Virtual discussion offers Brown community members forum to discuss COVID-19’s impact

Nearly 1,000 students, faculty and staff participated in a remote meeting of the Brown University Community Council, which included a moderated Q&A session with senior leaders.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Nearly 1,000 students, faculty and staff joined senior leaders from Brown for an early April virtual town hall meeting that invited members of the University community to discuss the ongoing impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on Brown’s community and operations.

President Christina H. Paxson convened via video conference the Brown University Community Council, a university-wide forum for discussion and debate on a wide spectrum of issues and concerns. She began by acknowledging the gravity of the global health crisis and its profound effect on individuals across the globe and in the Brown community.

“None of us could have imagined at the beginning of this year that this is where we would be now,” Paxson said. “It’s really important to recognize that this is a very stressful time. I know everybody in our community — students and faculty and staff — is worried about their families. We are worried about ourselves, our health, how our friends are doing economically and in terms of their health. There’s a lot of anxiety. That's something that we have to hold at the same time we go about and we do our work and we study. It’s hard.”

The president outlined the University’s approach to planning for the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on Brown operations. A remote teaching and learning working group is developing strategies for delivering courses digitally. Another group is planning for multiple financial scenarios, depending on the length of the health crisis. A personnel working group is focusing on the implications of the pandemic for employment at Brown. And a new Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force is developing an effective public health plan that charts a path to the safe reopening of the campus in fall 2020.

Paxson also discussed how Brown’s values will guide decision-making, especially on difficult issues. She said the University is committed to the health and safety of all community members, the financial well-being of students and employees, Brown’s mission of education and research, and the long-term financial health of the institution. She said that the community will be kept informed of how the University is planning for the longer-term impacts of COVID-19, as the public health situation evolves and as decisions can be made.

“There's still so much uncertainty,” Paxson said. “And frankly, we've been dealing with things that we have to decide now, and there are a lot of things that we just haven't gotten to yet. But we will give you honest answers and tell you what we know. Even if the answer to a question is, “We don't know yet,” we'll say that — and be transparent about our decision-making. People won’t like all of the decisions that happen, but we'll do it in a way that's open and with a lot of opportunity for people to give input and ask questions.”

Paxson also detailed many of the ways in which faculty, staff and students from Brown are supporting the greater community in the face of the pandemic.

A new Brown Dining Services initiative will provide 24,000 meals to Providence residents facing food insecurity, she said. Laboratory managers and other staff on campus are contributing personal protective equipment to health care providers. Faculty are using seed funds from the University to launch new research on COVID-19. The University is providing financial support through United Way to the statewide effort to respond to the pandemic. And faculty, alumni and students from the Warren Alpert Medical School are among those treating patients or supporting frontline health care workers across the state’s hospital systems.

Successful transition to remote education

Provost Richard M. Locke detailed the success of students and faculty in moving to remote learning for the semester’s end, making clear the challenge of abruptly transitioning out of a residential teaching and learning environment known for a customized educational experience for students.

“We had students who were suddenly dispersed in many different geographies with different time zones and had varied access to technology,” he said. “We had faculty who had mixed familiarity with or experience with technology. Our classes are tremendously varied. We have lab courses, performance classes, studio classes, seminars, large lecture classes. And the idea that we were going to suddenly move them onto Canvas and Zoom and other platforms certainly presented its challenges.”

With the dedicated and skillful support of the University’s Digital Learning and Design team and staff in the College, the University Library, the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, and Computing and Information Services, Locke said that faculty have quickly embraced the transition to online teaching and learning technologies.

Examples include Andre Willis, an associate professor of religious studies, who is teaching a class on African American religious history and using the Canvas learning platform to enable students to critique each other’s papers. Visiting lecturer Patricia Seto-Weiss turned a final project for Introduction to Ballet into a virtual performance assignment. Arlene Cole in the music department is using Zoom to record music performances so that students can notate them and share feedback through Canvas.

“What we're hearing from most faculty is that while they still wish they were in their regular classroom or lab or performance space or studio, and engaging in person-to-person instruction, they feel that the instruction is going surprisingly well,” Locke said. “And some of them are saying that they've learned new tools and skills that they would like to integrate into their in-person instruction in the semesters to come.”

The provost also expanded on a recent letter that detailed the pandemic’s implications for Brown financial health. He presented data that outlined a $22 million budget impact to date and made clear that additional expenditures — for example, a significant increase in Brown’s financial aid expenditures given that financial circumstances for many families have changed — and revenue decreases will follow in the months ahead.

Despite the massive financial consequences and the measures that will be required to contend with them, Locke noted that a foundation of careful fiscal planning, successful investment returns and generous giving by Brown’s donors will position the University to navigate the challenges.

“We don't have to worry about an existential crisis to the University,” Locke said. “We also have a whole bunch of levers that we can pull — we've started to pull them to tighten our belt and save cash so we can weather this situation... And I'm convinced we will emerge stronger as both a community and as an institution.”

Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes and Vice President for Human Resources Amanda Bailey offered updates on support for students and employees, respectively. Estes noted that while the format has changed from in-person to remote, students can still access all Campus Life resources — Health Services, for example, or Counseling and Psychological Services — regardless of where they are geographically.

Brown leaders respond to student, staff and faculty questions

A question-and-answer session covered topics that ranged from employee benefits to graduate student support to how Brown might offer flexibility to admitted Class of 2024 students who request to defer offers of admission.

Brown’s grading policy during remote learning, which extended the semester’s deadline for students to choose between letter grades or a Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) option for each course, was among the topics that received the most questions. Some students have advocated for a “universal pass” system in which every student automatically receives a passing grade.

“Universal pass would get us into trouble with our accreditors,” Paxson said. “There is not a single college or university in the country that has gone with universal pass — it just is not possible to do.”

She noted that while the pandemic has caused challenges for many students, Brown’s robust academic support system continues to assists students who confront difficult circumstances, as it does every semester. 

“We are committed in [our] very individualized approach to work with students and their families one-on-one and work as hard as we can to make sure that they're successful,” Paxson said. “That commitment, which is long-standing, will certainly apply this very unusual semester.”

Locke affirmed that in establishing flexible, supportive academic policies for the spring, the University has relied on its enduring educational philosophy, which positions students to make academic choices based on their own needs, desires and circumstances.

“Many students have written and advocated for universal pass — so many other students have written and advocated that we maintain individual choice for students to get either letter grades or S/NC,” he said. “So we fell back on our tradition and our core values, and that is to give individual students the choice to pursue grades as well as to pursue the education that they want to have. And I am convinced that that's the right thing to do.”

Among the other topics discussed were Brown’s plans for summer operations on campus. Locke noted that decisions about the University’s array of pre-college programs would be made in phases, beginning in April. He said that undergraduate summer session will continue, but with courses delivered remotely. And he noted that the University would work to offer research and internship opportunities to the greatest extent possible, even if the pandemic does not allow for in-person activity. 

Paxson addressed a question about when decisions on the fall semester will be made, noting that until a vaccine is available, the virus will continue to threaten the health of some Americans — one of the primary factors on which the Healthy Fall 2020 task force will base their planning.

“We need to have a public health plan for Brown that lets us be a residential community while the virus is still out there,” Paxson said. “I am planning for a fall reopen — I hope all of you are too. But if it comes to August and the government won't let colleges and universities open yet, then we're going have to be prepared with remote learning opportunities for students. So we're planning on two tracks.”

Asked about how Brown might offer residence halls as a resource in Rhode Island’s efforts to battle the pandemic, Paxson noted that while some remain occupied by students and another is set aside for quarantine space, others are vacant.

“Health care providers, first responders, police, emergency medical services and the National Guard, which is playing a major role in testing in the state — a lot of these people who are doing such amazing work don’t want to go home because they are afraid of exposing their families to the virus,” she said. “They need places to stay and so we’re offering our dorms to them. We’re working out the final details with the state right now.”

The president closed the meeting by thanking students, faculty and staff for their willingness to adapt to the challenges caused by the pandemic and urging everyone to take steps to stay healthy, both physically and emotionally.

Video of the full meeting is available to students, faculty and staff who have Brown login credentials.

Tags COVID-19