Yale vs Covid

Mark Alden Branch ’86

Mark Alden Branch ’86

With no commencement or reunions this year, the grass on the Old Campus was unusually lush at the end of May. View full image

Planning in a time of unknowns

By Mark Alden Branch '86

“Uncertainty,” says Provost Scott Strobel, “is the word of the day.” It’s the second week in June, and we’re talking on Zoom about what it’s like to plan for the coming fiscal and academic year when the predictable rhythms of, well, just about everything have been thrown off by a pandemic.

By the time you read this, Yale probably will have announced its answer to one of the biggest questions: will students return to campus in August to live and learn together in person? But at press time, the university is still watching infection rates, studying the feasibility of mass testing, and waiting for a nod from Connecticut before making that decision.

What is clear: whether or not students return, Fall 2020 will not look like a normal semester. Visa issues may delay the return of many international students; other students may be immunocompromised; many older faculty, at greater risk from COVID-19, may not want to be in classrooms. Social distancing will make large lecture classes impossible in person.

All of which is to say that even if some or most students are on campus, online classes will likely be the rule, not the exception. “We’re considering in-person enhancements for whomever is on campus residentially,” says Jennifer Frederick ’99PhD, director of Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. But the center is preparing faculty for another semester of predominantly online teaching.
In late May, Yale announced revised dates for the fall. Classes in the college and graduate school will begin on August 31, two days earlier than planned. Fall break will be eliminated, and students will stay at home after leaving campus for

Thanksgiving break. The semester will end with a week of classes, reading period, and finals—all online. Schedules for the professional schools will be similar.

Academics aren’t the only variable; Yale’s finances have also been scrambled. In a May letter to staff, Senior Vice President for Operations Jack Callahan Jr. ’80 wrote that the pandemic was expected to cost Yale at least $200 million by the end of June.

Some of that cost is in lost revenue. Yale had to refund room and board payments to students after housing was closed in March. Summer programs, some run by Yale and some by third parties who rent space on campus, were canceled. Most significantly, nonessential medical procedures came to a near halt, causing a sharp drop in revenue for the medical school’s faculty practice—revenue representing about a quarter of Yale’s budget.

There were other expenses. Students who left for spring break expecting to return had left their belongings, and the university had to ship essential items to them. When New Haven needed rooms for first responders, health-care workers, and funeral home workers, all of whom had to be quarantined from their families, Yale paid movers to pack up students’ belongings so as to free up rooms. Gearing up for online classes also cost money and staff time.

Just how much COVID-19 will cost next year depends on many factors: will there be a second wave of infections? Will international students be able to return? Will many students take a gap year, depressing tuition revenue? Will fundraising be affected?

In April, the university announced several cost-saving steps. With few exceptions, faculty and staff vacancies won’t be filled this 2020 fiscal year. Faculty and managerial/professional staff won’t receive raises. Much capital spending, such as for the renovation of Kline Tower, will be postponed. (Projects already in progress, including renovating the Hall of Graduate Studies as a humanities center and constructing the Schwarzman Center, will be completed, though their progress has been delayed.)

Another source of uncertainty: the endowment. The economy’s nosedive had an immediate impact on many portfolios, and we won’t know how much Yale’s has lost until the next report is released in September. The endowment provides a third of the university’s operating revenue.

In mid-June, there are a few signs of life on campus. Laboratory building interiors are getting thorough scrubbings as research activity is set to begin, and the libraries are preparing to offer some limited services. Most employees are still being asked to work from home until at least July 10. Stores and restaurants on Broadway and Chapel Street are beginning to reopen.

Like everyone else, people at Yale are eager for a return to our familiar, collegial norm. But there may be a long way to go. 

Mark Alden Branch ’86 is the executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.