Trustees discuss immediate and long-term issues posed by coronavirus crisis

During its April 20-21 meeting, the Stanford University Board of Trustees discussed the short-term and long-term issues that the coronavirus pandemic poses for the university.

At its April 20-21 meeting, the Stanford University Board of Trustees focused primarily on the coronavirus crisis and the short-term and long-term issues it poses in several areas, including medicine and research, education and student experience, fall quarter, finance, long-range vision and recovery.

In a briefing that followed the meeting, Jeff Raikes, chair of the Board of Trustees, said “gratitude” is the overall message trustees would like to share with everyone in the Stanford community, who are all living in a time of rapid change and great uncertainty.

“We’re very grateful for the work of everyone in Stanford Medicine – the people who are on the front lines of responding to this crisis, both through patient care and through research,” he said. “We’re also grateful for the leadership of the university, and the teams that are supporting leadership who have been working literally around the clock to make difficult decisions thoughtfully amid what are quickly changing circumstances. And we’re grateful for the resolve and spirit of everyone across the entire Stanford community, who have responded to this crisis by trying to make sure we take great care of others with ingenuity, openness and with great commitment to the mission of Stanford.”

Raikes explained the role that trustees have and will play during the crisis:

“As trustees, we closely monitor the short-term issues and decisions that Stanford is confronting, and we strive to provide our advice and counsel to administrative leadership. As the board, we have to be also very focused on the long term – that is the nature of a trustee role. So, as we navigate the immediate situation, the board also is going to be keeping an eye on the long term – on how we ensure that Stanford continues to be strongly positioned to contribute to the creation and dissemination of knowledge that our world so clearly needs.”

At the meeting, the board also heard an update on investment responsibility.

Trustees gathered by videoconference for the first time for the two-day meeting, in response to health and safety concerns related to the novel coronavirus.

Honoring Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy

Raikes began the briefing by paying tribute to Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy, who died April 21. Read Kennedy’s obituary here.

“I know I speak for the board in conveying our deep sadness at Don’s passing, as well as our profound appreciation for what Don contributed to Stanford University and to our country as a whole,” Raikes said. “He was a distinguished biologist, a popular teacher, an energetic president of Stanford, and an important contributor to our national life as FDA commissioner and as editor-in-chief of Science magazine. And, he continued to be a very involved member of the Stanford community, of which he was a part for many decades. So, our thoughts right now are with his family and his many friends, and we honor his many contributions to Stanford University.”

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Raikes said President Marc Tessier-Lavigne shared the principles for decision-making that he and Provost Persis Drell are following as they navigate the crisis and position Stanford for a strong recovery. He read out loud a direct quote from Tessier-Lavigne:

“Our mission is to advance knowledge and accelerate solutions for humanity, and educate students for a life of purpose. Our success depends on attracting and enabling the best researchers and students, and supporting them with the best staff.

“In setting priorities, we will strive to ensure continuity in our research and teaching; ensure continued access for students, including through robust financial aid; anchor decisions in respect and concern for our community, and an understanding of the broader societal context in which they are made; and position Stanford for a strong recovery in the near term and steward our resources wisely for the long term.”

Medicine and research

Raikes said trustees heard presentations from Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine, and David Entwistle, president and chief executive officer of Stanford Health Care.

Raikes said Stanford Medicine has been involved in critical work related to COVID-19, including developing its own diagnostic test to identify the virus causing the disease; developing an antibody test to detect antibodies against the novel coronavirus; and supporting clinical trials to determine if the anti-viral drug Remdesevir is effective as a treatment for people with the virus.

“We are incredibly proud of the work being done by our medical professionals, in both patient care and research, as well as generally how they respond to the coronavirus,” he said. “Of course, Stanford Medicine has been on the front lines treating patients and playing a key role in the regional health care response to the coronavirus.”

Raikes said trustees also heard reports from Tessier-Lavigne and Kam Moler, vice provost and dean of research, about the broader research activities that have developed across the university in the life sciences and in policy areas related to the coronavirus pandemic. Trustees learned that many Stanford researchers have pivoted their work to investigate the new challenges COVID-19 is posing for the world – with a renewed sense of purpose and responsibility.

He said Moler updated the trustees on the steps that research laboratories have taken to respond to the shelter-in-place order, which has required doing a lot of research from remote locations.

Moler also talked about the work being done to keep students and faculty connected, and to prepare for the steps that will be needed in the research environment when we are able to begin resuming more in-person activities on campus, Raikes said.

Education and the student experience

Trustees heard a report from Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, who discussed the challenges facing many students and what Stanford is doing to help them:

  • Vaden Health Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services Program and its Well-Being Program are offering virtual services to support students, recognizing that this is a time when the university needs to pay extra and enhanced attention to student mental health.
  • Many other parts of Student Affairs have enhanced their online presence to continue community connections with students at a time when people are physically separated.
  • The BEAM Career Education Center is hosting a virtual Spring Career Fair later this week, and many employers are participating in the event.

During the discussion, Raikes said trustees learned that many students, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, are concerned about their job prospects, due to the economic contraction caused by the pandemic.

The board also heard a report from Sarah Church, vice provost for faculty development, teaching and learning, who updated trustees on the work her unit has done to equip faculty members for online teaching and to support students working remotely, Raikes said.

Raikes said trustees also heard a report from Stacey Bent, vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. She discussed the pressures facing graduate students, many of whom have had their research disrupted and who are facing a challenging academic job market as universities respond to the economic downturn created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Raikes said the university has been extending financial support in a number of forms to graduate students, adding that their well-being and academic progress are going to continue to be an important focus of activity for Stanford.

He said Stanford has also been closely monitoring the challenges facing international students, many of whom may be facing uncertainty around visa issues.

“We’ll be working with them and help them where we can,” Raikes said.

Planning for fall quarter

Raikes said trustees discussed the issue of fall quarter planning with Provost Drell.

“As you know, there have been no decisions so far about what the fall quarter will look like,” Raikes said. “Stanford, like all other universities, is evaluating options right now, and will continue to do so as we get additional public health guidance.”

He said Drell’s presentation gave trustees a very good understanding of the challenges inherent in making a decision about fall quarter.

Among the things to be considered are:

  • The continued spread of the virus, which must be closely monitored
  • The availability of testing
  • The potential long-term availability of therapeutics or treatments
  • The ability to accomplish physical distancing in our various campus facilities, including undergraduate residences
  • What makes sense educationally for the university’s research enterprise

“I know everyone would love to return to the way things were as soon as possible,” Raikes said. “But the bottom line is we need to step very carefully, and do some very thoughtful planning with these and other considerations in mind. The leadership of the university will be doing that in coming weeks. And certainly, in my role as chair, I will continue to be very actively involved in those functions.”


Raikes said Drell also led trustees through a discussion of the financial issues facing Stanford in order to set the context for decision-making that lies ahead.

“Persis made the very apt point that we are in a time of unprecedented uncertainty around the timeline and progression of the disease, around the economy and the impact to the endowment, which is a substantial funder of university operations, and around the timeline to fully resume in-person operations,” he said.

Raikes said Stanford has lost revenue in many areas due to the cancellation of academic programs and the fact that most undergraduate students are no longer living on campus.

Raikes said it was also worth noting that costs have increased due to COVID-19. For instance, he noted that undergraduate financial aid for spring quarter was adjusted upward to account for students who have new food and living expenses while living off campus.

He said Stanford has also removed the summer earnings expectation for undergraduate students on financial aid, recognizing the challenging job market many will be facing.

“We don’t know how much of a problem it will be, but we expect continued pressure on university revenues, along with a market downturn that could have a significant effect on the endowment,” Raikes said. “As a result, right now we do not have a budget for Fiscal Year 2021. The university will be evaluating a range of scenarios. There will be planning at the school and unit level. And then we expect to have more discussion of the budget situation at the board’s June meeting.”

Long-range vision and recovery

Raikes said the members of the Board of Trustees and the leadership of Stanford know the university will emerge from the crisis caused by the pandemic.

“We want to be thoughtful about how we emerge from it, and how we shape our activities at Stanford to address what the world needs from us in this new and different era,” he said.

Raikes noted that Tessier-Lavigne is appointing a long-range recovery team to think deeply about those issues. It will be co-chaired by Jonathan Levin, dean of the Graduate School of Business, and Lanier Anderson, senior associate dean for the arts and humanities.

Raikes said Tessier-Lavigne made it clear that Stanford is already thinking deeply about how the university’s long-range vision can help us “meet the moment” before us.

“That vision for the university places a significant focus on ‘accelerating Stanford’s impact’ across a number of areas – in education, in solutions for the world and in knowledge in humanity,” Raikes said. “We believe the framework of our long-range vision continues to be very relevant for the times we are in. It will help us deal with the tough challenges we’re facing now and ensure that we come out stronger.”

Investment responsibility

Finally, Raikes gave an update on the work of the task force of its Special Committee on Investment Responsibility, which was created several months ago to focus on the request from the student group Fossil Free Stanford for divestment from oil and gas companies.

“As we emphasized to students yesterday, the board is continuing to actively work on the issues and we expect to have a decision on a proposal at the end of the academic year,” he said, noting that the task force met with Fossil Free Stanford students on Tuesday.

The task force has been engaging with students, faculty, practitioners and investment professionals, outside experts on the issues raised by the proposal and responses to climate change generally.

The task force has had more than 20 sessions now with these stakeholders and experts, both inside and outside the university, presenting diverse perspectives on the issue of divestment.

“That engagement has really been very valuable,” Raikes said. “It has provided a great deal of useful input to inform the board’s thinking, with the committee in the lead.”

Asked to describe the mood of the board during the two-day meetings, Raikes said all of the trustees – there are 33 in all – have been through challenging times.

“I would say that the trustees are drawing upon their past experiences to bring their very best selves to the discussion,” he said. “I’m grateful that we have such a great group of trustees.”