U administrators answer COVID-19 questions in virtual town hall

University President Joan Gabel and University administrators answered questions from students, staff and faculty about the University’s response to COVID-19.

Athletic Director Mark Coyle addresses the Board of Regents in regards to a contract extension signed by head football coach P.J. Fleck at the McNamara Alumni Center on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. The deal, signed by Fleck last week, extends his contract through the 2026 season and will increase his base salary to $4.6 million.

Emily Urfer

Athletic Director Mark Coyle addresses the Board of Regents in regards to a contract extension signed by head football coach P.J. Fleck at the McNamara Alumni Center on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. The deal, signed by Fleck last week, extends his contract through the 2026 season and will increase his base salary to $4.6 million.

Niamh Coomey

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel hosted an online ‘town hall’ Tuesday to answer community questions about the University’s response to COVID-19. 

In advance of the livestreamed meeting, students, staff and faculty submitted questions that were answered by the University’s administrators. Chancellors from the other University system campuses were in attendance as well. Leaders answered questions about summer classes, discrimination, refunds, research and the financial impact of COVID-19.

“I know this wasn’t the spring semester we anticipated,” Gabel said. “But I’m so proud of this community, and as a new member I’m so honored to be a part of it.”

Financial impact

Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Brian Burnett said Gabel requested an estimate of the best, moderate and worst case financial scenarios as a result of COVID-19. 

The potential financial impact was discussed in-depth at Tuesday’s special Board of Regents meeting.

“Please know we’re working tirelessly to find the solutions that keep this University excellent, contributing to the people of Minnesota and beyond,” Burnett said. 

Regarding changes to staffing, Interim Vice President of Human Resources Ken Horstman said it is difficult to anticipate what will happen in the future. 

However, the University made a commitment to keep employee pay “whole” for as long as possible, he said. As a land-grant institution, it is also important for the University to be socially responsible.

“The University had this commitment prior to this crisis, and we’ll strive to retain our faculty and staff during this crisis and afterwards,” Horstman said. 

However, difficult and critical decisions will need to be made going forward, he acknowledged. 

Refunds

The board voted Tuesday morning to further increase the students’ refund for room and board costs and refund them for parking.

They also voted to refund portions of their Recreation and Wellness Center fees and student services fees, Burnett said. 

Additionally, Vice President for University Services Mike Berthelsen said students on mandatory dining contracts will receive a 100% refund for FlexDine. 

For voluntary dining plans, FlexDine will rollover to next year and Gopher GOLD will remain on student accounts. 

Any students who are leaving the University this year, due to graduation or other reasons, can request refunds for FlexDine and Gopher GOLD. 

Parking and transportation

The University has been in conversations with Metro Transit regarding U-Passes, Berthelsen said. Students are able to request a cancellation for their U-Pass, but it is not yet clear whether retroactive refunds will be possible.

Similarly, those with parking passes will be able to terminate their contract without losing their spot should they reapply in the future, Berthelsen said. 

Parking and Transportation Services is also allowing essential employees who are still driving to campus to park as close as possible to where they work.

Bias and discrimination

Vice President for Equity and Diversity Michael Goh emphasized that the University takes reports of bias and discrimination seriously. 

The University is using communication, reporting and tracking of incidents, and direct help to those impacted to tackle racism related to COVID-19, Goh said.

Looking ahead

While all summer classes will be administered online, decisions about other programs, such as summer camps, will be made when there is more information about the pandemic, Executive Vice President and Provost Rachel Croson said. 

These decisions will be guided by Gov. Tim Walz’s direction and guidelines about social gatherings, she said. 

The University is also waiting for more information to determine how orientation this summer and Welcome Week will be handled, Croson said. 

Additionally, Gabel said students can expect an announcement about commencement this week or early next week. 

Graduation ceremonies and celebrations will likely involve a combination of virtual and in-person delivery.