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President Joan Gabel talks COVID-19’s impact on UMN

She also addressed some plans the University is considering for fall semester, as well as how students may receive funds from the CARES Act.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in her office on Tuesday, Feb. 25.
Image by Emily Urfer
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel fields questions from the Minnesota Daily in her office on Tuesday, Feb. 25.

Last week, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel sat down virtually with the Minnesota Daily to discuss the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the system. She also discussed tuition and possible plans for how funding from the CARES Act will be distributed to students.

There have been a lot of discussions around the amount of revenue the University has lost due to the pandemic. How will the University be impacted by this?

There is real financial challenge created by the pandemic. There’s cultural challenge. There is a set of intersecting challenges and finances are right up there on that list. There is a series of efforts that we’re going to undertake to meet the challenges that we are taking in phases because we don’t know how long this will last. So we did a few things immediately to recognize the immediate losses. 

For example, we said there would be no raises next year … Senior leaders took the equivalent of a one-week pay cut for this fiscal year, and the cabinet has voluntarily taken a 10% pay cut for next year. That is not the kind of savings that would fundamentally resolve our issue, but it’s intended to be symbolic and show the entire campus community that we lead by example … 

… And there are also some things that [we are saving] just by virtue of our situation. We are not traveling. That’s a very big expense for us that we’re able to recover. We are not on campus, except in very limited numbers, and our utilities are lower, and we’re capturing all of those savings. So that helps us in the short term. And then we use a working group that has faculty, staff and student representation to do some planning around what would happen more deeply. We would circulate that to share governance to the different constituency groups and then present that to the board as part of the budget.

In the Board of Regents meeting, there have been ongoing discussions of the best-case and worst-case scenarios the University might face. Can you give me some more insight into what these scenarios are and how the university is preparing for them?

There’s still a lot of unknowns, so best case was that we were back at it this summer.

The best case has already passed us because as you know, we’re going to be 100% online this summer. But we have to have a starting point for our discussion. Even as we described the best case, we were relatively sure it wouldn’t be what would happen. It was just so that we could start the plan from some point amidst all of this uncertainty.

The worst case is that we are still 100% online and in reduced operations through the entire fall semester. 

And that is possible but most likely is something in between where we are gradually reopening over the course of the fall semester. And we’re referring to that as sunrise rather than flipping a switch that there would be certain things we can start to do, leveraging testing, social distancing and our clinical care capacity, and that we would gradually, gradually, gradually increase over the course of fall semester until we were back to normal operations. And it’s in that space that we are most likely to sit. We just don’t know exactly what it looks like yet … 

How would that impact freshmen who want to move into the dorms and Welcome Week? … 

We are preparing for a virtual Welcome Week with the hope that we don’t need it to be virtual. But that sort of thing takes some time to prepare, so we’re going ahead and preparing it in case we need it. But we will be prepared to do it in person if that’s the safe thing to do at the time … 

… The capacity to bring students back, particularly new students, is still unknown … we will evaluate the early part of fall during the month of June. …

… Freshmen will be on campus at some point, we just don’t know exactly when.

In the previous Board of Regents meeting, you discussed how the systemwide strategic plan continues to be a focus for you and your team. Has the pandemic impacted the plan at all, do you still expect the plan will be finished on time?

I expect the plan will be finished close to on time. I think there’s a likely slight delay, but we don’t expect an extreme delay … We’re at the tail end now … 

… The strategic plan was surprisingly enduring, even in its draft form for the circumstances that we were in. We had plans to look at online learning in the strategic plan. We have risk management and safety in the strategic plan. We had crisis budgetary planning in the strategic plan … We didn’t anticipate this, but we anticipated something. … 

… We expect the strategic plan to be modified to reflect the revenue challenge and the fiscal challenge. … The plan will be the architecture that we use to get to our next chapter. And so we really want to get it through, even in this challenging time.

In an original plan for the refunds for students, the University intended to deliver a flat fee of $1,200 to students in return for living in residence costs. However, during the April 3 board meeting there was a change — it was changed to a prorated refund on housing meal plans, parking cost recreations, etc. from March 28 until the end of the semester. Can you give some insight into what pushed you and the board to reconsider this approach to refunds?

That was a very difficult decision-making process — and I think one of our regents called it “tortured,” and I don’t disagree with that assessment. 

That was the first major financial decision that we had to make during the craziest period of the first couple of weeks of the pandemic … 

… I would like to think, although I imagine some people would disagree with me, that we reflected that as a leadership team, as new information became available and as we were able to sort of collect our thoughts amidst the craziness of that time, that we also were able to humbly correct our decisions. So we think it was a little harder than it needed to be but that we got to the right place. 

And we’re grateful that there was advocacy to help us see the journey and that there was an understanding of the difficulty of the decisions during that time. We’ve been really grateful for how people have shown that kind of resilience through this process … 

During the April 21 board meeting, the regents approved a tuition freeze for most students across the University’s system for next academic year. Why do you think this is an important move for the University?

The University has several points of social responsibility in a time like the one we find ourselves in. 

There’s the social responsibility to the challenges our students are facing. The different ways of looking at that are multifaceted. There was the refund and the way in which we reached that decision as we previously discussed. There’s the enhancement of the emergency fund and future decisions we will be making to get federal funding that we’re entitled to push directly to students. And then there’s the tuition freeze, which is a recognition that students are in very challenging times. Many of their personal circumstances or their family circumstances, depending on how they arrived at the University, are deeply affected by the consequences of the pandemic. And so we need to try to meet students where they are, and that would include tuition. 

The University received $36 million from the federal economic stimulus bill called the CARES act. Of that, $18 million is intended for students. Can you explain how that money will be distributed throughout the University and how specifically that money will be used to support students?

The $36 million is an estimate, and we haven’t received it yet, just to be clear, but half of it, no matter how much it is, is required by federal mandate to be directed specifically to students. …

… We’ve been waiting on guidance from the Department of Education so that we can look at our options and make sure we don’t get ahead of the regulatory mandates. We received some guidance yesterday that we’re now analyzing, but we would expect to have a decision on that soon, certainly within the next two weeks … 

… If you do a little benchmarking, you’ll see that some schools have done as flat rates … Some schools have just put it into their emergency fund and said, “Students, apply. And when we run out, we run out.” There are options in between, and we’re exploring all of those options. And as soon as we get clear guidance from the federal government and analyze it, we will announce to students how they got it.

I want to thank our University community, clinicians, academic technologists, faculty, staff. They’re our heroes and our unsung heroes. But you know, I’m still new here — we’re only at the latter part of my first year. I’ve never been prouder to be part of the community, and I’m so grateful for how we are being our best selves in one of our worst times …

This interview has been edited for length, grammar and clarity. 

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