WT Executive Vice President and Provost Message for Faculty and Staff

January 8, 2021

Dear Faculty and Staff:

As we approach a new semester, President Wendler and the University administration understand the importance of sharing an informational update with faculty and staff across campus.  We wish we had a clear and concise response to all questions, but since March 2020, everyone has faced challenges and uncertainty.  Challenges will continue into the new year, and plans that are in place today might need significant modification in a few months as circumstances change.  That said, we hope information transparency facilitates our collaborative efforts to support West Texas A&M University. 

First, we want to share a few things related to COVID19 from the summer and fall.  While positivity rate (i.e., number of positive cases divided by the total number of tests) is an imperfect metric, it is an important data point.  The current positivity rate for WT is a little under 10%.  In contrast, the state rate is over 20% with Potter/Randall counties exceeding the state rate.  While positivity rates might be subject to confounding variables and related data problems, we are pleased with the efforts across campus.  Activities such as wearing a mask, social distancing, washing hands, and associated safety protocols will continue as a requirement on campus now and into the foreseeable future.  There have been a few isolated issues of disregard of safety protocols that have resulted in student disciplinary actions and faculty/staff members receiving formal reprimands.  That said, the overwhelming majority of campus constituents have done an outstanding job of supporting our safety protocols.  We ask all WT employees to set an example for our students this spring by continuing to comply with The Texas A&M University System safety protocols and letting their supervisors know if there are patterns of non-compliance that need attention. 

Second, the operational approach we need to continue for the spring semester is flexibility.  Most academic units plan to replicate fall course delivery approaches this spring.  It is possible vaccines and other factors might mitigate the health concerns associated with COVID-19 in the weeks ahead.  If so, we will all welcome progress toward more traditional operations.  Of course, there is a chance things could worsen in the months ahead.  Vaccines may not be as effective as one would hope, virus mutations might be more aggressive, or other challenges unknown today might arise tomorrow.  The bottom line, we are still operating in a world where class-size limitations could dissipate before the end of the semester, or we might experience a national stay-at-home lockdown within a few weeks.  The flexibility that faculty and staff members demonstrated in 2020 was exceptional.  Things have not always gone without incident, but there is no reason to question the commitment to achieving positive resolution by all employees.  We ask that you continue these outstanding efforts into the spring, regardless of the opportunities and challenges ahead. 

Third, West Texas A&M University is engaged in discussions with The Texas A&M University System, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Department of Emergency Management, and our local health authority (Amarillo Public Health Department) to establish on-campus COVID-19 vaccination opportunities.  Our current efforts focus on providing COVID-19 vaccines to WT faculty, staff, and students with the goal of expanding our efforts to include the local community.  Currently, we anticipate on-campus vaccination efforts to commence in March 2021.  The timeline may be more expeditious, but the need to provide a second round of the vaccine to the highest-risk individuals might push our access from February to March.  All COVID-19 related updates will be communicated via University all-informational emails and the WTAMU COVID-19 Webpage.  As an important note, there is not a requirement for employees to take the vaccine.  We hope the campus approaches more normalcy sooner than later, and the vaccine is a vehicle that can help facilitate normality.  At the same time, a vaccine has personal choice implications.  As soon as we have a clear plan for vaccine distribution opportunities, we will share the information.  If you have an interest and opportunity to receive the vaccine from an alternative source, you are encouraged to do so.

Fourth, we do not have a clear path on budgetary considerations at this time.  Two of the three sources of revenue, enrollment and fundraising, are relatively stable.  Our enrollment was up a little in the fall and might be slightly down this spring.  Enrollment growth is critical for the institution’s financial future, but holding steady during a pandemic might be a small victory.  Hopefully, this coming fall, we will realize a substantial enrollment increase.  Fundraising and sponsored research as sources of indirect revenue are also on a path relatively consistent with historical norms.  The source of revenue that is unknown moving forward is state funding.  There is no easy way to absorb another round of state budget cuts.  State officials will clarify the budget picture and priorities within the next few months.  To the extent we can proceed, President Wendler and campus leaders prioritize funding a merit and equity adjustment pool as part of the next budget.  Our campus community has done a great job during difficult times and raising salaries offers tangible support in addition to the symbolism that we have moved beyond the worst of the storm.  It simply might not be possible, but we are committed to doing everything we can to support merit and equity adjustments this year.

Fifth, a common question relates to the when and where of professional travel.  There is a limited amount of travel taking place at this time, and we expect limited approval for the next two or three months.  If something is essential, division heads can approve critical travel at this time.  Ideally, domestic travel opportunities for professional conferences will be more robust at the end of spring and into the summer.  You are welcome to plan for the best-case scenario for the latter part of the spring and summer, realizing there are no guarantees when it comes to domestic business travel.  For managers with budgetary responsibilities, travel uncertainty may complicate allocating fiscal year funds for travel when considering alternative expenditures with a more concrete path.  International travel will require a much different status than the current COVID situation, which does not appear to be likely through the summer of 2021.  It is unfortunate, but there is a good chance we are a year away from engaging most international travel opportunities.

Sixth, athletic events with limited occupancy and an in-person commencement ceremony are planned to take place this spring.  WT plans to compete for Lone Star Conference and NCAA Championships in 11 different sports this semester.  Attendance to games will be limited, with students receiving priority for available tickets.  Assuming a successful vaccine roll-out, we expect to host several in-person commencement ceremony options the first week of May to include all eligible graduates from 2020 and 2021.  Returning to the First United Bank Center is the first-choice location for commencement. Still, Buffalo Stadium will be a location option if there is a significant health advantage associated with being outdoors.

Seventh, we are not canceling spring break.  Several Texas A&M System institutions canceled spring break and added a couple of days to the winter break.  WT is cognizant of CISD, AISD, and other regional school districts that are part of our community.  To the best of our ability, we try to avoid vacation or weather cancellation conflicts that compromise parents’ ability to care for young children.  If there is a health and safety reason to cancel spring break, we will coordinate with our regional education partners.  It is hard to know if there will be many travel options this year for spring break, but we intend to keep households on schedules that align.

Finally, challenges tend to create opportunities for positive adaptation.  Some changes put forth by the pandemic will go away once we can move closer to normal operations.  That said, a few changes have been made out of necessity that enhance our ability to serve West Texas A&M University’s mission.  As we move forward in the months ahead, we hope there are campus conversations that help us ponder questions that will lead to keeping positive adaptations.  What are we doing better than ever?  How do we maintain progress instead of diverting all efforts to return to pre-pandemic status?  There are important discussions in our future that will require input from everyone to help the institution achieve continuous improvement.

On behalf of President Wendler, President’s Council, and Deans Council, we genuinely appreciate your efforts to support students and the WT community. Let’s all hope for the best as we move forward this spring term.

Best wishes,

Dr. Neil Terry
Executive Vice President and Provost
West Texas A&M University