CORONAVIRUS

Regents seek update on coronavirus impact on university campuses

Thursday meeting will include information on 'loss of revenue and increased expenses'

Iowa State University Campanile, built in 1897-98, is home to the Edgar W. and Margaret MacDonald Stanton Memorial Caril
Iowa State University Campanile, built in 1897-98, is home to the Edgar W. and Margaret MacDonald Stanton Memorial Carillon. (ISU photo via Facebook)

Iowa’s Board of Regents have called a special meeting Thursday to, among other things, receive an update on the financial blow its public universities have taken in responding to COVID-19 and social distancing demands.

The impact includes both budgetary losses — like refunds the schools gave on-campus students upon closure of the residence halls — and extra expenses, like for technology-related demands as all classes and many meetings, events, and activities moved online.

Although University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa have not unveiled specific expected coronavirus-related losses or costs, Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen last week revealed her campus’ conservative estimates put the COVID-19 hit at more than $80 million.

That total includes nearly $17 million in refunds to students for things like housing, dining, and lost study abroad programming. And the longer the disease persists in the community, requiring further social distancing measures and restrictions, the greater the impact, Wintersteen noted.

In response to those projections, the president directed all campus units to trim 5 percent from their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1. Wintersteen warned of another possible 5 percent budget cut in fiscal 2022, too.

A 5 percent cut from ISU’s $742 million general fund operating budget amounts to about $37 million, according to campus officials.

Additionally, the university will offer no raises come July 1 to faculty members, professional and scientific staff, postdoctoral researchers and contract associations, Wintersteen said. Unionized merit staffers — including clerical, technical and security positions, like police officers — will get their negotiated 2.1 percent salary increase.

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Higher education campuses across Iowa — and the country — expect some federal help from the recently-passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, CARES, Act. But half of any support each school receives must go directly to students, and the remaining funds are expected to fall short of covering campus losses.

Thus, UI leadership last week delivered a message to deans, senior human resources officials, and business officers instructing them to evaluate the COVID-19 impact on their respective units and colleges and act accordingly.

The evaluation could involve enrollment projections and losses this spring.

“Leadership of colleges and central service units have control and are empowered to make decisions, and they will have the backing of the university,” according to the UI campus message.

All three of Iowa’s public university campuses — along with its community colleges and private universities and colleges — in March canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester, moving instruction online. Some of the semester’s academic pursuits had to be nixed entirely or at least postponed — including in courses with hands-on components, like labs; those involving community experiences and partnerships, like student teaching; and study abroad programming.

Additionally, most campuses have extended their respective in-person pauses through the summer — or at least much of it.

The college and university decisions to nix in-person instruction this spring and summer largely have been their own and not at the direction of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who on Monday loosened some of her social distancing measures in 77 counties starting May 1.

The new governor proclamation allows restaurants, fitness centers, malls, libraries, race tracks, and some other retailers to reopen in a limited fashion in those lesser-affected counties, including Ames — where Iowa State University sits. Restrictions remain in other Iowa counties, including Johnson and Black Hawk, home to UI and UNI, respectively.

More than three weeks ago, Board of Regents President Michael Richards stated publicly his office’s plans for a “full, normal operation for our universities for the fall 2020 semester. This includes in-person classes, reopening of residence halls, food service and other campus services.”

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He conceded the board would follow guidance from our national and state leaders, as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Iowa Department of Public Health.

UI President Bruce Harreld likewise on April 17 announced his university is planning to resume face-to-face instruction in the fall — although he noted “the future is not set in stone.”

“The situation is, of course, extremely fluid, and the specific steps we will need to implement have yet to be determined,” he said.

At Iowa State, according to a recent message from Wintersteen, the campus is considering “all options” in collaboration with the regents directive and in prioritizing the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff.

“We will be engaging representatives from divisions and units across campus in our fall planning effort, and will provide updates as plans develop,” she said. “Preparing for fall will require new and creative approaches to how we support our mission and campus operations, especially in considering the best alternatives available if our planning efforts are impacted by external factors beyond our control.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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