By DONOVAN HARRELL
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher told Senate Council on May 14 that Pitt is in a sort of limbo phase at the moment as administrators are working to compile recommendations for restarting campus activities during fall 2020.
But nothing is off the table, Gallagher said, as the working groups try to account for an uncertain future in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The teams are looking at everything,” Gallagher said. “What I can tell you is our intention is to maximize what we can do consistent with our obligation to comply with whatever state orders are like.”
Gallagher said he hopes to reveal general elements of Pitt’s restart plans in June, and then in July, he’s hoping for specific guidance to be sent to faculty, staff and students
As for August, things are still up in the air, Gallagher said, but he hopes to give the Pitt community as much information as soon as possible to allow for planning.
These strategies are being developed in three main steering committees led by a mixture of interdepartmental administrators: Reimagining Pitt Education, Research, and Employees and Operations
Restarting the University is trickier than closing it, Gallagher said. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s guidance continues to evolve as the pandemic evolves, but at this point, most places in the state are focused on relaxing restrictions and restarting. Allegheny County moved to the yellow phase of reopening on May 15, but it won’t change operations at Pitt much, Gallagher said.
Research on campus has begun restarting, he said, with increased protective measures in place including social distancing, staggered work schedules, and limits to the number of people allowed in rooms.
The main areas of research being prioritized, Gallagher said, are related to the University’s readiness to restart. These include infection control programs and safety plans for laboratories and other workspaces.
Senior Vice Chancellor for Research Rob Rutenbar said workspaces and labs that already use “aggressive environmental safety” measures are among the first labs to restart. As for other places, “It depends,” he said, since other research environments may need additional training, supplies and other guidance to safely restart.
Gallagher likened the University’s posture toward the pandemic to a “big storm” response where the first step was to “seek shelter” by working remotely and maintaining social distancing. Now that the pandemic is slowing, Pitt finds itself coming out of the shelter but living in a “storm-prone area.”
“We come out of the shelter but what we really have to get ready for is that other storms may be coming,” Gallagher said. “In other words, in the face of whatever possible storm, good days, bad days, how do we maximize what the University is doing because the University must continue to carry out its mission.”
Gallagher said it was too early to get into specific strategies and approaches, but he expects to have some at the end of May when the campus restart committees are to turn in their recommendations, and early June.
“But I can tell you that our planning will envision that we are living with COVID,” Gallagher said. “I know we're all hoping for a vaccine or a set of treatments that makes the illness less serious, but I think our planning is going to be based on the worst-case, not our hopes.”
Gallagher later said the University is working with UPMC and other organizations to increase the availability of testing, which would open up more options for restart strategies. Either way, plans are being made for scenarios where testing is limited or if it's widely available.
Gallagher predicted that in the fall, Pitt will have an infection control program, which may include social distancing and mandatory masks, etc., and various changes to how Pitt facilities are used.
Typically, around this time of year, Gallagher would receive University budget recommendations. But he described Pitt’s budget this year as “very at risk” because of many factors related to the pandemic.
There are two main areas Gallagher is concerned about: state appropriation for the University, and activities where the University receives fees, services, or auxiliaries, including parking, the bookstore, transportation, housing, and food.
The state is struggling with revenue losses — estimated at $4 billion — and financial distress from responding to the pandemic, and is not sure how much relief it will get from the federal government. State funding for Pitt and the other state-related University comes through a non-preferred appropriation bill that is allocated after the main budget is set, and it requires a supermajority of votes.
Gallagher said “it’s more likely” that the state’s appropriation this year would be delayed, but he doesn’t believe it’ll completely disappear. The University, among other strategies, is planning for state appropriation this year to be flat.
“But if states don't have that (federal) funding, they simply don't have the resources to make it up,” Gallagher said. “And then I don't know what will happen. That'll be kind of unprecedented.
“From our perspective, we're going to have to simply plan — as we've had to, unfortunately, in the past — for what we would do if that revenue was interrupted,” Gallagher said. “This is one of those years where our planning is basically planning for very tight budgets.”
This means that Pitt will have to be highly selective on non-essential costs related to hiring, travel and supplies, he added.
When planning for the budget, Gallagher said he focuses on the effects of potential cuts to units and organizations. Departments and reporting units have been asked to look at how they would cope with a flat budget, a 5 percent cut or a 10 percent cut.
Gallagher repeated what he has said in the past that he thinks a tuition increase is unlikely this fall because of the additional financial pressures that families are facing, but ultimately that decision is up to the Board of Trustees.
There are “other tools” to make up for the temporary losses in revenue, including delaying capital projects, and those don’t include pulling from the $2 billion unrestricted part of the University’s $8 billion endowment. That money is now only used for student financial aid and pulling from it would have a negative impact on students in the future, Gallagher said.
It’s still too early for specific plans for the budget, he said, but he’s hoping to gather information to make decisions in the next few weeks.
Other topics discussed
Provost Ann Cudd said the latest figures on student retention — freshmen who are returning to Pitt for their sophomore year — are promising. As of May 8, the retention rate was 93.9 percent, an increase from last year. She didn’t give specific figures for the regional campuses but said that rates are level or have increased for all of them, Pitt-Bradford in particular.
Vice Provost for Enrollment Marc Harding said many international students from China will not be able to get their visas in time for the fall semester. His office is looking into mitigation and outreach strategies. Starting the semester at a later time is an option on the table, he said.
Harding also said that deposits from new students are up 12 percent from this time last year, and if they experience the typical 5.5 to 6 percent “melt” over the summer, the incoming first-year class would be around 4,400 with a goal of 4,250. He said they plan to “deploy every tool at our disposal” to meet that goal.
Cudd said she couldn’t reveal specific plans on how Pitt’s libraries will be re-opened, but she said that there are plans for the libraries to open in “multiple stages.”
Dave DeJong, vice chancellor of Human Resources, said child care for Pitt staff won’t open immediately and will have strict limits to the number of children allowed in classrooms. However, details are still being worked out as more research is gathered. Staff Council President Andy Stephany said that limited child care would be “a challenge for a lot of staff,” and that he hopes for a solution soon.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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