April: A first and a milestone
April has been the start of our first-ever all-online quarter, including a first Virtual Town Hall experience for me. Faculty have been resilient and creative, and students have met the new format with patience and flexibility.
We've also passed a major Earth Day milestone - a marker for all of us who care about the Earth and its resources.
We celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an event I witnessed in my undergraduate days. The first Earth Day was an awakening for many but I really didn’t appreciate its significance at that time. It came to me later as I expanded my geologic horizons, met faculty in other disciplines, and understood how the Earth responds to human activity. In recent years, it has often seemed as if there is so much more to do… The lack of robust support for needed steps to slow climate change has been frustrating, yet our faculty have persistently pursued research that has illuminated the way forward.
It’s a bit of a paradox, but this terrible COVID-19 shutdown has given me a chance to reflect about just how much influence we have over nature if only we control our own behavior. In a strange way, this experience has proved we can do difficult things to restore balance.
Just as sheltering in place has flattened the curve in hotspots from California to New York and seems to be bringing the virus under some control, so too have we seen the sudden decline in traffic and manufacturing emissions give rise to cleaner air in China, Milan, and Los Angeles. I was pleased to see that our own Marshall Burke was on NBC’s Today Show, in a Freakonomics podcast and in other publications talking about some of the environmental benefits that resulted from COVID-19 restrictions.
His estimates detailing the dramatic drop in air pollution (and related mortality rates) since the virus started shows us what is possible. It’s not like we didn’t intuit this already, but seeing is believing and data can move people to action. We can’t halt manufacturing forever, of course, but I believe that these observations will invigorate science, government, and industry to find ways to engineer cleaner cars and create new industrial processes that yield cheaper, eco-friendlier, and easier ways of doing things. Even organizational changes – something as simple as telecommuting a few days a week – may make a difference. Just being reminded of the immediate impact of limiting the consequences of human activity has been inspiring.
A first: Virtual teaching and town hall
April saw the launch of all-online teaching by our faculty under highly pressured circumstances. And at our first Virtual Town Hall, some 250 people joined, about double our live attendance. I wish I had more definitive answers than I was able share – but there is truly just so much we still don’t know and may not know until the end of May or June. For those who could not attend, here is a recap of the Town Hall that may give a modicum of reassurance as we await more information on fall quarter and more.
First, I am grateful and impressed with how quickly our faculty shifted to online teaching. We’ve canceled very few classes. Margot Gerritsen hosted a conversation with four faculty about how they are handling online challenges. They included Scott Fendorf,
who is leading soils experiments from his backyard and using Zoom break-out groups; Jenny Suckale and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, who have incorporated Bay Area COVID-19 impacts into their Shaping the Future of the Bay Area spring course; and Tiziana Vanorio, who is using a virtual rock physics lab she created to teach lab procedures online. Considering how quickly we pivoted for this shift across so many courses, we have done very well.
Student finance and career anxieties
Students have been very flexible in engaging in these new ways of learning and communicating. I thank you for your patience and understanding in this. I hope that the school’s and university’s support has come through to students in terms of academic counseling, technical assists, mental health support, and financial aid for those eligible. Our Educational Affairs team has been working in overdrive to ascertain resources, next steps and gain visibility into what Fall quarter will look like. Not quite there yet, but we seem close and you will know as soon as we do.
Graduate students and postdocs, especially: We understand there is major financial anxiety, especially for those who have depended on external sources and internships for summer funding. And the unknown Fall ahead. We are working on solutions and are absolutely committed to finding alternative support for students. There is a range of expanded Stanford financial aid resources available to grad students. We have also revised our Stanford Earth research grant parameters for this year. Postdocs have access to COVID-19 emergency funds through Stanford's Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. Our department staff can help identify resources. Bottom line: We want to be sure you have a backstop.
For those graduating or finishing a postdoc, the job market is going to be tough. I can only say two things: 1) Keep the vision of your dream job out there, but be open to alternatives. When one door closes, another can open. 2) You are in a resource-rich environment right now, so take advantage of it. Visit our career counselors, network with faculty and alumni, and attend career development workshops that are available at Stanford.
We are also very aware of anxieties about not being able to get back into labs or do field work, how that will affect academic progress, and how faculty advisors will view that. Please know that I have been in discussions with our department chairs and we will be open to extensions where needed and justified.
Many of our staff are working hard behind the scenes to support our students, operations, department business, building security, IT, emergency management, communications, and more. Many of them are having to communicate or enforce guidelines that are inconvenient for students and faculty and lab managers, but please bear with them. It is for your safety. I know working at home with children and working spouses has been a special challenge for many of our staff and faculty, as well as postdocs and some graduate students.
I have been involved in daily meetings with our school leadership team and the university’s executive cabinet, which consists of the president, provost, dean of research, vice provost for undergraduate education, vice provost for graduate education and the six other school deans. The administration is engaged in what is pretty much a 24/7 effort to understand where we are in a still shifting landscape, and what we will do about it.
What Fall quarter will look like won't be known until some time in June, according to Tuesday's letter from president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Recently, the provost has said that everything is on the table: A regular or modified on-campus fall quarter, an online fall quarter, or even a late start in winter quarter.
The other big unknown is our financial future. This is true for every university in America. I heard the provost present the university’s financial situation to the Board of Trustees last week. Stanford has lost tremendous revenue from residences, executive education, and athletics. And the value of the endowment has plummeted due to the stock market. A $100 million deficit is expected in the university budget this year alone. The annual payout from the endowment, which funds about 40% of our school budget, will be severely impacted. The Board of Trustees will meet again in early June.
There will be severe belt-tightening across the university. Last Friday, the provost advised units to prepare for up to a 25% budget cutback. All of us need to prepare to spend less. That may mean less travel, even as things return to normal. It may mean holding off on a new equipment purchase. Staff and faculty salaries for the coming year have been frozen and all hiring is on pause. We could see reduced FTEs or perhaps a required summer vacation where we close operations for a couple of weeks.
What I can say is: We will do everything we can here at Stanford Earth to preserve our research, our student support and funding, and our staff who keep the wheels on the bus.
As dark as much of that may seem, there is a light glimmering at the end of the tunnel. Discussions are beginning about what a Stanford restart could look like. Above all, your safety is the priority. Sandy Meyer, our Director of Facilities and Planning and our rep on the university’s emergency operations committee, is in constant talks with the university team working on what our return will look like.
I want to caution you that a restart will be GRADUAL. We will not all be able to rush back into our labs, nor will all faculty and staff return to their offices at once. For one thing, on Monday, Santa Clara County extended its shelter-in-place order until May 31. It seems likely there will be some loosening of protocols during that time, but as of this writing, we do not have specifics. Only a few essential research personnel will return first. Many of you will remain working remotely until perhaps August.
Long range vision
Finally, I want you to remember the greater future. Prior to the appearance of COVID-19, the university was focused on its Long Range Vision. That has, of necessity, taken a back seat. But the LRV is of particular importance to Stanford Earth. And the sustainability initiative remains alive, as it should be at the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The president has continued to speak about the importance of the initiative in every public address he’s made recently, including one last Monday at the end of a virtual Earth Day presentation hosted by the Woods Institute for the Environment. The committee charged with developing options on how the university might be organized for impact in sustainability also recently delivered its report to the president and provost. I anticipate a public reveal of the report and a decision on a course of action later this quarter.
I want to acknowledge everything that each of you may be coping with. Sheltering-in-place can be a confusing and lonely thing. I hope that you all will stay connected and support one another. I am SO impressed at all of the grass-roots virtual communities that have sprung up around our school. Where students are concerned, if you know of someone who seems to have dropped off the map, please let our fantastic student services team know. In these strange times, prioritize well-being, while you continue your work or studies at a distance.
As a final note in our Town Hall, I was delighted to announce that two of our faculty now hold endowed professorships. Jon Payne is now the Dorrell William Kirby Professor and Sally Benson is the Precourt Family Professor. Congratulations to both of them for the incredible research, work and service to the institution they have executed. I also am pleased to share that Marshall Burke has achieved tenure as of May 1. Be sure to congratulate our newest associate professor when you see him!
I hope to have another Town Hall in late May or early June. Until then, stay safe.