Princeton president, calling pandemic a global struggle, says school will wait until July to determine if it can fully reopen in fall

Eisgruber, in letter to school community: ‘It is important to assess honestly the difficult challenges that confront not only our university, but our country and, indeed, the world’

By Tom Bergeron
Princeton | May 5, 2020 at 4:20 am

Calling the COVID-19 pandemic a durable and damaging public health crisis that will number among American history’s greatest upheavals, Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber updated the university’s community about the state of the school and its plans for the academic year ahead in an email sent Monday afternoon.

Eisgruber, in an extraordinarily open 2,200-word letter, discussed the challenges of reopening the school to online learning in the fall, its commitment to financial aid and misconceptions about its endowment. He also said tough challenges lie ahead for the school and society — hinting life could remain difficult for far longer than many currently are predicting.

Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber.

“Our collective efforts have helped to ‘flatten the curve’ of infections in New Jersey, and it is tempting to hope that we might soon vanquish the virus and return to normal,” he wrote. “Epidemiologists and public health experts tell us, however, that until we have either a vaccine or ‘herd immunity,’ the virus will continue to spread.

“We must prepare for the possibility that new outbreaks will flare in the months ahead, and we must do so when much is still unknown about the disease, its short- and long-term effects, and its treatment. We will be dealing with COVID‑19 for months or longer. This university, like all of America and the world, must proceed accordingly.”

Princeton is regularly honored as one of the top universities in the country and the world.

Eisgruber said the school is “optimistic” that graduate instruction will be able to return this summer and continue into the fall, but he said undergraduate instruction is not nearly as certain — and will not be determined until early July.

“Undergraduate education presents more vexing questions,” he said. “On the one hand, everyone at this university values in-person academic engagement and the cocurricular and extracurricular experiences that accompany it. We want to restore residential education as soon as we safely can.

“On the other hand, the interpersonal engagement that animates undergraduate life makes social distancing difficult. That is partly because undergraduates live in close proximity to one another, but, even more fundamentally, because they mix constantly and by design in their academic, extracurricular and social lives.”

Eisgruber said concerns surrounding undergraduate education extend past the students.

“To bring back our undergraduates, we need to be confident of our ability to mitigate the health risks not only to them, but also to the faculty and staff who instruct and support them, and to the surrounding community,” he wrote.

Eisgruber said the pandemic has required many to make difficult choices — and that more difficult choices remain ahead as society gains an understanding of the severity of the crisis.

“The pandemic came upon us swiftly, and its impact and duration are in many ways tough to grasp,” he wrote. “As we look ahead, it is important to assess honestly the difficult challenges that confront not only our university, but our country and, indeed, the world.”

The pandemic will not pass quickly, Eisgruber wrote.

“We cannot simply hunker down, pick up the pieces and return to normalcy,” he said, noting the changes that already have occurred.

“Our most basic tasks, like grocery shopping, have changed overnight,” he wrote. “Ordinary recreations, like going to the theater or a ballgame, are forbidden. The pandemic is not a storm that we can wait out, but, instead, a global struggle that demands the commitment and energy of our society and societies around the world.”

Finally, Eisgruber noted that the school’s approximately $25 billion endowment should not and cannot be viewed as a piggy bank.

We cannot simply hunker down, pick up the pieces and return to normalcy.” President Chris Eisgruber

“People sometimes mistakenly regard endowments as though they were savings accounts or ‘rainy day funds’ that can be ‘tapped’ or ‘dipped into’ during hard times. That is an error: Endowments are more like lifetime annuities. They must support active operations of the university each year and last as long as the university does.”

He also said the university must confront the issue head-on.

“These times are not normal, nor are they a short diversion, such that we can simply wait for the pandemic to end,” he wrote. “This crisis requires that we do rather than merely wait. We must persist through the crisis, pursuing our mission in the face of these unwanted but unavoidable circumstances with courage, grit and creativity. That will require all of us to do hard things, made all the harder because we cannot take joy and inspiration from friends, classmates, co‑workers and neighbors in the ways that we usually do.

“I am confident that this extraordinary university, this fiercely devoted band of Tigers, is up to the challenge, and that we will eventually come through this unprecedented crisis stronger than ever.”

Other notes from the letter:

On reopening the school

“Our ability to restart our in-person teaching and research will depend upon whether we can do so in a way that respects public health and safety protocols. Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti and university librarian Anne Jarvis are chairing committees to ensure that we can safely and responsibly reopen Princeton’s laboratories, libraries and other facilities when state law permits. We are optimistic that we can do so, and we are also optimistic about resuming on‑campus graduate advising and instruction this summer and in the fall.”

On young people being less susceptible to COVID-19

“Many people have pointed out that COVID-19 infections are rarely fatal or even severe in people as young as our undergraduates. That appears to be true, though much remains unknown about the disease. Young people can, however, spread the virus to others. Rapid spread on our campus could require us to quarantine large numbers of students or place additional strains on the local health care providers. To bring back our undergraduates, we need to be confident of our ability to mitigate the health risks not only to them, but also to the faculty and staff who instruct and support them, and to the surrounding community.”

On potential vaccines and treatments

“We do not yet know enough about the path of this pandemic, and the medical response to it, to determine whether that is possible. For example, we do not know whether quick and accurate testing for the virus will be available in the fall. We do not know whether we will have antiviral remedies that could reduce the lethality of the disease for those who contract it. We do not know how many people on campus and the surrounding community have already been exposed to the disease and might be immune to it.

“We want our decision to be as fully informed as possible. We will undoubtedly learn more about the course of the pandemic, and about the techniques available to combat it, over the next two months.”

On whether to cancel the fall semester

“Over the past weeks, my colleagues and I considered whether to postpone the beginning of the academic term until later in the fall or even until January. Waiting would obviously yield more information, and we could hope that with time would come new advances in testing or treatment for the disease. That is only a hope, however, not a guarantee. The only guarantee is that we would lose teaching time through inactivity. We have therefore decided that we will proceed with the fall semester calendar as currently scheduled, whether we can teach residentially or not.”

On increasing the value of remote learning

“We have talked to Princeton faculty and students about the six weeks that we spent online this spring and about how to enhance the remote teaching and learning experience. They agree that the most crucial ingredient for successful teaching is personal engagement of students with faculty, teaching assistants and one another, and that sustaining this engagement requires additional effort and more instructional resources in a remote environment.

“Such connections are the heart of Princeton’s teaching model, and we will be hiring additional preceptors and teaching assistants so that we can fortify those connections if we are teaching remotely. We are making these investments because they are critical to our mission and essential even at a time of great economic distress.”

On finances

“We have raised stipends for the upcoming year to support our graduate students, and we will continue to meet the full financial need of every undergraduate student at the university. Meeting these needs will, however, require strict budget discipline and trade-offs across the university.

“This public health crisis and the economic chaos accompanying it have affected all of the university’s revenue streams: Ailing markets have diminished endowment returns, giving has declined despite the spectacular loyalty and generosity of our donors, indirect cost recoveries are down because we have suspended laboratory research, and the university loses room charges when its dormitories stand empty. At the same time, Princeton has taken on new expenses to support remote instruction and to increase financial aid to families adversely affected by the crisis.”

On the endowment

“Princeton is blessed to have an exceptional endowment, built up through the generosity of our donors, leveraged by the impact of annual giving and sustained over time by the careful stewardship and disciplined spending policies of past generations. That endowment buffers our university from some of the more extreme pressures affecting other institutions of higher education. It helps us to pursue our mission during the crisis and to emerge from it as energetically as possible. But the endowment does not save us from having to make tough choices or exercise financial discipline; indeed, as I have noted already, endowment returns have declined along with the university’s revenue streams.

“Our budget model in fact presupposes that we will ‘dip into’ our endowment every year. We spend about 5% of our endowment each year by design. Put differently, Princeton spends more than $1.3 billion from its endowment every year, including in years where endowment returns are negative. We spend at a rate such that, absent growth, the entire endowment would be gone in 20 years.

“This endowment spending accounts for more than 60% of the University’s operating revenue every year, supporting a substantial part of faculty salaries, graduate stipends, financial aid and other budget lines. We have to sustain that level of annual spending forever or radically reduce future expenditures on our core mission.”

On cost-cutting

“We believe that an average annual endowment spend rate slightly above 5% is, in fact, sustainable. With this year’s decline in endowment value, however, we expect to be spending more than 6% of our endowment. That rate is not sustainable. We therefore need to reduce the university’s operating expenditures, especially because there is a substantial risk that greater economic distress may lie ahead. That is why Provost Deborah Prentice has rightly called for salary freezes, tighter vacancy management and reductions to non-essential expenditures.

“As we make the tough choices required by economic stress, our priorities are clear: We need first and foremost to protect the quality of our teaching and research commitment. We must also uphold this university’s signature commitment to financial aid. We must do that as efficiently as possible so that we can also sustain the community that is so important to this university. We have thus far avoided the kinds of furloughs and layoffs that have taken place at other universities; while we do not know what the future holds, we want to minimize the risk that such actions might be needed in the future.”

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