faculty and the fact that the majority of our classes were held in person this fall, unlike those of many other schools; and third, the increased marketing that the Marketing and Communications team have undertaken.
Regarding fall enrollment, we are doing very well. Last year was our second largest enrollment in history, and we are slightly ahead in applications this year. We have increases in the top 10%, top 25%, and top 33% of high school classes as compared to last year as well as a significant increase in applications outside of Texas. Right now, we are in a strong position to have a successful recruiting season that has been conducted almost entirely online.
The university’s budget remains in good shape, and we are still predicting a surplus for this year. Southwestern made the decision last spring that no staff positions would be lost and there would be no furloughs. Faculty and staff benefits were not reduced nor was financial aid for students. Thanks to the latest round of funding awarded through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, Southwestern has received approximately $1.8 million in additional funding. However, after that additional funding has been applied, our total expenses and revenues lost to COVID to date total nearly $5.7 million. Maintaining our savings to the budget and remaining on course for the rest of the semester will give us a balanced budget and a surplus that will be used in part to fund some of the proposals that the Tactical Planning Committee has received. Of course, a surplus budget feels a bit like an uphill trek after last week’s crisis, but with each passing day I am increasingly confident we will be fine.
Our fundraising continues to widen the pace set last year. As of January 31, we have 1,730 alumni donors, the highest number of alumni donors (and highest alumni participation by percentage) in our history. The same date in 2020 saw 1,232 alumni donors. We have raised over $6,000,000 in cash in the first seven months of the fiscal year, which also outpaces the last few years.
We are already working hard on fundraising for the full renovation of the historic Mood-Bridwell Hall, with the goal of beginning that project within 24 months. We anticipate a total project cost of approximately $10,000,000, with 100% of that coming from generous donors to the University. We are also closing in on fully funding the transformational advising and retention project that also represents the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) as a key component of our accreditation plan for the next five years. Success with this endeavor is a crucial part of our retention efforts to date, and it is imperative we retain, mentor, and graduate all of our students.
Southwestern’s Third Annual Giving Day is slated to run from noon to noon on April 13–14 in the middle of our Virtual Homecoming Week. Last year, we set a new record despite being in the throes of the pandemic, and we are working hard to exceed those results this year.
On the academic side of the house, under Dean Alisa Gaunder’s stewardship we are fully into our recruiting season for faculty, and I believe we have five more searches to complete by the end of the semester. If all goes well, in yet another first—this has been a year of firsts—we will be welcoming seven new faculty in the fall who have never been on a campus visit or met any of us in person. Despite the unusual nature of these engagements, I have enjoyed meeting all of our candidates to date through RingCentral.
Regarding our management of COVID-19 and the safety of our community, we are maintaining the policies and practices that were created in the fall and have significantly increased our testing protocols. We now conduct approximately 600 randomized tests a week, and our athletes who are in competition fall under NCAA protocols that require regular testing. We have added an additional layer of testing on top of the NCAA requirements. Because of the protocols we have put into place and our constant testing, our positivity rate on campus remains very low. Our coaches and Glenn Schwab have worked extremely hard to hold competitive play for all of our sports during the spring season. Because of our COVID-19 protocols, we have not had to cancel any athletic competitions. However, eight opposing teams have cancelled events due to infections among their student-athletes.
The Tactical Planning Committee continues to meet, and we hope to share a draft plan with faculty by the end of the first week of March. In the simplest of terms, the tactical plan creates a roadmap for the implementation of the university’s various strategic plans, the campus master plan, philanthropic efforts, and other campus priorities. They will all flow together, like the tributaries forming the Mississippi, to form the final plan.
The expectation is that in this process, the committee’s work will reflect the mission and most visionary expression of Southwestern’s institutional priorities. Once the plan is approved by the Board of Trustees, it will be posted on the institution’s intranet and measured actively, with categories, goals, projected annual costs, totals of how much has been spent to date, and the percentage that has been funded.
In closing, it is my great hope that there will be no more reports as eventful as this one for the remainder of the year. Thank you for your ongoing support and adaptability during these most unusual times.
President Laura E. Skandera Trombley