Virtual town hall offers a ‘progress report’ for Yale in a time of pandemic

President Peter Salovey addresses the Yale community during the May 1 town hall.
President Peter Salovey addresses the Yale community during the May 1 town hall.

In a virtual town hall May 1, President Peter Salovey and fellow university leaders reviewed Yale’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing key questions before them as they plan for safely carrying on the university’s education and research missions.

The hour-long livestreamed event for the Yale community touched on a range of topics, including guiding principles, the role of public health considerations in decision-making, the mechanisms in place for thinking through the complexities of re-opening campus, and financial realities.

Think of this as a progress report,” Salovey said.

Joining the president, each from a different location, were Scott Strobel, provost and Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Nancy Brown, the Jean and David W. Wallace Dean of the Yale School of Medicine and C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine; Kimberly Goff-Crews, secretary and vice president for university life; and Pericles Lewis, vice president for global strategy, vice provost for academic initiatives and Douglas Tracy Smith Professor of Comparative Literature.

Salovey began by acknowledging the personal sacrifices, losses, and interruptions to daily life that members of the Yale community have endured.

To those of you who also have lost loved ones, I am deeply, deeply sorry,” he said. “Today, though, I believe it is also important to express my gratitude for the way our community has come together to overcome challenges, to take care of one another, and to care for our world.”

Salovey saluted the selflessness and resilience of the Yale community, from faculty and students who are finding new ways to teach and learn to health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

Brown, the medical school dean, outlined the status of the COVID-19 virus in New Haven and what Yale is doing to combat it.

Connecticut saw its first COVID-19 case on March 7, she said, and is now seeing a reduction in the number of patients hospitalized in Yale New Haven Health hospitals. “At our peak,” she said, “we had as many as 450 patients in Yale New Haven Hospital and approximately 70 on ventilators.”

Yale Health, Yale Medicine, and Yale New Haven Health System placed an early focus on testing, Brown said. Yale developed the first approved viral test in Connecticut, and the first test at an academic medical center anywhere.

Yale also created a COVID-19 coordination response team, established a web presence that serves as a repository for research protocols and preprints of the latest medical studies, and has been a leader in identifying the conditions necessary to reopen businesses and other institutions in Connecticut.

Turning to the pandemic’s significant financial impact, Strobel said that, in the past two months, Yale’s current budget has been affected by more than $200 million — due to room and board refunds, lower clinical medicine revenue, fewer gifts and a reduction in sponsored awards, and the costs to establish a field hospital at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

Yale has planned a five percent budget reduction for the 2020-21 academic year in centrally supported schools and units, and called for a similar reduction to programs that rely on restricted funds from the endowment. There is also a freeze on hiring and salaries, and a $300 million reduction in spending on capital projects over the next two years. (The salary freeze does not apply to collective bargaining unit workers.)

Salovey also addressed Yale’s endowment, which supplied more than $1.4 billion of the university’s $4.3 billion budget in the current fiscal year.

Intended to serve future as well as current generations, he said, the endowment is largely restricted to supporting core mission expenses such as financial aid, faculty salaries, research and scholarship, and student activities.

A few years from now, we could have $300-400 million per year less to spend than we had anticipated,” he said. “This is why we are taking actions now to blunt the impact of this anticipated drop in funds… This is a turn we need to anticipate well in advance of making it.”

Looking ahead, the university has created six committees to review various aspects of campus operations, including fall instruction, which could involve in-person classes, online classes, or a mix. The university will announce decisions about the nature of fall classes no later than early July.

Lewis said that if health conditions warrant it, Yale will provide in-person education sometime in the fall.

Initially, this may be in smaller groups, and we may have some hybrid of in-person and online teaching,” he said.

Lewis said if online classes continue in the fall, faculty and staff will make improvements to technology and course design, learning from recent experience.

Goff-Crews talked about efforts to preserve and sustain a sense of community and connection for the Yale community going forward.

Those efforts include putting religious services and alumni workshops online, conducting hundreds of online or telephone counseling sessions, and supporting any community member who faces harassment or discrimination during this period of social distancing and quarantines.

Viewers of the town hall submitted many questions about health concerns, financial aid, the reopening of laboratories and libraries, and commencement.

Brown said Yale will continue to adhere to local, state, and federal guidelines in protecting public health as campus activity gradually increases. Yale officials are devising social distancing guidelines for classrooms, labs, office spaces, and residential spaces. There also are likely to be guidelines for wearing protective masks and limiting the size of gatherings.

Social distancing is the fundamental strategy,” she said.

Strobel said labs and libraries on campus should be able to re-open in some fashion before fall — but that each space will need to have procedures in place to ensure public health. “We need to do it in a safe way,” he said. “This will not be an immediate return to work” as it occurred before the pandemic.

Salovey assured students that financial aid will remain in place for students who depend on it. “Our commitment to our need-based financial aid policies is unwavering,” he said.

As for commencement, Goff-Crews emphasized that Yale will honor the class of 2020 online this month and in-person at a later date. “We’re going to celebrate you twice,” she said.

Salovey said a second town hall is being planned for this summer, likely in July.

Someday we will look back on this period and know that our university emerged from it stronger and more unified,” he said, “and that research universities like Yale made substantial contributions to addressing this horrible, global crisis.”

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326