Princeton University officials to decide in early July whether undergraduates will return or continue remote learning in the fall

Princeton University officials will wait until early July to decide whether the undergraduate teaching program will continue to be online or return to a residential campus program for the fall.

Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber informed the campus community of the timeline for making a decision in an email on Monday. Faculty members have been asked to begin planning now for the fall semester under the assumption that classes will still be online in the fall. 

“In the event that we are able to resume residential instruction, we will be able to pivot quickly back to the instructional techniques more familiar to all of us—though we should anticipate that even if we can return to on-campus instruction in the fall, university life will be subject to significant restrictions for as long as the pandemic continues,” Eisgruber wrote.

“We want our decision to be as fully informed as possible. We will undoubtedly learn more about the course of the pandemic, and about the techniques available to combat it, over the next two months,” Eisgruber wrote. “For that reason, Princeton will wait until early July before deciding whether our undergraduate teaching program will be online or residential in the fall term. I appreciate that this uncertainty can itself add to the distress of this pandemic, but I am convinced that it is the most responsible way for Princeton to proceed.”

Eisgruber said the goal is to restore on-campus, in-person research and teaching when possible based on sound public health principles. While COVID-19 infections are rarely severe for young people, Eisgruber said much remains unknown about the disease and young people can spread the virus to others. “Rapid spread on our campus could require us to quarantine large numbers of students or place additional strains on the local healthcare providers,” he wrote, adding that school officials need to be confident in their ability to mitigate the health risks not only to students, but also to faculty, staff, and the surrounding community.

“Our ability to restart our in-person teaching and research will depend upon whether we can do so in a way that respects public health and safety protocols,” Eisgruber wrote, adding that school officials are working to ensure that Princeton’s laboratories, libraries, and other facilities can open when state law permits. “We are optimistic that we can do so, and we are also optimistic about resuming on‑campus graduate advising and instruction this summer and in the fall. Exact dates may vary from program to program, and we will provide additional information as it becomes available,” he wrote.

Eisgruber said the crisis has hurt the university’s finances. Costs have gone up because of remote learning and an increase in financial aid for struggling families, yet the return on the endowment has gone down, and giving to the university has also declined. The school is also not receiving income in the form of room and board from students who have left the campus. The endowment, which was $26.1 billion at the end of the last fiscal year, buffers the school from some pressures, but Eisgruber said it does not save the school from having to make tough choices.

“People sometimes mistakenly regard endowments as though they were savings accounts or ‘rainy day funds’ that can be ‘tapped’ or ‘dipped into’ during hard times,” he wrote. “That is an error: endowments are more like lifetime annuities. They must support active operations of the university each year and last as long as the university does.”

Eisgruber said the university spends about five percent of its endowment each year, or more than $1.3 billion, regardless of what the return on the endowment is for a particular year. That amount is more than 60 percent of the university’s operating revenue each year. Eisgruber said a spending rate of just over five-percent is sustainable, but this year the university will be spending more than six percent of the endowment. “That rate is not sustainable. We therefore need to reduce the university’s operating expenditures, especially because there is a substantial risk that greater economic distress may lie ahead,” he wrote, adding that salary freezes, tighter vacancy management, and reductions to non-essential expenditures are necessary because of the circumstances.

Priorities will be protecting the quality of teaching and research and maintaining Princeton’s current financial aid program. “We have thus far avoided the kinds of furloughs and layoffs that have taken place at other universities,” Eisgruber wrote. “While we do not know what the future holds, we want to minimize the risk that such actions might be needed in the future.”.

One Comment

  1. Yes, that rate is not “sustainable”, but it’s also not reasonable to make a projection that you would have to sustain it in perpetuity. Show us what the numbers look like if you raise the outflow for a 1, 2 or 3 year period. This isn’t going to last forever. This is more shoddy analysis like Gov DeWine is doing in Ohio, pretending the rainy day fund is needed for an emergency, like this isn’t that emergency. Ridiculous. The market is only down about 13% and if you have competent managers, the endowment should be down less than that amount, before any higher withdrawal rates. Tell us your projections for the returns on the funds. Also, tell us how much of a fall in giving has occurred. And what your projections are for that. How did giving bounce back after 2009? To completely insulate the endowment, and sacrifice employees, seems a bit cruel and unusual without better information. If you are spending 5% on 26 bil., that is 1.3 bil a year, which means you only have to make that to break even without giving. I dont think giving ever goes into negative, it just slows. So your required growth is lower than 5%. You really need to start out with telling people how long you think returns are impacted, how much giving declines, and when it bounces back, and why you cant generate the needed returns on average, after a downturn linked to recession.

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