June 2, 2020
Dear Faculty and Staff,
Today, it has been 11 weeks since the University transitioned to a virtual environment, and it will be another 12 weeks before we anticipate students returning to campus. While we know a little bit more about the virus today than in March, the threat is not over. If anything, we have come to the realization that we have to learn to co-exist with the virus—professionally and personally—until an effective treatment or vaccine is found. Texas is opening as is Houston, and we have to take our steps toward reopening slowly and safely. We took our first step by opening research labs May 6. A System-wide Reopening Task Force has guided me in deciding our steps, but a lot more work remains. Here are the anticipated next steps:
Phase Two of Reopening: Gov. Abbott’s most recent executive order allows institutions of higher education to open their physical campuses June 1. We will take one additional week to prepare the facilities and will open the campus (including Sugar Land and Katy) on Monday, June 8, on a voluntary basis. If you would like to work on campus or access your office, you may do so starting June 8 but please make sure to (1) complete the COVID 19 mandatory training; (2) pass a self-health screening test; and (3) inform your chair/supervisor about your desire to work from your office. We will be limiting occupancy to 25%. As per our current guidelines, we ask that you maintain 6 feet of social distancing, however, in the event that you are unable to do so, we ask that you please wear a mask or face covering on campus. These provisions are necessary for your safety and of those around you, but they are also needed to ensure institutional compliance with the state’s criteria for public safety. Chairs and supervisors will ensure that no more than 25% of employees are in attendance at any given time to maintain social distancing during Phase 2. Again, I ask that if you can perform your work remotely, please continue to do so.
Phase 3 Reopening: We expect to begin Phase 3 sometime in July; however, we have not set a date at this point. We will continue to monitor the situation and will announce the exact date and the scope in late June.
Fall Semester: Consistent with other comprehensive research universities in the state and the nation, we expect to deliver fall semester instruction in three formats:
- Full on-campus experience
- Full online convenience
- HyFlex course, delivered both in person and online at the same time by the same faculty member.
From the faculty’s perspective it means that they will also have three options:
- Teach online (faculty in CDC-defined vulnerable groups may teach online if that is their preference).
- Teach on campus
- Teach a HyFlex course
Under the Provost’s direction, the Instructional Task Force is looking at all options to ensure that faculty have safe options and that students also have options to receive both an on-campus and online experience. Upon the recommendation of the Instructional Task Force, I have approved the following two provisions:
- All classes and final exams scheduled after the Thanksgiving break will transition to online delivery according to the current academic calendar.
- Classroom seating will be reorganized to ensure a 6-foot distance between student seats and at least an 8-foot distance between professors and students.
The Provost’s Office will be offering several virtual sessions for faculty to share best practices and/or to listen to experts to enhance instructional effectiveness in virtual and HyFlex classrooms.
Safety as We Return to Campus: Nothing is more important than the safety of our Cougar family. Since health guidelines and available technologies continue to change weekly, committing to any one plan is a futile exercise at this point. However, here are the steps being taken to ensure your safety.
- Any plan we execute will follow the most prudent safety guidelines. It will be our commitment to any and all decisions we make.
- We will have a campuswide plan to identify, monitor and mitigate the spread of the virus. The plan will include testing as necessary. We are training our own contract tracers to supplement those of the public health department.
- I will be appointing a COVID Response Coordinator (CRC) next week to serve as a single point of contact for internal and external communities on COVID-related safety issues. This individual will help to ensure that the most important information does not fall through the cracks and that your concerns are given immediate attention.
- We will make every effort to protect those among us who fall in CDC-defined vulnerable groups.
- We plan to host several webinars/town halls during the summer to ensure that you have the opportunity to engage, learn and also bring forward your concerns.
Budgetary Items: I would like to thank the Financial Task Force for their incredible hard work in evaluating all the financial tools available to us. Because of their keen attention to data and details, we have managed our crisis relatively well so far. Thanks to donors and the CARES Act, we have also helped more than 26,000 students with extra financial support.
Out of three unknown external factors (summer enrollment, fall enrollment and a state budget cut), we have clarity on two. (1) We know that our summer enrollment has turned out to be strong. In fact, it has made up for the slight enrollment drop in fall and spring. (2) The state has imposed a 5% budget reduction for the current biennium; however, since we have already spent funds for this year, we will have to make necessary adjustment in FY21. Given the oil crisis on top of everything else, we can expect a very difficult budget environment in coming years, and it will be prudent for us to carefully monitor our expenditures. The third factor – fall enrollment – is still unknown. Within that context, I offer you the following information:
- For the current fiscal year ending on August 31, we do not anticipate any university-wide major changes.
- For the next fiscal year beginning September 1, we will be instituting a 7.5% budget reduction. The percentage is fixed for vice presidents; however, they have flexibility to best distribute the reduction within their areas.
- While we continue to operate under a university-wide hiring pause, I am allowing vice presidents to approve critical hires in their areas after absorbing the 7.5% reduction.
- Funds from the sweep on fund balances—25% from academic units and 50% from administrative units—will be kept in the central reserve fund to be used for academic and university-wide initiatives, respectively.
- Any extra instructional revenue generated from summer will be given to the provost to reward colleges based on performance. An analysis of colleges’ instructional revenue from FY19 to FY20 will be available from the Provost’s Office. This is consistent with the budget transparency exercise we undertook last year and with the recommendation that there should be a correlation between colleges’ productivity and their budgets.
- The New Normal Task Force recommended that we offer badges, micro-credentials and fully online degrees to meet the needs of the city and the state. Should the proposals be ready in time, we intend to take them to the Board of Regents at the next meeting.
I hope this update is helpful. While it does not answer all your questions, I hope it answers a few. I want to assure you that various task forces are working relentlessly to plan for these unprecedented times. Please remember that our challenge is to perform our mission while keeping everyone safe, and we have to do so in an extremely unpredictable and evolving external environment. You have my commitment to listen to you, learn from you and to help us guide our path forward.
Please be careful as you move out and about. Keep yourself and your families safe. As always, you can write to me directly or ask your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With warm regards,Renu Khator