Update on COVID-19 Planning and Summer Programs

Dear Cornellians,

Six weeks have now passed since we made the extraordinary decision to move instruction online and begin to deactivate our physical campus operations. Life, for all of us, is now radically different. As a community, we have adapted, transformed and sacrificed our routines and our expectations, finding new daily rhythms in response to this new reality. It is clear to all of us that, as much as we would like things to return to the way they were before, this pandemic will be with us for many months; and although we cannot go back, we can, and will, go forward. In fact, we are moving forward into the second phase of our COVID-19 response with the planning and decisions that will enable us to reactivate our campus and stabilize our budget, while establishing a “new normal” that will guide our operations and our community for at least some period of time.

Cornell in the time of COVID-19 is, and will continue to be, different in many ways. Much remains unknown about even the immediate future. We cannot predict the path of the virus, the response of our state and federal governments, or the severity and duration of economic disruption. Yet, guided by the principles I outlined to you in my last message, we will strive to ensure that the teaching, research and ethos of Cornell continue on, through this pandemic and far beyond. In the midst of this uncertainty, Cornell’s leadership has been actively preparing, across multiple scenarios, both to return our campuses safely to activity and to adapt our operations so as to stabilize the university budget. And as we refine and add detail to these plans, we will continue to benefit from the direct participation of our faculty, staff and students.

Financial planning

As is true across higher education in any downturn, the economic impact of the coronavirus will reach us from both sides, with the demand for financial aid and student assistance rising just as available sources of support fall. We learned a lot from the Great Recession of 2008, and we are better prepared financially now than we were then. Even so, our financial modeling shows an estimated potential loss for the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses of between $160 million and $210 million by the end of the next fiscal year, with a potential longer-term impact of approximately $40 million per year for at least two more years. Of this estimated amount, the largest portion is an anticipated additional $145 million that will be needed to meet the increased financial aid needs of our students. While these numbers factor in the $18 million in prorated rebates issued to our students for their spring housing and dining costs, they assume that we will be able to fully open in the fall. If that is not possible, we are looking at hundreds of millions in additional impact. At Weill Cornell Medicine, we have already seen a loss of close to $200 million, mainly from a decline in clinical revenue as most services except for the treatment of COVID-19 have temporarily ceased.

As shared with you previously, we have already taken a number of steps to help preserve university resources, including a freeze on hiring; the elimination of annual salary increases for faculty and staff; voluntary salary reductions by senior administrators and some faculty and staff; a pause in capital construction projects; and a repurposing of unit reserves. Each of these steps has helped to mitigate the budget impact for the short term. However, it is clear that additional, difficult steps will be necessary to ensure that we have the resources to cover our additional, previously unanticipated expenses and those that may follow. These will almost certainly include painful steps such as furloughs or layoffs, but we are considering programs to protect the salary and benefits of our staff for as long as possible. Provost Kotlikoff, Executive Vice President DeStefano and Vice President Opperman will provide more details of our financial situation later this week.

Academic and operational planning

As complex as the logistics of deactivating our campuses were, the logistics of reactivating them will be even more so. Because of the uncertainty around so many key parameters, we need to develop and assess a range of options for reactivating our teaching, research and university operations. When and how will the lifting of public health restrictions be phased? Will we be able to ensure social distancing in our classrooms, laboratories, residence halls and offices? How will we protect the high-risk members of our student, staff and faculty populations? How might we make use of testing, and will we need to impose limits on travel both to and from campus? Underlying all of these and many more questions is the reality that any emergence from complete shutdown carries risk. Until there is an effective treatment or a vaccine for COVID-19, every decision we make regarding in-person campus activity will require us to accept and tolerate some degree of that risk.

Planning committees

To help determine the best path forward, I have established four planning committees, with representation by faculty, students and staff, to develop recommendations for reactivating the university and for saving resources.

Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options
Chaired by Provost Kotlikoff, this committee will identify various options for reactivating our campuses for in-person teaching. Potential scenarios may include bringing back all students in late August; reopening the campuses in phases over a period of weeks; having only a subset of students return; etc. The committee will also identify the criteria to be used in deciding how and when to reactivate the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses for teaching and will use these criteria when making recommendations on the various options.

Committee on Preparation for Online Teaching
Chaired by Deputy Provost Siliciano, this committee will consider the implications of potential scenarios in which we may need to provide all, most or many of our classes online in the fall semester and make recommendations about the best ways to manage this possibility.

Committee on Research and Operations Reactivation
Chaired by Executive Vice President DeStefano, this committee will focus on what we need to do to reactivate our research and related campus operations, and it will develop a plan for a phased reactivation using metrics that are consistent with federal and state guidelines, and appropriate for our campus setting.

Administrative Functional Review Initiative
Together, deans and vice presidents across the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses will look for ways to meet our projected budget challenges by identifying both structural and one-time savings that are possible across core functional areas, including Alumni Affairs & Development, Communications, Enrollment Management, Facility Services, Financial Services, Human Resource Services, Information Technology, President’s/Provost’s Offices, and Student Services. The recommendations will span both central administrative units and the schools and colleges. The teams are tasked with developing scenarios for 5%, 10% and 20% reductions. It is important to note that this is a planning exercise; we do not yet know what level of reductions might be needed, so we are preparing for a range of possibilities.

All of the committees will begin work right away. The Committee on Research and Operations Reactivation is expected to complete its work by May 15, coincident with the currently designated end of New York state’s stay-at-home order. The other committees will present their recommendations between June 15 and June 30. We recognize that there is great interest in knowing Cornell’s plans for the fall semester. While we are committed to making a decision as early as possible, we are also committed to making that decision in a principled way, taking into account both the guidance of public health officials and a careful analysis of our own situation. We therefore don’t anticipate an announcement before the committees complete their work.

University summer programs

As we work to find the best and safest path to an active fall semester, it is clear that there is no feasible path to in-person instructional activities this summer. Following public health guidance, all previously scheduled Cornell Summer Session online courses, along with the Prefreshman Summer Program (PSP), Veterans’ Summer Bridge Program, and Cornell in Washington courses, will be delivered online. All other on-campus Summer Session courses, including Cornell’s Adult University education vacations held during the summer term, will be canceled or converted to online offerings. With guidance and support from the provost’s office and in collaboration with college academic units, the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions (SCE) is working as quickly as possible to identify and mount additional summer online courses to help ensure continuity of education for undergraduate and graduate students. Contact SCE for more details and updates. Pending the recommendations of the Committee on Research and Operations Reactivation, we may consider running some research activities and non-academic programs this summer.


Whatever direction the pandemic takes, our goal will be the same: to ensure that our community remains safe and our academic activities remain supported not just in the short term, but long into the future. The decisions we make now will have an impact that will extend past our own community and beyond our own time at Cornell. None of them will be easy; many will necessarily evolve as the pandemic and its economic impact continue to unfold. But I am confident that, together, we will find a way forward—and a way to be together again.

Be well,