President Vincent Price and other Duke leaders began the semester on a positive, but cautious note, telling faculty and staff during a virtual conversation Monday that Duke remains in a comparatively stable position both financially and in protecting campus health during the pandemic.
The financial stability comes in part as a result of expense reductions taken last fiscal year that have averted large numbers of layoffs. Plans for the future also assume the resumption of the university contributions to employees’ 403b retirement plans, which were suspended last year as a cost-saving measure, though university officials continue to evaluate whether they can be restored to the pre-pandemic level.
The strength also comes, Price said, because Duke’s leadership in preventing COVID-19 spread on campus provided a template in responding at a moment when around the country infection numbers are surging.
But the caution comes from the continuing loss of revenues and increased expenses across the university because of the pandemic, and the need to prioritize more resources for strategic initiatives necessary to advance Duke’s academic and research excellence. In addition, public health experts continue to express concerns that the surging COVID-19 numbers remain a health danger. And indeed, Duke has reported higher numbers of students and faculty who are testing positive than in the fall semester.
During the conversation broadcast on YouTube, Price, Provost Sally Kornbluth, Chancellor Dr. Eugene Washington and Executive Vice President Daniel Ennis answered questions submitted in advance by faculty and staff. The session was one of several Leadership Conversations held this week, with a program for undergraduates scheduled for Tuesday and for graduate and professional students on Friday.
The full briefing is available on YouTube.
Here are excerpts:
COVID CASES IN DUKE HEALTH
WASHINGTON: “While we are at capacity, we have taken everything we learned in 2020 and have developed successful contingency plans to keep our doors open and meet the diverse health needs of our community. A week ago, we saw a peak of 223 COVID hospitalizations within our health system, and fortunately we’ve seen that stabilize. Today, we are caring for 183 COVID patients within our hospitals.
“We are continuing to provide extraordinary care – and we are doing it equitably. While people of color disproportionately experience a higher rate of serious COVID illness requiring hospitalization — there have been no disparities when it comes to in-hospital mortality or in the use of COVID specific therapies among whites, African Americans, or Latinx patients treated in Duke Hospitals.
DISTRIBUTING VACCINE AT DUKE
WASHINGTON: “Over the last month, we have been highly effective carrying out CDC and state guidelines to vaccinate health care workers who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19 – including our students and faculty who work in clinical settings and in labs that are studying COVID-19.
“But we have also worked hard to ensure equitable distribution to Durham and Wake County. Last week, we opened seven new locations to administer the vaccine – including a special partnership with Durham County at Southern High. Our next step is to work with the state and with trusted community partners to open mass vaccination sites. Site open in next few weeks where we can vaccine up to 5,000 people a day.
“We are providing clinical oversight, vaccine management and distribution, and hundreds of volunteers. Duke does not own any doses of the vaccine – we are the custodians of the doses supplied to us and it is our responsibility to distribute them according to the state’s priorities. I emphasize: It is not up to Duke who gets it and when.”
COMMUNITY ACCESS TO THE VACCINE
WASHINGTON: “Today, anyone age 65 and over is eligible to receive the vaccine. We have increased capacity to deliver more than 25,000 doses each week – and we are working our way through a growing waiting list that is available on dukehealth.org. Demand in North Carolina outstrips the current supply of vaccine, so we need everyone to be patient as we open more appointments each time we receive new shipments of vaccine. This process will take time, but it will get better. Over time, all who want the vaccine will have opportunity to get one. It is just going to take time.
“As we ramp up, we are tracking very carefully the demographics of who is receiving the vaccine. We are not yet where we need to be -- at either the state or local level -- in getting the vaccine to communities of color, especially given the disproportionate risks these communities have shouldered throughout the pandemic.
“To turn this around, we are working hard to remove barriers to accessing the vaccine. We are providing transportation to vaccination sites and specifically addressing concerns that people have about the safety and reliability of the vaccine. Given the historic harms communities of color have endured, the skepticism is real.”
WHAT WILL THE SPRING SEMESTER LOOK LIKE?
KORNBLUTH: “The semester will look a lot like fall semester with caveat that ambient infection in community is higher. We have more students on campus this semester, around 3,500 living on campus. All students in single rooms.
“This is several hundred more students on campus than last semester, but we have enough capacity for isolation and quarantine at this point and all students living in Duke Housing are in single rooms.
“We have similar number and fraction of in person or hybrid classes to last semester, thanks to the commitment of our faculty and students to creating a safe environment, about 30 percent of our courses are in-person or have an in-person element. And I would emphasize as well that we saw no in classroom viral transmission last semester.
WHAT IS THE UNIVERSITY’S FINANCIAL SITUATION?
ENNIS: “We appreciate that many of the cost containment measures, including salary freezes and reductions and the suspension of 403b contributions, seriously impacted our employees and their families. The decisions were guided by some specific principles, namely to protect lower-paid employees through progressive salary and benefit reductions, to protect as many jobs as possible and, importantly, to continue to advance Duke’s teaching, research, clinical and service missions.
“Do we still have financial challenges? Yes, and that will be the case for some time to come. But as I noted earlier, we have an extraordinary and dedicated team that is working to address both short-term and long-term challenges, and to do so with a deep commitment to fairness and equity.”
WILL THERE BE A SALARY INCREASE NEXT YEAR?
ENNIS: “It is too early in our FY2022 planning process to formally commit to salary increases but please know that we are working hard to incorporate salary increases for our faculty and staff into our planning and salary restoration for those who experienced salary cuts last year.”
WILL THE HIRING FREEZE BE LIFTED?
ENNIS: “We should assume that hiring controls will continue to be in place into FY2022. Having said that, we must advance mission excellence and strategic priorities and will continue to selectively invest in faculty and staff as well as, where critical, new hires for these purposes.”
WILL OUR 403B. CONTRIBUTIONS RETURN IN THE NEXT FISCAL YEAR?
ENNIS: “Again, it is very early in our FY2022 planning process to provide formal guidance. Please know, however, that we are assuming in our planning restoration of 403b contributions as of July 1, 2021. Having said this, I do need to caution that we are carefully evaluating whether or not we can restore those contributions to pre-pandemic levels. We will have more to say on this in coming weeks as we roll up the proposed budgets from the Schools and units.”
WILL THERE BE SUMMER PROGRAMS?
KORNBLUTH: “We will focus Summer 2021 primarily on and around Duke undergraduates interested in: taking summer classes, in-person or remote, and other pursuits where they might live on campus, such as working in research labs, internships, Duke Engage, Data+. We expect summer to involve masking, social distancing and continued testing.
“At this point, we are not planning programming for minors this summer but we hope to resume next Summer, 2022. Programs involving non-minors or not focused on UGs may occur, but we will need to work within boundaries and time periods as well as an approval process that will be forthcoming.
“The team is working on the details now, but there is no question that there will be an extensive menu of opportunities for undergraduates. We are hoping to have in-person opportunities as well as remote courses. In addition, we are working on internship and employment opportunities for graduate students as we did last summer.”
WILL THERE BE DUKE-SPONSORED TRAVEL OPPORTUNITIES?
KORNBLUTH: “There is a lot of uncertainty about travel, everywhere. International travel is still severely constrained by travel restrictions and we don’t know when those restrictions will be relaxed or if they will change.
“All activities involving Duke sponsored undergraduate travel outside the US will not be held this summer. For Duke-sponsored travel within the United States, we will need to wait and see the difficulties experienced state by state.
For graduate students, who have a lot of field work or archival work they need to do, we are working on an approval process for graduate students who need to do research outside of the country. I’m sure there will be requests for faculty as well, and we are discussing processes for approval for these projects. More soon.”
CONTINUING WORK ON ANTI-RACISM
PRICE: “I want to thank our faculty and staff for the way they have embraced this mission. People have stepped up. We’ve seen numerous and thoughtful anti-racism programs developed, and I know discussions are taking place across the campus around how to live out our commitments.
“At the same time, we must ensure that anti-racism and equity remain long-term priorities for Duke, woven carefully into every aspect of our institutional strategy and culture. This isn’t a stand-alone initiative; it is something that will be incorporated into every aspect of what we do, including in our health system, under our Moments to Movement plan for Duke Health.
“To that end, Kim Hewitt, our Vice President for Institutional Equity, is coordinating our efforts across Duke. Kim has been working on staff programs that are aligned with the work being done with our faculty. Kim’s office is also coordinating our climate-assessment plans, which will include our first staff survey later this spring. She and a steering committee are working with two working groups, one focused on developing the right survey and assessment tools, and another focused on how to best leverage those data for community education and accountability.
“We’re also expecting to roll out some new dashboards that will help units across campus understand and monitor our progress.”