Editor’s note: This episode was recorded on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.
Zach Wendling: Welcome to Campus Conversations, a podcast where we will bring on guests to talk about how local, national or global events or topics may affect our University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.
My name is Zach Wendling, one of the assistant news editors for The Daily Nebraskan, and thank you for joining me for this episode of Campus Conversations.
Hello everyone, welcome back to Campus Conversations. Today I’m joined by University of Nebraska President Ted Carter and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green.
Chancellor Green, President Carter, how are you both doing today?
Ted Carter: I’m doing fine. Thanks, Zach.
Ronnie Green: Doing great, great to see you, Zach.
Wendling: And of course, as we are returning to campus, there are many different things amid the coronavirus pandemic this year. Just to get off, right off the gate here, how have things sort of shifted, both at the system level and at the individual UNL campus level to prepare students both for safety and a return to campus?
Carter: Well, I’ll try to hit the system level first. You know, since we were at the, what I would say, midst of the pandemic somewhere around mid-April, not knowing everything that we could know, we made a lot of significant plans. And one of which was to do all that we could to understand the virus and make the best plans for how we could have an in-person session coming this fall.
And I’m very proud of the leadership that we’ve seen on all of the campuses, the level of work that’s been done to be prepared to bring our students back for the fall session and to de-densify our campuses, make COVID-19 testing available, make the classroom safe and, even maybe more important than all that, accommodate all, because this is not a one-size-fits-all type of program.
So those that are maybe older or had other medical issues, to not put them at risk, to also offer options for our students to be either partially or even fully remote if that was their decision.
So, I think we’ve done a great job in preparation, and now we’re ready for the execution.
So I’d [turn it] over to Chancellor Green for what he’s doing specifically at UNL.
Green: Well, as President Carter said, when we started into COVID-19 back in March, we all remember it really well as it began to influence our daily lives in March.
We spent a lot of time thinking about how to adapt to remote learning, right, so we were focused through that rest of the spring semester on being as successful as we possibly could make the conditions for our students to be able to progress and toward their educational goals.
We knew we had our second largest graduating class ever coming up in May, which we are really proud of to have completed. So we focused a lot in that time period on focusing on getting that remote semester completed, and we’re very proud of what happened through that period of time, that that happened and happened as successfully as possible.
And as President Carter said, we began shifting as we realized that the opportunity was going to be there for our students to re-engage in person. As much as possible, we hope for a full fall academic term.
We shifted our focus not only to the summer and expanding the summer and expanding the opportunities in the summer remotely, as you know that we’re just finishing graduation, it is just finished here, to how could we deliver that experience that’s so important for students to have as much as possible in person in the fall.
So the curricular development, the adaptation of classroom space, the adaptation of delivery methodology, to be able to do that while accommodating, as President Carter said, the safety of both our faculty and our graduate students in delivery as well as our students in the classes, became our focus, and I’m just incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish there.
We’ve requipped 490 of our classrooms to make sure they’re Zoom ready, and that’s being in the process of being completed now. We have laid out distancing to be careful to the two important numbers of six and 15, of 6 foot social distancing and 15 minutes in close proximity if you’re not socially distanced providing the greatest opportunity for the spread of COVID-19, along with face mask and facial covering policies, all of that’s ready, and we’re in great shape to start that fall semester.
So, lots of adaptations, Zach, and I’m proud of us being able to, as I saw today coming up the street, see campus coming alive again with our students and their families, many of them bringing them back.
Wendling: Definitely. And for almost 5 months now, the UNL campus and all of the NU system has been remote, it’s been online. We’ve of course reopened some facilities on campus, slowly and gradually, but in April, each of you made a commitment about a month after the campuses shifted to remote, to this commitment to in-person learning, well before we were even thinking about the fall semester, and now, that is becoming a reality.
What does that mean to each of you, that that is becoming a reality, and to have that commitment so early on?
Carter: Well for me, and I’ve been very public about saying this, the importance of having in-person, on-campus education, it’s really more than just about the academics.
You know, we can do the academic delivery remotely, whether it be synchronously or asynchronously, but the college experience is really much more than just the delivery of academics.
It’s really the whole person education. The college experience today, and especially here in Lincoln, it’s about the social, the emotional and even the physical aspects of growth for every individual student.
So we are proud that we’re able to continue doing that even, you know, in a global pandemic that we’re spending an incredible amount of time doing risk mitigation so that we can make our students feel safe and their families safe.
Green: Yeah, Zach, I think in addition to what Ted said it very, very well, the importance of personal interaction, both academically and so much as we can in the traditional sense, but also, I always tell students, I always emphasize to students, that not to take anything from our faculty, not to take anything away from our academic discipline, but we also know that you learn equally from each other, that that’s extremely important. I can’t tell you how much that was important to me as a college student.
So, that preserving as much of that as you can under a global pandemic is critically important for the value of that education, fully realizing that we’re in a global pandemic and it’s not going to be, you know, it’s not going to be August 2019 in the way that we think about the fall semester.
And the commitment that we’re each going to have to have in order to deliver that safely and to protect each other and to protect our community and all of our folks around us.
So I see that collectively, and it’s so important for that social structure to be part of the equation in moving forward.
Wendling: And Chancellor Green and President Carter, you each mentioned the connectedness that we learn from each other and grow from one another. What is being done, Chancellor Green, to ensure that Huskers are connected, that they care for each other and follow these health guidelines.
Green: Yeah, well obviously we’re trying to retain as much of that physical connection as we can, while providing the distance and providing the safety and health practices in place. But, you know, we will continue to have all kinds of ways that we connect our students, even with that continued virtual piece where we need to interweave that into our daily interactions with one another, we are trying to preserve as much group interaction through all kinds of ways on campus as we can, safely, and provide those opportunities for our students as well, including curricularly and extracurricularly, as you know.
And then we’re preserving the opportunity for us all to commit to one another, right, to be able to do that together. The Cornhusker Commitment, that so many have stepped up and committed to, the principles of how we’re going to safely interact with one another and how we’re going to protect one another through our distancing and through our use of personal protective equipment, our care for ourselves and our attention to if we personally have any impacts of COVID-19 and what happens if we do, all of that ties into this interaction.
Ted, I don’t know if you wanted to add anything there.
Carter: No, I just applaud the effort that you’ve gone through, and I’m excited for the fall.
Wendling: Of course. And we know the coronavirus, it’s still here, there are still health guidelines that we need to follow and everything there, but how long has UNL and the NU system been studying and preparing for the coronavirus?
Carter: Well, I still remember the first briefing that I got on at the end of January, and of course it was not something that was here in the United States, it was something that was being looked at overseas in China.
We had no idea that it would actually come here, and then as, you know, the end of February it started to appear that this is something we were gonna have to deal with. And as Chancellor Green mentioned, March was a critical time for us when we realized that this was really going to happen.
We had very little data, we had very little understanding of the transmissibility of it and the infectious rate associated with it, but again, I’m proud of what we actually did do in terms of actions to go to remote education to do everything we could to minimize that spread, take care of our students — take care of them financially, too. Even though they had to go to a different mode of getting their spring semester and their graduations remotely, as difficult as that was, they really got the whole education package, and we took care of the finances where we felt it was appropriate for them.
And then we’ve gotten smarter about the virus as we’ve gone on. I mean, it’s still around with us — I think because we’ve gotten so much smarter and how we can deal with it and how we minimize that transmissibility, you know, this is our opportunity to be able to do this because COVID-19 is not going to go away.
There might be a vaccine at the end of the year or next year, even that will not be the solution 100% across the board, so we’ve got to learn to be able to live in this world and do the things that are important to us.
At the top of that list for us here, is education.
Wendling: And how has planning changed over time, and Chancellor Green if you have anything to add there.
Green: Yeah, Zach, I think Ted said it well. We’ve been involved in trying to learn about and understand [SARS-CoV-2] that causes COVID-19 and the transmission of it for a pretty short period of time, when you think about it. It’s been a very long period of time when you think about it in other ways, right, it feels like it’s been a very long time.
But when it first started surfacing in other parts of the world late last year and into January, and when we began to see it unfold in ways that touched the U.S. here, as Ted said, in late January, early February time frame.
Of course our [University of Nebraska Medical Center] was deeply involved in those first steps and has been deeply involved so much of the way through our increased learning and understanding of COVID-19.
That was — everything was unknown, right. We didn’t know what this virus was, we didn't know the conditions of its transmission, what its effects were and what treatment regimens were.
It escalated very fast as we remember. By the time it hit us in mid-March here, at least in terms of how we operate and think it hit us in mid-March, we’d already been working for weeks talking about our students abroad and students who were studying abroad around the world and protecting their safety and getting them back to the U.S. and thinking about how we were going to pivot to move forward.
We know a lot more, as Ted said, than we did in March, in February and March, we still have a lot to learn about this virus and about the transmission of the virus, but what we do know now that we didn’t understand as well is the things we can do to mitigate it and the things that we can do to safely move into, back into our lives.
And that’s a good point to be at, knowing that we are going to live through the challenges until we have better protection in some period of time ahead. We certainly adapted and learned a lot, and it’s good to be at a point where we can begin, really, to implement those practices in the right way.
Wendling: Definitely. And in that pivot and in that action that each of you mentioned, there have been some tough decisions, whether it’s the NU system-wide $43 million in budget cuts or other position cutting or things like that. What are some ways that both of you have approached tough decisions that have had to be made during this time?
Carter: I think I would first of all say that during this critical time, a global pandemic, a pandemic that’s highlighting racial unrest and injustice and then an economic pandemic that’s tied, not disconnected to those other two, we’ve had to make decisions based on sometimes imperfect information.
We’ve had to make decisions in which we can’t sit around, wait and study the problem to get to a perfect solution, so we’ve had to have very clear eyes, a lot of collaborative work. I’ve done as much empowering to the chancellors and to our other leadership teams to be able to make decisions that best fit their campus without giving them a one-size-fits-all.
I’ll just tell you on the financial side, part of the logic there was to lead by example. We took the first and I would say by percent the largest cut here at Varner Hall, we cut 10% of our staff here, about $1.6 million over three years, and I think all the chancellors are looking at, first looking at administration in terms of where we can make some of those hard decisions first before we get into programs, people or faculty; at the end of the day trying to make sure we support our most precious asset: our students.
But also looking at where we can be most efficient. Sometimes the cost savings aren’t immediate there, but things like our one-IT system definitely have saved us money. Looking at our capital building projects and then how we do restoration on our existing structures and even looking now down the road at contracting and how we might be able to do better contracting across the system.
So, we’ve had to move pretty quickly. Maybe the crisis has forced us to think more clearly and more quickly than we might had had we not had it, but I’m very proud, again, of the team that we have and the tough decisions that we’ve had to make.
At the end of this, I do believe we’re still gonna come out of this stronger.
Green: Yeah, Zach, we’ve certainly, as Ted said, have had to operate with imperfect information and learning and had to make decisions based on imperfect information and the best information that we have had.
We’ve always done that, as he said, with safety first and foremost in mind, with attention to the needs of our students and focus on our mission, first and foremost in mind how do we deliver on our mission as the land-grant university for the state of Nebraska and ensuring that we can provide as much opportunity for our students to succeed as possible, as well as our research mission and our engagement mission with the state.
We’ve really tried and attempted very hard to not lose the focus on that mission in each of these decision steps and adjustments and pivots and pullbacks and push forwards that we’ve really had to make in all the right ways.
And budgetarily, no doubt, as Ted said this is also an economic pandemic and it has long lasting implications, many of which we are experiencing today, and we’ve had to think, again, with those same objectives, how will this impact our ability and our focus on our mission. Preserving our academic programs to their highest level of quality is first and foremost in our decision making on every step.
We are in the process ... with our projections for this next year ahead of implementing some $38 million in budget adjustments for UNL broadly, and I’m very proud and pleased, while unhappy about having to do that, I’m very proud and pleased of the diligence we have used to protect our academic enterprise and protect our people in moving forward to still deliver and focus on that mission.
So as we see that unfold, and you’ll be hearing about that because we’re going to be discussing it a fair amount over the next few months as we vet our way through that process and think about those decisions and their implementation, that’s been our focus, is coming out of this, as Ted said, stronger on the other end even with the challenges that we, that we have.
Wendling: And of course we’ve mentioned the planning that has gotten us to return to campus, what about what is being done while students are on campus during this return about testing, contract tracing and should the situation change on campus regarding information about the coronavirus or anything else, what is being done to keep students safe, communicated with and basically well-informed?
Green: I’ll take that, and Ted may want to add relative to our campus partners, I know they’re working on the same thing.
We’ve put process and mechanisms in place, not only on the prevention side, all of the protective mechanisms and process of protection of all of our individuals, but in the event that one of our community members contracts COVID-19 and has an infection with COVID-19 with that diagnosis — we have free testing now available to our campus that’s stood up and beginning to operate as we speak for folks who want to and feel the need to have a test to have that availability and be tested.
If we have a diagnosis there’s a clearly defined process jointly with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department that we’ve worked hand-in-hand with throughout all of this global pandemic for identification and contract tracing for that individual confidentially with them, realizing these are health data, so that we can protect our whole community around that.
Quarantining, and having mechanisms for quarantining available for any student that if that happens, we have that in Piper Hall [in Neihardt] set aside and mechanisms for that to be in place and be serviced appropriately for our students.
So I think we are as prepared as possible to have all of that other side if we do have infection of COVID-19 to protect and bring those students back to health and protect others they may have been in contact with, same on faculty, same on staff, for the campus.
The other thing, this isn’t exactly related to that, Zach, but I didn’t mention it earlier and it’s probably important to understand, is that another key component of being able to move forward successfully is our campus won’t be as densified, I’ll call it, as normal.
We still have a lot of our employees who are able to work remotely successfully and deliver on that mission in a remote way, so by having fewer people on campus at any given time we’re able to distance, you know, more appropriately and easier.
Students will notice that not in a way that will hinder us, or hold us back, but in a way that helps us also to deliver a safe environment for all.
Carter: I think what I’d add to all that is from a system perspective, we wanted to make sure not only that we had the policies and the procedures and the opening playbook that came from our professionals at UNMC, but we also wanted to make sure we had the right resources spread out across all of our campuses for testing using TestNebraska, personal protective equipment as well as all of the other … I mean, as you can imagine, there’s millions of dollars in resources needed to fight this thing and make sure that we’ve done all the prep, so we’ve done an awful lot of work working with the governor, working with the legislature, making sure that the money that came through the CARES act through the state was made available to our campus, and we’ve been very successful in obtaining that.
Green: And Zach, I didn’t mention I’m sitting by myself today so I’m maskless so to speak. I just got off of a meeting where I was speaking in my mask to a group that was on it, but Ted mentions support, both in terms of physical support and supplies, you know the two masks that each of our students are going to receive and be able to utilize through their experience with us this fall.
Hygiene equipment, disinfectants, supplies, sanitization equipment, I am so proud of what happened at [Nebraska] Innovation Campus this summer where our engineering faculty, together with our food science faculty at the Food Innovation Center, worked with the Nebraska ethanol industry to develop a mechanism to produce mass quantities of hand sanitizer.
I just read a note today from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Undersecretary [for food safety] Mindy Brashears who oversees all of the food safety and inspection service for the U.S. Department of Agriculture thanking us immensely for providing them that support. They supplied all of the food safety inspectors around the U.S. with that hand sanitizer, so as our students are on campus they’re seeing hand sanitizer stations everywhere that are dispensing that important piece for us adequately.
The [1-Check COVID] app that was developed at [the University of Nebraska Omaha] and UNMC is a pre-screening mechanism for students to keep attached to them, available for all of students as another protective mechanism.
So all of that resource support is critically important like Ted’s pointed out. We’ve had great partners and great help to do that, both from the university and from the state, and other partners as well.
Wendling: And though the coronavirus is on most of our minds at this time now, this summer also saw a renewed emphasis on Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd, so what is being done NU-wide and at UNL to ensure that diversity and to ensure that Black lives matter, as the movement shows.
Carter: Well I’ll give you the system-wide perspective, and I think both Chancellor Green and I have been upfront in talking about that immediately after those events happened. We have been empathetic and listening and engaging with all of the elements of our campuses — with our students, with our faculty, with our staff — to make sure we understand perspective.
Many of us don’t have the life experience to be able to feel the same things that certain cohorts of people might feel, and I think it’s important for us to have an understanding of that.
I will share that it’s an important part of our five-year strategy to address this and to state right upfront, and to not only make sure that we’re understanding how we’re going to move but where we should have the right bias for action, you know.
As we went through this just a few years ago, if you go back and review, there was a lot of discussion, maybe we didn’t go as far as we said we thought we might, and we shouldn’t make those same mistakes again.
If we’re gonna see social change and really make some impact on the racial injustices that we have observed, we have to take that responsibility and, even as leaders, hold ourselves accountable for how we’re gonna get after some of that.
So I’m proud of what has come out of Chancellor Green and some of our other chancellors, and there’s a lot of work still to be done.
Green: Well, Zach, the only thing I’ll add as Ted said it very, very well, I mean, we’ve been very empathetic to listen really carefully. This is an important time to listen and to hear the experiences of others that we don’t understand perhaps, or experience in the same way.
While we may feel we do that on a regular basis and feel we have done that, we’ve had tremendous conversation as you know about diversity and inclusive excellence and enhancing our efforts through the in that way university for some time, this is a particularly important time to listen and to listen really carefully.
And as we’ve done that, it was just very clear to us that it’s important for UNL to look at this as a journey to understand antiracism and racial equity or inequities where they may exist, both educationally as well as in our own system, in our own practices, and identify and root out anywhere we might have inherent bias that we don’t recognize or that we might have.
So we were very early in that, as you know, we have six faculty and staff co-leads who have stepped up to a leadership role in working directly with the university in framing that journey, we’ve had great initial conversations in that way that we’ll see unfolding.
So I’m excited about that. I’m not excited about the motivation for it, but I am excited about the fact that we’re gonna really look hard at this and look inside ourselves in this way.
Wendling: Of course. And to close out today, President Carter and Chancellor Green, what would be your overall message, President Carter to the NU community and Chancellor Green to the UNL community, as we are returning to school.
Carter: Well, my message is very simple: welcome back, it will be great to see students on our campus and I’m excited about watching their growth and maturation and excited to see them do well.
Green: I don’t think I can say it a lot better than that, what Ted just said, you heard what I said earlier, I am just giddy with excitement I guess can’t describe it any other way ‘cause I am.
I’ve been looking to Aug. 17 for a long time, and even more to Aug. 24, when our students will be in person or in that model of in-person environment. It is so important that we learn together, it is so important, as we said earlier, that we learn together, so I am looking to a great semester ahead for our students and for our faculty and our staff, one that I’m sure we will remember for the rest of our lives, and I’m looking forward to a really successful learning environment at UNL and the semester ahead.
Wendling: Well, President Carter and Chancellor Green, thank you both very much for your time today.
And to those of you tuning in, if you have any ideas for what guests or topics you would like to see on this podcast, be sure to stay up to date with our social media platforms but also feel free to comment below on this video or contact us directly at email@example.com.
Until next time, thank you all for listening and be sure to join us for the next Campus Conversation.
Green: Thanks, Zach.
Carter: Thank you, Zach.