After a difficult year for the College of William and Mary, the 2021-22 academic year marks the beginning of the transition out of the COVID-19 era and its detrimental effects. The College must now address major concerns raised by students, faculty and staff, including the 2020 budget reductions, hiring freezes, job losses and program restrictions. As this year begins, the campus community is looking to the administration to revive the College’s financial standings and community morale.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first caused major disruption in March 2020, the school sought immediate financial support from donors via the Fund for William and Mary. As the College’s largest and unrestricted financial reserve, the fund was used largely to support the transition to virtual learning and for emergency expenditures. In addition, the College quickly began fundraising efforts to support the immense financial burden of safety precautions and virtual programming. By May 31, 2020, the College community raised $390,000 for the Health, Emergencies, and Resources for the Tribe Fund, the International Student Scholarship Fund and the Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation; all of which was dedicated to preparing the school for the 2020-21 academic year.
Despite this large-scale fundraising effort, extensive budget reduction and maneuvering was necessary. Chief Operating Officer Amy Sebring serves as the financial head of the College and also plays a fundamental role in decision making and the information dissemination within the community. Sebring described how the unforeseen consequences and necessities of the pandemic affected the school’s operating budget, the administration’s current plans to recover and the COVID-19 policies that remain in place.
According to Sebring, auxiliary enterprises experienced the greatest impact, with student dining and athletics each receiving a 12% budget decrease. Sebring also noted that general cuts across all campus departments ranged from 2-8%.
“Budget reductions and cost control measures were implemented campus-wide in FY21,” Sebring wrote in an email. “Most of those reductions will continue into FY22 to cover the unfunded portion of state-mandated increases in salaries and benefits. Auxiliary enterprises — including dining and athletics — experienced the most significant reductions which approached over 12% in each of those areas. All other areas of campus experienced budget reductions, ranging from 2-8% depending on changes in their operations due to the pandemic, the ability to defer expenses, and the impact of prior year reductions on discretionary funding.”
Sebring spoke broadly on the College’s financial state, describing how exactly the administration is restructuring finances to recover from this past year and the estimated timeline for this recovery.
“We were able to cover the lost revenues and increased costs through the actions we took last year to contain costs, defer expenses, slow hiring and restructure our debt,” Sebring wrote. “So I don’t think the pandemic will have a long-term negative impact on the university. Having said that, prior to the pandemic, W&M’s leadership recognized that the university’s long-term financial model would prove challenging if not amended, based on projections that showed expenses could outstrip revenues. We began work prior to the pandemic to align resources more strategically, to diversify our sources of revenue, and to bend the cost curve in a way that slows spending growth over time.”
Another major concern of the community for this upcoming year is the question of continued hiring freezes. During the 2020-21 academic year, the administration implemented campus-wide hiring freezes in order to prevent additional costs. These freezes contributed to multi-departmental staff shortages this past year. Sebring said the College will continue to examine hiring in this upcoming year.
“The university will continue to assess the criticality of all new hires as we move forward — not because of the pandemic, but as part of prudent fiscal management,” Sebring wrote. “As positions turn over, we do not automatically assume the position will be filled, but ask each Cabinet member to assess the criticality of that position going forward.”
Similarly, the status of several non-tenured faculty members’ employment contracts drew major discontent in the 2020-21 academic year. Early in the year, the College announced that 12 non-tenured faculty members’ contracts with the College were not being renewed, a decision that was criticized by many students. These concerns were expressed through social media, petitions and rallies, all of which aimed to renew these faculty members’ contracts.
Provost Peggy Agouris spoke on the decision to not renew contracts with these employees and the current status of their employment.
“I would like to clarify again that there have been no terminations; all contracts for non-tenure-eligible (NTE) faculty last year were honored through their ending dates,” Agouris wrote in an email. “For curricular and financial reasons, we were not able to commit to offering a new contract for the next academic year to some Arts & Sciences NTE faculty with contracts that ended in 2021. That was communicated much earlier than in past years so that our valued NTE colleagues had a full hiring cycle available to them to seek other opportunities, which we thought was our most responsible course. In the end, some of these NTE faculty were offered new contracts and stayed at W&M, some were offered new contracts and opted for other positions, some accepted positions elsewhere, and some withdrew from further consideration for their own personal reasons.”
Agouris also spoke on the difficulties the pandemic inflicted upon the College’s academic operations. She described the need to adapt academic programs in the future to continue their rigor and value while ensuring safety.
“One of our goals from the very beginning has been to deliver instruction safely, in a way that students could keep learning and remain on track to their degrees,” Agouris wrote. “Much of this meant pivoting the way we delivered programs to protect the health of our community and working hard to limit the negative impact of the pandemic on our human and financial resources. While the pandemic has changed, we still face many of the same challenges.”
Another consequence of pandemic-related budget cuts was the elimination of international fellows during the 2020-21 school year. During a typical year, many of the language departments hire a native speaker of their specified language to work in the language houses and host interactive and community-building activities to share their cultures with students. Unfortunately, due to continued travel and financial restrictions, this program will not return for the 2021-22 academic year.
Agouris spoke on the reasoning behind these fellows’ continued absence and her hope to have them return in the fall of 2022.
“We hope they will return in 2022-23,” Agouris wrote. “We know how beneficial it is for students to learn about languages and cultures in a nonacademic, residential setting. The pandemic made it very challenging for the international fellows in Williamsburg because it was difficult for them to return to their home countries. Furthermore, both visas and finances have been uncertain since the pandemic began.”
April 23, 2021, the College’s Board of Visitors announced that there would be no tuition cost increase for both in-state and out-of-state students in the 2021-22 academic year. This decision reflects College President Katherine Rowe’s recommendation to not increase tuition due to the economic hardships many students faced as a result of the pandemic. While the school instated this policy for full-time students, some community members noted that the administration raised the fee per credit hour from $425 to $581, an increase of nearly 37%.
Sebring detailed how the decision to increase the price per credit hour was made to even out the price that full-time and part-time students were paying for the same classes, a difference of over 35%.
“Looking at in-state students, on a per-credit-hour basis, full-time students were paying over 35% more than part-time students for the same class,” Sebring wrote. “The change in rates for this academic year brought those charges into alignment. In future years, I anticipate that part-time tuition will increase at a comparable percentage rate to full-time tuition.”
As it stands, the College is still far from complete financial stability. It is likely that many of the budget restrictions and decreases will remain in place well into this year and years to come. While it is clear that the pandemic brought about major financial difficulties, the College’s administration feels confident that the school will successfully recover through strong fundraising efforts and strict budgeting.
As this new year begins, COVID-19 safety policies at the College continue to evolve. As students arrive on campus and anticipate the return of in-person classes, many feel uncertain of what to expect. Recently, the College announced that COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory for any student, staff and faculty member that wishes to return to campus. As students and staff have self-reported their vaccination status, the College has reported high vaccination rates.
Agouris shared that above 97% of the faculty and staff population have been compliant with the updated vaccination policy by receiving the vaccination or listing a verified exemption, with few faculty choosing to leave their positions at the College. Similarly, Sebring noted that the current rate of students who have been fully vaccinated is 93%, with many students still waiting to receive their second shot.
Agouris noted the positive reaction the College’s faculty and staff had toward this newly-instated policy.
“Our faculty have been very cooperative,” Agouris wrote. “We are still evaluating employee data — which includes both faculty and staff — but I understand our compliance rate is above 97%. While some faculty have decided to leave W&M in recent months, which is typical with the annual cycle, the circumstances surrounding retirements or other separations from the university are generally treated as part of personnel records, which the university does not discuss or disclose as a matter of policy.”
Sebring spoke on the decision to enforce the vaccination policy, citing both scientific evidence and community support as major reasons for the decision.
“There were two key factors in making the decision to require vaccines: 1) the irrefutable science on the effectiveness of the vaccines, and 2) the desire to bring our community back together in a way that improved the likelihood of our collective health and success,” Sebring wrote. “In the main, our students and employees have been highly compliant. At this time we have fewer than 20 for-credit students who were registered for fall classes and are not compliant with the vaccine policy.”
As of Aug. 23, 2021, many of the major COVID-19 related restrictions from the 2020-21 academic year have been lifted. While the school has decided to continue to require masks to be worn within indoor spaces on campus, residence hall and gathering restrictions are no longer in effect. This includes the termination of policies that prevented students from entering residence halls they did not live in and capacity limits for physical distancing within spaces across campus.
Another major change is the College’s decision to no longer provide quarantine housing for the 2021-22 academic year. Last year, Richmond Hall, which previously was used as an upperclassmen residence hall, was modified to house students with COVID-19 exposure or positive COVID-19 tests for 14 days. This year, positive COVID-19 cases will be handled with protocol similar to how the College has dealt with various disease outbreaks in the past. This will include assistance for students who need to remain isolated in alternative locations, if needed.
Sebring spoke on the intensive and difficult operations required for quarantine housing, specifying the burden placed on Richmond Hall’s staff.
“Beyond the public health response, running a full-time quarantine and isolation (Q&I) operation was very people-intensive,” Sebring wrote. “We had staff working seven days a week, without a break, for months on end. It took a toll. It also was only temporarily sustainable because we limited operations in a number of other areas last year. So we were able to reassign staff to support the Q&I effort. As we move toward a more typical academic year, staff have returned to their normal programs and functional areas.”
Sebring also shared the updated policy for positive cases and resources available for any students who may be in that position.
“Given the effectiveness of the vaccines, the Public Health Advisory Team recommended in early summer that we manage COVID-19 cases similarly for the upcoming year,” Sebring wrote. “We expect cases will stay low, and many students have indicated that they’d prefer to isolate at home if needed. Having said that, we also recognize that some of our students may not be able to go home or have a place where they can readily recover. In those instances, the Dean of Students Office will help identify alternative locations if needed.”
Additionally, virtual classes, the largest disruption to campus operations caused by the pandemic, will no longer be offered at the College for the foreseeable future. Pending the necessity for the conversion to remote learning again, Agouris described the decision to resume in-person classes this year and the potential for virtual learning in the College’s future.
“We have heard from our community the strong desire to convene in person this fall, and so — now that we may do so safely with vaccinations and temporary mask mandates in place — our class offerings this semester will primarily be delivered in the traditional manner,” Agouris wrote. “As we think of the post-pandemic future of W&M, we are reviewing and intend to take advantage of what we have learned during this crisis, which includes novel modalities of delivery.”
Agouris shared her thoughts on her hopes for the start of this year and the College’s goal of ensuring student safety.
“Our goals remain the same: to continue meeting the academic mission of the university while also keeping our community safe and helping to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Agouris wrote. “Although we are convening in person once again this semester, we know that the pandemic is far from over. We will continue to consult with experts, follow the science and engage in phased decision-making in order to safeguard the health of our community as much as possible.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought an abundance of challenges that were placed both on the administration, staff and student body. Furthering these challenges was the stark difficulty of finding activities that were both COVID-compliant and fun to relax from academic and pandemic intensities, as well as continuing on with beloved traditions at the College. Many students raised concerns about the burden of the College’s academics that were placed on students in an already difficult time. A number of petitions and arguments were made to encourage the administration to find more ways to offer support to students facing COVID-19 related difficulties.
To support students handling both virtual classes and extraneous burdens of the pandemic, the College removed the fee to utilize the Tribe TutorZone mid-way through spring 2021 semester. Dean of Students S. Mark Sikes Ph.D. ’15 said that with the start of the fall 2021 semester, the TutorZone will no longer be offering free sessions without indicated financial aid.
“To help students complete the spring 2021 semester, the Provost generously provided funding to cover the cost of tutoring for all students for a limited time,” Sikes wrote in an email. “For the Fall 2021 semester, the TutorZone will return to normal operations and tutoring will not be free of charge for all students… Because of the outstanding support of donors, the TutorZone is able to offer free tutoring to students with financial need, and to students on Academic Warning and Academic Probation.”
Sebring said she believes that the community will continue to find ways to connect despite ongoing safety precautions and will begin to rebuild the campus’ environment and traditions.
“We are all looking forward to the start of a new academic year and the prospect of re- engaging and engaging anew with the W&M community,” Sebring wrote. “And yet we’re still in a pandemic… The pandemic reinforced what we already knew about the deep personal connections that this community forges and the critical importance of the traditions that sustain those connections. It also made it abundantly clear that W&M is an institution that can adapt quickly and successfully in the face of uncertainty. So I have no doubt that we will quickly re-establish the traditions that we hold most dear and that we will create some new ones going forward.”
Agouris wished to express her gratitude for the College community’s perseverance during the difficulties of the pandemic. Additionally, she noted her excitement to begin the year and continue forward.
“I want to thank our staff, faculty, and students for all that they have done to safeguard the health of our community and to enable the continuation of our work of teaching, learning and conducting world-class research,” Agouris wrote. “We will continue to remain vigilant in safeguarding our community. That said, I am eager to see the university transition to convening in person once again so we can continue that work and build on the lessons we’ve learned throughout the last 18 months.”
With the start of this year the College’s administration is currently planning to return the long-lived campus tradition of convocation along with several other standard components of freshman orientation. This decision marks the College’s dedication to reinstating events and traditions halted by COVID-19.
Correction: The article originally stated: “Agouris shared that above 97% of the faculty and staff population have received the COVID vaccination, with few faculty choosing to leave their positions at the College.” This was corrected to: “Agouris shared that above 97% of the faculty and staff population have been compliant with the updated vaccination policy by receiving the vaccination or listing a verified exemption, with few faculty choosing to leave their positions at the College.”