Message from President Poskanzer on Planning for the 2020-21 Academic Year

6 May 2020

Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students,

As the Spring Term proceeds, many questions are already being asked about what the 2020-21 academic year might hold for Carleton—especially how and when we will decide whether students will be returning to campus. 

Having addressed the initial waves of issues raised by the pandemic and the imposition of shelter-in-place rules in Minnesota, we are now focusing on the fall. While it will take some time to gather and assess the relevant information, to consider our options and to make decisions, I am writing today to share how we plan to engage our system of shared governance to help chart our course.

It’s strikingly obvious that the situation is highly fluid and that Carleton—like every other college and university in the nation—is subject to many unknown critical factors and events. We want to gather necessary data and study approaches being taken elsewhere as we consider what is best for Carleton. We shall aim to address the aspects of this situation that we can know or control, while recognizing that much will inevitably remain beyond our influence. Critical guidance, and in some cases formal mandates that will shape our actions, will come from the Centers for Disease Control, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the Governor.

Within this context, and stemming from Carleton’s core values, several principles will guide our analysis and deliberations, just as they have these last two months:

  • The health and safety of the community
  • Our commitment to academic excellence
  • Our distinctive strength in and clear preference for offering a residential living-learning liberal arts experience
  • The College’s financial stability, including intergenerational equity (i.e., neither drawing from the future to pay for the present, nor refusing to make critical investments for fear of compromising an idealized vision of days to come). 

As we wrestle with the questions before us, our current intention is to draw upon the College’s well-established and proven governance processes to generate ideas, consider alternatives, and eventually settle upon the best and wisest path forward. This reflects both past practice and our transparent, data-driven, and inclusive approach to decision-making. 

Let me give just three examples. Our trimester system may offer us options and flexibility that semester systems do not. Accordingly, questions about the wisdom of shifting the academic calendar to begin later in the fall or winter would work their way first through the Education and Curriculum Committee (ECC). Likewise, the ECC is an appropriate venue in which to consider what pedagogical options faculty and students believe are most consistent with superb quality. The Budget Committee will be the initial locus of joint faculty, staff, and student discussion about the projected fiscal impact of the pandemic in coming years and our best response thereto.

We will also tap both traditional and helpful new channels of information-gathering and discussion to inform our thinking. A good recent example—which the Faculty Affairs Committee (FAC) will be using again—was a Moodle forum to discuss grading policies for Spring Term. In the coming weeks, representative governance bodies across the campus, such as the FAC, the Staff at Carleton and Forum groups, and the Carleton Student Association, will have opportunities to glean and share observations from their respective perspectives.

All of these efforts will let us draw upon collective community thought and wisdom. And—as has been the case this spring—in addition to the Tuesday Group Cabinet, the College Council and the Board of Trustees will be instrumental in approving future directions.

Some of our current fact-finding involves nuts-and-bolts operational questions, as we seek to determine what running the College “in person but maintaining social distancing” might entail. For instance:

  • What is the capacity of our teaching spaces and labs, and could new spaces be utilized?
  • Where and how many students can we safely house?
  • How would we safely feed students?
  • What would be our protocol for when a student gets ill? 

Many of the answers here will depend on still-evolving public health testing and tracking capabilities. 

In light of all of these circumstances, it is neither possible nor wise to lock ourselves into a rigid decision-making timeline right now.  Indeed, it would not surprise me if there continue to be governance meetings and choices made during the summer. I think everyone understands that we shall have to balance the desire for certainty as soon as possible with the rapidly evolving situation. As we have all learned in the last few months, the virus is driving events, not governmental or health care or educational institutions. But we can and shall still make thoughtful choices that are consistent with our values and goals. As eager as we all are to return to campus and resume Carleton’s “normal” operations, we must do so wisely and safely.

I thank you for your engagement, counsel, help, and continued good spirits as we proceed ahead together.

Steve Poskanzer