On March 27, the Boston Business Journal delivered some sobering news: COVID-19, as it overtakes our economy, will most certainly be making its presence felt on New England colleges and universities. Even larger, seemingly financially untouchable institutions, like the University of Massachusetts system, are set to lose millions in revenue this year due to the coronavirus. Chalk it up to “student room, board and parking fees” that suddenly need to be refunded “following the closure of residence halls” across the region.
With the impact of COVID-19 hitting so close to our on-campus “home,” it makes sense to begin considering how the pandemic will affect Lesley University. Via email, John Sullivan, Director of External Relations, was willing to discuss the steps that Lesley has taken in assessing and preparing for this kind of financial threat. As he explained, “how big the [financial] impact will be has to do, in part, with the nature of the institution.” Lesley’s financial strain would likely be “of a very different, and much smaller, magnitude” than UMass’. While every school is feeling the pressure of COVID-19, a smaller school like ours has much less to lose in the first place. For example, our residence halls house only about “840 beds” compared to the thousands across UMass’ campuses. This means that the amount of revenue lost from student room and board refunds would be much less devastating for Lesley University.
Mr. Sullivan reinforced that, like “most colleges and universities, [Lesley is] working hard to predict the financial impact of COVID-19.” What could happen next is, as of now, only a matter of speculation. And as Mr. Sullivan told me, “the situation is dynamic and there are many, many variables at play… forecasting with any degree of certainty is extremely challenging.”
Steve Benson, Professor of Mathematics and Co-Chief Steward of Core Faculty Union SEIU Local 509, echoed Mr. Sullivan’s sentiments. He believes that “it’s possible that things could change, but [he has] no indication of what those changes might be.” Benson did let me know that, thankfully, “no Lesley faculty or staff have been laid off” at this time. Currently, “union stewards are discussing” the issue of “[Lesley] security personnel, custodians, and dining hall workers” who “work for contactors, not [the university].” With “very few people…on campus,” fewer of these workers are needed. Through their communications “with the university administration,” the union hopes to ensure reassignment or benefits for contracted workers during this time away from campus.
Right now, the potential financial blow to Lesley University is anyone’s guess. Professors could be let go. The hiring of any new employees could be ceased. Lesley’s infamously small class sizes could increase. Tuition could become more expensive to compensate for the loss. All of these measures could be implemented or none of them at all. The University hasn’t made any formal financial decisions. Administration remains unsure of what steps they will take in the future.
When I asked if Lesley University intends to come forward like UMass, discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect our future financial endeavors as a school, Mr. Sullivan shared that he “anticipate[s] no such formal public statement.”
I understand why there is hesitation to be this honest and vulnerable with the public. Talks of finances, especially during troubling times like these, can be fear-inducing. With any step that Lesley takes, there is also a lot at stake. Lesley University’s decisions affect not only administration and staff but also students, who are financially and emotionally invested in the school. Their families, by extension, will also be moved by the reverberations. Without any steps finalized, the University does not see a need in worrying anyone just yet. There are more pressing issues at this time.
While COVID-19 could certainly affect the way Lesley University operates in the fall and beyond, Mr. Sullivan assured me that any decisions made will be considerate of and “focused on the impact on our students and their learning.” Any new initiatives will be carried out “around this focus.”
COVID-19 is ruthless in its economic impact, with small and large businesses feeling the heat. While we don’t know how Lesley will be financially affected yet, the University is committed to implementing measures that will prioritize their students’ academic experiences. When it comes time to make a call, it’s reassuring to know that students’ needs will be on the forefronts of the minds of our decision-makers.
[Author’s note: I did reach out to both Provost Margaret Everett and VP of Finance and CFO Thomas Pistorino, but neither has responded. If they do, this article will be updated to include their comments.]