With the end of the 2019-2020 school year approaching during this unprecedented pandemic, The Badger Herald interviewed University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank on issues relating to COVID-19 and the UW community.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for style and clarity.
The Badger Herald: On Wednesday, March 11, the University of Wisconsin suspended in-person classes until April 10, and eventually suspended all in-person instruction through the end of the [academic] year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is obviously an unprecedented situation — what are UW’s protocols for creating and implementing emergency procedures? What factors did you weigh during the decision process?
Rebecca Blank: So this all came at us quite fast in the two weeks before we made that decision. As it first jumped to the United States in early March, late February, we sort of clearly were closing down some things, and every day it became clear we were closing down more things. And as other universities started to make that call, I think we were probably one or two days behind some of our peers, but a day or two ahead of others. It just became clear that large groups of people gathering was not feasible right now in the United States for health reasons. And I was particularly worried about the dormitories. If this had hit one of the dormitories, you got people who are not just living together, they’re sharing a bathroom, sharing common eating spaces and you’d have to basically quarantine the entire dormitory and tell them they couldn’t go out. That’s like a cruise ship in the middle of your own campus. And we just didn’t want any of that to happen.
And sort of in the space of probably that last week, it became very clear that we were going to have to take major steps here and get people to convert. We have an emergency operation center, and we have regularly, twice a year, worked through different emergency scenarios. And the fact that we have a team of people who’ve done this before, gone through these emergency scenarios, know each other relatively well, have worked together for a number of years, I think, has made this a much smoother process than it might’ve been had any of those things not been true — I won’t say it’s been smooth, but it’s been a great experience in crisis management.
BH: The Wisconsin State Journal reported on March 31 that UW-Madison is estimated to lose $100 million due to COVID-19. How is the university preparing to deal with that loss? Will this loss affect student employees, and if so, how?
RB: The Wisconsin State Journal didn’t estimate that, we estimated that internally and that was the number that they got from me. In the process of some of my conversations with folks around campus, that’s a conservative estimate that assumes everything is pretty much back to normal by the middle to the end of July. And the further we go into this, the less likely that is. That number could grow by a lot, particularly if our fall admissions are affected in any significant way. That said, it is at this point to assume the best case scenario, which is that this is largely over by the end of the summer and we are able to resume normal operations. This is a one time hit, not a hit to base funding in the way that a state budget cut permanently cuts your budget. This says you have to find that money, but if we return back to normal, there are ways to cope with it. But we do keep some reserves. We have done a number of things to limit expenses. So for instance, we put a hiring freeze, we obviously canceled all travel, we told people that procurement, unless they’re absolutely necessary, should be limited — a variety of ways. You sort of start by keeping expenses under control. If this keeps going further, we’re going to have to take more drastic measures, obviously, but we’re not quite at that point yet.
You asked about student employees and we sort of have three groups of student employees. The one group is federal work-study students and they are covered under a different set of rules and we will essentially be covering their wages through whatever the end of the semester is. We’ve got the student employees who are still at work — there are not many of them — but they obviously will continue to get their wages. And we have large groups of student employees who are not at work because the jobs that they were doing are simply not there right now. We announced that anyone who is a student employee and who was experiencing any financial distress from the results of that job had ended can apply for an income continuation by applying to our emergency fund and basically indicating how many hours they worked, what the wages are. With the emergency funds, they will be able to get repaid what they would have earned until the end of the semester. And I should say these emergency funds are available to all students and we’ve been encouraging any students who need to access those funds to put in an application and we tried to respond quite quickly.
BH: On April 3, the National Governors Association wrote a letter to the Secretary of Education that urged her to disburse funds to states and territories from the education stabilization clause of the CARES Act. Would UW be eligible for that kind of aid, and if UW has a chance of receiving that aid, where would those funds be allocated?
RB: The CARES Act basically has a pot of money that is to be distributed to all higher education, and there’s a formula which it gets distributed and we just got the final numbers, I think yesterday, out of the Department of Education. UW-Madison is expecting to get just under $20 million and we are mandated that half of that must be spent for student emergency assistance and half of it can then be spent for other institutional expenses.
So we have emergency assistance dollars available. We put some of our own dollars in that, but we are going to get a little bit under $10 million in federal assistance and that has to be spent on students for emergency aid. That’s obviously some of the dollars out of which we’re going to be doing income continuation for student employees and for other students. So we have emergency student assistance. The other half of the funds can be spent.
None of this money has been allocated yet. We’re hoping some of it will come through in the next few weeks. The other money we can spend to cover the expenses that we are bearing that are in that $100 million dollar plus that you cited earlier. And you know, I’m not going to be anything but grateful for $9.85 million, whatever it is that we’re getting, but it is a relatively small share of the cost that we are running up as a result of this whole pandemic.
Meredith McGlone: I just wanted to jump in, but I got an updated figure today from our Office of Student Financial Aid. So far, we’ve dispersed about $5.8 million in that emergency student aid that the Chancellor mentioned.
BH: How do you think the Department of Education has been handling the concerns of public universities during the COVID-19 pandemic?
RB: You know, I think they’ve been very concerned with students and they’ve made a lot of adjustments to student loans. You know, some adjustments to our work-study allowing us to use those dollars to pay work-study students even if they aren’t working. And, you know, making sure that half of these other dollars go to students.
I don’t think they [the Department of Education] quite understand, or haven’t at least recently, the full impact of this on the financial situation of universities. They’ve been much more focused on students and that’s not a bad thing, we want it to be focused on students, but, you know, neither they nor the legislature, the Congress, has, I think, begun to understand the depth of how this is hitting higher ed and the threat that it is to quite a few schools, particularly smaller schools, that if they’re bearing these sorts of costs, and particularly if school does not operate as normal next fall and a lot of students aren’t in classes next fall, the economic impact on the whole industry if you want to call it that. It’s just going to be huge and I would expect to see some schools go out of business.
BH: Many students have called for a tuition reimbursement in light of economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students argue the quality of education changes as the format changes. The university is not granting these requests. How did UW come to this decision? How is UW working to make sure the quality of online classes remains consistent with its former in-person formats?
RB: Yeah, you know, all of us would have rather completed the semester as we were going along — that was not available to us. I am just completely awestruck by our faculty and staff and the work that they did within, really a 10 to 12 day period to shift to online learning. And I know that not all classes are perfect, I know that this can create some problems for students if you don’t have great WiFi. But my highest priority over the remainder of this semester if nothing else happens, is we have to complete the semester, we have to make sure that students complete credits, we have to make sure that seniors graduate, and we will do that as well as we possibly can. Given that we are completing the semester and we have put some other substantial investments into making that happen, I think it is not unfair to say that people are getting their credits and are completing their classes, and we are not going to refund tuition and fees as a result of that. And we obviously did refund a prorated amount for food and housing for those students who were in the dorms and had to leave at spring break. But that’s a different issue. They aren’t getting those services. They are out of the dorms at this point. So I don’t have any concerns about having said that you know — people paid to get these credits, they’re going to get the credits.
You asked the question of how are we making sure education is delivered as effectively as possible. When we made this decision, we had all schools and colleges to dedicate some people to work with their faculty on this. Our central IT group and our Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Steve Cramer, headed this group up. We had a group of, I think, 200 or more people working across the university with faculty during that spring break week. They held a number of online seminars and town halls answering questions. They were working 24-seven during those 12 days as a good number of faculty make this transition. We were, I thought, amazingly successful at that — by Monday after spring break, I believe 96% of our classes were operating, by Wednesday, 99.9% were operating. And at that point we pivoted from “Can we get the classes up online and get them out?” to “How do we now make sure these are being run as effectively as possible?” And that team has then started doing “What are best practices?” “How do we answer questions?” “Are there issues you’re experiencing?” and “How can we help you resolve them?” to try to, throughout this month, improve the quality of those courses. And I can ask you better than anyone. How is that going? You could answer that better than I can. It is the five week period, and I’m sure there’s some places where it’s going just fine and some places where there still are some challenges. But for a 10 to 12 day conversion — my understanding is there are a number of universities that did not get all their courses converted and that’s much more problematic.
BH: On March 23, UW made the call to cancel in-person graduation with a virtual commencement taking place on May 8 and 9. What will this virtual ceremony look like? What alternatives did UW consider? And what will the commencement ceremony to take place at a later date look like?
RB: It’s going to be a very short presentation by our commencement speaker, who has kindly agreed to come back to any events that we hold in the future that’s in person. I’ll say a few words. The student speaker will say a few words. We may do a couple of other things there and then we’ll confer degrees and given we can’t gather in person, we’re going to have to have each dean record themselves asking for the conferral of degrees on their graduates. And I will confer degrees to all of the seniors virtually at that moment in time and tell them to turn their tassels and we’ll have some fanfare and music. And um, I hope a lot of people will celebrate. It’ll be something you can pull up and watch with your family at any time. But what happens next? We are working with the senior class officers. We really haven’t set anything very primitive because we just know what the timing is. If I knew for sure we would be back in the fall, I could tell you what we’d be doing in late September and October. I don’t know that, and until we do know that, we are not going to announce a time and place. We will do an in-person in celebration for the class of 2020. I wish I could tell you when and where, but things are just uncertain enough that I don’t want to have to set a time and place and then change it again because we are not quite together yet.
BH: Following racial bias incidents on campus related to COVID-19, how does UW plan to continue to address those students’ concerns? Will virtual town hall meetings like the one held in March continue? If UW students have similar experiences off-campus, are there any resources the university can provide them?
RB: This was an unfortunate incident and we tried to respond quite quickly. It fortunately has not been repeated and I hope that that continues. All of our students who, if they’re finding things that are difficult, whether it is discriminatory behavior or racially hostile behavior, our student affairs people are very much there, and would like to talk to them, hear from them. Our mental health counseling is available all through telehealth these days. And we want to be helpful to students. Obviously, if something’s happening in another city, we have no police jurisdiction over that, but you don’t have all of the supports in place as fully as they can be in a world where you can’t be face-to-face for our students, regardless of where they’re living.
BH: So for UW’s incoming freshmen, SOAR 2020 will now be hosted online. Did the university consider other options to afford incoming students a more traditional orientation experience? And could you give us maybe a taste of what the online SOAR program is going to look like?
RB: I’m just really sad about the fact that for incoming students they can’t come and experience campus and get a little bit of familiarity. And you know, we’ve got a number of incoming students from out of the state who haven’t been to campus, and SOAR is a real opportunity for them to come and see where they’re going to be and get even more excited about school. And we have such a beautiful campus. It’s always a great way to excite students about being here. But that’s just not, you know … when you say did we consider other options, you know, we don’t have other options right now, either here in person or online.
Lori Reesor, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, is in charge of the online SOAR, she’s in charge of the SOAR program in general, and she and her team are putting an online experience together. And she can speak to that better than I can, you know, it will obviously not be two days. It will be shorter. And the question is what are the key things that they need to provide in information and background.
Our hope is for freshmen, we might, if we are all coming back in the fall, that we might bring the freshmen in a little earlier than usual so that we can do some of the campus orientation, and some of the processes and things that would normally happen in SOAR, say, a week before school starts. But again, we haven’t made definite plans on that yet. Not quite knowing what the world is going to look like. There is a virtual tour of campus — if you haven’t seen it, you should go take it.
BH: Although current projections of COVID-19 in the U.S. predict the virus will spike in the next week and the number of cases will decrease in the next month, the reality of this remains unknown. In the event that this virus is still present in the U.S. in the late summer, has UW prepared for alternative delivery of classes for the Fall 2020 semester? Are there protocols in place for when and how the university would make this decision?
RB: We would be irresponsible right now if we were not trying to prepare for multiple scenarios. One of which is business as usual. One of which I think is having sort of some restrictions, but still people are here. So imagine a world in which small classes could meet and large classes couldn’t. Or you know, people are allowed to interact but only under certain circumstances. And some people will want to be here and will come into that world and some people will not. And then the worst case scenario, which is that, we’re in the same world we’re in right now where we’re all at home and not interacting with each other and nobody arrives on campus in the fall. I must say, I pray every morning that that scenario does not take place. But, we have to be preparing for it and thinking about it.
And if, indeed, we think there is some high likelihood that’s the world that we’re in, we don’t want to make that decision 12 days before classes start. People have to be planning their lives. If we were to do that, we would want to be far better prepared and have even higher quality classes out there in the fall then we have right now. We would maybe want to think about some things we could do online that would bring people together as a community that would be a little different than what you might do here. So I’m making this one up, but imagine a two-credit course we say to all students and say, ‘We’re going to get a group of experts and do some different lectures and do something on crises and pandemics. And some of you may be interested in the economics pieces, and some of you may be interested in the health side, and some of you may be interested in how health crises manifest themselves in arts and literature. And we’ll just do a little bit in this course and everybody is encouraged to take it for two credits, and it’ll give us all a common base to talk about and do some similar readings and hold some common conversations.’ You know, you could imagine doing some things like that, because the big question if we aren’t here in person is ‘How do you keep the community?’ — and particularly among your freshmen who’ve never been here before, ‘How do you create that community even before they actually physically come to campus?’
BH: This situation has shown us how many classes in a variety of academic disciplines can be transferred to a remote online format, especially in such a quick time period. UW also just announced its first fully online degree program. Given all of these advances, does UW plan on diversifying the quantity and variety of online classes including online degree programs? Where do you see the future of higher education going after COVID-19?
RB: Let me talk a little bit about our online plans for degree programs. We are launching, as a trial balloon this next fall, our first online degree program in personal finance. The hope is to launch some of between four to six such programs over the next two years in the fall. And this is really just a trial. But those are aimed at a different audience. Those are very much aimed at older students who collected some college credits along the way but never finished, and are now at a point in their life where they understand the value of getting that degree but are not able to come here in person. They have jobs, they have families,and need to do this online. So, you know, we’re marketing that for a somewhat different demographic than our typical residential students.
There’s no question that we’ve been using more online work, even with what I think of as a traditional user. A good number of our summer courses are now offered online. We have a growing number of professional master’s programs that are also online. So our expertise has grown and we could not have made that transition [to online classes] in 12 days or a week had we not been doing all this other stuff with online work elsewhere around the university. But if you asking “Is residential education going to be obsolete?” as you occasionally read in the papers right now, I think the answer to that is a resounding no, because residential education provides something very different. I happen to be a believer that, in most cases, face-to-face classroom provides motivation and the high quality of the discussion and interaction is just hard to do online. It’s not that you can’t do it for some classes, but it’s harder. And for some classes that have labs that involve art or dance or experiential learning, it becomes very, very challenging.
But the academic side is only a piece of residential education. At least 50% of what you get out of coming here, in-person, to school is being on campus, meeting and becoming friends with people from around the world, engaging in student organizations, sitting on the terrace, engaging in conversations with your faculty that might not happen if you hadn’t casually met them in the hallway or seen them on the terrace. There’s a whole set of learning that comes out of the other educational experiences that take place in residence.
It may be that some of the lower ranked schools have more difficulty coming back after this. But I think a place like the University of Wisconsin, which is a top rank school with some of the top education and research programs, we’re not going to have problems attracting people here in person. Once this is over, there will be more online learning, there’ll be more flexibility — I have no doubts about that.
I think [higher education] will be more concerned with health. One of the things we’re thinking about is what we will have to do differently in the dorms because people are going to come back and worry about things that they haven’t been worried about before. Do we need to take everyone’s temperature once a week? Just reassure people that there’s no one with a fever who might be infectious. I don’t know the answer to that. We will be challenged in the short run, but in the long run, this will give us knowledge and opportunities that I think we haven’t had before.
BH: Is there anything else that you would like us to include that we maybe didn’t ask you?
RB: Well, you know, the one thing I’d say that I haven’t talked about, which is the impact of not directly from this pandemics, but the impact of the economic collapse that’s happening around the country right now. And particularly for big public universities, to be honest, what I consider to be the worst case scenario is not just the students don’t come back in the fall, but what I think is likely to happen on the state budget side for higher education. And, you know, all states are going to be in a world of hurt financially if this Stay at Home order and disruption to the economy continues for any period of time and we’re not going to come out of that fast. If you have large numbers of people in this country who’ve been impoverished, just spent all their assets, you know, or you know, lost their savings, trying to get through this period because you know, it’ll take a long time to rebuild that consumer spending and for the economy to come back. And that’s really going to impact states and their budgets. So, I worry as much about the impact on what this means for the state of Wisconsin and its budget and its ability to be a partner with this university as they do about the direct impact on us to, you know, to tuition dollars. Both of those are major challenges for us in the next couple of years.
BH: The relations between the governor, who is a champion for education and the state legislature are often tense. Can you foresee any issues with state funding for higher education in general after the COVID-19 outbreak?
RB: I think this is not a Wisconsin-specific thing. I think public universities in every state in this country are going to feel serious budget pressures because of very, very difficult state budgets. And again, if this lasts very long and creates a very slow recovery, we would come out of a long recession with a lot of people unemployed. All of the public universities, you’re going to see budget cuts from their states. It’s something you’ll see in Wisconsin here and that’s going to be accompanied by the economic reality rather than the politics. We’ll make the arguments going on about exactly how that plays out and how much gets cut. But all of us will experience those cuts in that world.
BH: What, in your opinion, is the greatest loss to students and faculty during this unprecedented time at the university?
RB: I do think that the biggest loss is to the seniors, who were expecting this to be a time to think about friends and celebrating and finishing up this part of their life. Why do you have graduation? It’s a ritual that closes off that part of your life, gives you some closure to where you’ve been and in a sense of moving forward into where you’re going. And I just so regret the loss of that to the Class of 2020. Everyone is experiencing that at some level, students and faculty. And I assure you the faculty are missing you in many ways, the same way that you are missing the faculty. It is different to be sitting in your bedroom doing this alone than doing this in the community with friends, face-to-face. Part of what makes UW special is the sense of community that exists here and people’s involvement and engagement, not just with campus but with the larger town, with the Morgridge Center and other things. And those opportunities just aren’t here right now for students. So their non-academic learning is much more constrained than their academic learning at this moment in time. Or let’s say they’re learning different things at home individually with the parents that they didn’t necessarily think they wanted to learn. And it’s an alienating and isolating time and I hope it ends sooner rather than later.
On the faculty end, I should note there’s a lot of research projects closed as well. If you do lab research in larger labs, you just can’t do that right now because you can’t bring people together in those work settings. So there are a good number of faculty not only regretting the students being gone, but are feeling very frustrated and worried about their research.