The State of the University is strong

University Council meeting focuses on challenges, strengths during coronavirus pandemic

Jeff VanLooy chaired the first University Council meeting on Zoom with Interim President Joshua Wynne, Incoming President Andy Armacost, Senior Vice Provost Debbie Storrs, and other administrators.

It was an afternoon of “firsts” as the University Council, UND’s governing body, met via Zoom on May 5 for the annual State of the University address.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was the first virtual meeting of the Council, and likely the first time two presidents – Interim President Joshua Wynne and Incoming President Andy Armacost – gave the State of the University address.

The meeting was headed by Jeff VanLooy, chair of the University Senate and associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy.

“You are the University Council and part of shared governance on campus, and your help is needed as the University moves forward,” VanLooy said to the audience of about 350.

He asked faculty to help prepare for the 2023 accreditation visit from the Higher Learning Commission, and encouraged them to donate to the Angel Fund, which supports students in need.

“This is a critical time when students need our support,” VanLooy said. “I urge you to consider giving to the Angel Fund, the Food Pantry and our community. It will come back to you over and over. UND students and employees need our help.”

Wynne: We will get through this together

Dr. Wynne also encouraged donations to the Angel Fund, and invited faculty input in dealing with the challenges of COVID-19.

“None of us ever expected anything like this,” Wynne said. “The only way we will get through this is by working together. The State of the University is remarkably strong because of faculty and staff perseverance, hard work, and good humor in a time of major challenge.”

Wynne said that COVID has impacted three time periods: this academic year, the upcoming academic year, and the next biennium. He said that moving UND to remote instruction and having most faculty and staff work remotely helped keep cases of the coronavirus relatively flat.

“Don’t relax,” Wynne said. “We need to keep from having an explosion of new cases.”

UND has an estimated $11 million shortfall for the current academic year, which is being partially addressed by reducing hours for more than 400 staff members until July 31. The reduction in hours program will allow staff who have hours cut or reduced to zero to apply for unemployment and receive funding from the CARES Act while still remaining UND employees and keeping their health insurance. A hiring “chill” and other cost-reducing measures are also in effect.

Expenses are expected to rise next year due to costs of COVID compliance, while revenues and enrollment will likely decrease.

Next biennium, beginning July 2021, was addressed by Gov. Burgum, who asked large agencies to reduce budgets by 15 percent. Though UND and the other higher institutions of higher education are considered large agencies, Burgum proposed a 10 percent reduction to the credit hour formula for higher education. If UND can increase enrollment, it would see less impact.

“I think our financial situation, while of concern, is not dire,” said Wynne. “We need to look at cost savings and revenue generation, offer programs that are attractive to students, ensure they enjoy coming to UND and make sure they have a good experience. I am cautiously optimistic that we can come out of this and help educate the workforce the state and nation need.”

Armacost: Optimism and hope

“These are challenging times that will require the efforts of all of us. I hope to lead with a sense of optimism and hope,” said Armacost.

“We will continue to deliver our great educational programs by being innovative,” he continued, adding that UND will offer classes both on campus and online. His top priority, he said, is the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff.

“We will deliver an excellent educational experience and sustain our sense of community on campus,” Armacost said. “A hallmark of UND is working together.”

Armacost said budget shortfalls will likely stem from two forces: lower enrollment and increased expectations for a COVID-resistant campus. Several groups are working to address those and academic issues to ensure UND can deliver educational programs. And though Gov. Burgum has asked higher education to absorb a 10 percent budget cut, he noted that the state provides around 22 to 23 percent of UND’s total revenue, so the 10 percent cut would not be to the entire University budget.

Still, though, Armacost said, cuts add up and UND will need to plan and address challenges.

“I am cautiously optimistic that through great planning efforts, the vibrancy of UND can be restored safely,” Armacost said. “We will get through this as a team. We are one.”

Questions and answers

University administrators were available to answer questions, summarized below.

  • A planning group is developing a menu of options for faculty to safely teach on campus, said Senior Vice Provost Debbie Storrs. One option for large classes may be a version of what some faculty know as “flipping the classroom.” They are also looking at ways to address safety in hallways between classrooms, and to provide hand sanitizers and wipes.
  • Fall classes will be a hybrid of online and on-campus instruction, said Storrs. Students and faculty will have the opportunity to learn what works best for each of them, and all will be asked to be flexible and prepared to move online seamlessly. There are likely to be “waves” of coronavirus cases, and faculty need to be prepared to teach in modules, going face-to-face when on campus, then to pivot and go to a virtual option. The cycles are likely to continue, said Wynne, until a vaccine or effective treatment is developed, or we acquire “herd immunity.”
  • With people returning to campus from across the nation and world, testing for COVID-19 will be critical. Wynne added that a significant number of people may not have symptoms but are capable of spreading the disease.
  • When asked to enumerate the total number of positions eliminated as of May 16, Vice President for Finance & Operations Jed Shivers emphasized that hours were reduced or eliminated temporarily, from May 16 to July 31, for 405 or 406 staff members. “They are still employees, can be called back, and do not lose healthcare insurance or their jobs,” Shivers said, adding that the goal was to harm as few people as possible while saving money. Armacost asked the audience to reach out to those colleagues and check on them. “Make sure they’re okay,” he said. “They may not feel a financial impact, but there is an emotional impact.”
  • In response to a question about how to help students who have “checked out” after UND moved online, Storrs thanked faculty for caring so deeply about students. She asked them to continue to be flexible and responsive, and to reach out to students. In addition, she said, faculty can post an alert in Starfish so advisors can contact the students. She added that staff from Student and Academic Affairs are calling every student to find out how they are doing and see if they need help. Those that have been reached tell us their “concerns are mostly about money, remote learning and social isolation,” Storrs said.
  • Vice President for Student Affairs & Diversity Cara Halgren said that structures are in place if some students resist wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. “Behavior is behavior is behavior,” she said, adding that the Behavioral Intervention Team and other groups will address concerns. “We need to model the behavior we expect,” said Armacost. “Don’t underestimate the impact of setting a good example.” Safety is at the top of the list, said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Tom DiLorenzo, adding that a pandemic planning group meets daily to address issues and make plans for campus.
  • UND has not encouraged the additional use of Proctor U because students may not have the equipment or finances, said Storrs, adding that Academic Affairs is encouraging faculty to consider other options to assess student learning. TTaDA has posted options on how to do so on their website.
  • The Prometric Testing Center will be closed through the end of July, and Prometric has closed all sites across the nation. UND is monitoring the situation, but currently that testing is not available to protect the health and safety of both students and staff.
  • Storrs said the planning group is addressing how to teach large classes. “We’re not going back to business as usual,” she said. “We can’t. We need to be creative.” That may include moving some parts of the class to Blackboard while meeting face to face with students in groups of 20. “While practicing social distancing, we can still be interactive,” she said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but if there’s anyone with a creative ability to problem-solve, it is our faculty.”
  • UND does anticipate a drop in international students due to difficulty getting visas and travel issues, Storrs said, adding that online courses may be a way to continue to engage and accommodate international students.
  • Hand sanitizer, wipes, and other protective equipment will be available on campus, Shivers said.
  • Regarding a recent incident near campus that involved racial slurs, one questioner asked what UND is doing to emphasize the importance of respect for diversity, civility, and respecting other cultures. Vice President for Marketing & Communications Meloney Linder said UND is aware of the situation. Halgren said that her area is looking at next steps, and Storrs said that general education classes are important as they focus on diversity and inclusion. Armacost added that he is very impressed by the thoroughness and compassion of Halgren’s team.

In conclusion

“This is a challenge, but I think we can get through it,” Wynne said as the meeting ended. “I like the way the governor has framed it as a combination of North Dakota tough coupled with North Dakota smart. Don’t let your guard down. Continue to practice physical distancing and common sense public health practices. Be vigilant yet get on with life in a controlled and careful way. We welcome your participation and help.”

“Help comes in innovative solutions,” said Armacost. “We will get through tough times together.”

“Yesterday was Teacher Appreciation Day,” said VanLooy. “Thank you for all you are doing. There has been a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes.” He thanked members of the University Senate and its committees for helping guide administrators, and ended the meeting by recalling a Grand Forks Herald op-ed he wrote last year with past Senate chair Paul Todhunter on optimism. “I came into this position optimistic and hopeful, and it’s important to remain so while also remaining realistic,” he said. “If we’re not optimistic, we’ve already begun to fail.”