Taking Stock of 2020, and What Is to Come
Date: December 21, 2020
TO: The NYU Community
FROM: NYU President Andrew Hamilton
Thinking Back on 2020
At the very beginning of this year, we had our first conversations about the virus emerging in Wuhan and what its impact might be on NYU Shanghai. Now, just days from year’s end, a nurse at NYU Langone Health became one of the first New Yorkers—indeed, one of the first people in the world—to be inoculated against the virus.
Last spring, New York saw its famously vibrant streets emptied, along with its museums, theatres, and hotels; many of its businesses shuttered, some for good; the habits of our daily life altered; the vulnerable disproportionately harmed; and all of us deprived of the comfort we draw from the company of friends and loved ones. At NYU, COVID closed our student residences, relocated our day-to-day operations from offices to homes, forced us to find new ways to carry on our research, and caused us to shift to remote teaching-and-learning.
Reconvening on Campus in the Fall
As the fall approached, in the absence of national guidance to higher education, colleges were left to make their own decisions. In addition to making it possible for those faculty and students who wished to teach and learn remotely, NYU also chose to reconvene on campus for those members of the community who preferred to be in New York. We felt that a robust testing and tracing program tied to access to our buildings and accompanied by a clear set of actively enforced health rules would enable us to carry on our academic mission and keep each other safe.
Despite the uncertainty we faced at the time, I believe it was the correct decision. We made extensive plans, took what we thought were the right steps, and acted nimbly, but good fortune had a role in the success of our decision, too.
Our global presence, which might have seemed a particular vulnerability in a pandemic, was an unexpected source of strength—nearly 3,000 NYU students, unable to travel to their intended NYU destination, opted instead to Go Local, and so were able to carry on their studies at a nearby NYU site that they could reach. And our campus in New York was not alone in reconvening in person for fall 2020—both NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai opened with some students, faculty, administrators, and staff in place on campus while others participated remotely (though in the case of NYUAD, all instruction was remote, in keeping with the directives of public health authorities).
The fall proceeded without a COVID outbreak on campus. Our positivity rate remained low and stable (though recently, against the backdrop of spikes in ambient positivity in New York, it has increased). Classrooms proved not to be a source of transmission. Contrary to the national narratives, NYU’s students—indeed, all our citizens—proved themselves conscientious, and NYU was not a source of transmission within our surrounding communities.
Student Registration and Admissions
Overall student registration has outperformed predictions—undergraduate registration has been a little higher than the prior year, while graduate and professional is a little lower. And, so far, admissions figures for next year exceed those of last year—our Early Decision applications for the class of 2025 are up by 16 percent. Success, as they say, has many parents, and that is certainly true here. Much of the credit should go to our faculty, who have demonstrated enormous dedication to our students and our academic mission, adapting to rapidly changing circumstances and developing new ways of teaching long-standing coursework. However, the credit must also go to our students—and their families—who were ambitious and enterprising in their pursuit of their studies, resilient in responding to the changes in teaching and learning, and steadfast in their faith in the education NYU would deliver. A further important role was played by those charged with recruiting and supporting the success of our students, who—undaunted by the proscription of such time-honored practices as campus tours and info sessions—managed to make NYU’s strengths, energy, and value well understood by applicants and ongoing students.
COVID notwithstanding, this has been the most successful year ever for our research enterprise at Washington Square and Brooklyn: a record $289 million in research funding for NYU beyond the (also thriving) Langone Medical Center, more faculty with external funding than ever before, and NYU was among the top 10 universities in the US in terms of receiving COVID-related grants.
Budget and personnel
And, so far at least, NYU has been able to avoid some of the more dire steps that other universities have taken to address budget shortfalls, including university-wide lay-offs and furloughs, or suspension of contributions to retirement plans. We should be able to maintain this course, barring a worsening financial situation.
There were hard lessons, too.
Teaching hybrid classes—with some students in the classroom and some remote—was, for faculty and students both, more challenging than we expected. With required quarantining, physical distancing, the cancellation of many activities, such as sports, and long periods in front of computer screens, some students often felt isolated or disconnected from campus life; more students sought leaves of absence than in prior years. And the stresses and burdens of COVID were not confined to students by any means—faculty and other employees had to cope with new, unexpected family care difficulties; the challenges of learning new ways to do their jobs; and the isolation of being at home for extended periods. Lastly, the costs associated with COVID, both additional expenses and foregone revenue, were enormous—currently projected to approach some $300 million for this academic year, we expect—which have required drastic reductions in spending, strict control of hiring, and foregoing this year’s annual merit increase.
But all-in-all, as I said earlier, the decision to reconvene on campus was the right one for our university. We can feel grateful and proud—mixed with no small measure of humility—for how relatively well things turned out, and for the experience we have gained as we move toward spring 2021, as other universities that were all-remote in the fall now begin to reopen their campuses. None of this would have been possible without NYU community members’ collective commitment to keep each other safe, and for that I thank you all.
The Winter Break, and Spring 2021
Seldom has a winter break felt as well-earned as the coming one. The holiday will be different, of course—it will not be marked by the gatherings that usually take place at this time of year, and the joy that brings. Nevertheless, I hope it will make for a relaxing respite after a long semester.
Spring 2021 will in many ways be like the fall. We will still emphasize safety and health; we will remain committed to our academic mission and the educational progress of students; we will maintain a flexible approach in supporting our students’ pursuit of their degrees and our faculty in their teaching responsibilities. We will start with quarantining for those who need it, and continue regular testing for everyone who will be accessing NYU facilities.
However, the spring will certainly be distinct in one way: the distribution of the vaccines should bring COVID’s end into sight—a welcome relief. Although NYU is applying to be able to give vaccinations, it is too early to know what the precise arrangements will be. We will provide more information in the coming weeks as it becomes available.
Even after we begin receiving the vaccine, it will still be very important that we rigorously maintain the habits that were so effective in the fall: wearing a mask at all times, avoiding crowds, physically distancing, good hand hygiene, staying home when sick, complying with testing requirements, and all the rest. It can be easy to let one’s guard down when the cure seems at hand; we cannot afford to do that.
Whether on campus or working remotely, we have all shared the trials and tribulations of COVID-19 this past year. Our perseverance will forever connect us, as will the collective pride we can take in our efforts to keep one another safe.
Enjoy the winter break. Be well. Keep up the safe and healthy behaviors. I look forward to being part of the University community with all of you, near and far, in the spring.