This time of year, the area in front of Coram Library Terrace on the Historic Quad at Bates College in Lewiston is normally ready for a commencement ceremony. This year, though, with students sent home, it’s quiet everywhere at the college. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Facing “what feels like an existential threat” to Bates College due to the coronavirus pandemic, 126 members of its staff and faculty asked recently to have a greater say in how the college addresses the crisis.

In a May 8 letter to Bates President Clayton Spencer, they urged her to offer nontenured faculty and staff members “a seat at the table” on two key working groups that are trying to sort out what the college should do about the fall semester and how it should address a growing financial shortfall.

“Many of us are early in our careers, and as we survey the steps other institutions across the country have taken to manage this crisis — furloughs, layoffs, hiring freezes, cuts to salary and benefits, and other austerity measures — we see a bleak outlook that will profoundly and forever alter, if not prematurely end, our careers and livelihoods,” they said.

Spencer responded this week with a letter that politely said no to their request, insisting the panels are already gathering information from a wide range of people.

She recently told Bates alumni in a live Facebook talk that the two working groups are dealing with many issues, from COVID-19 testing to dining hall options, as they try to come up with recommendations by early June.

“It’s an endless game of whack-a-mole,” Spencer said.

While it’s uncertain whether students will be able to return to campus for the fall semester, it is clear that if they do come back, they’ll return to “a very different experience,” Spencer said, offering the necessity of wearing masks as just one example of what might be in store.

One of the fundamental problems, Spencer said, is that college students “aren’t great at social distancing.”

The educators and staff who wrote to Spencer – more than half of whom opted to remain anonymous – said that such important decisions should be made by a wider range of the Bates community.

The working groups are largely made up of senior faculty and top administrators. They do not include any students, though similar panels created at Bowdoin College in Brunswick do, and left out junior faculty and staff who are worried about what might happen.

“This crisis is not one that affects all members of our community equally,” they pointed out in their letter. “Inequalities in compensation and job security preceded this crisis and will differentially affect the ability of individuals to absorb the coming financial shocks, especially for hourly staff.”

Perhaps trying to offer solace to some of the junior faculty, the college’s personnel committee issued a statement Wednesday telling the Bates community that it recognizes “that COVID-19 has complicated our professional lives in a variety of ways” that will “reverberate in the years ahead, delaying and shifting how we do our work in a manner we cannot imagine fully yet.”

The panel added that decisions on reappointment, tenure, and promotion at Bates “have always allowed for myriad approaches to demonstrating excellence in teaching and significant professional achievement, and included a prospective judgment about promise for further development, rather than a specific number of publications, books, or other output.”

“We respect the full range of contributions faculty members make, including the effort and creativity required in adjusting to this very complicated time,” the committee said.

Spencer said in her talk to the alumni that the college has been able to keep everyone on staff through the summer, but if students are not able to return to campus, administrators will probably have to consider whether Bates can continue to keep everybody on the payroll.

“We’re going to have to face key decisions across the board,” she said, if the college has to rely on remote learning again in the fall.

Spencer said, though, the college is determined to handle its decision-making equitably.

“The decisions made over the coming weeks and months will fundamentally shape the institution that emerges from this crisis, and our commitments to equity and inclusion are more essential now than ever as the pandemic exposes inequalities within and beyond campus,” the junior faculty and staff wrote in their letter.

“Inclusive, democratic procedures and representation of all constituencies are core elements of shared governance in an equitable institution, especially when the stakes are this high,” they wrote. “We acknowledge that the current situation is one of unprecedented magnitude that will require the work, effort, and sacrifice of our entire community in order to ensure that Bates emerges from this crisis.”

In her response to the letter, Spencer said she appreciates “the engagement in issues vital to the future of Bates” reflected by its contents and insisted she shares the writers’ concern for “equity and the differential impact of actions taken on various members of our community, particularly those most vulnerable with respect to compensation and job security.”

Spencer said both working groups, as well as college administrators, are “considering the full range of voices and perspectives from the Bates community” as they try to figure out the best course for Bates.

Sean Findlen, the college’s chief communications officer, said Bates “has been in regular communication with a wide range of campus constituencies” as it works through a complex set of issues.

He said its COVID-19 site is updated regularly, with comments coming from faculty and staff to the working groups.

In addition, he said, “Bates has hosted nearly a dozen virtual forums and meetings to engage various audiences. When there is information to share, we have done so, and we will continue to communicate openly and regularly.”

Spencer told the alumni that her goal is to announce a plan by the end of June. Parents and students can’t be expected to tolerate uncertainty beyond then, she said.

She said she would like to announce that “we’re bringing students back” to campus but that won’t be possible unless Bates can keep them safe and ensure the well-being of college employees and the larger community.

Bates has already lost about $2 million since shutting down in mid-March as the danger of the new coronavirus became obvious. That’s a financial blow, but one the college, with an endowment of more than $320 million, can weather without too much trouble, officials said.

What’s more threatening is what happens if students can’t return in the fall, a scenario that leaves most of its expenses intact while likely requiring a tuition discount and a reduction in other income, they said.

At the same time, they said, they expect to see about a 15% increase in financial aid needs as families struggle with job losses and other woes created by the pandemic.

In her response to the May 8 letter, Spencer said there will be “significant financial challenges in the coming academic year, which are readily predictable, but uncertain in magnitude.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: