University leaders say Stanford will emerge stronger by addressing COVID-19 challenges

Provost Persis Drell said she is confident Stanford will emerge stronger and more resilient by addressing the challenges posed by a coronavirus pandemic – from supporting students to advancing its missions of teaching and research.

“There are many ways in which we are having to rebuild the university and how it works from the ground up, and that is bringing challenges to all of us every day,” she said during a recent conversation with President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Elizabeth Zacharias, vice president of human resources, that was live streamed to the Stanford community.

“But as we do that, we are also learning things that I think will make the university better and stronger in the long run,” Drell continued. “As provost, I get a bird’s eye view of all the really wonderful things that are being done across the university each day to address challenges and continue to advance our mission. And in spite of the challenges, I am confident we are building a stronger and even more resilient Stanford University.”

During the hour-long event, which included a Q&A, Drell, Tessier-Lavigne and Zacharias addressed topics of key importance to the entire Stanford community: plans for fall quarter; academic planning for the coming academic year; programs to advance racial justice; university finances; support for employees who were laid off last week; and new programs to provide caregiving pay and quarantine pay to employees.

Each of them acknowledged that last week was particularly difficult for the entire Stanford community when the university announced staff layoffs and budget reductions.

Despite the pandemic, Tessier-Lavigne noted that Stanford achieved a milestone last Friday, with the completion of the new Escondido Village Graduate Residences – on time and on budget, and with the necessary approvals to allow students and their families to move into their campus home in time for fall quarter. He described it as just one of many examples of the contributions and accomplishments of faculty, students and staff.

“Each of you is contributing, and I know that you’re doing it as you also face the challenges that the pandemic has brought to your lives,” he said. “So, today’s conversation comes with a dose of appreciation from both Persis and myself for all of the contributions you are making, and for the very clear statement you have made that Stanford is a resilient and innovative community that will emerge from this stronger than ever.”

During the event, Zacharias noted that Stanford is introducing caregiving pay to support employees who need to provide child and elder care, consisting of 60 hours of paid time for eligible employees to engage in caring for legal dependent children or for elder care responsibilities, as well as quarantine pay to support employees who must quarantine and who are well, but whose work cannot be fully or partially performed by telecommuting. The Cardinal at Work website offers more information on COVID-19 interim policies.

Academic planning for the coming year
Drell said Stanford is actively planning to bring its first-year and new transfer students, and sophomores to campus in the fall, along with graduate students, with the goal of providing the best possible educational experience for them. At the same time, she noted, Stanford needs to take steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus and ensure that support systems are in place and accessible to students.

“Of course, our current plans depend on the ability to reopen safely for undergraduates, in alignment with county and state orders,” she said. “We are monitoring that closely and we will provide another update around the middle of August about our fall plans.”

In answer to one question during the Q&A, Drell said Stanford plans to test students for COVID-19 when they return to campus, with a follow-up test five days later. Stanford will also implement surveillance testing throughout the quarter.

Fighting racial injustice and anti-Black racism
During her prepared remarks, Drell provided an update on steps Stanford is taking to address the systemic injustices, especially anti-Black racism, that are present, and have been present, in the Stanford community – as it has been elsewhere.

She said Stanford is forming two search committees that are looking for 10 scholars and researchers who are leaders in the study of the impact of race in America, noting that some of the hires will be at senior levels and some will be at junior levels.

Drell also noted the IDEAL Fellows Program has launched and is ready to recruit its first cohort, who will arrive in 2021. In addition, she said that Stanford recently appointed the co-chairs of the Community Board on Public Safety, which is charged with assessing the needs and concerns of the community related to policing (including community safety and equity of experience among students, faculty and staff), as well as fostering communication and trust between Stanford’s Department of Public Safety and the broader university community.

“I am planning for conversations with Black staff members across the university this fall to learn from their experiences and to hear their suggestions,” she said. “This summer I’ve been talking with Black staff leaders and getting their advice on how to approach those conversations to ensure they will result in actions.”

In addition, Drell said Stanford is working to create a Black Community Council, which will connect Black alumni with students, staff and faculty to provide oversight of university initiatives on racial justice. Stanford is also meeting with the Office of Development to engage significant philanthropic interest in racial justice initiatives at Stanford.

Drell said she has been discussing ways to raise the visibility of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Project with Clayborne Carson, a professor of African and African American history who will retire as director of the project in August. In the long-term, the center will become part of a philanthropic effort to generate support for its work and to find a new campus location for the center.

Workforce reductions and workplace programs
In discussing the 2020-21 budget, President Tessier-Lavigne noted that unit leaders had to make difficult choices about reducing their workforces in response to COVID-19, decisions that resulted last week in the elimination of open positions, temporary and permanent layoffs, and the elimination of a number of fixed-term and contingency positions.

“These are decisions no one takes lightly,” he said. “These are talented and committed members of our community, and the loss of these individuals is a big loss for our university as a whole. As I said in my message, we are taking steps to support those who have been laid off, including keeping them on the payroll for 60 days.”

In response to a question during the Q&A, Tessier-Lavigne said he is hopeful that the 2020-21 budget will be “resilient and robust” in the face of the pandemic, but the university will have to be prepared to consider more budget reductions if the situation worsens.

Addressing the Stanford community, Zacharias said University Human Resources has announced some key workplace programs and new interim pay policies that aim to provide flexible work and benefits options to support the needs of employees and maintain the health and safety of the university community going forward.

Zacharias said Stanford will continue its current interim premium pay policy through the end of September for employees who work on campus maintaining critical university functions. In addition, she said Stanford will provide caregiving pay and quarantine pay to eligible employees, adding that University HR will provide more information before Sept. 1.

“Understandably child care is a major concern for our community,” she said. “Our WorkLife Office is further assessing the capacity of our child care centers and how we can safely increase access enrollment in alignment with public health guidance, our phased approach to returning to campus, as well as our typical prioritization for invitations to enroll.”

Zacharias also addressed the urgent need to address anti-Black racism and systemic injustice to support employees on campus.

“I see nothing of more importance for Stanford and I’m fully committed to further identifying what is needed and working toward meaningful sustainable change,” she said. “I know we have a great deal of work ahead of us. I am also committed to doing everything we can to foster a healthy, safe, flexible and inclusive work environment.”

In addition to the conversation Monday, the Health Alerts website offers contact information and resources for members of the university community who have questions about specific or individual issues. There are pages with resources for students and postdocs, faculty, researchers and staff, as well as FAQs on a wide range of topics related to the university’s response to the pandemic.