President McConnell outlines COVID-19 recovery plan

Editor’s note: This message was sent to the entire Colorado State University community on April 29.

Dear CSU Community – Faculty, Staff, Students, Alumni, Donors and Friends,

Tonight I am very pleased to share with you a message that I know many of you have been waiting for, focused on Colorado State University’s recovery—as an institution and as a community—from the global COVID-19 pandemic.  This is such an important message, and I have so much to communicate about how we move forward, that I recorded a message for all of you that I believe provides context to the lengthy planning process I lay out below.  I hope you will all take a few minutes over the next several days to listen to my message and then read the Recovery Plan roadmap that follows.

Where We Are, Who We Are

For the last six weeks, we have focused our attention on the need to make quick decisions and take immediate action to confront and mitigate the effects of the pandemic on our university. With the help of many across campus, in ten days, our faculty converted all spring courses and our staff and administrators transitioned all operations to a virtual environment. Meanwhile, many of our employees who are essential to deliver services on-campus and in-person made it possible for us to continue critical operations. These were amazing feats and examples of quick decision making and action. We have done far more since then, more than I can list here.

Now it is time to plan for our future, something I have been doing since I arrived at CSU. I have had to refocus on a new reality as a result of COVID-19, and refocus on a different kind of forward-focused planning. But as President of CSU, I do not intend to do this alone.

Let me tell you why. A number of higher education institutions have released plans for recovery, in which they spell out the measures they will take to offset the fiscal losses caused by COVID-19. I’ve read these plans from my fellow Presidents, and I respect the strategic steps they propose, which include hiring freezes, furloughs, salary cuts, curricular changes and restructuring. But for an institution to have released their recovery plan means the planning itself can only be the work of a few people, without a process for shared engagement in problem solving. This is inconsistent with the culture of Colorado State University and the Colorado State University System. Instead, I believe our best path forward is through a transparent, engaged process grounded in our land-grant commitment to access, success, equity, and excellence. This will generate a Recovery Plan that we all believe in and a stronger future as a result.

Next Steps: Challenges, Opportunities, Common Purpose

So let’s talk about the future. Our losses of revenue in this crisis are beyond anything we have ever experienced, including in the aftermath of 2008. The path before us will not be easy, but we are not alone. The CSU System Board of Governors has committed to using its expertise and resources as much as possible to help us adjust to these losses. However, we must present a plan that demonstrates our commitment to addressing the gap between our revenue and expenditures. Despite the difficult decisions and sacrificeshead, I want to share with you my optimism that in planning for the future, we can leap beyond what is being called “the new normal.” We can become the model of a land-grant university that emerges from the pandemic true to our mission, our values, and our Principles of Community, recognized for developing exciting new approaches to excellent education, research and engagement.

One reason I am so optimistic about our process is that I believe that as a community, we have widespread and strong agreement on priorities for planning.  These include:

  • Teaching–Excellent, innovative education that is accessible, inclusive, equitable and designed for the success of a diverse student body;
  • Research–Transformative research with impact;
  • Engagement–Purposeful engagement with Colorado communities and beyond to meet community-identified needs;
  • Workforce–Focused recruitment, equity and success of diverse faculty and staff;
  • Finance–Sustainable financial future

We will come through this crisis successfully because we make a conscious choice now to stare down the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and substitute the certainty of common purpose. Much of our training in higher education encourages us to be skeptical. But I am convinced that for us to make it through this crisis, we must learn to be open to new ideas, assume good faith, work together with trust, expect grace and give it to others, and put the common good before self-interest. If we can do these things they will be our super-powers as we shatter seemingly impossible barriers and emerge as a shining example of land-grant resilience and excellence.

Recovery Planning Phases

To get started, you need additional information about how we are going to go about planning for the future. We have emerged from the first two of four phases of planning: the Immediate Phase as we identified the specific nature of the crisis and took actions required to ensure the safety of our workforce and our students; followed by the Short-term Phase in which we enacted ways of completing the spring semester that would best fulfill our missions.

Phase 1 – Immediate (initial identification of crisis and actions: Before Spring Break)

Phase 2 – Short-term (remainder of spring semester: Spring Break – semester’s end)

Phase 3 – Mid-term (May 2020 – January 2021)

Phase 4 – Long-term (I will share more about our long-term Strategic Transformation planning in subsequent messages)

Phase 3: Context and Overview

We are in a dynamic environment in which change is the only constant. We must act quickly to engage in planning strategies that are mutually dependent and flexible. First, we fully intend to be back on campus and operational for fall semester. However, we must engage in scenario planning for recovery and reopening to respond to any contingency. Second, we must complete budget planning taking into consideration multiple scenarios, revenue forecasts from all sources, and expenditure reductions. The Board is committed to deploying its reserves to retain permanent, full-time employees if we demonstrate fiscal discipline in our planning. Our planning horizon is short as the Board will make budget decisions at the Board meeting, June 3-5. So for planning purposes, we have outlined three basic recovery/reopening scenarios, all of which respond to pandemic trends and prioritize public health.

Best-case scenario: summer semester is primarily delivered through remote instruction, but we begin transitions to reopening work on-campus, including research, engagement, and face-to-face teaching experiences. Fall semester on-campus and extended operations start on time, although with possible modifications for social distancing restrictions and for the contingency of another peak in the virus that demands additional mitigation later in the semester;

Middle-case scenario: Spring restrictions continue throughout the summer, and while on-campus and extended operations cannot start on time, they can start later in the semester with varied restrictions, including the contingency of another peak in the virus that demands additional mitigation later in the semester.

Worst-case scenario: Summer and fall semesters are fully restricted with instruction delivered completely remotely: on-campus and extended operations cannot be restarted until January 2021, with contingency plans to mitigate any peak in the virus.

Phase 3: Structure and Process

Phase 3 planning requires us to contemplate the best, middle, and worst-case scenarios across several channels.  To accomplish this, I will convene two leadership teams: the Recovery Decision Committee (RDC), which I will co-chair with the Provost, and the Recovery Advisory Committee (RAC), which will report directly to the RDC.  I will announce the full membership of both these teams in a forthcoming message. 

The RAC will advise and instruct action-oriented working groups led by members of my leadership team and experts across the university. These working groups do not replace existing management activities necessary to keep the institution operating during recovery planning and beyond. They will each be focused on one of our institutional priorities:

  • Teaching & Learning Continuity and Recovery
  • Research Continuity and Recovery
  • Engagement & Extension Continuity and Recovery
  • Auxiliary Operations Continuity and Recovery
  • Student Life Continuity and Recovery
  • Workforce Support
  • Public-Facing Services Continuity and Support

Additional areas that will require scenario-planning but not formal working groups include: Parking & Transportation, Athletics, Facilities, and Crisis Communications.

Each working group will examine their priority through three lenses: operations (effects on how we work); finance (effects on our budget); and mission (effects on how we achieve our goals). The working groups will solicit feedback and insights from university stakeholders and will specify potential strategies, choices, and impacts.

The working groups will be kept informed of pandemic trends and public health guidance by the Pandemic Preparedness Team (PPT), which has already been convened and has been guiding our decision-making during Phases 1 and 2.  This team reports directly to me, daily.

Ultimately, the RDC will determine the best way forward, based on the wise input and critical needs of the university community.

Phase 3: Timeline

 Phase 3 planning must be complete by May 13 to present the plan to the Board of Governors at its meeting scheduled for June 3-5. The PPT will provide timely updates to the RDC, the RAC, and the Working Groups so we are constantly aware of pandemic trends and health guidance.

Step 1: The RAC will give the Working Groups a budget overview, budget goals, and assumptions and parameters.

Step 2: The Working Groups will make recommendations for all three scenarios that meet budget goals to the RAC.

Step 3: The RAC will make recommendations to the RDC.

Step 4: The RDC will make and communicate decisions to campus community.

Phase 3: Budget Challenges and Strategies

All of higher education is facing budget challenges that were unimaginable two months ago. These challenges include significant losses of revenue from the following sources: tuition; auxiliary (e.g., Housing & Dining); refunds; services and research for fee; and, state funds. Although some expenditures will decline and there will be reductions, most of CSU’s budget is spent on personnel. Thus, like all other higher education institutions, we are evaluating the actions listed below. It is unclear to us at this point whether all of these will be available to us under state law, but these and other actions, will be on the table for consideration.  As you read over this list, I anticipate that some of the potential actions that we must consider will be alarming. I assure you that we will make no decisions lightly and that we will consider equity in the structure and implementation of our decisions as we consider possible actions, including:

  • Retirement incentives for faculty and AP and replacement only for critical positions;
  • Attrition and replacement only for critical positions;
  • Across the board salary reductions;
  • No raises;
  • Furloughs;
  • 10% salary cuts for President, VPs, Deans, Coaches and anyone earning more than (X amount);
  • Curricular and operations restructuring;
  • No retirement contributions beyond the state-mandated % for ________ (period of time);
  • No travel funding except where supported by private or non-university funds or necessary for engagement, extension or research presentations at conferences;
  • No food or entertainment funding.

 Phase 3: Shared Governance

Before the end of May, we intend to host virtual campus budget discussions. You are all invited. Afterwards, we will update campus with additional messaging, particularly following Board of Governors meetings. Once our budget is finalized and approved by the Governors, the Vice Presidents and Deans will work with their respective units to operationalize the expense reductions.

Beyond Phase 3: Our Path Forward

Our land-grant mission, our values and principles, and our priorities have served us well in our immediate response to the crisis. I am proud that our decision-making has put our students, and the health and safety of our employees, first. It is more important than ever that we stay true to our commitment to excellence and equity in education, research, and engagement, but there is no doubt we will have to adopt new strategies and make tough decisions.

In this difficult time, I am grateful for your patience, dedication to our students, and creative problem-solving. Uncertainty is difficult.  I do not know what the future holds. However, in the face of uncertainty, you can be certain I will be transparent, direct, and an advocate for our students, faculty, staff, and this community.