Students, Colleagues and Friends of Gardner-Webb,
Consistent with our continuing efforts to keep the campus family informed, please take a look at the new community update on our website, “Bulldogs Together: Ready and Strong.” The update provides guidance for faculty, staff, students, and friends of the university as we prepare for the Fall 2020 semester.
I want to also take a moment here to provide some candid words of both vigilance and encouragement. As we all recognize, there is considerable anxiety in our world. “Back to School” takes on a different meaning this autumn, and I am fully aware that COVID-19 weighs heavily on everyone’s mind. I wake up each morning thinking about what the pandemic means for Gardner-Webb, and invariably I struggle each night to fall asleep while racing through options for how to best meet our institutional mission and still keep everyone healthy.
We have been through a lot since March. Our University never closed; instead, our faculty pivoted on a dime and transitioned successfully to online instruction when that became necessary. Our staff—some of whom never migrated to remote duties—have done herculean work and taken excellent care of the students who remained on campus. Food services, police, housekeeping, grounds, library, administrative staff and so many others have been at their posts throughout. I am proud of—and grateful to—everyone who has helped GWU navigate its way through something that none of us has ever experienced before. Nobody wilted. Nobody wavered.
Unlike many universities and colleges, we have not had to engage in layoffs or furloughs. Unlike many universities and colleges, we have not responded to the financial side-effects of coronavirus by raising tuition, cutting academic programs, or axing sports. Unlike many universities and colleges, Gardner-Webb has not hemorrhaged students; to the contrary, students have voted with their feet by choosing (or returning to) GWU in impressive numbers. Unlike large public universities in densely populated urban settings, Gardner-Webb offers small class sizes on a 225-acre campus in a one-stoplight town. What some once considered a liability (e.g., location) is now a major asset.
I worry about our friends in the UNC System who are looking down the barrel of potential 50% budget cuts, with all the implications those cuts hold for employee job security. Clearly, we want to do everything possible to avoid a similar scenario here.
Approaching the Fall semester, we are committed to doing everything possible to meet our obligations as an institution of higher learning. We have robust enrollment numbers at present, with more deposited new freshmen (up 12%!) set to join us than last year. In keeping with guidance from public health authorities, we have put into force strict face covering requirements for all classrooms and for any campus setting in which adequate social distancing cannot be ensured. We are reducing classroom occupancies to 50% of their capacity. We are spreading classes out into larger spaces previously unused for instructional purposes (for example, Faith, Hope, and Stewart Halls in the Tucker Student Center) to maximize distancing. We are busy adding plexiglass protectors at the front of our classrooms to give instructors added safety. We have opened a new Student Health Clinic at 148 Memorial Drive. Our dining hall and common spaces have never been cleaner, and our staff will be attentive to keeping them that way. We have rigorous protocols in place to screen for symptoms, and we have the ability to isolate and quarantine if necessary. We look forward to the day when these precautions will no longer be needed, but until then we will continue to prioritize the health, safety, and wellness of all.
There are no perfect ways to proceed. We all know that life is full of risks. Even in the most normal of times, we stare down risk every day. But proceed we must, and the best we can do at each turn is to try and minimize the risks we find before us and get our jobs done. That’s our responsibility and our mission.
Nobody likes the current context. Personally, I hate the current context. In a couple of weeks, I will send my daughter back to East Carolina University for her dental school studies, and my son will return for his face-to-face instruction at North Carolina State University with its 30,000+ students. I haven’t been able to visit with my 92-year-old father in Cary since March. I have concerns about all of them, and I want to make sure that everything is done to minimize their risk as they get on with their lives. As Gardner-Webb’s president, I have concerns about all of you (us) and I likewise want to make sure that everything is done to reduce risk while enabling us to get on with the tasks at hand.
In the days, weeks, and months ahead we will continue to communicate with you as conditions evolve and as we receive additional guidance from the county, state, and CDC. I am grateful for your professionalism, for your efforts to model healthy practices for our students, and for your ongoing dedication to student success. We’ve said it a million times, but it is worth repeating that we will get through this. Our shared faith assures us of that. I, for one, believe the best way to get through it is together.
With thanks for all you do,
Dr. William M. Downs