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Zoom Interview about COVID-19 with President Raymond and Jesse Lytle

On March 23, 2020, The Clerk’s Editor-In-Chief Chace Pulley conducted an interview via Zoom video conferencing with President Wendy Raymond and Vice President and Chief of Staff Jesse Lytle about the College’s response to the COVID-19 situation. This is a transcript of the conversation which was edited for clarity.

Chace Pulley: So thank you so much for talking with me. How are you doing? How are our administrators doing? How are your first two weeks during this crazy time?

President Wendy Raymond: Yes, thanks Chace. I’m doing well. You see me (on Zoom) from One College Circle, so I get to be on campus because I live on campus. But everybody else—pretty much everybody else— is now working from home. And that’s because last Thursday, the Governor made a proclamation and an edict that all who are doing non-life sustaining work have to be working from home across the state of Pennsylvania. So for higher education in Pennsylvania, that means that everybody who can work from home is working from home. As you know, we have the Dining Center staff [working on Haverford’s campus] because our students who are still on campus are eating. And that work is considered life-sustaining, for example.

But I’m doing well. People have asked that [question] over and over to me, because clearly this is nothing that anybody anticipated. And this is my job.

But it’s been hard for everyone, and we’re so sad that students are not here. And I would say that definitely impacts my well-being!s it does everybody’s here. But we’re doing well. All things considered.

CP: Awesome. So my first question sort of has to do with the decision-making process. We hear about all these policies being passed and students are writing a lot of petitions but the question becomes who is making these decisions? Who is making these calls? Who makes these decisions?

WR: The structures that are always in place at the College serve us extremely well. Those structures include the president often deciding, ultimately, major policy decisions. I do that in consultation with the Senior Staff, who are all the vice presidents and some other campus leaders. Then in an emergency situation for anything that happens here (and this happens when we have a weather emergency, like a snow emergency, for example) we put into place a group called HERT, the Haverford Emergency Response Team. In this case, it was for the COVID-19 public health crisis.

 When you ask about things like grades, and would we consider a pass/fail option? I think you’ve probably seen that [decision] come through today—that is in the complete purview of the faculty. In this case, [this decision was made] through the Educational Policy Committee, a standing committee that is comprised of students, staff, and faculty. In this unusual situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, they took the move of apprising me of their recommendation to be sure that I was on the same page. With that [decision], they chose to act really quickly [before there was a full faculty meeting]. Under normal circumstances, such a decision would require consensus approval from the full faculty, which can take a good deal of time and discussion–more than we have right now.  Because of our current circumstances, EPC quickly solicited faculty ideas and feedback, including through an online survey, in order to expedite a decision about grading. Otherwise, they would have gone through the full faculty, completely, and gotten lots of faculty input.

Note: Haverford announced a move to a pass/fail semester with the option of revealing grades, with the “pass” range extended to include grades 1.0 and higher.

So those are all examples of how the normal governance procedure is working at Haverford. And then we instituted one other new body, which we called the COVID-19 Policy and Strategy group. That is a subset of the senior staff, and Mitch Wein, our Chief Financial Officer—he’s [also] the Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance—is the chair of that committee. Jesse Lytle, our VP and Chief of Staff, serves as vice-chair of that. I delegated leadership of the committee to make it much more functional rather than have the president always have to be in the loop in all of the conversations. 

The other reason why Mitch and Jesse are leading that is because they are both also part of HERT. The approximately 25 members of HERT working on this situation are doing the nuts and bolts work of carrying out any policy decisions. So it’s [Executive Director of BiCo Campus Safety] Tom King, it’s people in dining services, it’s other people in facilities, et cetera. So that would not be a meeting that you want a president at because those folks just want to be doing the work and not worrying about the president listening to how that all gets made.

CP: So can you give an example of the sort of things HERT might work on versus the sort of policies you are in charge of?

WR: You bet. Our first policy decision was that we would go to three weeks of virtual education and open up the campus again for resumption of normal classes on April 6th. That was the first decision that we made, and that was a COVID-19 Policy Group decision. So, now, that’s a policy decision that HERT needs to work out the details of. How are we going to do three weeks of virtual education? Deciding which students would be able to stay on campus: that was another COVID-19 Policy Group decision. How are we going to actually make that happen? How will the deans coordinate that with the Resident Life Office? What’s going to happen in the Dining Center? How are we actually going to get meals to people safely, et cetera. Does that illustrate it? So the COVID-19 Policy Group makes the policy—Oh, you’re freezing up again. Am I freezing up?

Chace: No, you’re not. Am I back?

President Raymond: Okay. You’re back.

Chace: Okay.

Jesse Lytle: Here’s another example, Chace. So the HERT has a conference call every day and we will talk about individual students.  So if a student is quarantined because they’d traveled somewhere, HERT knows who they are and provides a mechanism to monitor their health and well-being. Who’s talked to them last? So that’s very on-the-ground, connecting-all-the-different-players kind of work.

CP: Awesome. And so what if any role are students playing in the decisions Haverford is making?

WR: Jesse has had a couple of meetings with the co-presidents of the Student’s Council, Mariana [Ramirez ‘20] and Katie [Leiferman ‘20], so that’s one example. I have had lots of students in my inbox about a number of things. In the very beginning, that first week, there were many concerns from international students about how they were going to manage a period of three weeks of virtual education followed by coming back to campus for regular on-site classes? How should they decide whether to go to their home country, and risk not being able to come back to Haverford? So certainly students weighed in a lot about that and they were not just weighing in with me, they were weighing in with their deans, et cetera.

I heard a lot from students about grading—about pass/fail —right away. And that has been an ongoing conversation. And definitely Provost Fran Blase and all the deans were getting lots of student input. So there wasn’t a concerted effort in those “crisis” two weeks to ask the student body in any way by a survey or anything about these multiple emergency-management decisions that had to be made. But Jesse can maybe tell you more about working with Mariana and Katie.

JL: So I think students’ most important role through this phase has been to guide us toward the right policy decisions. There isn’t time for our usual shared governance, consultative processes. We just have to move too quickly. But students were able to elevate for us the key issues we needed to pay attention to and in what priority order. So that was super helpful. And now as we shift away from the crisis-management part into more regular governance issues, our usual shared governance structures are going to kick back in. So Wendy alluded to the grading question that was handled by EPC, and EPC has student reps on it. And so these things will start to use our regular channels now as we’re dealing with the issues more in our usual systems.

CP: Awesome. So sort of going on to EPC, can you sort of speak to, if you know, why EPC decided to sort of further this specific policy instead of, for example, moving to a universal pass/fail system or the A/A-minus system, or the different policies that have been discussed throughout various colleges. Why this one in specific?

WR: Yeah, they got a huge amount of input from faculty who have purview over grading, and they got a large amount of input from students from the… I saw one huge petition. I don’t know if there was more than one. Was there more than one?

CP: There’s only one that I know about.

WR: They definitely have that input. And I would say, to one of the examples that you gave, why we did not go to a universal pass/fail is because of the need that many students had expressed of wanting to have the opportunity to have a grade show if that was what they opted for. So I think that the result that we are going forward with is one that gives [the most] flexibility as possible to students, whether they would actually want a recorded grade or whether they would want it to be pass/fail.

Further, it expands the pass range relative to what our usual pass range is. So our normal pass range, as you know, is 2.0 and above, and this one is 1.0 and above. So it also added that kind of flexibility and acknowledgment of the unusual situation that we find ourselves in.

Did I answer your question fully? I didn’t comment on the A/A-minus.

CP: So a critique that I’ve heard is that because we don’t have universal pass/fail, students, when students apply to grad schools, [they] will still be penalized for taking the pass/fail option instead of taking a grade. You’re still sort of saying that if you took pass/fail and then it means that you probably just didn’t get a grade you’re proud of.

WR: I see. I think every student is going to navigate that individually. I think there is a critique of that critique. I understand that there are critiques of any sort of process that we might have come to, even if it were the process of universal pass/fail. There are a lot of critiques of that as well. So I hope that the option that we’ve come up with, which has many options within it, is one that really values student agency and had lots of student input in it. And I think talking with the students on the EPC might be really informative because I wasn’t privy to the ins and outs of their conversation, but I understand that they had a strong consensus that this was what we should do at Haverford.

Note: The Clerk will be running a more comprehensive article on the new grading policy.

CP: Okay.

WR: This decision was made with students’ interests in mind. The faculty formally and normally have purview over grading. That this decision was made via an EPC recommendation to the president is because it was an unusual, urgent situation.  Making an appropriate adjustment to academic regulations to meet a change in student needs is where the faculty come in. This was all done in light of a vast understanding how varying students’ experiences are going to be with being home, with competing for technological resources, with siblings around, of having perhaps parents who at home also who are out of work, working in a place where there’s a hotspot of COVID-19, you name it. I only named a few variables that we all know we’re working with that are not the normal Haverford academic experience.

CP: Awesome. So my next question is that, I’m not sure you’ll have an answer to this, but I know a lot of things students are worrying about is what’s happening with student workers and whether or not there’s going to be some policy to compensate them, what Haverford is looking at.

WR: Yes. There will be a policy about compensating students that I think will likely be finalized by the end of this week. So we’ve been working on that this whole time since we understood we would likely go to a full virtual semester. So hold on tight. Thank you for your patience.

And that’s another topic that we’ve gotten so much input from students on, and I hope that you will all feel like we’ve made a really generous and equitable policy out of that. So the upshot is that we are going to have a small number of students who are going to be able to work virtually from wherever they are and continue working, which is great, and continue getting paid. We’re going to have other students who are doing work that isn’t possible to continue because their jobs really were tied to the physical campus, and those students will still be getting some remuneration through the rest of the semester.

CP: Okay. The next question is another thing I know a lot of students have been talking about is returning some aspects, some amount of the room and board charge.

WR: And that’s going to be coming soon as well. So with that, we have been working on just trying to figure out, again, the very best outcome that we can, to be equitable and fair and generous towards students. So yes, there will be room and board refunds coming.

CP: Awesome. Sort of, I’m guessing this is not even in the conversation yet, but another sort of tangential question I have to that is, do you have any idea how this is going to affect financial aid next year? Especially with so many people losing their jobs?

WR: Right. We cannot know, and we can imagine that students are going to need more financial aid than they have in the past. And we also know that any estimates that we had about financial aid for students who have just been admitted to the class of 2024 may need adjustments. And that is true across the nation and across the world. So no, we really don’t have any sense of how that will happen except that we expect that those costs will increase.

CP: Awesome. What is happening with summer jobs, particularly summer jobs that are supposed to be on the Haverford campus working in labs? It might be too late for students to get other internships and they’re relying on that funding. What is happening with summer jobs, does Haverford have any ideas yet?

WR: That is very much a work in progress and if you have a crystal ball, we would appreciate understanding what will happen in the summer! There are so many variables there, right? Including how this public health crisis, the pandemic plays out, the timing of it— the whole world is caught up in this. It’s not just a Haverford thing. None of this is just a Haverford thing actually, but you just talked about several dominoes. If a student isn’t able to work on the Haverford campus and it’s late for them to find something else somewhere else, that is true. The world may be such that there may be nowhere else where a student will be able to get a job, when we have many older adults finding it hard to get work. So we are all in this together. We’ll work it through as best as possible. But you’re right, it may be possible that the answers we all get out of this won’t be as happy as we would like. But I’m hopeful that some of it… Let’s be hopeful that by late May things will look much more positive than they do now.

CP: I’m hoping I’ll be able to leave my house in three weeks, but I’m not holding my breath.

WR: Yes, I hope so, too. Safely.

CP: Yeah, safely. So sort of my final question for the day. What is happening with commencement? What is happening with senior week? Have any decisions been made?

WR: No. No decisions have been made. I’m sure you know that, because we just announced on Thursday that we would not be able to have our normal commencement and would not be able to have our normal senior week, and our hearts are broken with and for our seniors. This is so hard. We know it’s so hard, and there have already been just tons of excellent ideas forwarded to Franklyn Cantor,  who’s the chair of the Commencement Committee, and to the three seniors who are the class of 2020 reps. They are also crowdsourcing all the ideas that are circulating across the nation. So I am confident that the class of 2020 will come up with great ways to celebrate. I think this is going to be a menu of opportunities that will span across some time.

Some suggestions have been: could we do it in October of 2020 during Friends and Family Weekend? Another suggestion was could we do it in 2021 on the regular commencement weekend and run one commencement for the class of 2021 and one commencement for the class of 2020? The suggestions recognize that it’s going to be next to impossible for many members of the Class of 2020 to afford to–or take the time to–get back to campus at the same time in the near future. So what are some ways that we can supplement when seniors come back to get their stuff? One suggestion is everybody can put on their cap and gown and with whomever they’ve brought to campus, come to my office and we’ll have a private commencement right there or on the porch of Founders Hall. So I’m going to be staying tuned for everybody’s creative input.

CP: Awesome. If I’m a senior, who should I reach out to if I have ideas about commencement?

WR: Franklyn Cantor. By email or any of the people who are listed as senior reps in that letter that I sent last Thursday.

JL: Luke Aylward ‘20 and Emily Shutman ‘20  are the senior reps on the Commencement Committee. This is definitely a place where students will guide us. It’s got to work for the senior class. The College is willing to put in the sweat equity, but we want students to help us figure out, in the imperfect world in which we find ourselves, what’s the best way to celebrate a Haverford Commencement?

CP: Perfect. And then sort of the final thing I’m going to say is, is there anything that you feel like I did not cover that you want to make a comment about or something else?

WR: Well yes, and that is because you focused on policy and making decisions, which makes sense; that’s what you wanted to learn about. But what I would like to say that you didn’t ask about how much we miss the students, how much we miss you. We are not designed to thrive in this virtual learning environment—although we’re going to thrive. But that thriving is at a really different level than what we understand as a community when we’re all together. I just want to really communicate how much we miss everybody, and at the same time understand that everybody’s working really hard. Students are working hard to make this work. Faculty are working hard to make this work. All your deans and Res Life and other staff people: It’s endless, everybody’s contribution to making this work as well as possible! My empathy and my support go to everybody. So one thing is just that we miss you, and we know that this is hard, and we’re going to do it well.  And we’ve got this and it’s hard. Did I say it’s hard? 🙂 It’s just hard. So that’s one.

Let’s see, what else. I think I’d just like to make a call, a two-fold call, which is for us to be generous and gentle with one another, and reach out to one another to try to support each other. Hopefully, you’re doing that with all of your friends, and students are doing that a lot across students. But I hope that this is happening not only within just the Haverford community, but towards our grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and neighbors and synagogue members—you name it. Because we do that well, we care about the world and we care about one another, and this is really a time where reaching out matters. I know we can’t do it in person right now, but I hope students are finding some… The word I’m coming up with is reward. That’s not the right word. They’re finding that it is rewarding and personally uplifting to take an opportunity to help somebody else out who has different kinds of need than we do. That’s not to say that we don’t have needs. Everybody here is suffering in a number of ways as well, but we’re in it together.

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