UTD Presidential Town Hall

Timestamps and corresponding questions/answers

  • 00:00 – 3:50 – Introductions, opening remarks by President Benson
  • 03:51 – 5:44 – How will credit/no credit and pass/fail grades appear on transcripts? Will they impact a student’s GPA? How might this impact graduate school admission?
  • 05:45 – 7:18 – Since spring graduation ceremonies have been canceled, are there plans to recognize graduating students in some way? 
  • 07:19 – 7:58 – Will the university be offering a tuition discount for Summer 2020 classes? 
  • 07:59 – 8:39 – If the campus is closed this summer, will parking fees be refunded to students, faculty, and staff? 
  • 08:4 – 11:53 – Is there a timeline for making decisions about the fall semester? Will classes be online? Could some classes be offered online, and others be offered in-person? 
  • 11:54– 13:24 – Will there be a discount for the Fall 2020 classes if they’re primarily online? Will there be a discount to some fees, or waiver of some fees (such as recreation or student health fees)? 
  • 13:25 – 14:02 – Will students be allowed to live on campus even if fall classes are primarily online? 
  • 14:03 – 17:45 – How do is the pandemic expected to impact enrollment? Will international enrollment suffer? How could enrollment changes impact institutional finances?  
  • 17:46 – 19:57 – Will there be layoffs, furloughs, and/or salary reductions as a result of financial impacts of the pandemic? 
  • 19:58 – 20:36 – Given the suspension of hiring, will UT Dallas continue to employ student workers? 
  • 20:37 – 22:56 – Will the drop in oil prices affect revenue from the UT System or the state of Texas? What can be expected from the upcoming legislative session?
  • 22:57 – 23:36 – Clarification on whether CR/NC and P/F will affect GPA
  • 23:37 – 24:17 – Since hooding ceremonies have been canceled for the spring, will there be special recognition for doctoral students? 
  • 24:18 – 25:04 – Is UT Dallas considering waiving SAT/ACT test scores for admissions in the Fall 2021 semester? 
  • 25:05 – 29:33 – What financial resources and support services are available to students impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak? Are international students eligible for emergency aid?  
  • 29:34 – 30:32 – Clarification regarding whether a fail (in pass/fail) has an impact on GPA for graduate students. 
  • 30:33 – 35:52 – When will students, faculty and staff be able to return to campus? Who will make the decision about reopening campus: UTD administrators, or the UT System? Is there a plan to reopen in phases? And will some staff continue to work remotely even after the campus is fully opened? 
  • 35:53 – 37:41 – How will research labs working with human subjects be affected? Is it anticipated that UTD will be able to run experiments with human subjects this summer? 
  • 37:42 – 39:54 – Further remarks on the schedule for reopening campus.
  • 39:55 – 41:42 – What is being done to ensure that the campus is maintained, disinfected, and ready for students, faculty and staff when they come back to campus? 
  • 41:43 – 42:36 – If UTD is online in the fall semester, how might that impact athletics and sports? 
  • 42:37 – 44:55 – Should students be prepared for an increase in tuition costs? 
  • 44:56 – 45:32 – Will GRE/GMAT scores still be required for graduate student admission in the coming semesters? 
  • 45:38 – 46:02 – Are standardized testing services moving to online formats to allow students to take the tests? 
  • 46:03 – 46:28 – Does the suspension of employment offers include offers for RAs and TAs as part of doctoral student education funding?
  • 46:29 –  53:16 – What is the university doing to support faculty who have had to transition to online teaching? How is the university ensuring the integrity of testing and assessment in the online environment? How will the university handle internship or service hour requirements for certain degree programs?
  • 53:17 – 57:05 – A number of recent articles have said that potentially 30 – 50% of institutions of higher education might close in the next five to 10 years because of the financial impacts of this pandemic. Is this a concern for UT Dallas? And will this period negatively impact the health of the university in the long-term?
  • 57:06 – 58:44 – Closing remarks from Rafael Martín and Richard Benson. 

Begin Transcript

President Richard Benson (00:00):

…and I will refer several of the categories of questions to them. Moderating the Q&A session will be our chief of staff, Rafael Martín, and helping to answer the questions will be Inga Musselman, our provost; Terry Pankratz, VP for budget and finance; Calvin Jamison, VP for facilities and economic development; Joe Pancrazio, vice president for research; Gene Fitch, VP for student affairs; John Walls, VP for communications; Colleen Dutton, chief human resources officer; and again, Rafael Martín, chief of staff. So again, thank you all. Before we move to your questions, I want to give you a snapshot of how things currently stand. Anything that I have to say about our concerted response to the COVID-19 begins with my expression of gratitude for what you have accomplished so far. First, there was a Herculean effort to transfer to online learning in just two weeks. Additionally, the student adjustment in time was amazing.

Benson, cont’d (00:57):

There are numerous stories of how we have united as a community: donations of personal protective equipment to UT Southwestern, Parkland, and Methodist Richardson; loans of computer equipment for students that needed them to work on their courses; faculty and staff who are giving of their time to help—ranging from reading a story online to a student’s child so that the student could have a break, and to other staff leading virtual fitness classes; and most recently to the many volunteers who are making masks for our essential staff. Thank you all. I also want to thank everyone who’s reached out to help students in need, whether the donations to the Comet Cupboard or the student emergency fund. So, what is the current state of our institution? During this uncertain time, we know that this pandemic has increased our costs and decreased our revenues. We decreased the number of students who live on campus and use dining facilities and other services and we have returned prorated room and board and parking payments.

Benson, cont’d (01:55):

Our summer classes will be online and we’ve not had yet had—well, we will not have any summer camps on the university campus. That’s what we do know. Many things remain to be seen, starting with whether students will be returning to the campus for the fall semester, which is another point of concern for our finances. Any additional funding we may receive from the federal or state is not expected to cover our losses. In addition, we do not yet know what impact the pandemic will have on enrollment. A drop in enrollment would have a significant economic effect on UT Dallas. So the known as well as the unknown are contributing to our concerns for the financial picture. These factors have carried great weight in the previous announcements concerning hiring suspension, no merit increases for the upcoming year, et cetera. We are not alone in doing this. You have probably seen or read in the news about other universities trying to address similar challenges.

Benson, cont’d (02:48):

The steps we’ve taken are just initial steps. To be perfectly clear, those steps alone will not be able to completely cover our financial deficit. This is an uncertain time. There is nothing that I compare this to during my entire professional experience. And as a result, there is no roadmap that we can follow. I can assure you it is my intent to do our very best to support our faculty and staff and minimize the reductions we expect we will have to make. I can also assure you that we will do everything we can to ensure that our students continue to have a rigorous and quality academic experience. And most importantly, I am completely confident of UT Dallas’s ability to weather this storm. It is no accident that we stand as the nation’s second fastest growing university; and when this health threat eases, I know that UT Dallas will resume its position as one of the nation’s strongest and most successful universities. So, thank you in advance for getting us through that period, back to this point that we all eagerly await. And with that, I’m happy to take any questions.

Rafael Martín (03:51):

Thank you, Dr. Benson. This is Raphael Martine, chief of staff. I want to thank everyone who submitted questions to the TownHall@utdallas.edu email address in anticipation of this event, and remind everybody that they could submit additional questions in the chat function, which we [will be] monitoring and hopefully be able to answer during this town hall. The first questions that I’d like to pose are concerning the spring, our current Spring 2020 semester. Students were given the option for credit/no credit or pass/fail grades in their spring courses. How will those appear on transcripts? Will they impact a student’s GPA? And how might this impact for undergraduates’ graduate school admission?

Benson (04:34):

Thank you, Rafael. That question I think would be best answered by our provost. So I’ll turn this over to Inga Musselman.

Inga Musselman (04:43):

Good afternoon, everyone. The deadline for election of credit/no credit grades for undergraduates and pass/fail grades for graduate students is next Thursday, April 30th, at 11:59 PM. The grades credit/no credit and pass/fail will appear on the transcripts as usual, but they do not impact the GPA. In addition, a note will be placed on the transcripts of all students enrolled for the spring 2020 term that will point reviewers such as potential employers to the credit/no credit and pass/fail option for this term. We do recommend that undergraduate students consult their advisors before electing credit/no credit option, so that they can receive the proper information in determining how such a choice could affect their applications for graduate or professional schools.

Martín (05:45):

Thank you, Dr. Musselman. Next question: it’s been announced that spring graduation ceremonies have been canceled. Are there plans to recognize graduating students in some way?

Benson (05:56):

Yes, absolutely. I’m very keen to see this happen and so even though the ceremonies have been canceled, the graduation has not. So our students will graduate, you know, when they are supposed to, which is just a couple of weeks away—in fact, even less than that. We will have something of a virtual ceremony for our students. Their diplomas will be mailed to them soon thereafter. I hope I’m not giving away anything, but we have something of a goodie basket, if you will, of other UTD paraphernalia that we’re going to send to each of our graduates. But then we are very eager to have a traditional ceremony. Right now, what we are looking at is to have the spring ceremony be folded into the upcoming winter ceremony. So next December, when we have our next scheduled commencement, anybody who graduated this spring or in the following fall, would be welcome to come, walk across the stage, engage in all the usual pomp and circumstance that we have with the graduation ceremony. We’re very eager to honor our students, and similarly to also honor their parents and their friends; you know, to have a really wonderful event for everybody. They’ve earned it. And so we want to do that. We can’t gather in one place now, but at the next opportunity, we will. So we’re looking forward to it.

Martín (07:19):

Thank you, Dr. Benson. The next set of questions concern the upcoming Summer 2020 semester. Will the university be offering a tuition discount similar to UT Austin for Summer 2020 classes?

Benson (07:31):

This is something we’ve looked into. We’re not yet in a position to make a decision. I’ve been consulting with other campus presidents in UT System to see what’s possible there. But again, we’re just going to have to wait and see, see what the enrollment numbers look like. So again, we’re examining it, but just not ready to make a decision yet.

Martín (07:59):

Thank you, sir. If campus is closed this summer, will parking fees be refunded for students, faculty and staff?

Benson (08:07):

I have an answer to that one, but I think I would like to ask Calvin Jamison, who’s our VP for facilities and economic development to field that question.

Calvin Jamison (08:17):

Hey, good afternoon, Comets. Our first priority was to make sure we were able to take care of refunds for all the students; and then we’re in the process now of reviewing the faculty and staff, and trying to be consistent with what other universities are doing within the system. And the decision would be made on that in the next several weeks.

Martín (08:40):

Thank you, Dr. Jamison. The next set of questions deals with Fall 2020. Is there a timeline for making decisions about the fall semester? Will classes be online? Could some classes be offered online and others be offered in-person?

Benson (08:56):

Thanks again, Rafael. This is a very good question. There are many moving parts to this. So, part of it depends on finances. And we won’t know yet what enrollment numbers look like and it’ll probably be longer still before we know how the State of Texas responds in terms of government funding for UT Dallas and other campuses. So we will have to wait a little bit. But the most important driver here is safety. There’s a reason why we’re not on campus now. So we’ve seen a succession of communities from you know, the city of Richardson and others sort of mandating social distancing and the like. And so just as we’ve gone into that protocol, that’s also how we will come out of the protocol. So we have to make sure that we are operating in a responsible way.

Benson cont’d (09:47):

So much of this depends on the arc of that coronavirus curve. As government entities and UT system and others come to have a better understanding, we can then start to think about whether we can be back, you know, on campus in the fall. Now I will say two more things about this. In one case, as we reopen, keep in mind that we are more like a little city than just one entity. So we will probably be reopening in stages. For example, some of our research labs are relatively compact. They are small, a handful of people work there. We might have the ability to be able to bring people back in a safe way. Again, with social distancing and the like. It’s an entirely different matter to hold a 300-person class, you know, on campus. So again, we may be able to reopen in in stages.

Benson cont’d (10:42):

So we’ll see how that goes. Now, another very important point here is that we very quickly have mastered online education. In some ways, it’s actually advantageous. It might even be superior. I’m thinking mostly in sort of a blended format. And let’s also remember that some of our students, even if we do open the campus, they may not be able to reach us yet. I’m thinking, especially, of foreign graduate students. So we may have the campus open, but a good many students will still not be able to come to Richardson, come to campus. So we want to be able to offer sections of our courses online for those students. We don’t want them to lose time. So I could very well see that you know, well, maybe not each of our classes, but a lot of our classes will also continue to have an online component as we go forward. So as soon as we can come back on campus, the better—and we’re eager to do it. But again, online delivery has quite a few advantages and so we will continue to have a significant component in online education. 

Martín (11:54):

Similar to the question about summer will there be a discount for tuition for the Fall 2020 classes if they’re primarily online? And in addition, are we considering a discount to some fees or waiver of some fees? For example, recreation or student health fees? 

Benson (12:10)

Thanks. Again, this is something we’re studying. I’m in frequent contact with UT System and the other campus presidents, and so we’re looking at that. But this is an area where I might call on Terry Pankratz to say a word or two.

Terry Pankratz (12:25):

So I’m going to thank you, Dr. Benson. I think a couple of things to keep in mind as we talk about, you know, the potential for waiving fees: first, as Dr. Benson mentioned, we want to remain consistent with other UT System campuses. And so this is a conversation held weekly among the chief financial officers, and I think the presidents as well. So whatever we ultimately would decide will be kind of a system-wide decision. Some of the underlying facts associated with those mandatory fees, even though they’re campus-based, there are certain fixed costs associated with maintaining and operating these facilities without regard to how much usage there is. And so I reference, in particular, debt service payments, and utilities, and maintenance on the buildings. So it is a decision that we are seriously considering. But at this time, we just don’t have a definite answer as to how we’re going to address a campus-based mandatory piece.

Martín (13:25):

Thank you, Terry. Last question for Fall 2020: will students be allowed to live on campus even if classes are primarily online in the fall? 

Benson (13:36)

Again, a good question. I’d like to ask Gene Fitch to address that.

Gene Fitch (13:42):

Oh, sure. So the short answer to this question would be yes: much like we’ve done for the remainder of the spring and summer terms, we would likely have a similar process in place that would allow for students to ask for an exception, and then stay with this on-campus in the fall semester.

Martín (14:03):

Thank you, Dr. Fitch. I’d like to move on to some questions surrounding the economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. How do you expect the COVID-19 pandemic to impact enrollment? Will international enrollment suffer and how will these enrollment impacts impact our institutional finances? 

Benson (14:26)

Oh, thanks, Rafael. Again, this is a very significant factor in our future. So we are tracking student interest very much. Again, I remind people that we have been the nation’s second fastest growing university and in fact that was still trending in a good direction, at least for undergraduate enrollment. Applications were up substantially. So what we’re looking to see is how many students may be showing up this fall—new students that would come in the fall. We can’t do some of the normal things, you know, like the on campus orientation sessions and the like. So there there’s been a bit of a delay—or lag if you will—in our ability to get students through orientation and get them ready for UT Dallas. But we are certainly tracking it. I’m somewhat optimistic. You know, the, the number of 17-, 18-year-olds coming out of high school right now is what it always was. We have the good fortune of being located in Dallas, Texas, which is a booming area. People want the sort of education that we provide and I think the students are still going to want to come to UT Dallas.

Benson cont’d (15:40):

So I’m quite optimistic about where we may be going. On the international side, I think the demand still is excellent. As people know, we have a very substantial number of students from other countries, most notably India and China. Here the issue is not interest, but rather logistics. It may be that we could have any number of students who want to come here, but they just cannot. They can’t get the visa to come here in the fall; which is why in my earlier answer, I talked about us delivering online courses to help engage them with UTD. They’re matriculated students, and we want to engage them at the earliest opportunity. We want them to feel good about UT Dallas, to feel comfortable about UT Dallas. But it could be that a great many of them simply will not be able to arrive in the fall, and we’ll have to see then what happens there. So again, we’re hopeful but we have to be pretty sober about what could happen with enrollment in the fall. This might be a time for me to go back to Terry Pankratz to see if he wants to add anything more to this.

Pankratz (16:52):

Well, I would sort of echo everything you said, Dr. Benson. One of the things that makes UT Dallas unique is the sheer size of our international population. It’s really such an important aspect of our enrollment. And in this environment, all students are being challenged to actually get to UT Dallas and experience what we would call a normal experience. But international students, they have even more hurdles to clear. And that’s one of the things we’re watching very carefully. And I agree with you completely. I don’t think it’s a lack of interest. I just think we’re in an environment that is making it exceedingly difficult for international students to get to the UT Dallas campus. And so we’re doing everything we can to mitigate that problem, but it is top of mind for all of us to try and overcome that.

Martín (17:46):

Thank you, Terry. The next question, will there be layoffs, furloughs, and/or salary reductions as a result of the financial impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak? 

Benson (17:56)

Well, this is probably the most significant question at the heart of, you know, everybody’s interest right now. I must confess that it could happen. You know, I cannot mislead anybody yet. But we don’t yet know the full nature of our financial status for the coming academic year. As I say, we don’t know everything about potential tuition revenue and we certainly don’t know what sort of cuts will be made by the state, and there will be cuts made by the state. So we’ll have to look at that. But I want to emphasize something that I said at the Academic Senate meeting: layoffs, furloughs, reductions in pay are the last things I want to do.

Benson cont’d (18:38):

I mean, especially layoffs. It’s the last thing I want to do. It’s why we have taken some of these significant steps up to now. It’s why we have frozen salaries and will not have merit increases in the fall. It’s why we have suspended hiring of many faculty and staff positions. We have done that to save every dollar we can. And we’re looking for savings in many other ways. We’re deferring maintenance on a lot of buildings. There’s just many things that we’re doing to economize as much as we possibly can. So I want to emphasize that any kind of furlough or layoff will be the last thing that we go to, and I’m hoping that we can get through without having to do it. I’m sure though if people scour the web, though, they’re going to see a lot of universities where this has already happened, but we are not there yet.

Benson cont’d (19:27):

And it brings me back to the point, which is that we’ve come into this crisis with considerable strength. Again, we’re one of the strongest universities in the country right now. And so I think we have as much ability to weather this storm as anybody. So again, you know, it might happen, but we’re going to hold off on making any kind of decision, and we’re going to do everything in our power to eliminate the need. 

Martín (19:58)

Thank you. Dr. Benson. Given the suspension in hiring, will UT Dallas continue to employ student workers? 

Benson (20:04)

The short answer is yes, but I think I’ll send this back over to Gene Fitch, who can say more about that.

Fitch (20:11):

Sure. I think you could probably take what Dr. Benson shared about faculty and staff, and apply that to students. To the extent possible, we want to preserve jobs. It’s our desire to protect not only our employees, but includes our student staff. If there are duties for students to perform, then we’ll certainly retain them and provide them with employment opportunities going forward.

Martín (20:37):

Thank you. Dr Fitch. Will the drop in oil prices affect revenue from UT System or the state of Texas? What do we expect from the upcoming legislative session?

Benson (20:54):

Well, certainly it doesn’t help that we have a drop in oil prices. Terrible timing. I mean, they’re really not related, but we have this coronavirus a threat at the same time. There has been a glut of oil and, you know, just a complete drop in the oil price. Maybe they are related. No one’s driving to work these days, so I shouldn’t say that they’re unrelated. Don’t mean to make light of it, but you know, when the price went negative, I was thinking we should start taking some barrels of oil and making $30 a piece and store them somewhere. But you know, that joking aside, we have to recognize that state revenue is going to be significantly down. And let’s also not forget that the so-called permanent university fund that comes to UT System also comes by way of oil.

Benson cont’d (21:40):

So this is significant, and this will limit what the state can do, and the extent to which they will try to pull back or claw back, so to speak, funding from different state agencies, including the universities. What we are of course doing is doing our level best to convince people in Austin to understand how important we are to our local economies and to the state of Texas. I’ve often said that we are very fortunate that we are located where we are in this booming area of North Dallas and the city of Richardson and so on. But I also like to add that the city of Richardson is also extremely fortunate that they have us in their midst. We are a major driver of the economic success of our region. And I hope that as people recognize that they will understand that doing harm to UTD does a lot to harm the community and the ability of the broader community to recover. So, this is a message we’re taking to Austin and elsewhere. And I hope that we will be supported to the fullest extent possible by the state. But you know, we’ll have to wait. It’s going to take a few months before we know.

Martín (22:57):

Thank you, sir. Before we move on to some more of the questions we received at the town hall email address, there have been a few questions from the chat that asked for some clarification on some information. The first would be back to Dr. Musselman: could you, Dr. Musselman, repeat the policy on whether or not pass/fail, credit/no credit grading will affect student GPA?

Musselman (23:22)

Yes, I’d be happy to comment and reaffirm that the credit/no credit and pass/fail grades will appear on the transcripts, but they will not impact the GPA. 

Martín (23:37)

Okay. Thank you. There was also a question about whether there might be special recognition for doctoral students, since a hooding ceremonies will also canceled for the spring.

Musselman (23:49):

That’s a good question. We haven’t talked about replacing the doctoral hooding ceremony with anything else specifically this summer. You know, it could be possible that we would treat the doctoral hooding ceremony in a similar way as to what we’re doing for the general student population, in that we could invite the doctoral graduates back for the hooding ceremony that will take place in the fall. 

Martín (24:18)

Very good. And final question: will UT Dallas, or is UT Dallas considering waiving SAT/ACT test scores for admissions in the Fall 2021 semester?

Musselman (24:31):

Currently, we are not planning to do that. It’s something that we are keeping our eyes and ears open to. We know that there is work that’s being done by the testing service to try to make it so that SAT and ACT tests can be taken in an online virtual format, not in a testing center. So we are currently requiring SAT and ACT scores, but we are keeping abreast of any developments in that area. 

Martín (25:05)

Thank you. Dr Musselman. Several questions concern what resources are available for students that have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak—both financial resources and other support services? And, related: are international students eligible for emergency aid?

Benson (25:24)

You know it, it strikes me that this question comes in two parts. One is academic resources and the other is student support. And so I would like to ask our provost to address the academic resources, and Gene Fitch if he might talk about some of the support that we are supplying to our students—not just financial, but just, you know, emotional, and in any other way. So Inga, if you would care to go first on that.

Musselman (25:48):

I’d be happy to. I’ll address both the academic resources and financial resources that we have available. The academic resources for students are similar to what we offer students every semester. And that is for undergraduate students, we have academic resources associated with the advisors in the schools, as well as advisors in the Office of Undergraduate Education. Also in the Office of Undergraduate Education is the graduation help desk and our Student Success Center. For graduate students, our office of graduate education provides academic resources for the students, as do the schools themselves. And then specifically for international students, we have the International Center. With regards to financial resources, there are a couple of forms of emergency financial aid for students impacted by COVID-19. One is through federal funds, and another through funds raised by UT Dallas.

Musselman cont’d (26:52):

I’ll speak first about the federal funds. UT Dallas is receiving just over $19 million in federal aid through the coronavirus aid relief and economic security, or CARES act, that was passed by Congress. Half of this amount is designated for direct payments to students or their expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus, such as for food, housing, technology and healthcare. We have recently learned that the CARES’ funds are for Title IV eligible students, meaning that the students are eligible for federal student aid as determined, for example, by a Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA form. As such, international students are not eligible for these funds, but very soon there will be a call for applications from UT Dallas for students who are eligible to receive these funds. And these applications will be reviewed, and financial aid will be awarded. In addition to these federal funds, there is a UT Dallas student emergency fund that is being supported by donors. Using this fund, the university is awarding micro grants to students experiencing financial challenges in many of the same ways that I described earlier. This particular fund is open to applications from all UT Dallas students, including international students. And I think, Gene, do you want to comment on other ways UT Dallas is supporting students?

Fitch (28:37):

Sure. So, when the decision was made for us to work remotely, we immediately began transitioning many of our student support functions to a virtual environment. So as an example, the counseling center, the health center, our university career center—they are all offering services to students remotely. We’re providing online fitness classes. We’re doing trivia. We just completed a virtual iWeek of activities. So, check our social media accounts for updates on programs that still remain. We’re coordinating a noon pancake breakfast to replace our midnight breakfast that we’ve always done. So, watch for information about that. But we are continually looking for ways and investigating ways that we can engage our students in virtual format.

Martín (29:34):

Thank you, Dr. Fitch. Dr. Musselman—a follow-up question for Dr. Musselman, again, concerning GPA. Can Provost Musselman explain or clarify whether an F does indeed have an impact for graduate students on GPA?

Musselman (29:54):

That’s a good question. I’m just trying to remember with the pass/fail whether it impacts the GPA. 

Martín (30:09):

I believe, Inga, it does—it could potentially impact their eligibility to remain in their program, correct?

Musselman (30:15):

It does. It does. I think most degree plans require a minimum GPA in order to maintain, you know, status. Otherwise I think they go into some different type of status. So I guess it does affect the GPA.

Martín (30:33):

Very good. Thank you. Questions concerning return to campus. When will students, faculty and staff be able to return to campus? Who will make the decision about reopening campus: UT Dallas administrators or UT System? And is there a plan to do it in phases? And will some staff continue to work remotely even after the campus is fully opened? 

Benson (31:01):

Thanks again, Rafael. This is something that I started to speak to earlier, but I am happy to go into greater detail here. I’ll probably also give a heads-up to Joe Pancrazio;I may ask him to weigh in on the research part of this. But again, this is very complicated. It depends on our finances, but most importantly, it depends on health and safety. And it also depends on what local communities want us to do. That could be Dallas County, city of Richardson and so on. So, as I said earlier, we started to shut down the campus because we had to, and a reopening will also occur in partnership with the local community. Again, we’re a big part of this community; and unfortunately, if you have just one or two people with the virus and if they come into close quarters at a place like our campus, it could spread pretty rapidly.

Benson cont’d (32:00):

So we do not have the means to engage in some of the social isolation that you can in a smaller scale. You know, we’re not just one store front with a single point of entry. Again, this is a very, very large campus, and under normal circumstances we have tens of thousands of people coming on to campus and leaving every day. And they come through, you know, several dozen different places of entry. So we have to be very careful about how we reopen the campus. Now I think we can compartmentalize some of this. So for example, we might have a research lab which maybe involves a dozen people and there might be ways in which we could stagger their presence in that lab. And so we can control the entry. We can control how many people are there. We can make sure that we’re doing things like taking their temperature, doing whatever testing that we can on the local scale.

Benson cont’d (32:54):

So we may be able to open some of those labs, or maybe even have small classes that could start—whereas we won’t be able to do it for large scale classes. We might have something in the middle. We might have a 300-seat auditorium for which we can only accommodate 60 people. So they’re all spaced you know, throughout that large classroom. And as I mentioned before, even if we’re coming back to campus, there will still be people who can’t get here. And we still want to be doing online education for their benefit. So we’ll have to see how this plays out. We made the decision not too long ago to move the summer courses online, which we had done. I’ve been saying up to now that for the fall, it’s probably a 50/50 proposition at this point. Interestingly, if you get on the web, you’ll see some schools have declared that they will absolutely be back in session in the fall—I’m not sure quite how they can know that—and others that have declared that the fall will also be online. So we can’t say just yet. But again, we’re going to coordinate with many different entities. And so if I may, I might ask Joe if he could say a little bit about the research part of our enterprise.

Joe Pancrazio (34:13):

Thank you, Dr. Benson. Good afternoon, everyone. So we very quickly moved into a maintenance-only mode several weeks ago, and it happened abruptly. It was out of the necessity for many of the reasons that Dr. Benson mentioned. When it comes to reopening lab, those same stakeholders—our local municipalities, UT System and our administration—will play an important role in deciding whether or not the timing is right to do so in these research laboratory environments. But very important: faculty are going to be very much involved in the planning of reopening these research laboratories. We’ve started already with an initial dialogue with our faculty senate advisory group on research. And we’ll be then engaging in faculty who are stakeholders in local laboratory operations, so that we can talk about what research will look like in the early phases of reopening and reactivating the research engine. With regard to data collection, it’s important to recognize we’ve been able to stay research active throughout by shifting our activities in a way that relies more on analysis, that relies more on computation, that relies more on manuscript preparation, even grant submissions. The Office of Research has been fully operational remotely, and we’ve been able to keep the research proposal submission process going. Nevertheless, faculty will be integral to our decision-making process and shaping what research looks like, and how we operate going forward. Thank you.

Martín (35:53):

A follow-up question from the chat. How will research labs working with human subjects be affected? And do you anticipate being able to run experiments with human subjects this summer?

Pancrazio (36:08):

Well, yeah, that’s a great question. And I think that we’ll have to have the typical precautions that we would—you know, let’s presume for a moment that shelter-in-place has been lifted. Let’s presume that we’re in agreement relative UT System and our local stakeholders, and that the PIs who are integral in human subjects testing—including our IRB—has discussed fully the risk/benefit ratio that goes on for those kinds of interactions. And that we can provide those kinds of safeguards. Then, yes, I see that we could very well move forward. I think the issue is mainly about limiting large assemblies in densely populated areas. In other words, if you have a room full of ten people, that’s an issue; but one-on-one interactions where people maintain social distancing—perhaps wearing personal protective equipment—these are things that could be part of the mitigation strategies that we use to reduce the risk, such that we can proceed with research. But I think this is going to be where our faculty sit down, our IRB sits down to factor this into the considerations of what risk means going forward. So, I think we have time for an orderly process. We didn’t have as much time during the shutdown for an orderly process. That’s why I appreciate the patience and the activity of the faculty to be able to implement the shutdown. But now know we’re starting to see what looks like the glimmers of light at the end of the tunne,l and it’s time to be having those conversations and shaping what research will look like in the early phases of reactivation.

Benson (37:42):

Rafael, if I may, I’d like to switch roles here and ask you maybe to answer this question yourself. You’ve been leading our task force, you know, for the coronavirus response. So how do you see our schedule for reopening campus? 

Martín (37:57)

Well, I think the short answer, Dr. Benson, is that we don’t know because there’s still too many unknowns in the environment. We certainly can’t act before we have some guidelines from our public health authorities to help guide us to make sure that we’re taking the appropriate protective measures for our students, faculty and staff, to be able to ensure that everybody is—their health and safety and wellbeing is the utmost priority. So you know, we have established several working groups on campus: the academic enterprise led by Provost Musselman; Dr. Pancrazio leading the working group on the research enterprise; Colleen Dutton leading the administrative task force; Dr. Jamison working on campus readiness; and Dr. Fitch on student support and campus housing. I expect to lean heavily on those working groups to develop plans to safely move us back to a normal status on campus. But we won’t be able to do that until we have some clear guidelines. There have been several follow-up questions in the chat about whether or not we would be requiring testing, whether we’d be taking temperatures, whether people would be required to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines. I think those are all possibilities, but we just don’t know the answers to those just yet. We were still awaiting some sort of lifting of the safer-at-home or shelter-in-place orders from Dallas County and from the state. And we’re going to look to our public health authorities for guidance, and to our peer institutions, both in Texas and across the nation, for best practices in terms of reopening the campus.

Benson (39:50):

Well said. Thank you. 

Martín (39:55):

Another couple of questions—and perhaps Dr. Jamison can weigh in. In a similar vein, what have we been doing to ensure that the campus is appropriately maintained and disinfected and ready for students and faculty and staff when we’re ready to come back to campus?

Jamison (40:15):

Thank you, Rafael, Dr. Benson. We have been here every day making sure that we have basically cleaned the campus, sanitized it. We have over 50,000 hand sanitizers, but not quite that many left. [inaudible] Doing a lot of deferred maintenance that needs to be taken care of during that time as well. Not to mention we’re feeding all the students who are still here, that are still in the res halls. So, I think the biggest issue for us in the transition would be to make sure that we have the appropriate signage; the proper sanitation—sanitizing efforts are a part of the process itself; making sure that we have policies in place to ensure there’s a smooth transition, for a safe environment. So I will say to the campus community: this is as a well-groomed and clean as you’re ever gonna find a campus, without a doubt, and ask the time to come take a picture. It is a perfect, perfect environment because of what we’ve been able to do. Now, I will say, some of the decisions that will need to be made about this will come later in the June timeframe. And then, with that in mind, our policies will begin to be introduced about how best to introduce persons back to the campus; and we’ll be working on that process as well. So it is ready. 

Martín (41:43)

Thank you, Dr. Jamison. A follow-up question, I think probably for Dr. Fitch: how might the fall semester look—if we’re online in the fall semester, how might that impact athletics and sports?

Fitch (41:57):

Okay, sure. Well, as you can imagine, this is a decision that requires feedback and input from many sources—the NCAA, the state, the system, our conference. It is our hope and our desire that we can on some level have athletic competition. But as you’ve heard many people say, it’s simply too early to tell right now. We are in consultation with the NCAA and our conference. And as you know, the NCAA has not made any decisions about fall sports at this point. So as soon as we hear, we will certainly let our student body know.

Martín (42:37):

Thank you, Dr. Fitch. Another follow-up question probably for Dr. Benson, and maybe Terry Pankratz: given the impact that the outbreak is going to have on our finances, should students be prepared for a hike in tuition costs?

Benson (42:56):

The short answer is no. I don’t see that happening. We study tuition needs, you know, revenue needs very, very carefully. You know, we never try to increase tuition without having complete justification for the things that we want to achieve. In many cases we have escalating costs, and more often than not, when we’ve had an increase in tuition, it actually hasn’t kept up with the cost of living. So we work very, very hard to run a lean operation. And there’s two major pieces, of course, to our operating budget. There’s the amount that we receive from the state, and then the amount that we receive from tuition; and I won’t go into a very long discussion, but over some period of time, I’m talking decades, we’ve seen a gradual shift where the majority of the funds came from the state, and the minority, you know, from, from tuition—to where that has flipped.

Benson cont’d (43:50):

People speak of the X curve. So we are like every other state university, that at some point we had a crossing where we had more revenue that comes from tuition than from the state. But we are very dependent on our expenses. We are very dependent on how the state will help support us. No doubt our expenses will continue to go up, and our support from the state will continue to go down. But I don’t want people to think that that means that we’re going to increase tuition as a result. We’re going to try very hard to keep that in check, so we are not adding just one more layer of burden to our students. So I’ll leave it at that, and see if Terry would like to add his own comments.

Pankratz (44:33):

Dr. Benson, I don’t think I really have anything substantive to add. I will just say from a planning perspective, we are evaluating many, many scenarios to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but raising tuition has not been a subject that we have even begun to address. So that’s not really on our radar right now. 

Benson (44:53)

I agree.

Martín (44:56):

A follow-up question for Dr. Musselman concerning the ability of students to take standardized tests, and whether or not GRE/GMAT scores would be required for graduate student admission in the coming semesters.

Musselman (45:12):

With regards to the GRE and the GMAT, they’re required on a program-by-program basis. So I can answer that with regards to you—and what specifically is the follow-up question with regards to? SAT and ACT?

Martín (45:28):

It was more just about the GRE and the GMAT and whether or not they would be required for graduate student admission.

Musselman (45:33):

So that’s really a program decision. Program-by-program. 

Martín (45:38):

Okay. Have you heard anything, Dr. Musselman, about the standardized testing services moving to online formats to allow students to take the tests?

Musselman (45:49):

I know that they’re working on trying to make that possible, and I think the timeline they’re looking at is hopefully this summer. But I don’t know, you know, what they’ve been able to accomplish or what the timeline is at this point.

Martín (46:03):

Very good. Another follow-up concerning the suspension of employment offers: does this include offers for RAs and TAs as part of doctoral student education funding?

Mussleman (46:14):

No, the suspension for hiring does not include students in the positions of teaching assistants, research assistants or graduate assistants; TAs, RAs and GAs.

Martín (46:29):

Very good, thank you. I’d like to move on to some questions concerning impacts on academics and teaching. What is the university doing to support faculty who have had to transition to online teaching? And, related, how is the university ensuring the integrity of testing and assessment in the online environment? And then a final question: how will the university handle internship or service hour requirements for certain degree programs?

Benson (47:04):

I think I will ask our provost to handle those questions. 

Musselman (47:08)

Thank you, Dr. Benson. In early March, an academic continuity working group was created. This working group consists of about 30 faculty, staff and students; and the working group has met at least weekly since the 4th of March to address many aspects of continuing the academic and specifically the instructional mission of the university. So, as Rafael Martín said, I am the responsible university official, and Dean Jessica Murphy is the chair of the working group. But the working group has worked very, very hard. The members have worked hard, at the beginning, to prepare faculty to be able to transition their courses from an in-person, on-campus format to an online format. And many people spent the better part of two weeks, including the faculty—especially the faculty—in order to make this transition. There really was heroic assistance from Darren Crone and his eLearning team, as well as by the Office of Information Technology.

Musselman cont’d (48:17):

Darren’s team provided in-person and virtual trainings for faculty to help them transition their courses. OIT help to provide computers as needed and so forth. Again, those two weeks, it was a full-out sprint, I would say, to get these courses online. In addition, we learned that there are many experts in the schools with regards to online learning and many, many faculty and administrators in the schools stepped up to assist with that transition. And then there was a so-called “power users” group of faculty with demonstrated expertise in online learning that was constituted by Darren Crone. And it has been led by Mary Beth Goodrich in JSOM to assist faculty colleagues in transitioning the courses to online. I would really like to ask the faculty who are with us today in this town hall to please let us know how else the university can support you as you continue to transition your courses online, as many of you will be doing for the summer semester.

Musselman cont’d (49:27):

Moving onto the next question: the next question was how was the university ensuring the integrity of testing and assessment in the online environment? And of course, this is something that we’re all very concerned about. The university has currently piloted an artificial intelligence version of a product called Examity that we have used in the past. In addition, I know that our continuing online academic continuity working subgroup—it’s a mouthful—headed by Darren Crone and Bill Hefley, are exploring other academic integrity tools. And in addition we’re taking another tact on this: Paul Diehl and Karen Huxtable, our leaders in the Center for Teaching and Learning, are beginning now to hold webinars on best practices for delivering assessments in an online format. And I know today that they held a webinar specifically on final exams in an online format. And then over the course of the next month, as we transition from the spring semester into the summer semester—where all of the courses will be held on online—they will be helping to present best practices for developing syllabi for the online format, that will include best practices for online assessments.

Musselman cont’d (50:46):

The third question had to do with how the university will handle internship or service hour requirements for certain degree programs. These are really being handled on a program-by-program basis. Many internships for students are being offered virtually. I know that programs that require internships and service hours are also providing alternatives for their students, so that students can progress in their degree programs. So, any students listening here, I would recommend that if your programs require internships or service hours that you contact the leaders of your degree programs and your academic advisors. Thanks.

Benson (51:35):

Okay, Rafael, and if I could add a word here, [it is] not distinctly different to have online teaching and learning and also to have residential learning. So in other words, in many cases you could have a hybrid format. You could have a class being offered to people who sit before you. Meanwhile, you have other participants listening in or, you know, watching, from all parts of the world. And I’ve seen this in other places where I’ve worked. It can be a wonderful environment. It can open up our education to many, many more potential students. It can help enhance partnerships that we have with other universities, including all around the world. You can do other things. You can have asynchronous presentation of lecture material. While you’re presenting—say in the format that we’re using right now—you can have, in essence, the chat function, where students can be talking among themselves or getting questions answered as the class progresses. So, you know, I think if there is a point of serendipity in all of this, we have very quickly mastered this technology. And I think, as we look further out, we want to see if we can’t take further advantage of this. So again, we want our students back on campus, you know, at the earliest possible opportunity. But I think we will draw lessons from what we are doing right now, where we are forced into the online mode. But it doesn’t mean we want to just give it up completely. Again, there are many things that we can do by using this technology to really broaden our impact and engage an even broader and more diverse group of students. So I see, you know, something of a silver lining here in what we’re going through. 

Martín (53:17)

Thank you, Dr. Benson and Dr. Musselman. We’re getting close to the hour we have scheduled for this town hall, so this will be the last question for Dr. Benson. It concerns long-term impacts of the current environment: a number of articles recently have said that potentially 30 – 50% of institutions of higher education might close in the next five to 10 years because of the financial impacts of this pandemic. Is this a concern for UT Dallas? And will this period negatively impact the health of the university in the long-term?

Benson (53:57):

Well, certainly we’re going to take a financial hit in the coming year. So, we can’t escape that. But I am very, very confident that our long-term prospects for health. Remember, we’re one of the nation’s strongest universities coming into this crisis. And the crisis is a nationwide—it’s worldwide. So it’s not something that is striking us locally, where somehow we’re at some disadvantage to other universities. We come into this as one of the strongest universities, and we will absolutely come out of it as one of the nation’s strongest universities. As I said, at the top of this hour, there’s a reason why we are the nation’s second fastest growing university. We are delivering the sort of education that people want, that employers want. And again, the number of applications to come onto our campus just continues to grow by a very impressive amount. And for those of you who’ve been at UTD for quite some time, you may not realize that this is not the way it is everywhere.

Benson cont’d (54:55):

There’s a lot of universities that struggle to fill their classes one year to the next; but that surely is not us. Let’s also remember where we’re located. We’re in Texas. You know, we’re in North Dallas. Again as, as strong an economy as you can find anywhere in the country and maybe even the world. So we are very blessed to be located where we are. I think what is important for us to do is to weather the storm. We have to do it. We will have to do some things that we don’t like—like, you know, defer raises and things like that, or slow the number of job offers that we give. But let’s be thinking not just how to get through the next month and the next couple of months, but think about where we want to be; say a year, year and a half from now; say, you know, after a vaccine is developed, right after this crisis abates.

Benson cont’d (55:46):

What did we learn using online education, for example? I think there are things that we can do to really broaden our impact. And you know, there’s no other university that I would want to be a part of. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. So in terms of where we’re getting to, I know we will be in an excellent position. And so we’re gonna attempt to tough it out for a little while. But I have enormous confidence in the future of UT Dallas. So, you know, I hope it can be at least a point of inspiration for everybody on this call to understand that we’re getting back to something that is going to be very strong. And I also want to say I just wait for the day when the campus is full of people.

Benson cont’d (56:31):

I said in some of my communications: I want people getting a cup of coffee in the student union. I want to hear music, you know, out on the Mall. I want all of that, and we’ll get it. The day will come when we will get back to that campus. This is a wonderful, wonderful campus in so many dimensions. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a nurturing place. It is just a great place to live and work and study. So it waits for us. We will get there. So I want to encourage everybody as we work tthrough this challenge that lies in front of us.

Martín (57:06):

Thank you, Dr. Benson; and thank you to everybody who submitted questions. I’d like to recognize that we were not able to get to all the questions provided through the chat or through the townhall@utdallas email address; however, we will make an attempt to answer as many questions as we can, and post the answers on our COVID-19 website, utdallas.edu/coronavirus. And I would also like to remind everybody that this event has been recorded, and we will make it available for those who were not able to attend live today. With that, I would like to throw it back to Dr. Benson for any closing remarks.

Benson (57:50):

Well, I want to thank everybody for participating. You know, this is a family—the Comet family. I’m glad to have this conversation with you. I want to finish it as I began: I want to thank academic senate staff council and student government for collectively having the really fine idea to have this town hall. So this won’t be the last time we do this. We will continue to communicate with one another. And so until the next time and throughout, please take good care of yourself. Please be safe. We wish you well.

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