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May 12, 2020 – Planning for the fall semester

Posted by on Tuesday, May 12, 2020 in Community Messages.

Dear faculty colleagues,

In the typical cycle of our academic calendar, the end of the annual Commencement week celebrations marks a pivot point for many of our efforts—moving from reflection on the prior year to strategic planning and visioning for the next academic year and sessions. The upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that planning for the 2020-21 academic year has even greater importance. We know we ask much of our faculty during a typical academic year, and this spring you rose to meet the challenges created by the pandemic through transitioning to working remotely and teaching through virtual/alternative learning platforms. You have our utmost respect and gratitude for your efforts. And now, we must continue to work together to ensure ongoing excellence in our teaching and research and a further commitment to the university’s mission.

As you know, in-person classes remain suspended for the summer sessions, and all teaching continues to be conducted through virtual/alternative strategies. However, Vanderbilt will be moving on May 18 into Phase 1 of our Return to Campus plan, which allows dean-authorized graduate and professional student field-based training/learning (as informed by on-campus research activities ramping up and/or clinic/occupational site consent).

The Vanderbilt Return to Campus plan and all related decisions are being shaped by the work of multiple committees—at the university level and school/college level—as well as by guidance provided by public health experts, the CDC, and local, state and federal policies. We also appreciate your input into this critical process.

Our goal for the fall semester is to restart on-campus, in-person teaching as soon as possible based on public health status and safety protocols. The Vanderbilt Return to Campus plan indicates that we should be ready for on-campus instruction and/or enhanced virtual/alternative instruction platforms in Phase 3 (note that Phase 3 of the Vanderbilt plan is distinct from Phase 3 of the Nashville plan). A definitive decision cannot be made today, nearly three months before the beginning of the current fall calendars, because of the ever-changing COVID-19 situation. However, we are optimistic that we will be ready for any of a variety of scenarios. To do so, the following framework will support our actions and planning for the fall:

1) Our goal is to hold in-person classes; however, we anticipate physical distancing measures will be required in all campus spaces, including classrooms. A full assessment of all of our building spaces is being conducted with Vice Chancellor Eric Kopstain’s team, and this information will be used by schools/colleges in designing their curricula.

2) Although we are making plans to offer in-person instruction, we need to plan for all courses to be delivered by virtual/alternative platforms. This approach is not just to provide flexibility. It is also necessary because innovations may be needed due to physical distancing requirements within classrooms and to provide accommodations for some students and faculty. Three student populations may need curriculum provided synchronously and/or asynchronously through a virtual/alternative platform: 1) those who cannot return to campus because of travel restrictions; 2) those with health risks; and 3) those in self-isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure or testing positive. We also will have faculty who seek accommodations to teach via virtual/alternative platforms.

3) We have and are deploying additional resources to support further development of virtual/alternative platforms. Vice Provost Tracey George is spearheading these efforts in collaboration with each school/college, the Center for Teaching and VUIT. This includes the Online Course Development Institute workshops, expanded video studio facilities and classroom technology, and additional instructional design support.

4) We are committed to planning for a 15-week academic calendar for all undergraduate degree programs and the Graduate School; however, we are considering several options regarding start dates, end dates and breaks across all of our schools/colleges. There will not be a one-size-fits-all approach to our solutions for providing excellence in our 2020-21 academic year.

5) While we are working closely together on these issues as a university community, we recognize and value that curricular decisions are local, and that teaching norms and expectations vary across disciplines and schools/colleges.

Our fall semester will look very different from any time in our history, but we will be prepared, innovative and nimble.

We want our faculty to be proud of our strategy and confident in their plans. We want our students to find academic success and engagement at a level consistent with the excellence that is Vanderbilt’s hallmark and to know their experience provides opportunities for the growth and learning that they need to be successful. Finally, we want our staff to know that their role continues to support our mission and that their well-being, along with that of our faculty and students, is top of mind.

We hope you will be able to attend the virtual town hall meeting tomorrow to discuss the phased reopening of the Vanderbilt campus. The online meeting via Zoom will begin at noon CT, and registration is required to attend. (Register for the May 13 virtual town hall.)

We know it is daunting to consider navigating times like these, and to continue putting forth such tremendous efforts in preparing for the fall. Please let us know your questions and needs as we work together.

Thank you for your dedication to ensuring we remain the best community and university that we can be.


Susan R. Wente
Interim Chancellor and Provost

Jeff Balser
Dean of the School of Medicine

Camilla Benbow
Dean of Peabody College

Philippe Fauchet
Dean of the School of Engineering

John Geer
Dean of the College of Arts and Science

Chris Guthrie
Dean of the Law School

Eric Johnson
Dean of Owen Graduate School of Management

Larry Marnett
Dean of Basic Sciences

Linda Norman
Dean of the School of Nursing

Emilie Townes
Dean of the Divinity School

Mark Wait
Dean of Blair School of Music

Mark Wallace
Dean of the Graduate School