Chancellor Blank: Supporting our campus community

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this message included language that was stigmatizing to those experiencing mental health issues.

UW-Madison and University Communications are committed to supporting the mental health needs of our community along with the use of welcoming and inclusive language in its communications. We apologize for the impact of this error on our community.

Colleagues,

This past month has been pretty unusual. Like many of you, I’m working from home, occasionally struggling to make the video or audio work in a shared conversation, and shouting hello at my neighbors from a safe distance. I don’t have to tell you that we are in a time of great uncertainty and change. We’re all feeling it in many areas of our lives.

Uncertainty makes all our plans tentative and it threatens both our personal well-being and the health of our institution.

We have sent a flurry of messages recently sharing details on various decisions and changes. But I think it might be useful to take a step away from the details and explain where I believe we are as an institution and how we’re trying to think about the future in a fog of uncertainty over how long this current crisis will last.

I want you to know that we value you, your health and the work that you do. We will do what we can to continue to support UW–Madison employees.

This week, you may have seen media reports about the financial impact the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak poses for UW–Madison. In a teleconference with the University Committee on Monday, I cited a preliminary figure of $100 million as the likely cost to the university as we adjust our operations and see a dramatic impact on revenues during this challenging time.

This figure is preliminary — and possibly conservative — because it’s based on the premise that we will be able to resume most normal campus activities sometime this summer. The full extent of the impact that COVID-19 will have on our existing resources remains to be seen. Should we be unable to resume face-to-face instruction in the fall, this is likely to have a significant effect on our fall enrollments. In this case, we could be talking about much larger financial implications.

Some of you are not able to work, perhaps because you cannot telecommute and your job does not cover essential services, or perhaps because you are caring for others in your household. If this crisis extends for multiple months, there may be more employees in this situation.

On Wednesday, we announced that the initial two-week COVID-related leave has been extended until May 1 for employees not providing essential services. You can find information about additional leave benefits and other employment-related issues in the “For Employees” section of the university’s COVID-19 website. We’ve also stopped collecting payroll deductions for parking permits.

In addition, we will continue to provide support for our student hourly employees who rely on the money they make at UW jobs to help pay for their education – we’re still working on the specific details of how best to do this. The campus is also reimbursing students for unused room and board in University Housing and providing emergency financial, mental health and academic support.

These measures assist members of our campus community, particularly those whose work has stopped.  Although I am deeply concerned about our financial situation, it is also important to provide temporary support to the extent that we can.

As you may know, Congress has approved a series of bills that will provide additional benefits to those who cannot work, emergency funding for students impacted by the pandemic as well as some funding for colleges and universities across the country. While we were pleased that Congress included resources targeted to higher education, particularly for students, we expect that the amount of funding that UW–Madison ultimately receives will not come close to covering our losses; funding directed for use by UW–Madison to cover our institutional costs (outside of student support) is currently estimated to be less than $10 million.

We are communicating with the governor, UW System and legislative leaders on the potential for state aid to help mitigate the financial fallout at UW System campuses from the coronavirus pandemic. But it is too early to know whether there will be state funding provided. The state, of course, will also face increasingly severe financial pressures as this crisis goes on.

I am working with the campus leadership team to help control costs. We had already made the decision for public health reasons to require the use of telecommuting when possible and to allow only essential employees on campus, suspend events and cancel employee travel. We have imposed a partial hiring freeze and we are delaying any response to the budget requests made by university units for next year. We are now looking into measures such as modifying some of our capital construction projects and our small projects schedule, but will likely need to do even more to constrain expenses over time. As the financial consequences of COVID-19 become more apparent, and particularly if this affects our fall operations, additional steps will almost certainly be needed. We will be sure to share more information with you as soon as it is available.

As we look toward the future, we are trying to make decisions so that those involved have enough lead time to implement changes. Earlier this week, we announced that all of our Summer Term would be conducted online.  Not knowing what the fall will bring, we need to be planning for re-opening the university at some point this summer at the same time as we think about how we would deal with a continued crisis in the fall. Believe me, I know that this type of dual planning can feel especially difficult, but we have to anticipate multiple possible scenarios and think about what we need to do today in order to mitigate possible bad scenarios in the future.

The past three weeks have presented unprecedented challenges to our university and our community. On a daily, sometimes even hourly basis, employees throughout the university have grappled with new problems that have tested our collective creativity and determination.  I want to particularly acknowledge all those who have answered the call and kept our essential services running for our community.

I am also proud of the speed with which our instructors, advisors, and student services staff have moved to deliver education and student support in a virtual environment. But I know that too many of our labs are closed, research delayed, long-expected outreach and events cancelled, and important work undone.

I want to express my heartfelt gratitude for all you have done and continue to do to support the university during this extraordinary time. As we move forward, questions and concerns will continue to arise. We are regularly updating the COVID-19 website with new information and guidance. If you see things that need to be addressed — or if you just want to let us know how you or your unit is coping with this new normal — please send comments to chancellor@wisc.edu.

Because we aren’t passing each other in the hallway or meeting over the break room coffee pot, I hope all of you — and especially those in leadership or supervisory positions — are reaching out to your colleagues, not just for work-related purposes but to stay connected with one another. As we are physically isolated, knowing that we have a larger Badger community is important.

Sincerely,

Rebecca Blank
Chancellor