All hands on deck to plan possible return to campus this fall


Several interdepartmental working committees are exploring multiple ways for Pitt to restart campus activities during the fall 2020 semester since the future of the COVID-19 pandemic is uncertain, Senior Vice Chancellor for Research Rob Rutenbar told members of the Senate Research Committee on April 24.

Rutenbar announced that that there is an ongoing “macroscopic restart initiative” with three main parallel efforts to figure out how campus operations would restart in the fall.

These efforts are focusing on employees and operations, academic initiatives and restarting research activities. 

There’s an executive committee that Rutenbar is a part of with David DeJong, vice chancellor of Human Resources; Ted Fritz, director of Public Safety; and William Madden, associate senior vice chancellor for Administration, Health Sciences.

DeJong is leading the initiative focusing on employees and campus life, Rutenbar said, which will be exploring how certain employee-centered programs would restart in the fall, including campus childcare programs, parking and transportation.

Provost Ann Cudd and Jimmy Martin, dean of the Swanson School of Engineering, are leading the Reimagining Fall Initiative, focused on restarting academic and educational activities on campus, Rutenbar said. Martin, whose work and academic background includes civil engineering, has experience working on disaster recovery.

Rutenbar said he will head the group focused on restarting research on campus, which will try to figure out how and how much research activity and scholarship can be conducted on campus safely. Rutenbar predicted that the campus won’t be returning to 100 percent normal this fall.

“It’s pretty clear (that) we’re probably not just going to get to throw a big switch and everybody gets to come back and everything is the way it was before,” Rutenbar said. “Fall is ... likely to be some kind of a hybrid involving some on-campus activities, where we can do so safely, and still a lot of online activities.”

When it comes to resuming research, Rutenbar said, there is a key infrastructure that may face challenges when potentially resuming in the fall. 

“Lots of people, when you think about restarting research, they think about wet labs and clinical kinds of stuff, but the library is the giant piece of research infrastructure, and it’s shut down real hard,” Rutenbar said. “And that is a significant burden on anybody doing some kinds of humanities and many kinds of social science and things involving history and things involving the rare collections.”

One possible way to proceed would be comparable to how some grocery stores have adapted to the pandemic, where a limited number of library patrons are allowed in at a time and people waiting in line outside are directed to distance themselves from others in the line.

The library isn’t the only space that may face difficulties from social distancing requirements, including art, physical laboratory, studio rehearsal and performance spaces. 

Outside of those three main groups exploring how the campus would restart in the fall, there is a School of Medicine and a Health Sciences restart committee.

The School of Medicine committee will be run by Mark Gladwin, Chair of the Department of Medicine, and Jeremy Berg, associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning, Health Sciences. It will focus on the majority of departments within the School of Medicine.

The other committee will focus on other schools in the health sciences — Public Health, Nursing, Dental Medicine, Pharmacy, and Health and Rehabilitation Sciences It will be run by Tom Nolan, the associate dean for research for the School of Pharmacy, and Beth Skidmore, the associate dean for research for the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

There also will be a STEM restart committee, run by Adam Leibovich, associate dean for research in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, and David Vorp, associate dean for research at the Swanson School of Engineering. This committee will focus on chemistry, engineering, biology and other lab-centric STEM departments.

A committee focused on restarting arts, humanities, social sciences and libraries will be run by Shelome Gooden, assistant vice chancellor for arts, humanities, social sciences and related fields, and Kornelia Tancheva, director of the University Library System.

A separate committee — led by Bill Yates, a professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, and Frank Jenkins, director of the Division of Laboratory Animal Resources — will look into managing animals used for research on campus. Caring for animals on campus has been particularly tricky since Pitt transitioned to a largely remote working environment, Rutenbar said.

“Their care and feeding have been really complicated right during (the COVID-19 pandemic),” Rutenbar said. “We’ve been very careful about managing those populations. We stopped buying new animals and we mostly stopped breeding new animals.” 

Finally, the logistics committee will look at potential issues that may pop up as Pitt attempts to restart certain programs, such as contracts and potential legal and financial issues. Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for sponsored programs and research operations, and Mike Holland, vice chancellor for science policy and research strategy, will run this committee.

The committees will be made up of Pitt faculty and staff. More committees may be formed as different needs arise, Rutenbar said. Eventually, Rutenbar said he hopes to have virtual town hall meetings for these working groups.

Outside of the working groups, Fritz is running the Emergency Operations Center, which will coordinate with epidemiologists, city and commonwealth government officials to carry out guidance from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office on what can and cannot be done.

Correction: an earlier version of this article misspelled Associate Dean for Research at the Swanson School of Engineering David Vorp's last name as Thorpe. 

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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