May 6, 2020
President Christina H. Paxson
Tags Faculty and Staff

To Faculty and Staff: Brown’s planning for the 2020-21 academic year


Dear Faculty and Staff Colleagues,

It has been nearly eight weeks since Brown shifted to remote operations. As we come to the conclusion of the spring semester, I want to express my appreciation for your extraordinary efforts to support our students, our community and each other. This has not been an easy time for anyone, and many of you have continued to work while balancing the obligations of caring for family members. The fact that Brown has remained open — with most education and operations taking place remotely — is a testament to your dedication and commitment to Brown’s mission of scholarship and education. Thank you.

As national conversations continue about the uncertain trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic, and what it means for colleges like Brown that offer residential experiences, I am writing to share the University’s emerging plans for the reopening of the campus. Our first priority is to open in a way that assures high standards of safety for Brown employees and students, and preserves Brown’s excellence in academics. Currently, we are planning for a careful and gradual approach that will be aligned with the state’s plans for reopening businesses and industries across Rhode Island, recently announced by Governor Gina Raimondo.

But first, I want to share a decision about Commencement that I am communicating today to our students. While I hoped that the state of the pandemic would allow us to celebrate in October, we have made the decision to host a double Commencement in May 2021, for the Classes of 2020 and 2021. Based on the latest health information and expert guidance, we think it is likely that large gatherings still will not be possible early in the fall. As I shared previously, we will mark the important achievement of the completion of degrees for our graduates by inviting families to participate in Virtual Degree Conferral ceremonies taking place May 24.

Brown’s Planning Efforts for a Safe Reopening

I have established four ad hoc working groups that are supplementing the efforts of the University’s regular operating structures and managing the unique impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Brown. The work of these groups includes the deep and extensive study required to develop plans to make our reopening as safe as possible.

  • Academic Continuity Group: This group is developing plans for reopening research laboratories and libraries, and implementing changes in the academic calendar, curriculum and modes of teaching that will enable Brown to continue to provide a high-quality academic experience for all students. The group and its work are being led by Provost Richard M. Locke.
  • Personnel Group: This group is developing plans to safely bring employees back to campus and making decisions about a range of issues affecting support for Brown staff during the pandemic. The group is co-chaired by Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow and Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Shontay Delalue.
  • Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force: This group of scholars, administrators and students will make recommendations on the public health measures that will be in place throughout the duration of the pandemic. The task force is co-chaired by Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes and Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs Emily Oster.
  • Finance and Strategy Group: This group is assessing the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and developing strategies to maintain Brown’s short-term and long-term financial stability. I am chairing this group in collaboration with Chief Financial Officer Michael White.

The recommendations of all of these groups will be reviewed and assessed by the appropriate standing University committees, including the Faculty Executive Committee, the College Curriculum Council, the Graduate Council and the Academic Priorities Committee, as well as a number of committees of Brown’s governing board, the Corporation of Brown University. A complete listing of the membership of each of these groups appears on the COVID-19 website.

Resuming On-campus Research for Summer 2020

Between June and August, depending on the containment of the novel coronavirus, the University’s goal is to gradually open research laboratories, extend library services, and make it possible for faculty to work from their campus offices if they choose. This reopening will be focused on safeguarding the health and safety of faculty, staff and graduate students, and no office or laboratory will be able to open without an approved health plan.

Provost Richard M. Locke and Vice President for Research Jill Pipher are leading efforts to resume on-campus research operations in academic units. Department chairs and directors of centers and institutes will receive a communication from them soon, providing guidance for developing plans to enable our faculty, staff and graduate students to return to research safely. Since each department and laboratory is unique in terms of its layout and the kind of work that is conducted, the development of plans will be a collaborative process involving academic leaders, the provost’s office, and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

The expectation is that most staff who are currently working remotely will continue to do so through the summer, unless they are needed on campus to support the work of academic units that resume on-campus operations. In these cases, managers will be asked to develop plans that will lead to the safe return of staff members, which will include social distancing, limited numbers of people in offices at any time and plans for additional cleaning. 

Any employee who is asked to return to campus, but who has a health condition that would put them at high risk if they became ill with COVID-19, will have the opportunity to apply to continue working remotely for health-related reasons or to seek other reasonable accommodations. Similarly, students with pre-existing health conditions that place them at high risk will not be expected to return to campus for research activities or will be able to seek other reasonable accommodations.

Planning for the Fall Resumption of Classes

As I noted above, Brown’s plans for the coming academic year are based on two foundational principles: (1) first and foremost, to protect the health of our students and employees to the best extent possible, and (2) to provide all of our students with an excellent academic experience.

The mode of how we deliver the educational experience at Brown next year may very likely look different than in past years, but I want to provide the assurance that how we conduct the year will be based on the best expert advice for safeguarding the health of our community and maintaining Brown’s high standards of teaching and learning.

We are planning for a range of different scenarios for the coming year, including variations of the following:

  • A scenario in which we are able to follow our normal academic calendar, welcoming all students back to campus in the fall. (We know that this is optimistic, and it’s largely dependent on the progress in testing and treatment I have noted below.)
  • A scenario in which the University offers three semesters of instruction next year and arranges for undergraduate students to be on campus for two of these semesters, thus providing an environment with  fewer students on campus at any one time.
  • A scenario in which health conditions are such that the fall semester has to be conducted remotely, with a decision about the spring to be made in the middle of the fall semester.

There could be various modifications under any on-campus scenario — reduction in class sizes, hybrid online and in-person learning with livestreamed lectures and smaller group discussion sessions, etc. — depending on containment of the coronavirus. In addition, even for an on-campus scenario, we’re planning for delivering education remotely for students who are unable to return to campus because of travel restrictions or health conditions.

I plan to make a decision about Brown’s planned approach no later than July 15. I understand that many in our community are eager to know what next year will bring, and I would like nothing better than to give you definitive information sooner. However, there is still so much we don’t know about the course of the pandemic. In the coming months, we will learn how health conditions evolve as the U.S. economy begins to reopen, and how quickly innovations in testing, contact tracing and treatment occur. By waiting, we will be able to weigh these factors to make a better and more fully informed decision, which is in the best interest of the health of our community. I appreciate your patience.

To ensure that we continue to deliver — in person and/or remotely — the high-quality and personalized educational experience that Brown is known for, Provost Locke soon will be reaching out to academic deans and faculty to begin preparations that will give Brown the flexibility to offer varying levels of remote and in-person instruction. .

Commitment to Workplace Safety

To prepare faculty and staff to transition to their traditional modes of working on campus, the Personnel Group led by Executive Vice President Chernow and Vice President Delalue will develop guidance for academic and administrative managers to implement unit-specific plans for workplace safety. These plans will be informed by direction from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as Brown’s engagement with public health and medical experts and the Rhode Island Department of Health.

We’ll work with managers to consider practices such as social distancing, reductions in staff “density,” use of face coverings/masks or other personal protective equipment and increased cleaning — all depending on the specific nature of employees’ work and workspaces. An ongoing public health information campaign for Brown employees, students and their parents will keep our community informed of the latest guidance and resources.

I want to thank each and every member of our community for all that you are and continue to be during this challenging time: You have been flexible, adaptable and resilient in supporting our students and supporting each other. You have been creative, innovative and collaborative in finding new ways to do your work in extraordinary circumstances. And you have been dedicated and committed in ways that awe and inspire me every day.

As I shared in a message to our students, I want nothing more than to see all of you in person and on campus, as soon as is safely possible. In the meantime, I hope that you and your loved ones remain healthy and well.


Christina H. Paxson
Brown University