President and Provost discuss Stanford’s response to COVID-19 pandemic during virtual conversation with the campus community

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell addressed the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during an online conversation with the Stanford community on Monday.

During a virtual conversation with the campus community on the first day of spring quarter, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell said the COVID-19 pandemic had created unprecedented uncertainty in all aspects of university life.

Screenshot of Matthew Tiews, Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Persis Drell in an online forum

Matthew Tiews, associate vice president for campus engagement, top left, moderated the online conversation with President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell on Monday. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“That uncertainty means we don’t have answers to all questions right now,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “But we’re working to identify answers as quickly as we can, and we’ll continue to be in communication with you as we have them.”

Tessier-Lavigne said the university will be guided by three overarching objectives amid the uncertainty that lies ahead: to support the community, to position Stanford for recovery and to contribute to the fight against COVID-19.

The president and provost referred to those objectives throughout the one-hour webinar on Monday afternoon, which drew about 3,700 participants along with others viewing a livestream. After opening statements, Tessier-Lavigne and Drell opened the forum to questions and answers from those who had joined the virtual gathering.

Tessier-Lavigne and Drell also each expressed their deep gratitude to the Stanford community for their tireless and selfless responses to the unprecedented crisis, including students who are making an abrupt transition to online learning, faculty who have developed new coursework and staff who are keeping the university operating.

They extended special thanks to people working on the front lines at Stanford Medicine.

“We are deeply grateful for what you, and your colleagues across the country, are doing amid this crisis,” Drell said.

Speaking directly to students, Tessier-Lavigne said: “Most of you are starting the spring quarter today and it’s a significantly changed quarter. So wherever you are, whether you’re here on campus or around the world, we want you to know we are thinking about you today and we are continually focused on how to support your academic success in spite of today’s extraordinary circumstances.”

He also reaffirmed his support for all members of the Stanford community, expressing concern that Asian and Asian-American students, scholars and staff may be feeling increased scrutiny during the worldwide crisis.

“It is critical that we extend kindness and respect to all, regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “COVID-19 affects us all. We need to stand together.”

He also acknowledged “the tremendous research” underway at Stanford, where scholars are focused on preventing, diagnosing and treating COVID-19, analyzing the spread of the disease and assessing its impact on society.

Challenges ahead

In her opening remarks, Drell said the financial challenges facing Stanford are unprecedented. Unlike the downturn of 2008-09, which primarily impacted financial markets – and as a result, the endowment payout – the pandemic has impacted financial markets and significantly curtailed activities that generate income for Stanford, such as summer programs, and fees for room and board.

She said that the university is “actively deploying” reserves, which are meant for just such an emergency, to continue to pay salaries and keep operations going.

Drell said some people have asked if Stanford could draw down its endowment as part of the university’s financial response. She said the idea posed significant challenges:

  • “First, about three-quarters of the endowment is legally restricted to specified uses. An example is funds that are dedicated to supporting a particular endowed professorship. Those can’t be used for different purposes.”
  • “Second, when the value of the endowment is already declining significantly, as is occurring in this crisis, if you draw it down even further for needs in the current year, there’s even less remaining to produce the income stream that is needed next year, and the year after that. So, there are real limitations to using a long-term fund for short-term needs. And, I just have to say that, at this point, we do not know how deep the market decline will go, and what that will mean for the endowment.”

Drell said Stanford has taken some initial steps to control spending, including salary freezes, a pause in faculty and staff hiring, pay reductions for senior leadership, decreased discretionary spending and holds on capital projects. She said she doesn’t have an answer yet for staff members asking if there will be layoffs.

“Our next step is actually to get a firmer sense of the totality of our budget situation in greater detail,” she said. “Then we will be in a better position to determine what further steps we need to take.”

Wide-ranging questions

Tessier-Lavigne and Drell fielded questions for 40 minutes on a wide range of topics, including the potential impact of the pandemic on fundraising, why Stanford has decided not to discount tuition for spring quarter, pay continuance and the budget process for the 2020-21 academic year.

In addition, participants asked about research funding, the cancellation of Sophomore College and the Arts Intensive, the impact of social distancing guidelines on lab research and supporting mental health needs during these unsettling times.

Matthew Tiews, associate vice president for campus engagement, moderated the conversation.

In response to a question about the decision to cancel end-of-summer programs, Drell said the university thought transforming them into online programs would not be a productive experience for students. In addition, she said holding out the hope that the programs could be offered in-person on campus was a distraction to planning for fall quarter.

“Our highest priority has to be fall quarter and our ability to get fall quarter as normal as we can if the progression of the disease allows it,” she said, adding that the decision allows significant savings that will help the university’s overall budget challenges.

One of the participants asked if Stanford would consider implementing a “summer recess,” similar to the two-week break the university takes during the holiday season.

Tessier-Lavigne said he would discuss the idea with Elizabeth Zacharias, vice president for human resources at Stanford.

“We certainly are looking at all scenarios right now for the months going forward,” he said.

In response to a question about Commencement, Tessier-Lavigne said he was “deeply disappointed” to make the difficult decision to postpone the event, which cannot be held in Stanford Stadium as usual, due to local and state social distancing guidelines. He said Stanford is working with student leadership to shape a meaningful celebration – even if we have to do so at a distance – for students who will be receiving diplomas in June.

He also said the university will plan an in-person celebration for the Class of 2020 at some time in the future.

Regarding a question about pay continuance for subcontractors who are employed by independent companies, Drell noted that the need for some services that units contract for has been reduced by the pandemic.  Because Stanford has placed a priority on minimizing impacts on the regular workforce, the university is not in a position to extend commitments to employees of contractors, she said.

Drell also noted that many of the services the contract workers provide will be needed again when the university resumes operations.

In response to a question about how social distancing guidelines affect people working in labs, Tessier-Lavigne said Kam Moler, vice provost and dean of research, is looking into the situation with her team. That group is evaluating lab health and safety procedures, considering what a “staged return” would look like in light of social distancing guidelines and determining the protective equipment students, postdocs and staff would need.

“Many things need to be worked out,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “I assure you we are eager to get back, but we have to do so in a manner consistent with local health guidelines.”

He said the university is closely following events in California and Washington, D.C., related to state and federal funding for research. He said Stanford anticipates receiving research stabilization funds, but the sum will be relatively small compared with the loss of revenue.

One participant asked what Stanford was doing to support the mental health needs of people across the university, especially people who live alone or in difficult environments.

“This a really good question and appropriate as we look to support our community, many of whose lives have been deeply disrupted,” she said, adding that Counseling and Psychological Services in Vaden Health Services is available to students and the Faculty Staff Help Center is available for faculty and staff.

“We really encourage individuals to reach out for these resources,” she said. “I think this is a moment when it is very important that individuals understand and accept that they may need some help and support, because of the incredible disruption and, perhaps even more difficult than that to deal with, the tremendous uncertainty that absolutely everyone is facing.”