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April 21, 2020
Dear Members of the Johns Hopkins Community,
I am writing to share with you the next stage in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and, in particular, to detail the financial challenges that we are facing and the measures we will need to undertake to protect our university.
As you no doubt know from my previous messages to you, our university has responded with remarkable courage, compassion, and determination to the monumental challenges posed by the pandemic to our research, education, and clinical missions. We have and will continue to rise to the moment.
Even while the university’s fortitude in the face of the adversity posed by COVID-19 is a point of shared pride, there is no denying the devastating toll that it has exacted on all of us. As of this week, more than 40,000 Americans have died of the disease. Over the past month, more than 22 million Americans filed for unemployment compensation (300,000 people in Maryland alone). When the next round of GDP data comes out in late April, it is expected to report an historic level of decline not seen since the Great Depression.
Not surprisingly, our university has not been immune to these trends. Ever since we decided to end our on-campus instruction for undergraduates, graduate, and professional students; to suspend the lion’s share of our lab-based research program; and to halt elective medical procedures, the university has suffered a dramatic and unprecedented contraction. More than 1,200 employees have been rendered idle because they are unable to perform their duties. Many more are working off-site but at significantly reduced levels of productivity.
Johns Hopkins enters this moment with a focus first and foremost on our people—those we live, learn, and work with, and those we are honored to serve. We also begin from a strong financial position, having taken important steps in recent years to guard against economic downturns. Yet we run on an extremely tight margin, with a financial surplus that typically ranges between 1% and 2% of our total budget. That margin, though small as a percentage of our total budget, is what fuels the strategic growth of the university. When the university’s revenues are significantly reduced due to unforeseen circumstances, such as this unprecedented pandemic-induced contraction, the consequences for our budget are profound.
Halfway through the current fiscal year, before the current crisis, we were projecting a positive margin of $72 million on an overall budget of $6.5 billion. Now, in light of losses incurred in just the final four months of the current fiscal year due to the COVID contraction, and barring substantial mitigation efforts, we are projecting a net loss of more than $100 million for FY 2020. Even more distressing, depending on when the university resumes normal operations, and again absent significant near-term mitigation efforts, we are now projecting net losses of as much as $375 million for the next fiscal year (through June 2021), instead of a previously expected positive margin of $80 million.
These tremendous financial pressures are not unique to Johns Hopkins. Many of our peers are grappling with similar challenges. But they are ours to resolve, together. We have a history and a financial model in which each division is responsible for its own financial performance, but we operate as one entity. We rise and fall together as one university and support each other during difficult times.
Over the past month, the university leadership team and I have been in close consultation with our trustees, deans and directors, divisional budget officers, and representatives of the Faculty Budget Advisory Committee, to assess the financial impacts facing Johns Hopkins immediately and in the years ahead. Admittedly, there is much we do not know in this evolving and unpredictable situation. But we have worked to develop a three-phase plan to mitigate both known and anticipated impacts, including: first, a set of urgent universitywide measures to ease the immediate budget pressures we are facing; second, a division-led summer planning process for multi-year budget adjustments; and third, a commitment to assess, reevaluate, and make any needed adjustments later in this calendar year.
The magnitude of the challenge we face is unlike any we have experienced in recent memory, but it is one that we can and will overcome. It will require difficult sacrifices from all members of our university community, including a one-year suspension of contributions to employees’ 403(b) retirement plans, a freeze on base salaries, restrictions on hiring, and a pause on most capital projects. Provost Sunil Kumar and I are reducing our salaries for the next fiscal year by 20 percent, and deans and university officers are cutting their pay by 10 percent. These and other actions are set forth in detail below.
This framework document is intended to provide a fulsome, frank, and transparent description of the shortfalls that we anticipate, the key principles and values that will shape our approach, and the first of the three phases of our plan. It is also intended as a living document, one we will return to as a roadmap even as we continuously reassess our assumptions and make timely decisions based on the best evidence available to us.
Virtually every part of the university has suffered financial setbacks as a result of COVID-19. But there are several key activities that have been particularly impacted and, in order to understand the full financial picture, it is helpful to describe specifically the nature and magnitude of these challenges.
Despite the current closure of our physical campuses, the university has fully transitioned the delivery of its educational instruction to virtual modalities. We did this, first and foremost, because of our obligation to our students, who have an obvious interest in completing the academic year and for many, graduating on time. The continuation of these activities also meant that we continued to earn tuition revenue during this time.
While our tuition revenue was not reduced this spring, we did rebate the remainder of the spring semester of housing, dining, and student service charges normally paid by our undergraduate students at a cost of $12 million. We also extended more than $5 million in unanticipated financial support to students and their families during this difficult period, including in the form of direct emergency grants for essential needs, continuity of wages for suspended on-campus employment, and relief from summer work requirements as a part of financial aid. We know we will see even greater demand for investment in student aid in the coming months, and it is essential that we continue to meet our promise to make a Hopkins education as accessible as possible.
At this point, the next academic year looks equally challenging on the tuition front. Several of our academic divisions will experience significant revenue shortfalls from the restrictions imposed on campus-based educational activities. For instance, our Center for Talented Youth runs more than 25 immersive summer programs for high school students across the world. At the present time, none of these campus-based programs will be offered, resulting in a revenue loss of $40 million and impacting both FY20 and FY21.
Other parts of the university—the Carey Business School, SAIS, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Peabody Institute—typically recruit significant numbers of international students into their classes and may now face additional hurdles in helping students to matriculate as a result of travel restrictions and barriers in the issuance of visas. For instance, across the university, we enroll more than 3,200 students from the People’s Republic of China each year (58% of our total international student enrollment), and it is our understanding that a return to routine U.S. visa processing remains quite uncertain, as appointment dates are ever-changing and unreliable, with many consulates temporarily closed or open only for emergency appointments.
Each of our academic divisions is working creatively to safeguard the matriculation of new international students in the fall term, including virtual options, but we anticipate that our international student enrollment for fall will decline, with consequent revenue losses.
Another serious challenge we face is in relation to the resumption of the on-campus undergraduate program this fall. We, of course, hope and expect that the extreme restrictions now placed on our institution (and, indeed, across the state and nation) will be lifted by the end of the summer. But we also know that reopening will require widespread COVID-19 testing, and that we will have to be vigilant in preventing a resurgence of new infections while we await the development of clinical therapies and the availability of an effective vaccine. In the case of the undergraduate program, in particular, the holistic nature of the residential experience and the intense social interaction that students have in the classroom, residence halls, cafeterias, libraries, athletic spaces, and other social venues will require careful planning and discipline, assuming stringent physical distancing remains in place to protect our students and the staff and faculty who interact with them.
Needless to say, we are examining these issues very carefully and considering every possible option for returning to campus and ensuring our students can continue their academic progress and maintain a sense of community. We will decide as soon as possible whether it will be prudent to resume our on-campus residential program in the fall. If not, this will impose (as of yet, unaccounted for) additional revenue losses on the university.
Another significant pressure on the university’s finances derives from the dramatic curtailment of our lab-based research activities. To support the direct costs of research (including personnel, supplies and equipment) across our vast research enterprise—$1.5 billion in 2019 (excluding the Applied Physics Laboratory)—the university receives indirect cost recoveries from sponsored grants, which totaled $370 million in 2019. When, as in the case of the last six weeks, the university’s on-campus, non-COVID-19 research activities are suspended, there are lower non-personnel direct research expenditures and related lower indirect cost recovery, despite the fact that our research facilities and administrative costs are largely fixed and continue to be incurred.
As soon as the governor relaxes the state’s stay-at-home order, and we are able to safely “de-densify” the way in which we conduct our research activities (by, for instance, staggered shifts), we will re-start our activities, and our reimbursements will recover. Until that time, however, we continue to suffer losses relating to this suspended activity.
The decline in physician clinical revenue is the largest single category of financial loss that the university is facing. This loss emanates from the cancellation of a broad array of elective services that are performed by our faculty physicians, as the Johns Hopkins Health System shifted entirely toward the treatment of seriously ill COVID-19 patients and sought to reduce the risks to our workforce and preserve personal protective equipment.
While we are optimistic that the State of Maryland’s Global Budget Revenue (GBR) model will ultimately protect the budget of the Johns Hopkins Health System from the effects of COVID-19, the same is not true for our physicians who are employed by the university. As a result of the suspension of elective procedures and changes in the mix of payors who would typically reimburse our physicians, the university is projecting a revenue loss of as much as $100 million for the remainder of this fiscal year, and a further loss of as much as $200 million for next fiscal year.
It is particularly ironic that the financial arrangements under which we operate would subject our physicians, many of whom are working so tirelessly and courageously on the front lines of the pandemic, to severe reductions in clinical billing. But, as of yet, the various COVID-19 relief packages enacted by Congress have not adequately provided for these related losses.
The long tradition of philanthropic support by the university’s alumni and friends is a cornerstone of our overall financial picture. While the national projections around the virus’s impact on private giving are evolving, we know for certain that economic downturns and uncertainty depress philanthropy. We draw strength from the extraordinary support of major donors who have and, we believe, will continue to make major investments that are donor-directed to financial aid, research, capital projects, and professorships. However, we also know that the most flexible, unrestricted dollars that support our basic operating budgets will be challenged.
We are doing all we can to ensure that alumni and friends, many of whom are finding themselves in financially challenging situations, continue to be engaged in the university and Johns Hopkins Medicine and are aware of the role their gifts play in the life of the institution. Our projections, however, include an acknowledgement that this source of flexible funds—cash contributions to support annual operations, including payments from prior year pledges—will substantially decline in the near term.
Over the last six weeks, as the pandemic spread throughout the country, financial markets declined significantly. At one point, the S&P 500 was down by 34% from its peak. Since that time, markets have staged a partial recovery, but they are still well below their pre-COVID levels. This has reduced the value of our endowment, which means we will need to lower the level of income we had planned for FY21. We had initially planned based on an expected 2% increase in the endowment payout for FY21, but we will now need to budget for a 2% reduction, which amounts to a reduction in operating support of approximately $10 million.
Although our generalized reliance on endowment is not as great as some of our peers (some of whom receive more than 30% of their budget from endowment, while we receive 4%), this loss in value will nevertheless inflict concentrated and consequential costs on certain of the university’s activities that are endowment dependent. One of these areas is undergraduate financial aid, where despite the loss in endowment value, our expenditures have increased and will continue to as the financial circumstances of our students’ families deteriorate as a result of the pandemic.
As is evident from this discussion, the losses caused by the COVID-19 disruption are significant and varied, reaching nearly every part of our university and its operations. They are also without recent precedent.
Many of you may be aware of the challenges we faced during the depths of the Great Recession. In stark contrast to the situation we face today, the university’s revenues exceeded expenses through that period. This is because that shock did not jeopardize our core activities in the way that COVID-19 does. Despite our sound financial condition at the start of the pandemic, the university’s standing, its capacity to support its education, research and clinical missions, and its ability to protect its employees and students will be materially jeopardized if we do not undertake measures that limit the projected losses.
In considering the way in which we should respond to the financial and operational challenges posed by COVID-19, we have consulted closely with our trustees, deans and cabinet officers, and a subcommittee of the Faculty Budget Advisory Committee. While there are some differences of perspective in and among these groups, all share our view that it would be irresponsible not to institute a set of clear and concrete measures to blunt the impact of COVID-related shocks, thereby protecting the strength and aspiration of the university.
Likewise, they share our view that any budgetary reductions must be informed by our core values: our commitment to the welfare of our community of faculty, staff and students; our commitment to the broader communities of which we are part; and, of course, our commitment to excellence.
In light of these values, we believe that the following principles should shape our mitigation efforts:
We are understandably committed to the expeditious resumption of our university’s various activities. But the timing and the extent of that resumption must in the first instance be guided by the health and safety of our faculty, staff, students and patients. This will doubtless mean that some activities are resumed before others. It will also mean that the resumption of these activities will require all of us to be flexible and open-minded in how we work in, and contribute to, the university. We may need to stagger work hours and shifts, limit the density of occupants in certain spaces, and limit exposure of some employees over others (for example, those who are more at-risk for serious health consequences from COVID-19). We also need to accept that the re-emergence of infection in certain populations may require a return to self-isolation.
In a setting where almost two thirds of the university’s budget is comprised of salary, wages and benefits to personnel, it would be naïve and disingenuous to deny that in the face of the various losses enumerated above, we will need to consider layoffs, furloughs and other measures that impact employees in some areas of the organization. In the early days of our COVID-19 response, we have labored to avoid such actions, in the hope that the pandemic might be less severe than anticipated and our return to normal faster than has turned out. We also have wanted to give our employees—both university and contract—the time to adjust to the severe and unanticipated disruptions we are experiencing. To date we have successfully avoided widespread employee layoffs despite reduced work demands and are working with our contractors to determine out how best to support displaced staff, taking into consideration the availability of state and federal relief.
As we go forward, however, divisional leaders will exercise their discretion and have to consider furloughs or layoffs when necessary to meet their financial and strategic objectives in such a constrained budget environment. University-level HR will work closely with the divisions to establish fair and appropriate supports in the form of transitional assistance for affected employees. We also are working to devise enhanced incentives for faculty in affected programs and departments to consider voluntary retirement options, and we are establishing a special COVID-19 Employee Relief Fund to provide grants to employees who are struggling financially through this pandemic.
We must first recognize that we are operating in a world of substantial uncertainty and open questions. How long will the pandemic last? After we get through the initial stage of extreme physical distancing, how likely are local spikes of subsequent infection? When will we have access to widespread and low-cost point of care virus and serological testing (for COVID-19 immunity)? How confident will we be in our capacity to re-start various activities (research, elective clinical care, undergraduate, graduate and professional education) and what implications will this have for the way in which we organize our workforce?
Time, as well as the development of sound and reliable data and the tremendous expertise of public health colleagues, will allow us to make more accurate assessments of the risks of various courses of action. This means that our decision-making needs to be measured and evidence-based. We will take decisive and urgent actions today in order to manage our risks, but we also want to see how the pandemic develops over time, to gauge the effectiveness of our efforts towards resumption of work, and then, on the basis of this information, to make sure that we are neither under- nor over-reacting to the pandemic.
As indicated above, one of the gravest budgetary challenges we currently face relates to the lack of an appropriate level of compensation to our physician workforce. We have and will continue to advocate with other academic health centers for changes to the reimbursement formula that recognize the extraordinary contributions that our physicians are making to the management of the pandemic and the unavoidable restrictions we confront on our ability to perform elective procedures. We will also continue to advocate (with our peer universities) for further material investments in higher education including financial aid for students, and for expeditious relaxation of travel and visa restrictions. Success in these areas would lessen the intensity of our budgetary challenges.
In making the needed reductions to our operating budgets, we must first look to administrative activities and units for cost reductions through various process improvements that rely on organizational streamlining and, with clear economic returns, technology system enhancements. This is the way in which the university has tackled budgetary challenges in the past: first prioritizing administrative process improvements before focusing on reductions to academic programming.
The university’s budgetary responsibilities are highly decentralized. This model has served the university well, and vests budgetary responsibility in deans, directors and other program officers who have the best information on how to advance the university’s agenda for excellence. Given this distribution of responsibility, we will continue to look to these leaders to make the determination of how best to align the highest academic priorities with the challenges posed by COVID-19. There will be no one-size-fits-all approach as we work through what well could be a multi-month and, more likely, multi-year recovery, from the pandemic.
Although in our first stage of response to COVID-19, it is imperative that we undertake a few broad, across-the-board measures to try to mitigate against significant losses and cash depletion, going forward we must ensure that further budgetary reductions are determined on a strategic and selective basis governed by long-term strategic priorities and our driving commitment to excellence.
This means that, as further budgetary cuts are required, schools and divisions will evaluate what is not tenable and identify priorities for investment. With time and thoughtful analysis, we will be able to focus cuts on areas and activities that are, in the light of present circumstances, not sustainable. We need to use our most sophisticated analytical tools to form judgments about where the university’s and the divisions’ current and prospective impact is greatest and to ensure that those areas have the resources necessary to excel. The university must and will emerge from this crisis stronger.
The challenges posed by the pandemic are daunting. They are also multi-dimensional and likely to vary over time. It is our strong view that we will be called upon to take difficult but nevertheless bold and decisive actions to advance the mission of the university during the recovery phase. We will have to re-allocate resources from low to high value priorities. We will have to stop doing some things in order to do others better. The key will be to focus on the identification of our most compelling priorities and then pursue them faithfully. These decisions are not easy. They will force difficult analysis of what matters most to the long-term success of the affected division or unit. By their very nature, these are the kinds of decisions that require open, transparent and participatory discussion among colleagues so that the merits of different avenues can be carefully assessed.
Universities place an understandable premium on shared governance. This moment is no different. We have benefitted tremendously in the early stages of our response to COVID-19 from the considered input of faculty, staff, and students, including with respect to the issues and plans set forth herein. In addition, given the scope of the sacrifices members of this community will be called on to make, we have chosen to exercise as much transparency as possible about the scope of the problem and our efforts at mitigation. Going forward, to the extent that resource re-allocation decisions are required, we are expecting academic leaders to ensure meaningful opportunities for deliberative debate and discussion. We emphasize, however, that these discussions cannot be open-ended, and must not result in lowest-common denominator strategies that risk drift from excellence and can result in widespread demoralization.
In light of the forgoing, we have decided to adopt a three-phased approach to mitigating the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the first phase, we will undertake a series of broad-based and decisive austerity measures that immediately reduce losses and cash depletion in the coming academic year. The imposition of these measures will provide us with the time to engage in thoughtful, deliberative planning on how additional cuts will be taken over a multi-year period. These measures also have the virtue of allowing time for us to develop a better sense of how the pandemic is evolving and to understand the degree to which the university can resume its various activities without undue risk to its community.
In the second phase of our mitigation plan, starting soon, we will ask each of our divisions to develop and begin implementing revised budget plans that close the gap on projected divisional losses over the next three years, with strategies that protect and enhance core academic priorities.
In the third phase, by late fall, and periodically thereafter, we will assess the measures adopted to date, as against the evolving public health and economic environment more broadly and at Johns Hopkins – taking into account the availability of state and federal funding relief, and we will adjust as warranted, with a commitment to reconsider financial impacts to our employees as our first priority if conditions improve.
For now, our most urgent, phase one mitigation measures for FY21 will include:
In fiscal 2021, the university will enact a one-year suspension of employer contributions to 403(b) and 457(f) retirement accounts—a step we take with great reluctance and appreciation for the sacrifice of our employees, but one that avoids across-the-board salary reductions and will help us to maintain employment for as much of our workforce as possible ahead. Note that university contributions to its defined-benefit pension plan will continue, and employees may make elective contributions to their own 403(b) and 457(b) accounts, subject to IRS maximums. The savings generated by this action will be reflected in a lower fringe benefit rate, which accrues to all divisions of the university, as well as sponsored research grants. This action is projected to save $100 million in FY 2021.
In recognition of the sacrifices that will be required across the university, Provost Kumar and I will reduce our salaries by 20% in the next fiscal year, and our deans and university officers will reduce their salaries by 10%.
The university instituted a general prohibition and review of base salary increases effective April, and we will continue this hold for the next fiscal year (ending in June 2021). Again, this was a difficult but critical decision. This means that base salaries for FY21 will be the same as for FY20, with no annual merit increases. Any exceptions will require the written approval of the dean. Staff promotions will be considered on a case-by-case basis and will require the written approval of the dean or division director. Any exceptions, such as a reclassification, equity adjustment, or supplemental bonus, will also require the written approval of the dean. This action is projected to save approximately $20 million in FY 2021.
For staff positions—the university is restricting hiring through fiscal 2021. Employment offer letters issued through April 7 will be honored, but any new offers will require written approval of the dean or division director. We will allow flexibility for hiring to meet urgent or strategic needs, particularly roles essential to program or clinical activity related to the COVID pandemic.
For academic positions—the deans will review all approved or planned faculty searches with the provost (including those with donor support) to jointly determine which should continue and which should be paused. Hiring of postdoctoral trainees and part-time or casual faculty will also be restricted to those that are essential to instruction, research, and/or clinical operations. Hiring for those roles will require the approval of the dean. This action is projected to save $40 million in FY21.
Furloughs and layoffs are regrettably expected to be necessary within some units of the university as an unavoidable consequence of the losses we are experiencing. Decisions regarding furloughs and layoffs will be made at the divisional and departmental level, including within university administration. Every effort will be made to provide transition assistance for affected employees during this extraordinarily difficult time.
The university has halted new capital projects over $100,000 through FY21, including information technology and equipment purchases, with exceptions granted for projects that address critical life safety or systems issues or meet an urgent strategic need. All active studies, design and construction projects are also subject to review. To-date, the divisions have reviewed their planned capital projects under $5 million in size and have decided to put 78 projects valued at $29 million on hold. Divisions are being asked similarly to review all ongoing and new projects under $100,000 to assess their operational necessity and to consider deferring or suspending them as appropriate. Recognizing both our commitments to funders and the importance of construction projects on the local economy, we also will continue with some capital projects that are largely supported by donor and/or sponsored funds.
The university procurement, technology, facilities and real estate teams will work with the divisions to revisit contracts for goods and services as well as construction and lease commitments to leverage the university’s purchasing power and long-standing relationships with vendors and set savings targets. Due in part to the response to COVID-19, recent reductions in non-personnel expenses are expected to continue into the next fiscal year. For example, the university is projecting to save nearly $10 million in non-sponsored research funded travel for the last three months of the current fiscal year. Given likely continued limitations on travel through the fall, further savings are expected. In undertaking these actions, it is important that we remain steadfast in our efforts to improve the university’s inclusionary and local building and buying efforts as committed through HopkinsLocal.
Other critical near-terms actions we are taking include:
The university is establishing two COVID-19 Workforce Relief Funds to provide grants for our lowest-resourced employees and displaced contract workers who are in need of financial assistance as a result of the pandemic. These funds—the COVID-19 Employee Relief Fund and the COVID-19 Contract Worker Relief Fund—will follow the eligibility requirements set forth in the recent federal relief program. More information on how to access this direct financial support will be forthcoming from HR.
In this critical moment for our city and community, the university is establishing new avenues for providing needed help for our neighbors, including a COVID-19 community impact fund, distance learning technology for city schoolchildren and a major food distribution initiative through community partners across East Baltimore.
The university is engaged in intensive advocacy, in association with umbrella organizations at the state and national level, for funding assistance to help alleviate budgetary pressures for research, health care delivery, student needs and displaced workers.
The university has convened working groups to assess options and planning for the eventual safe and prudent reopening and return to campus for all in-person activities and programs, ranging from patient care to lab-based research to general instruction and the undergraduate residential experience.
The next several years will be extremely challenging for our university. But I have little doubt that we will summon the fortitude to respond with the grit, ambition, excellence, and humanity that are emblematic of our university.
Ever since our extraordinary beginnings in 1876, the story of Johns Hopkins has been one of breathtaking innovation and impact. And remarkably, this university’s story has been written with a dedicated resource base that is but a fraction of the resources of many of our better endowed peers. Our innate resourcefulness, driving determination, and abiding collegiality are what sets this university apart. And because of these strengths, because of our history, we will not simply muddle through this moment, but we will excel.
Our university’s mission has never been more important. Our work must and will continue.
Ronald J. Daniels
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