From the President's House: April 29

Filed under:

Dear Members of the Sarah Lawrence Community,

As we have continued the daily operations of the College in the rapidly changing circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been simultaneously engaged in planning forward into the continuing uncertainty created by this public health crisis. Today I want to share some of the decisions we have made and the guidelines we are using for our ongoing planning by providing answers to some of the questions I am most frequently receiving.

What is happening for graduation? 
As I recently shared with the campus community, we will host our virtual undergraduate and graduate commencement ceremonies and conferral of degrees on May 15. Our commencement speakers, as announced earlier this year, are Tonya Lewis Lee ’88 and Barbara Bowman ’50, and we will be conferring honorary degrees on Barbara Bowman and Sara Wilford ’72. We sought input from our graduates on how to best celebrate their accomplishments virtually, and we invite the entire Sarah Lawrence community to join us in this global celebration. For more information, visit

What about reunion?
Reunion 2020 has been postponed, and the Alumni Relations office is working with its group of committed volunteers to determine the best time and way to reschedule this important and eagerly anticipated annual event. Alumni will receive information soon, but in the meantime are invited to join their fellow alumni and me on June 6 for a virtual State of the College session, presentation of nominations for the Alumni Association Board of Directors, and, most importantly, to honor the hard work and achievements of this year’s Reunion classes.

Will there be on-campus programs this summer? 
We have come to the hard decision that we cannot operate any in-person programs on campus this summer, including our summer research and internship programs. Career Services continues to work actively with students to help them secure remote internships. We are offering a number of our pre-college programs remotely, and the Writing Institute is also offering an ongoing series of programs online. We had looked forward this summer to launching our first season of EXPLO, an internationally recognized program for students in grades 8-10; we now look forward to launching this important new collaboration in the summer of 2021.

What is the plan for the fall semester?
We will begin instruction for our fall semester as scheduled. We have been actively planning for a number of scenarios to ensure that we deliver the Sarah Lawrence education to our continuing and new undergraduate and graduate students.

All of us want to resume our residential and in-person education as soon as possible; however, given present realities, it would be irresponsible to claim now with certainty when that will be possible. The honest and ethical answer is that we cannot yet say whether the semester will be conducted partly or entirely in person and in residence. Our highest priority must be the health and safety of our community. Based on current public health guidance, we have identified a number of minimum standards that we believe will need to be in place to return to full residential operation in advance of the development of a vaccine: 

  • Wide-spread and effective testing for COVID-19 and antibodies, along with the ability to randomly and regularly test members of our campus community;
  • Therapeutics and adequate treatment capacity in our local hospital systems;
  • The ability to isolate anyone who tests positive after returning to campus and to effectively contact trace and quarantine;
  • Confidence in national and international travel

Most of these requirements are not under our control. And we recognize that even when all of these conditions are met, there will still be students, faculty, and staff for whom a return to on-campus operations is not possible because of personal health concerns or restricted travel, and we are committed to meeting the needs of these members of our community as well.

With this in mind, the campus task force on post-pandemic planning has been focused on ensuring that we meet our educational goals while retaining the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. These scenarios include beginning the semester on campus, as well as the possibility of beginning the semester with distributed learning and a subsequent move to campus mid-semester or later in the academic year.

This spring, out of necessity, we rapidly adapted in just two weeks a curriculum that had been designed to be taught in residence, and our faculty and students have done an extraordinary job in completing this semester. But the learning we have been doing for the conclusion of this current semester has been aptly described as “remote learning,” with its connotations not only of distance, but of degrees of separation and isolation. As we plan for next year, the task force and Curriculum Committee have focused on how we can build a curriculum that retains the essence and strength of our Sarah Lawrence education and that can be taught whether we are together on campus or disbursed globally (or a mixture of the two). The task force describes our approach as “Sarah Lawrence Live,” combining the central aspect of our Sarah Lawrence education—the real-time, close connection between students and faculty, wherever we are located—with the nimbleness and adaptability for which we are known, mediated by technology. Simply put, we are planning now for the fall semester in ways not afforded us in the present semester, and we are maximizing this opportunity to purposefully design and create this curriculum.

I look forward to sharing with you soon opportunities that we are creating for current students to stay engaged over the summer, as well as new summer offerings that we are creating for the class of 2024 to allow them to begin to build their Sarah Lawrence experience prior to the fall semester.

We will keep you regularly updated as public health information allows us to make decisions, and we will make a determination about when we will return to residential education for the fall semester no later than July 1. If we have the confidence to make the determination earlier, we will do so.

How is the College responding to the financial challenges posed by this crisis?
The worldwide impact of COVID-19 has presented significant financial challenges to all of higher education and especially residential higher education, from which Sarah Lawrence is not immune. Sarah Lawrence is a tuition-dependent institution that runs on an extremely tight budget. Our largest source of funding is tuition revenue and the highest proportion of our expenses are compensation for faculty and staff. The significant reduction in revenues due to the unforeseen circumstances of this unprecedented pandemic have profound consequences for our budget. We anticipate that we will face a total deficit in the current year’s budget of approximately $5M, as a result of refunded room and board fees, lost revenue for rentals and other events, and COVID-19 related expenses. We have instituted a number of steps to address these immediate challenges, and we anticipate receiving about $1M from the CARES Act to address some of our losses (half which will go directly to students).

I want to speak frankly to you about the substantial financial challenges we are confronting as we plan for the 2020-21 fiscal year and beyond, and how we are responding to them. It is clear that we must institute prudent and carefully devised measures to help us withstand the unavoidable COVID-related economic shocks and to protect the strengths and aspirations of the College. We face a significant loss of income from cancelled programs; a decline in the value of our endowment; the likelihood that the need for financial aid for our students will increase as families face personal economic challenges; the possibility that our total enrollment is likely to be lower; and more limited capacity among our donors to support the College.

This requires us to take immediate and decisive action beyond those steps we have already instituted; the measures we are undertaking to meet these financial challenges will include difficult actions that will directly and significantly affect our employees. At this time, I anticipate a continuation of our hold on operating expenses save for essential expenses, our hold on capital expenditures, and our reduction in contracted services. We will continue the salary freeze we instituted this semester (except for already approved tenure and promotion actions). My salary along with that of the provost, CFO, and VP for advancement and external relations will be reduced. Reducing overall compensation for many and perhaps most of our employees may be unavoidable, even as we are asking our dedicated faculty and staff to rapidly restructure the way that they work. To that end, we anticipate that we will need to reduce the College’s retirement contribution, possibly implementing a one-year suspension. While we may need to implement additional reductions in compensation, we are committed to prioritizing equitable compensation. We also recognize how critical the preservation of health and education benefits are to our employees and will endeavor to maintain these benefits at present levels. We will extend our hiring freeze through the coming year, except for the rare exceptions for faculty and staff positions that will be critical for the College.

Even with these significant actions, further work will be required to close our anticipated gap, the full dimensions of which may not be known to us for a number of months. I have asked each member of the senior staff to consult with their areas and to model a range of reductions across their budgets. I am also working with the task force on post-pandemic planning as we not only model scenarios but understand the new ways in which we will all need to restructure our work in the coming months. And, with a clear cognizance of the impact this pandemic is having on all members of our community, I am asking each of our donors, past and present, to support the College at this critical time in whatever way that they are able.

Salaries and benefits comprise the largest portion of the College’s expenses, necessitating a staffing reorganization and reduction. We committed to maintain the salaries and benefits of all of our employees through the end of the current fiscal year (May 31), whether their jobs could be done remotely or not. Our hope had been that by that point we might be able to return to full and normal operations. However, given the loss of income and continuing limitation of activities on campus, we sadly have no choice but to furlough some staff for whom there is not sufficient work while the College remains in remote operation, and lay off others. We will notify these staff members early in May in order to allow them as much time as possible to plan. The task force on post-pandemic planning is helping to draw up the principles and ethical guidelines that will steer these difficult personnel decisions, which ultimately reside with me. At the same time, we will need to align the total size of the faculty with expectations of reduced enrollment levels, meaning that we will likely employ fewer guest faculty in the coming year.

No president wants to write a letter like this one, yet I cannot conclude without expressing deep gratitude: to the task force on post-pandemic planning for their unstinting commitment to the hard work with which they have been charged; to our faculty, staff, and students who have continued to do amazing work despite extraordinary external pressures; and for the Sarah Lawrence community and all that each of you does for the College and the ways you live your Sarah Lawrence educations in the world. It is precisely this overwhelming gratitude that fills me with an equal measure of optimism even in these difficult times. The steadfast commitment of this community to this education and to our students is what will drive us through this uncharted course. Sarah Lawrence has known challenges in its short but storied history, and has risen to each of them, leveraging the profound critical thinking, creativity, and intellectual depth that mark this community. It is what we do. And it is what we will continue to do, together, as we look ahead to our second century.


Cristle Collins Judd

About Sarah Lawrence College

Founded in 1926, Sarah Lawrence is a prestigious, coeducational liberal arts college that consistently ranks among the leading liberal arts colleges in the country. Sarah Lawrence is known for its pioneering approach to education, rich history of impassioned intellectual and civic engagement, and vibrant, successful alumni. In close proximity to the unparalleled offerings of New York City, the historic campus is home to an intellectually curious and diverse community.