Answering the Toughest Questions as We Prepared for Fall

Meditations and Musings

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Answering the Toughest Questions as We Prepared for Fall

During the spring, as the reality of the nature and ramifications of a major global pandemic began to set in, the questions became much harder – and considerably more complex. The concerns moved from how to acquire needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and materials and how to assure that we could continue University base operations “remotely” as much as possible to the bigger questions of how to address a longer-term manifestation of the pandemic – likely to extend over a period of 18 months or more. We were faced with the difficult challenge of how to be the people of Nebraska’s public Land Grant university on sound financial, public health, and safety footing amidst community spread of a novel and mutating virus, with the most optimistic hope for vaccinology to successfully provide protective immunity a year or more away.

And, there were the significant opportunity cost questions, including at the top of a long list:

  • How could we keep our student populations on track to not lose ground on their progress toward degree completion and graduation, fully realizing the economic, access and mental well-being dimensions of this challenge?
  • Would our students be able to stay engaged if they were forced to be “remote” for an extended period of time?
  • Would we be able to continue to offer experiential learning opportunities that are a hallmark of a UNL education?
  • How would we minimize the losses and interruptions for our international students and partnerships around the world?
  • How would we protect our faculty and staff, many of whom were by default in the more vulnerable demographics of risk for susceptibility to the virus and its effects?
  • How could we manage the significant financial risks for University auxiliary revenue-funded units – e.g. Lied Center for the Performing Arts, University museums, Husker Athletics, Nebraska Alumni Association, University Child Care Center, University Unions – and what impact would be experienced in University Housing and Dining Services? And, of course, these risks would have to be considered within the context of seemingly massive fiscal uncertainties of the long-term economic impacts at the local, state, and federal levels, which could potentially impact public funding support for the University’s budget over the coming several-year period.
  • How would we manage the anticipated increased costs associated with operations that would require significant risk mitigation – equipping of classrooms protectively, sanitation and hygiene measures, enhanced building air handling and quality needs, needed PPE, population testing, etc.?
  • With high levels of uncertainty on all fronts and wide disparities in public opinion and acceptance of public health measures and directives, how much willingness would there be to accept community public health standards for risk mitigation?
  • How would we minimize the disruptive impacts of this time on the scholarly progress and productivity of our faculty – many who were at critical stages of their professional development in academic tenure and promotion?
  • How could we continue our critical research at a time many universities were closing down those efforts?

This was precisely where we found ourselves post-Easter in April of 2020.

It was crystal clear to me that, beyond the base principle of protecting public health as much as possible by using and deploying the best scientific evidence possible, UNL’s guiding principle and “North Star” had to be grounded in relentless focus on our mission. We needed to adapt however and wherever needed flexibly to DELIVER on that mission for Nebraska and the world. I knew that it would require courage, a huge amount of planning, elbow grease and grit, sacrifices from literally everyone in our broader community, a willingness and openness to pivot with the likely changes ahead, and the patience of Job to bring along UNL’s people, who possess a wide and diverse spectrum of aversion to risk. Simply put, many were scared and stressed in unprecedented ways, while many others were wondering what all of the fuss was about and felt that there was a massive overreaction – with all variations in between.

After considering all of what “we knew” about the pandemic, we made the conscious decision that to deliver on our mission, we needed to be connected and woven together as a community, as much as possible and in as safe a way as possible. ACCESS had to be our driver. As such, we declared that after the finish of a spring semester followed by an enhanced set of summer terms delivered remotely, we would be “in person” as a University community for the fall 2020 semester. Along with our Big Ten Conference colleagues at Purdue University, we were the first in the U.S. to declare this intent in late April. Literally the same week we made this declaration, two other universities publicly announced that they would not return in person for the fall and would be 100% remote – led by the Cal State system in California.

We immediately mobilized a “Forward to Fall” planning and implementation team across the University to tackle the multitude of questions and policies we would need to put in to place before mid-summer to be ready to make good on this intent and promise. Fortunately, we had worked very hard over the past few years in strategic planning, and in bringing together what I consider to be the best senior leadership team in higher education. They collectively rallied, under the stepped-up leadership of task force co-leaders Bob Wilhelm and Amy Goodburn – and went to work. Fortuitously, the last pieces of that leadership team had been hired to begin in the dawning of the pandemic – Executive Vice Chancellor Elizabeth Spiller arrived in Lincoln literally as we were pivoting in mid-March, and new College of Journalism and Mass Communications Dean Shari Veil arrived in the early summer to fill out our full team. I know I will look back for many years to come and appreciate the stroke of good fortune (and timing) that our team was in place.

While one could write a full case study book on the process and planning that followed, a few key points are worth highlighting here:

  • Early on, we established a close working relationship with the Lincoln-Lancaster Public Health Department, and with the other institutions of higher education in the area. These partnerships were critical to acting in a coordinated fashion, and to ensuring the actions we took to help protect our UNL campus community were integrated into efforts to help protect the larger Lincoln community.
  • After careful study and evaluation, the team came forward with a recommended special schedule for the 2020-21 academic year to minimize risk from COVID-19.
    • We would start classes a week earlier on August 14th, initially for one week with remote instruction to provide flexibility for a smoother campus move-in of our students, followed by a full 14-week semester culminating with final exams completed on the day before Thanksgiving. Fall break and the Labor Day holiday were eliminated to allow this schedule to work. This minimized the travel disruption, and associated health risks, for our community from Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. It was also widely anticipated that there was likely to be a second spike, perhaps a peak, of COVID-19 transmission with the onset of the winter and normal “flu season”. (Post-script – that is exactly what happened).
    • For the first time in our 151-year history, we instituted a new winter inter-session comprised of two 3-week sessions (one before Christmas and one after New Year’s), with all courses offered online or remotely, with special attention priority to degree completion, experiential learning, and career readiness. (Note - as I am writing this M&M, we are currently between the sessions with 3800 students having enrolled in nearly 10,000 student credit hours – a huge success.
    • Spring semester 2021 was moved to a later start date of January 25th with spring break eliminated, allowing completion in May at the normal time.
    • After complete study and evaluation of the classroom instructional footprint of our campuses, it was determined that we would attempt to offer an in-person component for all classes under the guiding principles that 1.) all students would be socially distanced at a minimum of six feet, and 2.) that all participants in academic settings would be required to wear facial coverings according to CDC guidance. This meant that for a small number of our class sections, all students in the class could be in person at the same time, but for the vast majority of the class sections, only a portion of the students could be accommodated physically in person with the remainder synchronously online through Zoom. Adaptations were made across the board by faculty and staff to make this happen, including ingenuity applied by many to offer courses outdoors as much as possible, and in nonconventional venues (e.g. chemistry courses in the Lied Center auditorium, Law courses in tents).
    • Policy was put in place universally across the campuses that required the use of facial masks in all University facilities. This was designed to follow scientific recommendations under CDC definition. Every community member was to receive two specially designed Nebraska masks with guidance for hygiene and safe use.
    • Facilities staff went immediately to work installing plexiglass in classrooms and offices, constructing and making from scratch hand sanitizer dispensers to be placed widely across the campuses, bringing in massive numbers of N-masks, sanitary supplies, and PPE. The crews went to work carefully measuring every classroom space on campus and designing placements of students and signage to meet the social distancing requirements. Signage was designed across campus to facilitate safe movement of people in public spaces.
    • Innovative changes were also made to research labs and facilities to allow us to safely continue our critically important research.
    • Housing and Dining Services developed plans for how to bring back over 5,500 on-campus resident students safely and under health guidance. Move-in plans were carefully developed so that students and families could deliver their personal belongings to be centrally moved in by hired professionals to minimize disease transmission risk. Social distancing and signage for dining services and best practices were developed and implemented. Careful plans to match the guidance in University Housing were developed and implemented with Fraternity and Sorority Life for students in their community.
    • COVID-19 testing services were developed with the state of Nebraska for UNL to become a permanent testing site, with logistics and people organized in the parking garage at 17th and R Streets, with additional sites added on campus as the semester progressed. Isolation and quarantine facilities were set up and implemented using former Piper Hall as the anchor site, with additional off-campus facilities secured if needed for overflow.
    • Thoughtful accommodation plans were developed and implemented for faculty and staff to be able to work remotely if needed due to personal health vulnerability, or risk to family members.
    • Academic Services and Enrollment Management quickly pivoted to enhance connection to incoming and returning students to assure they were cared for according to our strategic plan “where every person and every interaction matters”. Each of the nine academic colleges worked to contact all incoming students to encourage them to bring forward their engagement for the academic year and to answer their questions and concerns – all the while also pivoting to recruitment of the fall 2021 freshman class under virtual approaches and environments.
    • The NU system collectively made the decision that we would freeze tuition over the next two-year period to ensure access at the highest level. New NU system president Carter made the wise decision to broaden the previous Collegebound Nebraska program, ensuring no tuition charge for students with the highest financial need further to include all resident Nebraska students whose family income was at or below the Nebraska median family income of $60,000.
    • A “Cornhusker Commitment” was articulated as a pledge that all community members would be encouraged to take to protect their personal and community public health through following of best practices at all times for hand washing, personal hygiene, social distancing, avoiding large group gatherings, and wearing of facial coverings in all public places.
    • We immediately implemented a budget planning process for the period of July 2021 through June 2024. Conservative projections for a flat state budget, no tuition increases, and significant losses of international student enrollment were modeled. This led to identification of the need to proactively and conservatively plan for a $38M reduction to be implemented over the three-year period in our planned state-aided budget for UNL (which for the 2019-20 year totaled $465M of the total $1.3B UNL annual budget).
      • The initial losses to UNL for the period of March 11-August 15th were in excess of $39M. This included housing refunds to students for the disrupted spring term, canceled events for spring and summer, including the Lied Center performances and all spring athletics events, and University programming in Nebraska Extension and other outreach units, after considerable reduction in costs from implemented measures. (Postscript – with the loss of games and fans in Husker Athletics and continued closure of event venues through the remainder of the calendar year, those losses now have reached in excess of $85M).
      • To proactively manage the losses, a hiring freeze on all positions was immediately implemented, a voluntary leave policy was made available, and furloughs were made available to revenue-dependent units.
      • I made it a priority that we would not eliminate positions, or implement furloughs in our base academic, research, and student affairs divisions.  This particularly included student workers who frequently rely on their employment to support their education.
      • Fortunately, we were in a favorable position that allowed us to not need to implement any temporary salary reductions. Nonetheless, our family personally made the decision that we would give back an additional 10% of my salary, beyond our normal philanthropy, to UNL for the academic year.
      • We made the decision to put a temporary pause on a number of capital projects until we were more certain of the time ahead, including the new track and field complex at Nebraska Innovation Campus and GO BIG projects in Athletics, the Veterans Tribute on Memorial Mall, renovations to Architecture Hall, and new student recreation fields. All other projects were continued on schedule, including the Nebraska East Union renovation and Dinsdale Family Learning Commons on East Campus, the new Mabel Lee facility, the College of Engineering renovation and addition to the Scott Engineering Center, the Scarlet Hotel on Nebraska Innovation Campus, completion of the Husker Hub and Canfield Hall renovations, Hamilton Hall chemistry lab renovations, and the intermediate design and planning for Kiewit Hall in the College of Engineering. (Postscript – the paused projects have now been put back into the queue for recommencing in summer of 2021).
      • Each division of the University moved forward to recommend their plans to meet the $38M budget deficit targets. Budget cuts were recommended to me in July and were subsequently forwarded to the UNL Academic Planning Committee for review in August. As I am writing this, all of those budget reductions have been reviewed, recommended and now implemented except for the last $1.8M in the College of Education and Human Sciences that remains under development.

As the summer period commenced and the University community rallied in unprecedented ways with its plans and work to be ready to welcome our community back together in August, the pandemic hit a brief peak in Nebraska in late May before subsiding and having a relatively quiet and modest summer period. But, while Nebraska remained relatively low in COVID-19 prevalence, other regions of the country erupted as public health measures were relaxed – particularly across the South and Southwest (Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina to name a few).

But as COVID-19’s May peak began to subside in Nebraska, a series of deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police violence erupted into racial unrest and protest at levels reminiscent of (and appallingly showing major lack of progress since) the civil rights era of the 1960s.

A new chapter in our generation’s version of 1918-20 was opening, and it was in many ways a raw and rude awakening for all Americans.