Resolute Response

Resolute Response

President Wesley R. Fugate candidly explains the difficulties facing the College in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainties ahead. 
by Wesley R. Fugate

On day 77 of my presidency, I announced that Wilson College, a place known for 150 years for its personalized, and most often, in-person educational experience would now deliver its instruction entirely online. As you all know, this decision was the right and necessary response to a global pandemic spreading quickly and reaching to every corner of our planet.

When I joined the Wilson community in January, reports of a new respiratory illness in a faraway city in China were trickling into newspaper columns and State Department bulletins. Little did anyone know how dangerous this novel virus would turn out to be or how dramatically it would change all our lives. I spent my first few months as president engaging with the community on campus, and I had grand dreams of venturing throughout the Commonwealth and nation meeting our alums and hearing their Wilson stories. In fact, I had just visited Florida for my first trip to meet a number of alumnae, when the pandemic truly made its presence known in the U.S. We rushed back to Chambersburg to develop a response.

Those seem like such distant and innocent days now. The good news is that you should be proud of how Wilson responded to this challenge. While this experience has stretched us further and in more directions than we thought possible, I am proud that this community, time and time again, has risen to the challenge. Perhaps more than I could have ever imagined, our faculty and staff have stepped up in service to our students. Dedication like this has always defined Wilson, and it continues to do so even in the midst of the pandemic.

This edition of Wilson Magazine tells the story of the College and her people as we have adapted to the impact of COVID-19. The story is one of great adversity but not one of defeat. There are many positive tales of how Wilson, like the phoenix, rises. A look at our history, both recent and distant, tells you that Wilson has always stepped up in times of peril, and I am proud to say that again, Wilson has stepped up to meet this challenge head-on.

First and foremost, I should take the time to speak about our students. This was not easy for them, but they were resilient. They were creative in finding ways to engage with one another and create a new normal for the college experience. But I think the vast majority of them would concur with me in saying they want to be back at Wilson. Campus is lonely without them, and they yearn for the intellectual and supportive community that you can only experience on a college campus.

Second, Wilson has always been a place that celebrates our animals. You will be happy to know that the horses, dogs, cats, birds, bunnies, guinea pigs, and so many other animals on campus have been well taken care of through this ordeal. As Cody and I walk the campus each day, the otherwise eerie silence is broken by the neighing of horses. They look at us longingly, and I suspect, wonder why there are no students engaging with them. They seem to miss the students as much as I do.

Third, as you have come to expect from the Wilson faculty and staff, they poured their hearts and souls into delivering the curriculum and empowering students in creative ways, even from a distance. The faculty are the heart of our institution, and their love was on full display since we began adapting to the impact of the pandemic. Similarly, the staff have supported our students and faculty in vital ways. From their homes, they have been tutoring, providing support groups, serving the remaining students on campus (just shy of 50 students for the final eight weeks of the semester), and so much more. Chaplain Derek Waddlington has ensured that Sarah’s Cupboard, our food pantry, has been available for students, faculty, and staff as we each face extraordinary challenges during these trying times. Actions like these highlight why the Wilson experience stands above the rest: our faculty and staff are remarkable people who do everything they can to ensure student success.

This is not to say that our story is without significant difficulties. The pandemic crisis has proven to be financially  challenging, not least because we issued room and board refunds to students who went home at spring break. Similarly, we incurred considerable expense in our move to online instruction. Fortunately, federal funding helped us through the last fiscal year with less pain than many institutions.

Like most institutions across the country, we developed plans for delivering instruction in-person this fall. So many questions had to be answered. How can we provide the very best instruction in as safe a way as possible? How do students social distance in our residence halls? Do we have the classroom space to put 6 feet between each student and instructor? What happens if there is a resurgence of cases in our region? The list goes on and on. We assembled some of our best minds on a re-opening task force to develop comprehensive plans and contingencies. This work was extremely complex and being carried out by a very lean faculty and staff already weary from our abrupt transition to remote instruction in the spring.

Despite the hard work and very detailed plans of the task force, as the virus resurged, access to testing remained a serious challenge, and test results couldn’t be guaranteed within the time frame needed to be effective. On the last day of my seventh month in office, I announced the difficult decision to move to an entirely online fall semester. As difficult as this was, the health and safety of our community must be our top priority, so I know that it was the right decision.

I must be candid and tell you that this fiscal year will be even more difficult. Never before in our history has every avenue for revenue been impacted at the same time: recruitment, retention, auxiliary revenue, philanthropy and investments. While it is nearly impossible to know how students will be impacted by this situation, we are predicting a 14% decline in our traditional undergraduate enrollment, with smaller declines in our other student populations. In all, we anticipate a $4.5 million decline in revenue next year compared to the current year—approximately a 20% decline. At the same time, it is difficult to estimate what our increased costs may be. We are experiencing unprecedented needs for new technology, testing for the virus, contact tracing, cleaning, and other safeguards to keep our community safe.

In the short term, we have had to make the difficult choices that many organizations and institutions, including our fellow colleges and universities, have had to make in recent months: cutting general expenses, reducing benefits, instituting salary reductions, and implementing furloughs and some layoffs. These are not the decisions I dreamed I would have to make in my first months at the College. Yet, I must make the difficult, but necessary decisions required to ensure that Wilson can deliver on its mission well into the future.

Thus, I made the decision to permanently layoff six employees and furlough 36 others, in addition to reducing the weekly hours for a handful more. I am taking a 20% salary reduction personally and instituting graduated reductions for employees based on salary, except for those who make less than $30,000. And, while I wish I could promise that this is the end of our difficult decisions, no one can predict the future, and more tough choices may be required. It is hard to look at the people who make Wilson so special and ask them for more sacrifice. It is incredibly painful to lay off an employee who has served the College for 22 years. And yet, these steps are necessary for the survival of Wilson.

So many of you have asked, how can I help? Wilson needs your financial, intellectual and emotional support more than ever before. We are a strong institution—in 2019-2020, we experienced our highest enrollment in history, and we are implementing strategic plans to emerge from this pandemic stronger. But we need your help to survive and succeed. Your philanthropy will get us through these next difficult years and ensure that Wilson educates the next generation of civic and economic leaders. Thank you for all that you have done and will do in the future to allow us to make a difference in the lives of Wilson students. We remain….#OneWilson.

RELATED: Work on the Wild Side Racehorse Rescue and Rehabilitation Letter from the President