This pandemic has challenged us all, challenged our way of life, and changed, at least for now, our way of educating students. It has not curtailed what is at the heart of Augsburg: our commitment to our students and community. Today Augsburg alumni, parents, donors, and friends are on my mind, and I hope you are safe and finding a sense of steadiness amidst the turbulence.
As we work to navigate these challenging times together, I have three perspectives on our current situation: as a parent, as a faculty member, and as Augsburg’s president.
As a parent, my priority is to support my children through these difficult times. Last fall, Augsburg welcomed its largest incoming class of freshmen, which included my son, Thomas. He is now moved out of Mortensen Hall and back home with us. Both he and his sister Maya are adjusting to online classes and the loss of their educational environments. It is a challenging situation, but also a unique opportunity for us to learn with and from each other.
As a faculty member teaching a course to seniors on the importance of place in our lives, my priority is to help them achieve their learning outcomes even though we had to quickly switch to an entirely online format. It is a time for us as educators to dig deep—with empathy, flexibility, and understanding—as we offer the support that will help our students navigate to a successful conclusion to the Spring 2020 term.
Like the rest of us, our students are doing their best to adapt to new pressures and stresses. Augsburg serves one of the most diverse and remarkable student bodies in higher education. We have thousands of traditional undergraduates, adult undergraduates, and graduate students. This pandemic is affecting our students in varied ways, so we are doing our best to adapt on a daily basis. Our number one focus between now and the end of the semester is student success. We want them to finish strong.
As Augsburg’s president, my top priority is to advance our mission to educate students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders in a safe and healthy environment. Augsburg suspended in-person classes in mid-March and moved all classes online. We’ve been in close contact with the Minnesota Department of Health and the governor’s office as we reached these decisions.
The Augsburg community has always worked to help our fellow Auggies. In the winter of 1919-20, the 1918 Influenza pandemic hit our campus. It forced the cancellation of choir events, athletic games, and student groups. With the help of the Augsburg staff, healthy Augsburg students organized to care for those who were sick. As the epidemic passed, the school celebrated by hosting an event honoring those who came together to care for their fellow Auggies.
Today, we are again shifting gears to support our community. I am inspired by how Augsburg faculty and staff across the institution have dedicated themselves fully and in earnest to the work that is now in front of us. Faculty have acquired new pedagogical tools and refined old ones to help our students transition online. Staff have pivoted their work with the fast-changing circumstances of this pandemic. Augsburg’s IT team has ensured our students are able to attend class virtually with laptops and internet connection, as well as kept our technology working as the Augsburg community moved online. The custodial staff has worked with impressive dedication to clean and disinfect areas of campus for the nearly 200 residential students still living on campus.
And there are many others working in ways that may or may not be visible to the rest of Augsburg’s community, all working together to ensure Augsburg’s promise to our students is upheld. I’m grateful for everyone’s efforts.
Unfortunately, during our modified operations related to the coronavirus, Augsburg’s revenue is significantly reduced. There are a number of Augsburg employees who are unable to complete their work from home or whose responsibilities are impossible to complete during a stay-at-home order. In these situations, we’ve let individuals know that they will be furloughed from May through August. We value these employees and hope to have them return to campus this fall. We have worked closely with these employees to help them take advantage of unemployment insurance programs and we will maintain health insurance coverage throughout the furlough period.
Among many canceled events this spring, I am heartbroken along with everyone at Augsburg that we cannot celebrate the class of 2020’s many achievements in a commencement ceremony at U.S. Bank Stadium. We will find ways to honor the spirit of these celebrations—and to experience moments of joy as a community. We are planning a virtual commencement in May, and when the time is safe, we promise to invite the community together again to celebrate the Class of 2020’s graduation.
It is an uncertain and highly competitive time in higher education. Prior to our changes on campus related to the pandemic, we were following through on important strategic efforts to address projected flat revenue in the coming years while ensuring the long-term sustainability of our mission. As part of a strategic plan initiative to reduce expenses, we have made the difficult decision to reduce the size of our staff. That decision came out of three years of analysis and planning work that involved faculty, staff, students, and board members.
In some cases, this has meant eliminating positions as people resign or retire. For approximately 20 employees, this has meant a lay-off. As we were planning this very difficult action, we never imagined it would intersect with anything as stressful and disruptive as the COVID-19 outbreak action, but we concluded that delaying these planned layoffs in light of the outbreak would not help. We did not come to this decision, nor the timing of the action, lightly. Every member of the Augsburg community is valued, and it distresses me that we have to say goodbye to these individuals who have helped our institution in meaningful ways.
The Augsburg Advancement division is one area where we have reduced the size of the staff. While these are particularly hard changes for everyone, I want you to know that the division—led by Vice President Heather Riddle—is 100% dedicated to alumni engagement and programming moving forward. As responsibilities shift from positions that were eliminated to the remaining staff, you will hear directly from that office.
In a period of great change, it can be especially powerful to remember those things that are steady and unchanging. Remember Augsburg’s mission and our 150 years of offering our students an education that equips them for life in the world; remember that we are a community that shows up for each other, with generosity and grace; and remember that we have found ways over and over again throughout our history to navigate difficult challenges—as we will do together in this moment.
In this demanding time, there is still much to be thankful for at Augsburg: remarkable students, 150 years of heritage, dedicated faculty and staff, and committed friends and alumni who continue to show support of our mission.
You all are in my prayers for health and peace.
Be well and keep in touch,
Paul C. Pribbenow