On March 2nd, students returned from their winter work internships bristling with energy and enthusiasm, as they took their first classes in the spectacular new Couch Academic Center. Two weeks later, students were asked to return home and we began online instruction. As I write this letter, New York is emerging as the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic with NYC and Long Island accounting for over 5% of worldwide cases. Yes, these are truly challenging and uncertain times. Those of us at Webb are most appreciative of the emails of support we have received from so many of you, asking how we are doing and seeking ways to assist us. This letter describes some of the actions we have taken over the last month as we continue to fulfill our mission of providing Webb students with the best possible education while safeguarding the health and safety of the Webb community.
Our dormitories remain open for students who need to be here. While we encouraged students to go home and take classes remotely, we permitted students to stay on campus if the student and his/her parents felt that was the safer option. Examples include students unable to go home, those with family members who are first responders (e.g. doctors and nurses), and those with family members in higher-risk categories (e.g. with compromised immune systems or underlying illnesses). A total of seventeen students are now living on campus, housed in Motley Hall in single rooms.
All courses were moved online as of March 16th, with Dean Werner and all faculty members providing instruction from home. We quickly purchased necessary information technology equipment, both hardware and software, and the Dean provided training for those faculty members without experience in distance learning. Although we have faced a few challenges due to slower internet/WiFi transmission rates at some homes, the early feedback is that remote learning is working well. Professors are working closely with students that had thesis projects utilizing campus-based test facilities, finding alternatives that accomplish the educational goal while allowing for completion by the end of the semester
By March 16th, those Webb staff members that can effectively work at home were asked to do so. On March 22nd, when New York Governor Cuomo issued a directive requiring 100% of non-essential personnel to work from home, we made a few additional reductions in onsite staff. Today, we are operating with eight staff working on campus, six of whom are living on campus. These staff members are responsible for keeping the campus functioning including student oversight, accounting, infrastructure maintenance, and providing meals to students.
This lean staff places a considerable burden on those remaining on campus. For example, “Chef Rob” is the only culinary staff member left on campus. He is doing yeoman’s work, ordering all provisions and cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner on all weekdays. Students and staff are washing dishes to alleviate some of his workload. On weekends, Chef Rob provides the food and the students cook and clean up themselves. I am writing this letter on Sunday afternoon, having just enjoyed a student prepared brunch consisting of banana crepes, sausage quiche, yogurt and fruit, and a cinnamon bun. Absolutely delicious! These students are amazing.
We have implemented best practices in social distancing and other risk mitigation measures. The extraordinary cooperation and “can do” attitude demonstrated by our students, faculty, and staff is heartwarming. It has been my pleasure to work side-by-side with all of them.
The coronavirus outbreak has led to many disruptions in how we do business at Webb. In each case, we have developed alternative processes that, although perhaps not ideal, meet our objectives. For example, restrictions on travel meant that many of our prospective freshmen were unable to come to campus to spend the night in Stevenson Taylor Hall, attend classes in the Couch Academic Center, and be interviewed by the president and a faculty member. Admissions director Lauren Carballo has substituted a process involving online interviews and webinars with students. Our communications staff has developed an admission’s video introducing prospective students to Webb life. We are confident that we will recruit a full complement of twenty-eight highly qualified students for the Class of 2024.
I very much enjoyed the thirteen regional alumni events held around the country and in Europe during the months of January and February. Thank you all for your hospitality! The New York, Norfolk, Green Bay, and Denver events planned for March and April have been postponed until the fall.
Unfortunately, we are unable to host Homecoming on the Webb campus this year. The Webb Alumni Association is planning a virtual meeting for Saturday, May 16th. Please join us! For those classes celebrating reunions this year, we hope you will take the opportunity to get together online, as it is a good time to stay in touch with classmates and friends. Noting that Webbie’s have a proclivity to procrastinate, please consider celebrating your reunion in-person a year late at next year’s Homecoming. We look forward to seeing you!
For the students who went home, we will rebate room and board on a pro-rata basis. Although our endowment investments are well diversified, they have also been impacted by the stock market decline. I have been working closely with the Board of Trustees to ensure prudent and effective financial management during these challenging times. We are all committed to the long-term financial health and sustainability of Webb.
The alumni, parents, past-parents and other friends of Webb have been providing extraordinary and unprecedented financial support to the Institute. We ask members of the Webb family who are in a position to provide further financial assistance to consider doing so at this time. We are encouraging students and their parents to donate to Webb a portion of the room & board rebate. Other members of the Webb family may wish to consider supplementing your Annual Fund gift or contributing to our COVID-19 Fund, which will help offset lost revenues and increased expenses incurred as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
As a community, I have full confidence that we will collectively rise to meet the challenges we face in these uncertain times. I am continuously in awe of the commitment, determination, and resiliency demonstrated by the entire Webb family.
May you and your families be healthy and safe!
R. Keith Michel
President, Webb Institute