Reflections and Policies

March 26, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

I write as we resume instruction primarily to say that I hope all of you are well, staying safe. I will spare you the now standard, but accurate, talk of uncommon and demanding times, but I do want to share, at least in broad outline, some information about how the University is trying to maintain its balance and stability.

The policy of thinning out the campus population on short notice has achieved its goal. Fewer than ten percent of the usual number of undergraduates remain in our residence halls (students whose life situations make it both necessary and prudent to stay). With these numbers, proper distancing has been fashioned. 

Concurrently, other decisions were taken: to extend the period of no instruction for three days beyond spring break, and a shift to Pass/Fail grading for the semester. The former was widely welcomed. The latter, not surprisingly, is not without controversy, though judging from my in-box it is supported by a significant majority of students and faculty, grateful for the recognition of present urgencies, uneven capacity to deal with online education, and demands of equity. This judgment (taken on the advice of Committees on Instruction, and after widespread consultation), as I observed the other day to a General Studies student who wrote a particularly thoughtful letter objecting to the grading policy, is “the least bad option under unprecedented circumstances.” We are also taking care to place a notice on each transcript to explain this policy, and to offer advice about virtual teaching, including means to achieve asynchronous education. Other important matters loom, including alternative plans for Commencement, for which robust planning is underway.

Further, we have had to conduct a ramp-down of laboratory research, close libraries, and sharply limit access to other campus resources, including faculty offices. Health matters must come first, though not without a significant effect on the rhythm of scholarly invention. For that reason, I will exercise powers conferred to provosts regarding tenure-eligible colleagues to extend their period of eligibility by a full academic year, with two caveats: existing arrangements for only a tiny number of faculty make this extension impossible, and any individuals who wish to move ahead with their review on the usual schedule may opt to do so. Details will soon be available.

We now have to come to grips with fiscal pressures. These are unmatched in my experience in higher education, which includes moments of deep stress, including the early 1970s and the crisis of 2008. Columbia is supported by five sources of revenue: endowment, fundraising, research funding, clinical income, and tuition. After 2008, significant losses to the first two were offset in considerable measure by stability, even some gains, in the other three. Today, we face the prospect of simultaneous losses within each of these revenue streams. As I write, it is highly unlikely that an ordinary summer session will proceed. We all hope to return to normal, face-to-face academic life by the fall semester, yet, as I write, it is too early to know with certainty.

In this circumstance, the University has had to implement, with no pleasure at all, a series of first-step fiscal decisions, most notably a hiring freeze, effective immediately, with respect both to academic and administrative positions. With procedures very soon to be announced concerning a process to evaluate requests for exceptions, it is hoped that what is in effect a blunt instrument can be managed in a fashion that does the least damage to our central goals advancing intellectual excellence. Exceptions will be rare, especially for long-term commitments, and consistent with sustaining research and teaching responsibilities. On the positive side, there is good news. The University, over the past weeks, has taken substantial steps to bolster our liquidity.

Every day, a COVID-19 task force gathers at which senior administrators learn from our remarkable public health community to consider how best to keep Columbia safe and functioning. With pride, we watch our clinical colleagues literally save lives at personal risk, our campus health services look after the physical and mental well-being of Columbia affiliates, our schools implement hard tasks at speed, our faculty sustain intellectual life with much effort and little complaint, our day-to-day staff keep the campus going, watching over heat and light, security and food preparation, and more. A word like community risks becoming a cliché. Not here, not now.


With appreciation,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History