Timeline and process for deciding about Fall 2020

Williams faculty, staff and students,

In higher education, a great deal of attention is now shifting to the questions of whether schools will reopen in the fall and what reopening might look like. Uncertainty about these and so many issues is hampering decision-making for the entire college community.

I want to be able to resolve that uncertainty for everyone’s sake. Unfortunately, there are too many unknowns for us to make a decision yet about fall semester for Williams. Instead, this email describes the timeline and process we’ll use to arrive at a plan. I hope it will give you a sense of the careful thinking going into this process, and some confidence about when we’ll have our answer.

First, the timeline. I intend to announce a plan for fall by no later than July 1. My goal is to reach a decision as soon as possible without rushing, which could limit our options.

Next is the question of process. I sincerely hope we can convene on campus in the fall, and we’ll do so if it’s possible to gather safely. Since we can’t yet know, I’m convening two working groups to identify and assess the practical implications of our two choices: open in the fall, or not. The groups’ work will help me evaluate these options and enable us to implement whichever plan we pursue.

  • The first group will identify operational requirements of opening and successfully returning for a residential fall semester. This will include assessing what we’d need to do to anticipate and guard against effects of the pandemic, since it seems highly unlikely that a vaccine will be available by fall.
  • The second group will look at what would be required to pursue alternative scenarios, if we’re unable to hold a conventional fall term. As I explained in a previous email, an ad hoc Academic Continuity Planning Group has worked for the last month to brainstorm ideas. These will be discussed at an extraordinary faculty meeting (the technical term for off-cycle meetings) next Wednesday, April 29. I’ll also explore the possibilities with a group of student-facing staff. And there will be an opportunity for community input, too, as described below. The new working group will then develop an implementation plan for the options that emerge from this process.

In partnership with faculty and administrative leaders, I’ll consider the findings from both groups in order to make an informed choice about which path to pursue. By activating both groups now, we’ll also give ourselves the best possible head start on preparing for the fall.

As we work our way through the scenarios, our goal, as mentioned in yesterday’s Board summary, will be to ensure that “anything we do next fall serves our students well and is worthy of our mission and reputation for excellence.”

Because the “open in the fall” group will focus on operational issues, they can begin immediately. I’ll share their charge and membership with you next week, once the details are confirmed.

It will take more time to convene the “can’t open as usual in the fall” group, because their scope depends on pending conversations with faculty and student-facing staff. Consequently, I’ll share their charge and roster in early May.

Both new groups will be asked to invite community input as part of their charges. Because the timeline is tight, the window for input will have to be narrow. I know everyone wants to help make the best decision, so please keep an eye out for Daily Messages and campus emails about how you can contribute.

I hope this explanation helps you understand how we’ll address the very consequential choices to be made in the weeks to come, and provides you with some reassurance that we’ll do so thoughtfully, consultatively, and with our mission and people as the highest priorities.

Again, I send you my warm wishes and good thoughts,