COVID-19 Operational Update From President Gary Roberts

Dear Bradley Faculty and Staff,

I’d like to give you an update on what’s happening at Bradley and a sense of what the future might bring. I realize some of this may be difficult to hear. I want to be transparent about the decisions we are making and I also want to urge everyone to hang in there as we proceed through what could be unimaginably difficult times.

First, let me offer my sincerest thanks to everyone for your patience and the gargantuan effort you have put in to get the university up and running for distance learning on such short notice. I know it has taken total dedication and commitment from the faculty to transition your courses online while keeping yourselves and your families safe. It has also taken complete dedication from our staff to do their jobs remotely while under great uncertainty and stress. I could not be more grateful and proud of the Bradley family for making sure our students continue to receive the great education and services that are our identity. So far, our transition to total, online academic delivery has worked well — beyond my expectations.

The Virus Response Team has been highly engaged as they addressed countless issues and complications related to our response and transition. We owe these folks an enormous debt of gratitude for navigating Bradley through the immediate crisis and preparing us for the future, without precedent or playbook. That team is made up of Provost Walter Zakahi, Associate Provost Jobie Skaggs, CFO Pratima Gandhi, General Counsel Erin Kastberg, University Spokesperson Renee Charles and Vice President for Student Affairs Nathan Thomas (the unofficial chair of the group). Both our soon-to-be President Steve Standifird and I often listened in and added our two cents when required. I might add the Deans and Associate Deans also played a critical role in implementing the necessary policies. My thanks to them as well.

Some of the most recent virus-related policies you should be aware of include:

  • In keeping with Governor Pritzker’s directive, we have extended our work-from-home policies until at least the end of April.
  • Given that nobody knows when significant restrictions on social interaction will be lifted and it will be safe once again to hold face-to-face classes, we have extended online delivery through the summer. All summer classes this year will be taught online.
  • All study abroad programs scheduled for this summer are canceled.
  • A pass-fail option for students (with the exception of those whose academic standing won’t allow for the option) in all spring semester courses will be implemented. We are working through details and will provide information in the near future.
  • The last day to drop classes and receive a "W" on the transcript has been extended to May 6 (Study Day)
  • All untenured, tenure-track faculty will have the option to have their tenure clock extended by a year

Although there are still several lingering immediate issues that need to be resolved, our task now is to get ahead of the challenges this unprecedented disruption will bring.

The challenges we face are significant. As you know, the university faced financial challenges before the coronavirus struck, driven primarily by declining demographics and rapidly rising costs. Our current experiences and those following this crisis will magnify those challenges enormously. Along with a roughly $5 million refund to students for unused housing and meal plan fees, the largest impact will be on our ability to generate revenue.

I can assure you that Vice President of Enrollment Management, Dr. Justin Ball, and his team are working feverishly to preserve our incoming class. They are finding innovative ways to connect with prospective students and their families like holding virtual visit days, virtual meetings between prospective students and faculty, current students, admissions and financial aid counselors, Facebook watch parties, and zoom topic meetings about different student activities and enrollment processes. We recently held a Facebook watch party with prospective students and their families that more than 175 admitted students joined.

Even so, estimates indicate that enrollment will decline significantly as many existing and prospective students will find themselves unable or unwilling to attend Bradley due to financial stresses and/or health concerns. The Chronicle of Higher Education asks, “How would universities adjust their budgets if they were to lose 25% to 50% of their revenue in 2021 and still deliver high-quality education?”  Nationwide, university leaders are doing scenario planning for a significant decline in enrollment. It’s only prudent that we do the same here at Bradley.

It is imperative that we continue making immediate decisions to get us through the summer and to begin planning our uncertain future. We will continue relying on the Virus Response Team to focus on issues requiring immediate attention. In addition, we have established a group that will begin the difficult but important process of scenario planning for possible revenue declines of 25% and 35%, and possibly more. As of right now, this five-person group is composed of the president (me for now), the provost (Walter Zakahi), the CFO (Pratima Gandhi for two months and her replacement thereafter), and the vice presidents for enrollment management and student affairs (Justin Ball and Nathan Thomas). Until he officially takes over on June 1, incoming President Standifird will also call into these meetings. This group will require information and input from all corners of the campus and may expand its membership as necessary.  The final product of this group will be a set of contingency plans for how to structure Bradley going forward given this new normal.

Bradley currently is running a deficit of 6% to 8% of its operating expenses. If we predict a minimum 20% decline in revenues, that means, next fiscal year would produce an operating deficit of more than 25%. Our immediate task is to determine how we would reduce Bradley’s operating expenses by roughly 25%, which is in the neighborhood of $40 million.

This is a huge number and the task of reducing the budget by that amount will be extraordinarily difficult and gut wrenching.  I want to assure everyone that in this process, everything is up for review and is on the table. I would expect that every part of the university will be affected.

We have already made several operational decisions that will improve our financial position in the short term, and I want to make sure everyone is aware of them. They include:

  • All sabbaticals approved for the 2020-21 academic year have been postponed for at least a year, and all future sabbatical eligibility will be delayed by at least a year.
  • Test optional admissions will be re-examined and applied in all appropriate circumstances. Some students who have applied or will apply for admission for this fall will not have test scores since the administrations of the SAT and ACT tests have been canceled. Likewise, the pressures to have the largest enrollment reasonably possible this fall will increase the efficacy of expanding test-optional beyond a few pilot programs.
  • Summer teaching contracts previously designated as “A” contracts have been restructured. All summer teaching contracts will now incorporate the terms in “B” contracts to pay the faculty member 50% of the tuition generated by the course up to a maximum of 2.5% of the faculty member’s base salary per course credit hour.
  • It is highly likely that we will suspend work on Phase II of the Business & Engineering Convergence Center once the demolition of Jobst Hall is complete and the site is cleaned up. We are in the final phase of assessing the financial and operational implications of suspending work on this project, but I anticipate the savings will be substantial (several millions).
  • We must begin reviewing all “In Residence” and “Special Appointment” faculty contracts and, unfortunately, we must consider canceling those that are not deemed essential. This will not be an easy task because we know people’s livelihoods are affected and everyone one of these fine teachers contributes something unique to this university.  We will communicate with everyone once the process is outlined.
  • We have imposed a hiring freeze on all positions, both faculty and staff, except for essential positions. What constitutes an essential position will be strictly defined and determined by the Provost’s or President’s Office.
  • Only essential travel funded by the university is allowed. What constitutes essential travel will be strictly defined and determined by the Provost’s or President’s Office.
  • There is a freeze on all but essential spending. Most P-cards and Bradley credit cards are frozen. Units that have essential spending requirements should work with the CFO’s Office to clear those expenditures.
  • The program prioritization process is suspended. The process of reviewing all operations, both academic and administrative, for mission criticality will be conducted as part of the overall financial stability planning process. We remain committed to a shared governance model, but given the current situation, we must make many decisions quickly, which may not allow time for campus discussions and deliberations in the manner we are used to.

While the above steps will help bolster our finances this next year, sadly they will not come close to closing a potential 25% or more budget deficit of nearly $40 million. Since salaries and benefits constitute roughly two-thirds of all expenses, reducing workforce costs is something we are going to have to address in the weeks ahead. Please know that we do so with a great sense of concern and responsibility. Our people are our greatest asset. Perhaps the most significant challenge ahead is to make the difficult changes to assure Bradley’s continued long-term excellence while maintaining the strength of the Bradley family.

I am sorry that we have to make these decisions. Please know that we are doing all we can to preserve as many jobs as possible while we preserve our university. I know all of this sounds daunting and painful, but both incoming President Standifird and I remain optimistic about the future of Bradley. Current circumstances certainly pose enormous challenges that will require sacrifices and adjustments that nobody should deny or minimize. But looking down the road, these challenges will force Bradley to ask and answer fundamental questions about the kind of institution it is and wants to be. 

As an alumnus who has always recognized and appreciated Bradley for the great education and life preparation it has provided tens of thousands of students, I love this place. I also recognize that in many ways Bradley has been slow to adapt to the changing world around us. However, we must face the reality that the world around us is changing at a breathtaking pace, and accordingly we must rethink how Bradley can continue to deliver a first-rate education and prepare future generations to live happy, useful and productive lives. I am totally confident Bradley will meet those challenges and thrive as the great center of higher learning it has always been.

Again, I thank everyone — faculty, staff and students — for your patience, understanding, cooperation, and dedication. You are all amazing.  Check Bradley’s Coronavirus website for resources and updates.  

Gary Roberts

Some media in Bradley University's current print, video and online materials was acquired before the COVID-19 pandemic. Media acquired after the pandemic began was done so in compliance with Bradley's COVID-19 safety protocols at the time. The ongoing safety of our faculty, staff and students is of the utmost concern during these unprecedented times.