President lays out Rice’s flexible path

Leebron discusses the year ahead in virtual Town Hall for university staff

Rice President David Leebron laid out the health, operational and financial challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic in a virtual Town Hall on May 22 and offered heartfelt hope the university would emerge stronger when the virus subsides.

Those hopes rest on comprehensive and continual planning, along with the flexibility to adjust those plans as the situation dictates, he said.

“Planning is now underway to return to the campus in the fall, if conditions permit, under a framework of what we’ve called flexibility, agility and adaptability,” Leebron told the campus community in a talk now available online. “We have to be flexible in the delivery mechanisms that we have available for our teaching, and we need to be prepared to respond very quickly to any changes, as we did this spring. And we must be adaptable and able to accommodate the different needs of individuals and parts of our populations.

“We have to recognize that we face an evolving and uncertain environment and our plans may change, and sometimes they will change quickly.”

University leaders are making plans in collaboration with a newly created Academic Restart Committee (ARC), which includes representatives from across campus and is led by Faculty Senate Speaker Christopher Johns-Krull, a professor of physics and astronomy.

Leebron outlined a three-phase approach — adopted by the Crisis Management Advisory Committee — to reopening in the fall, which will culminate with dual delivery of classes combining in-person and online education. He expressed his belief that the online component would work well, benefited by lessons learned from the spring semester when nearly 2,000 classes made the shift within two weeks.

“We are now in Phase One of ramping up activity on our campus with the goal of opening our campus to our students again in the fall,” he said. “I want to emphasize … that will depend on the evolving facts over the summer.” A final decision on fall classes, he said, was likely to be made in July.

Through July, Phase One will require those on campus to adhere to “personal protection behaviors and hygiene,” including physical distancing and wearing masks in public or group settings. Essential employees will continue to serve the campus, Leebron said, along with others as determined by deans and vice presidents. Nonessential employees “will mostly continue to work at home,” he said.

During Phase Two in early August, more employees will return as needed. Leebron said more labs and Fondren Library will reopen “under changing conditions that will protect the health and safety of all involved.”  He said all operations will be required to submit mitigation plans that help avoid spreading the virus.

During the first two phases, no events, activities or large gatherings will be allowed. The only university business visitors allowed on campus will be contractors, construction workers and delivery personnel.

In Phase Three, fall classes will begin as planned with in-person classes scheduled to end before Thanksgiving. “The ARC … will advise us on (how) students and faculty will be able to make their own choices about whether to participate in person” or online, taking into account their health risks, Leebron said.

“Again, we will follow Centers for Disease Control guidance at the time on personal protection, behaviors and hygiene,” he said. “We would expect that still may require masks and physical distancing and monitoring your health.”

Leebron said Rice will begin to test members of the campus community for COVID-19 during this phase. “That is a vital and important part of our plan of testing, contact tracing and fine-tuning,” he said.

Rice support services will be fully operational in the fall, although Leebron said he expects some employees will continue to work remotely as determined by their supervisors. “Campus events, activities and gatherings will be limited to no more than 50 people with physical distancing requirements,” he said.

Critical to the plan’s success is that all members of the community be aware of their own health. “Continue health monitoring and self-reporting, and isolation and quarantine if necessary,” he said. “And if you are ill or feel ill please, please do not come to work.”

In response to one of many questions submitted before and during the town hall, he said the university plans to provide masks for those who don’t bring their own face coverings and provide sanitizer around the campus. “I urge everybody to be creative about their masks, and we hope residential colleges will have their own particular masks,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for personal expression as well as safety, but the safety is paramount.”

Leebron outlined Rice’s financial situation and said the pandemic had cost the university about $10 million in expenses and lost revenues so far in the current fiscal year.

Rice Management Co. has “done a spectacular job in limiting losses” to the endowment, he said, and that should help the university adjust to a severe economic downturn, as it did in 2008. But the endowment, which has dropped in value so far by an estimated 10% in fiscal 2020, is not a “rainy day fund” and “cannot eliminate the need to significantly adjust spending.”

“The Board of Trustees … approves our annual spending from the endowment,” Leebron said. “If our spending is too high, the ability of the endowment to contribute to the permanent mission and success of Rice, and to fulfill the purposes of our donors to support the university in perpetuity, would decline.”

In addition to endowment losses, he said, revenues from tuition, housing and dining, fundraising and athletics are at risk during the pandemic, especially if Rice is unable to reopen in the fall. This could lead to a financial gap of an estimated $60 million or more that would need to be closed over the next several years.

“The bottom line is that lower revenues require spending cuts or new sources of revenue to maintain a balanced budget,” Leebron said. “The efforts underway provide for a comparatively soft initial landing … but given the uncertainties, we can’t make guarantees. The more we work together to identify savings and raise revenues, the more we can protect the members of our community.”

Rice trustees will meet in early July to discuss financial options, Leebron said. He emphasized the importance of hearing ideas and concerns from the community, and said mechanisms for communication of those, including anonymously, would be established.

Leebron noted the challenges Edgar Odell Lovett, Rice’s first president, faced in his day, which included the Spanish flu, World War I and the Great Depression. “(Rice historian) John Boles wrote about him that his defining feature during these times was his steadfast optimism,” he said.

A postwar issue of the Thresher declared Rice a “wholly different, bigger, broader and better school,” after the Spanish Flu and World War I, Leebron said. “And that’s what I see in the years ahead.”

In closing, he acknowledged Rice and members of its community face difficult and uncertain times.

“These will be challenging times,” he said. “We cannot promise there will be no staff reductions or furloughs. We cannot promise no programs will be eliminated or resources cut.

“What we can do — each and every one of us — is look for the solutions to our challenges. To find the savings and efficiencies that will enable us to protect more of our employees. To seek new sources of revenue that can offset those which are at risk. We can — each and every one of us — contribute to the excellence and community that makes us a destination for students, staff and faculty alike.

“What we cannot do is simply hunker down, simply try to ride out the storm or decide that there are no new aspirations to pursue or opportunities that we will seize.

“What we can and must promise is that we will act in accordance with our values. That we will act with compassion and concern. That we will communicate and consult with honesty and candor. That we will make the best of the circumstances we are in and overcome the obstacles we face by finding the opportunities they conceal.

“Difficult challenges are ahead. But we must remember we are Owls. We soar when the skies are darkest.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.