The Daily Campus (virtually) sat down with University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas last week to talk about the university’s response to COVID-19, as well as other issues on campus like mental health and climate change.
Daily Campus: Looking back at mid-March, can you walk us through the decision making process from when you decided to suspend in-person classes for two weeks, and then later for the rest of the semester?
President Katsouleas: Going back a while, before Spring Break, we thought it would be prudent to go ahead and prepare to go online, and we prepared to have a town hall … we had decided to prepare faculty for the possibility of going online. Going back to late February, we formed the Emergency Planning Group emergency response team, and they began to think about scenarios, and then we decided to have a town hall to let people know about the scenarios everyone was thinking about, but not acting on because nothing was really happening quite yet at that time that would really trigger any action, but we didn’t want to leave anyone in the dark about the contingency planning we were doing. So, we decided to have the town hall and we also asked faculty to start preparing for delivering courses online by the end of Spring Break. That was about two weeks out from when we actually started delivering. But I thought this is just being prudent, and I had no expectation we were actually going to go online after Spring Break. Within two or three days, the progression of the disease just changed everything, so we went from “prepare for going online” to “we are going online.” It was good that we were able to give the faculty at least a couple of extra days of preparation time. So we were, I think, in terms of prep time for faculty, one of the longer lead times among peers and colleagues I’ve talked to, which ranged between some peer institutions that had “two day warning,” where most of them had about a week. We were happy to give faculty a couple weeks and give them not just time, but actually support infrastructure and resources. The third piece was UConn’s sense of community, and the way faculty who had experienced delivering online shared that experience with their faculty peers. It was so heartening to see faculty reach out to one another and say, “Hey I tried this, and it seemed to work really well,” and so there was a real sense of community from how the community approached it.
DC: Looking forward into the fall, how do you see the virus affecting the upcoming fall semester, as well as future operations in general at UConn?
TK: There are so many unknowns, so we are thinking about various contingencies. Scenario planning, we have four basic scenarios, and you can imagine mixing them in some ways. Basic scenarios are one, the worst extreme is we are all online in the fall. The other extreme is we are all back at the end of August in person, with some modifications like no large classes and a few things like that. And then in between, you can imagine that maybe we aren’t ready to come back in August but we are ready to come back in October, you would be online for a month or so, and then you would be in-person after that. So you would imagine rearranging syllabi so that faculty could have their labs courses concentrated toward the end of the semester, for example. And then the fourth possibility, is to create enough physical distancing to lower the density on campus. Maybe we come back on time, but with half the students, so then we think about which half if that is the case. The rationale there being one person per dorm might make a difference. If we have a large classroom we could have in-person meetings, but not people sitting right next to each other. So those are the scenarios we are planning for, and to anticipate your next question, we don’t anticipate we can make a decision about which of those four scenarios are safe to do, until we know more about the progression of the disease, and the infectious disease we talk to including some on our own campus, say we can expect to know enough to make those decisions in the June or July time frame.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Katsouleas announced in an email Friday that summer classes will be held online and faculty should plan for the fall semester to be online. The board of trustees will have a decision regarding the fall semester by June 30.
DC: How would you categorize and describe UConn’s response to the pandemic so far?
TK: I would say I could not be more pleased and more proud at the response of the university and pleased with the relative position it is in. Number one is health and safety, and we have been very fortunate of COVID-19 cases. A particular relief is that nobody in the dorms has tested positive. I’m very proud of UConn Health and its response. We discontinued elective surgeries and reappropriated intensive care unit beds toward COVID-19 response, and it’s good they did, because they used a portion of those beds that they had reappropriated and were able to serve more people than if they hadn’t done that. They have some additional surge capacity that they haven’t had to tap into yet, which is good and just where we want to be, and hopefully it stays that way. It seems to be leveling but still rising slowly. In terms of the other big picture of continuing the most critical aspects of our mission, which is delivering education to our students, and ensuring their continued progress toward their degree at the highest level, the fact that we didn’t have to cancel a single course this semester, and that nobody loves it but it has been not extraordinarily stressful for either the faculty or the students. I’ve talked to a number of students and asked them repeatedly, “What was the most difficult adjustment? Was it the academic adjustment or the social adjustment?” And every student so far has said the social adjustment has been the bigger one. So I see that as a positive sign that the academic transition was a success. Research is still going on, and we are a little bumpy in some places, I think the communication about research was a little bumpy and communication about students leaving the residence halls was a little bumpy. There were things that obviously we could have done better. But overall I think the university is in great shape.
DC: Unfortunately we have seen a lot of racism and xenophobia in the news towards Asian Americans surrounding the coronavirus. How do you see that affecting the Asian and the Asian American community at UConn?
TK: I see it very directly any time you communicate with students and they share their experiences. Most of the students I have talked to who are of Asian descent have experienced some of this somewhere, most of it I would say in the community and outside of UConn, or at the microaggression at UConn. It’s a big concern. One of the motivators for why we had our first targeted town hall that was generic for everybody was a town hall to show support and answer questions for international students. I think that that added element of bias and bigotry coupled with being far from home and loved ones during a crisis has made this crisis impact them disproportionately. It’s been difficult for everyone, but for them in particular. I just wanted them to know that the university is here for them, is behind them and supports them.
DC: How is UConn allocating money it is receiving from the federal government in the CARES Act?
TK: There are two tranches. There is a piece to make up for losses we are experiencing through dining and housing refunds, but to ensure we still have the budget to continue to pay the faculty that offer high quality programs, that’s one piece. In order to continue to offer those high quality programs, we have to somehow absorb a $30 million revenue reduction. About $10 million coming from the CARES Act is helping ensure that outcome, and we have another $20 million where we are taking measures to try to close the gap, including putting on a staff hiring and spending freeze and other things and everything we can to essentially manage down our expenses at this time. The other half is designated for students and their families’ relief. We have a team led largely by Nathan Fuerst in Enrollment Management who oversees Financial Aid, as well as Scott Jordan, and the involvement from the Academic and Student Affairs side as well. They have been working with our government relations people to understand the provisions of the bill, to meet the standards of the bill and also meet our priorities as an institution. Our number one priority is to protect, to the extent possible, this generation of students from the financial and academic impact of the pandemic. By that I mean the number one priority is to ensure students can complete their degrees and continue to make progress without being delayed, and hopefully have an academic experience as close as possible to the quality of experience they were expecting coming in, and that other generations have had. A big focus of how we allocate the money is dealing with the increased financial need many, if not most, of our students will experience as a result of the economic crisis associated with the disease, as well as the displacements they might experience and those costs. We are inviting students, both undergrads and grads, to contact Financial Aid with their financial aid, and that is the primary way we will allocate that $10 million.
DC: There has been some uncertainty for students who receive institutional aid, and what that means for their refunds. How is it determined how much students will get in the partial refunds, if they receive institutional aid, and what is the timeline for when students will know how much they are getting?
TK: The philosophy is clear, any revenue that the students and their families provided to UConn for dining and housing, and I think will also be parking as well, is going to go back to them in a prorated way, proportionate to the number of days that they are not using those services. Students who received university money to pay for their housing are not going to receive a refund of money that was not their money they didn’t put in. Students know what that is, and they can figure out for themselves what that will be. The financial team is working through all the possible mechanisms and choices that students will have, in terms of cash refunds versus credit balances for next year. All of those things are still being worked on.
DC: How is the university accounting for people’s belongings should their dorms need to be packed up, and when do you expect students might be allowed to go pick up their things?
TK: We expect it to be the second half of May, roughly. The rationale is that we still have about 1,000 students in the dorms, and we don’t want to jeopardize their health by having people potentially from a hot spot come in and move belongings in and out. We are going to wait until those students leave for the end of the semester. When those students leave, then we will begin to phase in over a period of a couple of weeks, students will be assigned windows of time to spread people out and make sure we don’t end up with a large crowd. There will be guidelines too with masks and such, but the idea is to do it as quickly but as safely as we can, and that involves spreading it out over time. So roughly the last half of May.
DC: [On Tuesday] you told a UConn journalism class that fall sports would likely be canceled in collaboration with the NCAA. If those sports were canceled, how would you see that affecting the rest of the university?
TK: First of all, the context to the answer I gave is important, and that is that this is a decision that I likely wouldn’t need to make, and even UConn wouldn’t likely make. If you are playing sports and playing against teams, you can’t decide unilaterally in a match that you and your opponents aren’t doing the same thing. I want to stress this is very much a collective decision process, and not one I’m expecting that we will make in isolation, and it’s really too premature to say if we will have fall sports or not, and if so which ones. Not enough is known yet. Obviously, if we didn’t have fall sports, we would still have student athletes and they would still receive scholarships, but we wouldn’t have the joy of cheering them on and watching them compete.
DC: In the 2019 fall semester, there were protests with a variety of demands including those involving fossil fuels and the university’s involvement with that. It led to the creation of a working group, a board of trustees committee and pausing phase two of the supplemental utility plant. What is next for UConn in these efforts?
TK: The effort is ongoing. We formed a presidential-level working group to work on minimizing the UConn carbon footprint, a relatively specific charge. That group is still meeting virtually, and their assignment is still expected to be delivered by the end of the semester or some time in the summer. The idea is for them to provide guidance and high level advice to me and the board, on what decisions we can make that would minimize our carbon footprint. It will be rather interesting to see if the recommendations change in light of the global pandemic. I think that Mother Earth has received a bit of a break here, so we are not flying and producing carbon and traveling and doing all the things we normally do as a human species at the same rate. There has been a pause button for planet Earth, and I wonder what insights that will provide to us, and how we can continue that. You see quite clearly the decrease in demand for fossil fuels, which is quite a positive side effect, unless you’re in the oil companies, which is really quite remarkable.
DC: What role does UConn have in aiding students in their mental health care, and how do you think UConn’s mental health services can be improved?
TK: This is a big focus for us right now. We have a committee that is very engaged and meeting under the leadership of Dean Elly Daugherty, and Dean Nina Heller from Student Affairs and from the School of Social Work. We are looking at the delivery side and the scholarly side of the challenge of how we best meet the health needs of our students broadly. We are also engaging with an outside consulting firm and partnering with the JED Foundation. With all of that expertise, we have an extraordinary task force working group that is committed and working on this. I am pleased to say we are not waiting for the year-long study and not doing anything until then. We are trying to implement low-hanging fruit as they discover it, and so we are doing those kinds of things. We moved to virtual mental health care, as opposed to in-person. That has been an interesting transition. I was just over there visiting Student Health and Wellness [SHaW] and talking to some of the providers about the challenges associated with that transition. It was a learning experience for me. We are providing all the experiences we were before, but we are doing them virtually now, but they told me it is more difficult to do telemedicine with mental health than it is with physical health. After the fact, when they explained it it all made sense, but I wouldn’t say that I would have thought of that in advance had they not told me the answer ahead of time. They’re learning and dealing with that challenge as well. Overall, the goal is for our students to thrive, and for them to realize their full potential as human beings for themselves and for society and wellbeing as a part of that. It’s integral with our mission as a research university and a higher education institution to be concerned about the wellbeing of our students more broadly and it has curricular aspects as well as community aspects as well as restorative aspects coming from SHaW.
DC: What advice do you have for graduating seniors?
TK: The seniors that I have gotten to meet this year have been really quite impressive to me. The accomplishments of this class are extraordinary and historic and unprecedented in the history of UConn. You look at the leaders we have in student government, in academics, you look at Wawa Gatheru winning the Rhodes Scholar, you look at the first time ever that four students won Goldwater prizes, this is the most accomplished senior class we have ever had. I think they are going to do extraordinary things in the world, they have made a big difference in the world here at UConn, they have left a legacy of initiatives on mental health care and sustainability, and it’s really the student government leaders who really drove the partnership with the JED Foundation with mental health. They have made extraordinary advances. On the lighter side they have even managed to change the dress code at the recreation center, so when students are eventually able to come back, they will be able to wear what they would like to wear. But at all levels they were able to make a difference. I think about HuskyTHON and the records that that group broke. I know it’s all the classes, but there is a lot of senior leadership there, and what an extraordinary tradition for UConn. This is a really special class that is graduating and I think they will make a really big difference in the world, and I just encourage them to bring that same sense of optimism and desire to make the world better to what they do next in their lives. There is going to be tremendous need for leadership and creativity and innovation after this crisis is over, so as a society we need what they have to offer. With regard for their first job position, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and in some areas it might take some time, so my advice there is to be as flexible and persistent as possible. The landscape is changing, so there is no one piece of advice that will apply to every student, except that first position after graduation, if you could surround yourself with other bright people like you with the same values, that defines to some extent what your opportunities will be five years from now later in life. Try to focus on the quality of the people you will be working with. Depending on what the job market is like, think about continuing your education as well. Throw that in the mix as you think about what to do. Finally know that the research tells us that successfully surviving challenges leads to greater resilience, so I expect this senior class will be one of the most resilient classes that we have ever graduated. I expect great things and hope they will stay in touch with us.
DC: Was there a certain time during your almost first year at UConn when UConn really started to feel like home?
TK: I had this funny conversation with Mayor O’Leary of Waterbury just a few weeks ago, and what he said to me was, “I know Mr. President you are only in your first six months here,” and it took me back because I realized that before the crisis, I felt like UConn’s new president, and I felt a little bit like a visitor in that sense, and everything was new and wonderful and honeymoonish. When he said that to me, it was a funny realization moment that the bonding that has taken place over the last almost two months working with our community through the crisis has made me feel like the old president of UConn, I don’t feel new anymore. This is me, this is my role and this my university, and I belong here with the community that I am with, and I couldn’t be more proud and more in awe of the people I work with to see their talents and see how they respond. I think that funny conversation where he said, “I know you’re still really new,” and I said, “I don’t feel really new anymore.”
DC: What has been the most challenging part of your time at UConn?
TK: I think the obvious is this crisis, but honestly the response from the community has been so terrific. I would say when you are president, the first thing you think about with this pandemic, you see it like a hurricane offshore coming toward you, and especially if you are an engineer, you do arithmetic in your head, and you start thinking about the loss of life in the community here, and I think that was the most frightening moment for me, was thinking about people in our community dying. Fortunately, we have been very lucky. There have been family members who have died, we had a faculty member who went into critical care at UConn Health but wrote me this incredible note when he came out cured, and how UConn Health saved his life. There have been more of those uplifting messages and moments since this crisis than there were during my regular days. Someone sent me a video of some students at Avery Point recording poetry readings for shut-ins at a convalescent center near the campus, and I hear about these things every day. The creativity of an engineering faculty member creating emergency ventilators out of spare parts, including windshield wiper motors, these types of stories happen on a daily basis. The hardest moment was the gripping fear about loss, but it has turned out to be much more of a positive experience than you would think.
DC: What is something that has surprised you about UConn?
TK: You don’t know until you come in about the excellence that exists across a large university like this. So, it’s always these pleasant surprises to learn things like this. Relevant to the current conversation, I was talking to one of our faculty in Infectious Disease, one of the leading scholars, Seth Kalichman, last week who was telling me about one of his colleagues Lisa Eatmon whose research at UConn was essentially guiding CDC decisions. I would have never known that until I got here. There are statistics on our behavioral health faculty scholars, and we are top five in the country in terms of research. When you discover the specific expertise and how it is being used as a national resource, that’s a pretty fun, exciting surprise to discover.
DC: As just about everyone is home and social distancing right now, what do you miss the most about UConn?
TK: Obviously, it’s the people. I was working from home and not coming to my office, but I’m in my office today talking to you, and it had been a couple weeks since I had been in my office. There is this displaced feeling that is odd, and I came here hoping to redress that sense of displacement, and it doesn’t work. You come here and you feel like “Why am I here?” because nobody is here. I mean, I miss the people, and I love Cisco’s WebEx and Zoom, thank God we have them, but it’s not the same, and it’s tiring. You have eight hours of video conferences and they’re more tiring than eight hours of in-person conferences. I think the big silver lining is I get to bring [my dog] to work, or working from home she can jump up and get in the way of video conferences.
DC: Is there anything else you want to tell the UConn community?
TK: Stay connected to each other, we need to be physically distant but we need to be socially connected. Reminding how important our international community is to us and what a global university we are, we came up with “physically distant, socially and globally connected.” We ask the whole community to do anything you can and use any tools you can to stay socially and globally connected to Husky Nation.
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