State-mandated furloughs, building use reduction during winter break and the specter of budget reductions were among the topics of discussion during Wednesday’s University-wide meeting, which was held via Zoom and marked President Brian Sandoval’s first interaction with a significantly large remote campus gathering. Prior to the event, about 1,400 individuals from the campus registered to participate.
“We have a lot of serious things we are going to talk about today,” Sandoval, who was named University president on Sept. 17, said. “But first off I want you all to know how proud I am to be a part of such a great University. Since I took office, I’ve been so impressed by your resiliency, determination, empathy and strength. You’ve done a great job of keeping your eye on the daily challenges that COVID presents while also holding onto your enthusiasm for the future.”
He later added of the numerous meetings with students, faculty and staff he’s held since his first official day in office on Oct. 5, “You’ve shared how much your co-workers, colleagues and students mean to you. How much your work, which contributes to the success of our University and comes from every corner of our campus, means to you. This is why I’m optimistic about our future. This is why I know we’re going to get through this.”
“This,” of course, was in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen cases in Washoe County and throughout Nevada spike in recent weeks. Wednesday’s meeting addressed many of the steps the University has taken and is continuing to take while maintaining operations in the face of COVID-19.
Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason, who served as moderator for the event, noted that “if there is any good news to report this semester, it has been in the hard work and innovation I’ve seen in our faculty and staff. … I recognize none of this has been easy. As we head into the winter months, we are all being asked to give more support to our educational mission.”
Provost Kevin Carman, whose semester has been marked by frequent visits to the small number of in-person classes that have been held on campus, said that those interactions have illustrated that the University’s people are doing all they can maintain the health and well-being of students, faculty and staff. He said he has yet to see an instance where individuals in classrooms weren’t observing the campus-wide mandate to wear facial coverings and to observe safe social distance.
“I’ve visited over 40 classes over every spectrum of topics,” Carman said. “I’ve been deeply impressed with our faculty and their commitment under very difficult circumstances.”
The event featured several updates in key areas.
Vic Redding, Vice President for Administration and Finance, spoke about the University’s budget. He addressed this month’s news that the Governor’s Finance Office has asked that all state agencies prepare proposed budget reserves of 12 percent for each year of the upcoming 2021-23 biennium.
“These cuts are not final yet,” Redding said, noting that a number of factors influencing University revenues, including the University’s spring enrollment numbers, as well as any federal funding packages similar to CARES Act funding from earlier in the pandemic that helped Nevada’s institutions of higher learning offset fiscal loss, are still to be determined. “The governor has put them out as a target cut for planning purposes. They’re very likely to change as conditions evolve. This is developing in real time.”
He said that’s why it’s critically important that the institution’s discussions about funding scenarios involve all divisions and units.
Using the analogy that one of his units in VPAF, Facilities Services often uses about possible snow days on campus, Redding said of the budget, “We know it’s going to snow. We just don’t know how much or when and we have to start planning for all the eventualities.”
Earlier Wednesday, prior to the virtual gathering, a campus-wide announcement was distributed regarding the state-mandated plan for furloughs for University employees. The talk of furloughs had been on the minds of many over the preceding months since they were mandated over the summer by a special session of the Nevada State Legislature.
Tim McFarling, Associate Vice President for Human Relations, walked University-wide meeting through the furlough news. McFarling explained that the legislature, during its 31st Special Session over the summer, passed Assembly Bill (AB) 3, which was signed into law by Gov. Sisolak. Pursuant to AB 3, all full- and part-time employees of the state, which includes faulty and all employees of the Nevada System of Higher Education, are required to take unpaid furlough leave that amounts to a 4.6-percent reduction in monthly compensation.
The furloughs are effective beginning Dec. 1, 2020 and conclude on June 1, 2021.The reduction in compensation will be seen on six monthly pay days beginning on Jan. 1, 2021.
“We’re required to do them because of AB 3,” McFarling explained.
He explained many of details of the furloughs, including how they affect academic and administrative faculty as well as for part-time faculty and grant-funded positions.
A clear defensive measure against any possible budget reductions by the University was announced on Nov. 17, with the news that the University has adopted the “University Reduced Buildings Operations Plan.” The plan, which is to begin Nov. 30 and will run through Jan. 24, 2021, is an effort to save utility costs by reducing services and use of certain buildings during this time.
Denise Baclawski, Associate Vice President for Facilities, told the University-wide meeting that currently the plan calls for the occupants of approximately 32 buildings to work remotely during some or all of the time through Jan. 24. An additional 58 buildings will have some levels of occupancy.
She stressed that in addition to being familiar with the list of buildings affected, it is important for all individuals to work directly with their supervisor in order to have any work needs/issues met.
Shannon Ellis, Vice President for Student Services, said that her division, in meeting the needs of students this semester and into the future, has had a “heightened” awareness of the challenges students are facing during the pandemic. She said tele-therapy efforts began back during the first wave of the pandemic in March, and have only “gotten better” in creating 1-on-1 counseling services as well as working in counseling groups to help students navigate the uncertainties of a world dealing with COVID-19. She credited faculty for also reaching out to students who are struggling.
“That partnership has allowed us to reach to as many, if not more, students (with counseling services) as this time last year,” Ellis said.
Ellis, when asked if any decisions have been made about an in-person Commencement ceremony for May 2021, said that conditions remain volatile and that it is too early to say.
She said she remains “hopeful” the ceremony will be held in person, and more in-depth discussions will be held once the spring semester begins in late January.
Sandoval said that in an effort to help students through the challenging semester, the University, in consultation and coordination with NSHE leadership, would be offering an “S/U” (Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory) option for the fall semester as well as for the 2020-2021 academic year. The University made a similar move for the spring 2020 semester once all instruction had shifted to remote delivery in mid-March.
“We want to make sure our students know we are concerned about them, and their academic careers,” Sandoval said, adding that students who are interested in the option must visit with an academic advisor first.
Carman said that approximately 5 percent of all students requested the “S/U” option last spring.
“The vast majority just asked for an accommodation for one or two classes,” he said.
Dr. Cheryl Hug-English, director of the Student Health Center, credited the people of the University for being aware and making a concerted effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Because of the hard work, the experience for the University has been, “different, but no less important or valued.”
She said that after the University saw a leveling off of positive cases among students, faculty and staff through October, just like Washoe County, “We too have begun to see an increase in numbers” through the month of November. The past week, she said, saw 74 students and 14 faculty and staff who had tested positive.
A favorable trend, however, has been that health officials on campus have not “seen evidence of secondary transmission in our classrooms and laboratories.” Hug-English said this was due in large part to the campus’ ongoing effort to wear facial coverings, practice social distancing and wash hands frequently.
In the past week, the Student Health Center had administered more than 400 tests for students, faculty and staff. She said the center will remain open during the semester break and will continue to offer testing for members of the campus community.
Just as COVID-19 has permeated life on campus in many ways, outside events continued to weigh heavily on the minds of many on Wednesday. Tuesday’s Pinehaven Fire scorched more than 500 acres, destroyed five homes and damaged another two dozen. Several University faculty and staff were impacted, having to evacuate their homes Tuesday afternoon and overnight as the threat of the fire grew.
McFarling put those 24 hours into a compassionate perspective at one point, summing up the campus’ work since March as well.
He contrasted Tuesday’s terrible fire news with what he saw on Wednesday morning as he drove to work, when a rainbow following overnight rains that had helped contain the fire, was seen.
“As bleak as things seem on a day-to-day basis,” McFarling said with a gentle smile, “we’ll get through this. We’ve been here a long time as a University.”