IOWA CITY — Campus leaders across Iowa’s public universities have said, essentially, they can’t afford not to bring student back this fall.
Some universities nationally — perhaps with more financial leverage to take more cautious approaches to higher education amid a global pandemic — have opted to remain online-only for now.
But Iowa’s public universities — facing tens of millions in COVID-19 losses — for months have insisted they’ll bring students back in August, with details now emerging that focus the fuzzy picture of what exactly that will look like: masked students, smaller classes, plexiglass barriers, and no large lectures.
“If we don’t, we will have much more severe budget cuts,” Steve Goddard, University of Iowa dean of its largest College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, told more than 300 faculty and staff during a recent virtual town hall.
Goddard made those comments in the same meeting he discussed the need to cut $15 million to $25 million from his college’s budget over the next few years, resulting this fall in the termination of 15 lecturers and lost pay raises in January, among other things.
State lawmakers over the weekend cut $8 million from its Board of Regents appropriations for the budget year that begins July 1, rebuffing the regents’ call for an $18 million increase and exacerbating the already dire straits Iowa’s public campuses are in.
“The reason students come to our campus is to have face-to-face instruction and have an on-campus experience,” Goddard told faculty and staff. “They could do the University of Phoenix if they just wanted an education and to do it online. They come here for something different.”
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If the campuses don’t provide some semblance of a traditional collegiate experience — including residence halls, orientation, fraternities, cram sessions, clubs, speakers, office hours, and the like — Goddard said, “We will not have as many students here.”
“I can’t think of a reason why an out-of-state student would register for an out-of-state class to take it online, while they’re at their parents’ basement,” he said. “I don’t know why any parent would want to pay that, or the student pay that.”
‘Not an online university’
So as the campuses’ mete out new measures they’re taking to keep students and faculty safe, administrators are urging employees get on board with the in-person efforts.
“While no instructor will be forced to teach in-person classes, it is appropriate to remind ourselves that the hallmark of Iowa State’s academic experience is a rich, on-campus environment,” Iowa State University Provost Jonathan Wickert told faculty and staff in a message this week.
He acknowledged faculty concerns about returning to campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to infect and kill Iowans daily. And Wickert highlighted precautions Iowa State is taking — including mask, social distancing, cleaning, and sanitation procedures.
But with all three campuses projecting enrollment declines for fall — meaning less revenue from tuition, which regents froze to temper student drops — coronavirus losses already in the tens of millions from spring refunds, event cancellations, and new expenses are mounting.
That confluence of budget woes makes preserving Iowa State’s “world-class instruction” in an on-campus environment — right now — foremost among its priorities, Wickert said.
Long-term recovery could be hard if it doesn’t.
“Some students are likely to take a gap year, or seek an alternative closer to home, rather than enroll in a substantial number of online courses,” Wickert said. “Such a scenario would result in lower enrollments, and negatively impact the university’s academic mission for years to come.”
Faculty at higher-risk of contracting the virus, or with more concerns, can “opt out” from in-person instruction by contacting supervisors.
But when a UI faculty member asked Dean Goddard why the campus isn’t employing an “opt-in” policy instead, he stressed again that students “come here for the in-person experience.”
“We’re not an online university, and so that requires people to be here to interact with them,” he said. “We want to accommodate people, but we can’t by default become an online university. We will not have the role that we’re currently playing. We won’t be fulfilling our mission.”
One UI faculty member who identified herself as a woman of color said she recently was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that makes her more vulnerable. She expressed “tremendous anxiety” about re-entering classrooms, said her experience with Zoom teaching was “very positive,” and is interested in teaching online permanently.
Answering her question about how to approach that, Goddard urged the woman start with “mental health counseling to kind of deal with some of the anxiety and understand that.”
“I’d also encourage you to think about trying to manage that because — as an underrepresented minority, a woman of color — you have a tremendous impact to students if you can overcome some of that anxiety and fear,” he said.
Even with the push to reinstitute some degree of collegiate norm, many of the campuses’ COVID-19 precautions could leave students with a largely virtual and isolated semester.
University of Iowa and Iowa State have moved online all large lectures — which have become a hallmark of the college experience, especially for younger students in their first and second years. They are halving classroom capacities, closing communal spaces in residence halls, changing class times to reduce passing congestion, and restricting dorm room options to singles and doubles.
UI residence halls will limit guests to one at a time. Classrooms could have seat assignments. Dining halls will restrict visitors and encourage pickup and to-go options. And the schools will employ testing and contact tracing, reserving space in campus housing for quarantine and isolation needs.
And — regardless of any in-person component at the start of the semester — all UI courses will shift into virtual mode after Thanksgiving break. Iowa State and University of Northern Iowa students will be done entirely at Thanksgiving, as those campuses chose to start fall classes early in an effort to offer some degree of in-person education for the semester’s entirety.
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In his message to faculty and staff this week, ISU Provost Wickert further explained the reasoning behind the early semester start and end, highlighted — again — the goal of giving students the fullest on-campus experience possible.
“This schedule enables coursework and final exams to be completed on-site before students leave for winter break, thereby both promoting student learning and reducing travel to and from campus in the latter part of the semester and during flu season,” he wrote.
Other efforts employed to counter the isolating campus precautions include prioritizing face-to-face instruction for first-year seminars and for courses associated with Living Learning Communities and other initiatives, along with discussion sections and labs.
UI student clubs and organizations will be allowed to hold in-person programs, events, and meetings of 50 or fewer students — so long as social distancing and face-covering guidance is followed.
The universities are upgrading classroom technology to enable simpler swaps from in-person to virtual participation — should a student need to be isolated for a time.
And athletic events are expected to return, although the campuses haven’t yet disclosed specifics of restrictions and limitations they might involve.
In that much of the precautionary measures proposed for a safe return to campus rely — to some degree — on the honor system, faculty have asked about enforcement. Wickert told his campus working group is evaluating options, and UI officials have implied use of a “student agreement.”
“I expect we’ll have a social contract of sorts that says students will be expected to attend class in person and that they’ll wear a mask or a face shield in the class,” Goddard told faculty.
Students will be given masks and shields at the start of school, along with training outlining expectations, according to the recently-aired UI fall plan. Masks and sanitizer will be available at building entrances, should students forget theirs.
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“And then yes, once we have that in place, if a student does refuse to wear it, they will be asked to leave the building,” Goddard said. “Not just the class, but the building. We will back you up on that.”
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