Zoe Berg, Photography Editor

In a year marked by uncertainty and change, the Yale Corporation spent its first meeting looking at the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and progress on academic priorities.

This past weekend, the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, held its first meeting of the academic year. Traditionally, at the first meetings trustees consider Yale’s long-term vision over its routine business, University President Peter Salovey told the News. At this year’s first meeting, the Corporation focused on the University’s response to the pandemic and on the progress — and delays —  in fulfilling the academic priorities that Salovey first outlined in 2016. Salovey will soon release an update on the initiatives, which include policy-relevant research and the hiring of faculty.

“We did a reflection on, despite COVID and what an unusual year it was, how did we make progress on these goals,” Salovey said. “Then we talked about what we hope to get done in the next year coming up around those priorities. Some of them are unaffected by COVID but most of them, in some ways, the time schedule or the urgency has been affected by COVID.”

The University’s two other academic priorities are science and engineering and humanities and the arts.

At the meeting, the Board also “reset the schedule” for construction projects around campus that were shut down last spring, Salovey said. The Humanities Quadrangle, previously the Hall of Graduate Studies, was set to finish this September, Salovey added. Instead, it should be ready for use in January.

The timing of construction has far-reaching effects for the University, as it impacts when Yale can hire faculty to teach in the buildings and launch programs within them. The renovation of Kline Tower, which will become the hub for data science and mathematics, is facing a one-year delay. Construction was entirely shut down in the spring but is now restarting. Construction on the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale is complete, but programs are currently virtual due to social distancing measures.

Additionally, for its scientific initiatives, the University plans to create a hub for scientific instrumentation development and a building for quantum research and engineering. The quantum initiative can connect faculty in the physics, applied physics and engineering departments who would not previously have come into contact, chair of the Physics Department Karsten Heeger told the News. The instrumentation space will allow researchers to build instruments ranging from telescopes to pieces for a quantum computer.

“The idea is if someone needs to build something, invent something that allows them to get to the next frontier, they can do this here on campus,” Heeger said, adding that research in his department can require specialized environments with lower vibrations. “You need specialized infrastructure and if you have that infrastructure then you can be at the forefront of science. So it is almost a prerequisite.”

He added that the Instrumentation Initiative Task Force and Physical Sciences and Engineering Building working group — both of which he chairs and which consist of faculty — were charged with these initiatives at the end of February. However, they had to make the switch to virtual meetings when the pandemic hit, which slowed their timeline.

While the pandemic has hindered progress on some academic initiatives, it has also made them more pressing, Salovey said. For example, the University was already hoping to link research on immunology with studies of inflammation. Now, this work could help people with the coronavirus.

Yale’s social science goals also found new importance during the pandemic. Faculty members at the Tobin Center — which focuses on domestic economic policy research — lobbied the Trump administration and Congress to increase government funding toward fighting the virus. Additionally, the center brought a study out of the School of Management to policymakers, which showed that workers at multiple nursing homes spread the virus between the sites. The study is influencing several state governments, economics professor and Tobin Center Director Steven Berry said.

For its social science goals, Yale is emphasizing policy-relevant data science at the Tobin Center and the coming Jackson School of Global Affairs.

“The value of academia is that at a very polarized time where people have a tendency to line up with their political tribe as to what ought to be done regardless of the evidence … in academia we actually can take a step back and try to think about what the evidence is,” Berry said. “We can take the care … to not be driven by a desired answer, but by the desire to find the correct answer.”

The University’s most pressing goals in the arts and humanities include seeking funding for a new drama facility and supporting professorships to integrate arts with the rest of the University.

“The inspiration that we can find in the arts, we’re going to need that after COVID, after grappling with the turmoil that we’ve had in our country over issues of race and racism,” Salovey said.

The trustees also attended a presentation on the University’s finances. Salovey characterized the session’s theme as “future uncertainty.” This year, Yale’s endowment grew by 6.8 percent despite fluctuations in the economy brought about by the pandemic. Additionally, the percentage of the endowment the University spent held around the usual 5.25 percent.

Though the University has estimates of what unanticipated expenses COVID-19 may bring, as well as potential revenue the University is losing out on, Yale is moving forward with caution.

“How do you plan to make progress on all those priorities, recognizing that the financial situation is more unpredictable than usual given COVID, given the economy associated with COVID?” Salovey said.

One academic priority is attracting and retaining the best faculty to teach and conduct research at Yale. In his 2016 release, Salovey called faculty the “lifeblood” of the University. 

To promote a strong faculty, Salovey said, Yale could begin to “thaw” its hiring freeze. When the pandemic hit last spring, the University instituted a hiring freeze, throwing the contracts for many of Yale’s instructional faculty into limbo. For the 2021 fiscal year, Yale has partially lifted the ban, University Spokesperson Karen Peart told the News, and the University has approved more than 60 new hires. But this number still lags behind past years.

Peart explained that the pandemic cost Yale more than $250 million in lost revenue and pandemic-related expenses, prompting “prudent, cost-saving measures” like the hiring freeze. The University’s surplus for the fiscal year was $125 million.

The University can begin coming out of the freeze, Salovey said, because it has a better sense of how COVID-19 will impact it. Yale is now approving faculty hiring in “high-priority areas” and where there’s a “real opportunity present,” he said.

The Corporation has 17 members, including Yale’s president.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu