Willamette University plans for in-person fall classes, with pay cuts for faculty and staff

The Willamette University campus in Salem (Courtesy/Willamette University)

Willamette University faculty are planning to teach students in-person come fall, but university leaders say much is still uncertain as they look to cut about 10% of the university’s budget for the coming academic year.

Willamette’s Board of Trustees will meet Saturday to consider a variety of proposals intended to offset lost revenue from residence hall fees, which were refunded to students who left campus midway through spring semester, in addition to canceled events and summer programs that typically bring in money.

The university also expects to spend more on financial aid because of the job and income losses facing students and families. That’s on top of added expenses the university incurred in the spring when IT workers quickly added technology so classes could move online.

“Our students and their families are themselves in many cases under severe financial stress, and we are forecasting a need for record amounts of scholarship and other financial aid next year. Meeting that need forces us to look for savings elsewhere,” Willamette President Steve Thorsett said in an email to Salem Reporter.

Money-saving proposals include a progressive university-wide pay cut based on an employee’s salary. Staff would see no cut to the first $35,000 of income, a 3% pay cut of salary up to $60,000, a 5% cut to salary up to $200,000 and a 10% cut to any earnings about $200,000.

Thorsett told faculty he would donate 15% of his salary to financial aid on top of taking a cut. He earned a total of $611,613 in compensation in 2018, according to the university’s most recent tax filings.

The university’s contribution to employee retirement accounts will also be reduced. A hiring freeze is in effect, Thorsett said.

Layoffs and summer furloughs are also under consideration, though no final decisions have been made, provost Carol Long said.

Faculty, who switched abruptly mid-semester to conducting classes online, are now preparing to head back to the classroom with some changes likely.

Across campus, they’re preparing to have smaller classes held in larger rooms, Long said.

Faculty are designing courses using what they’ve learned over the past few months of remote instruction, with the understanding health guidelines may shift during fall semester, and some students or faculty may need to attend class remotely for a period because of illness or quarantine.

“If we have to go in and out of digital mode, what does that look like and how do we do that with grace and success?” Long said.

Faculty said they’re eager to see students in person and expect most of their classes can adapt to meet restrictions on group gatherings larger than 25 people, though no one is sure what rules will be in place come August.

“We’re pretty well positioned with our size to be able to adapt to any kind of social distancing requirements,” said Laura Taylor, associate professor of economics.

Taylor said the pay cuts didn’t come as a surprise to her or colleagues she’s spoken to. She and her students have discussed the economic impacts of the pandemic in class, and most universities are facing similar or worse cutbacks, she said.

“I think the university has tried to be as fair as they can be,” she said.

Warren Binford, professor of law, said she’s seen much deeper cuts at other institutions and believes faculty taking a small cut are faring better than many during this pandemic.

“I am happy to take a less than 5% pay cut if it means that fewer people get laid off at the university and it keeps more programs open,” she said.

Faculty said months of teaching over Zoom are leading them and others in their departments to rethink how courses are offered.

Charles Williamson, professor of chemistry, said he switched his classes to a “flipped” style, recording video lectures for students to watch on their own time, then meeting online so students could discuss and ask questions.

It wasn’t a method he’d used before, but said it worked “fairly well,” and it something he may continue under more normal teaching conditions.

The chemistry faculty demonstrated labs on video and gave students data to analyze, but he said they’re looking at a more “kitchen chemistry” approach for the fall in case remote classes become necessary once again. That could include delivering glassware to students so they can work on their own.

At the College of Law, Binford said the remote learning switch has helped “modernize” their approach to legal instruction, considering what methods are most effective for student learning rather than going off over 100 years of tradition.

Those include flipped classrooms, she said, but also more regular, small tests to assess whether students are mastering material and more participatory class sessions.

“I’m grateful for what the pandemic is causing us to do as far as thinking of new ways to educate our students,” she said.

The law school is looking at ways to break up larger lecture-based classes into smaller groups and spread out class offerings over a longer school day so students are only in the building with a small, stable group of their peers, she said.

Long said flipped classrooms and more hybrid instruction, where parts of a course are taught online and others in person, are among the changes she expects to see more of as Willamette moves forward.

But she said admitted students considering coming to campus in the fall should expect mostly face-to-face instruction, with accommodations made for students and faculty at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

“We intend to have that front and center once again in the fall,” Long said.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.