Trustees discuss COVID-19, financial impacts, tuition-setting

The UO seal on Dads Gate

The Board of Trustees of the University of Oregon worked through a robust agenda at its Dec. 3-4 meeting, including updates on the UO’s COVID-19 response, its short- and long-term financial outlook and its diversity initiatives.

The board also approved without dissent a new undergraduate program in dance, as well as an $8.8 million renovation and expansion project of the UO’s pioneering Zebrafish International Resource Center. The renovation is largely funded by two National Institutes of Health grants.

The quarterly meeting came as the UO wraps up its fall term and prepares for a winter term in which many courses will remain remote. The meeting also followed the virtual grand opening of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact earlier in the week, a major milestone in the largest addition to the UO’s academic and research programs in decades.

“We’re almost a year into this now,” said board Chair Chuck Lillis, referring to the pandemic. “Most of us are ready to move on to the next stage of COVID-19 treatment, at least I certainly am.”

Provost Patrick Phillips acknowledged the U.S. appears headed for “a very dark winter” with the pandemic, but stressed that the UO remains “very calm and deliberative” in its approach to how it will operate until a vaccine is widely available.

“The institution as a whole, from a planning perspective, has been very well situated to ensure this does not derail our work,” Phillips said. “We will continue to do the best and most that we can in this public health setting. And we remain very hopeful looking ahead.”   

Andre Le Duc, associate vice president and chief resilience officer, briefed the trustees on some updates to the UO’s COVID-19 health and safety operational plan, including efforts to incorporate the state’s new system for setting local COVID risk levels.

Le Duc said that, over fall term, students living in UO residence halls had a 0.25 percent positivity rate on more than 16,000 COVID tests administered by the university’s Monitoring and Assessment Program. Despite a spike in cases at the start of fall term, primarily among students living off campus, Le Duc said the university had succeeded in “flattening the curve” in the lead-up to the holiday season.

The university’s isolation and quarantine space never became stressed for capacity throughout fall term, he added.

“Our students on campus are for the most part following the public health guidance,” Le Duc said. “We have not seen any spread on our campus.”

Trustee Laura Lee McIntyre said that the local public perception seems to be that university students played a big role in the growth of Lane County cases in the ages 18 to 30 demographic.

“There’s a lot of discussion and social media narratives” about UO contributing to local cases, she said.

But Le Duc said those perceptions don’t match up with either the county’s or the university’s data that show a steady decline in cases tied to the UO since mid-October.

“People got hooked on the spike we saw early (in the term), and that’s what people still have in their heads,” Le Duc said.

Jamie Moffitt, vice president for finance and administration, meanwhile told the board that the pandemic has had “a very significant impact on revenues and expenses” at the university.

With a 3.6 percent drop in enrollment this fall, undergraduate tuition is expected to be $17.5 million below the original projections for this academic year, she said. The drop, mainly due to a reduction in the number of entering first year undergraduate students, will impact the university’s tuition-supported Education and General Fund budget for the next four to five years. 

However, this year, due to reductions in expenses tied to COVID, including reductions in travel and supply costs as well as a hiring freeze, the UO’s education and general fund faces an estimated deficit of around $3.4 million, Moffitt said.

The UO’s largest auxiliary funds, athletics and housing and dining, face combined net losses of around $73 million this fiscal year, Moffitt said. said. Auxiliary units are expected to generate and live within their own revenue sources to fund operations.

In the longer term, Moffitt said that fall enrollment at the start of the 2021-22 academic year will be critical to the UO’s financial position.

“If you assume next fall looks like this fall, in terms of enrollment, when you combine two years of fewer students, it’s a huge impact. We’re probably looking at recurring deficits in the $20 million to $25 million range” in the education and general fund, she said. “That would be a very challenging situation for us.”

The UO’s external auditor, Moss Adams LLP, presented its annual report, which included a finding of no material weaknesses or significant deficiencies in the university’s internal financial controls. Scott Simpson, a partner with Moss Adams, had high praise for the UO’s financial aid office and its leader, Jim Brooks, describing its work as best in class. Simpson also had a very positive report about Kelly Wolf, UO’s controller, and UO Chief Auditor Leah Ladley, who also presented her quarterly audit report.

The board also discussed the tuition-setting process for the next academic year with Kevin Marbury, vice president for student life, and Moffitt, who co-chair of the Tuition and Fee Advisory Board. This process will be the first since the board adopted the Oregon Guarantee in March, a model which allows each new Duck to pay the same fixed tuition rate for up to five years.

The advisory board will meet weekly during the first two months of 2021, as they craft their tuition recommendations to present to President Michael H. Schill who, in turn, will present a recommendation to trustees for their March meeting.

“This is always an interesting time and I think it’s even more interesting with the guaranteed tuition” model, trustee Ginevra Ralph said. “(Current) students will be setting tuition for the next group. They always were, but it felt different” under the previous model with annual tuition increases.

During the Dec. 4 portion of the meeting, Phillips; Yvette Alex-Assensoh, vice president for equity and inclusion; and Mark Schmelz, chief human resources officer, provided an update on the UO’s institutional equity, inclusion and diversity initiatives.

The presentation included reviews of data on gender and minority representation among faculty, staff and students, as well as the university’s recruitment and retention efforts for employees and students of color.

Alex-Assensoh also discussed the implementation of the campuswide IDEAL framework and the recently completed analysis of 35 campus units’ diversity action plans since 2017.  She noted that the goal is to have an effective dashboard for trustees and other university leaders to work from as these endeavors continue.

“While we have a good understanding of what needs to be done to shift our campus culture, we have not consistently prioritized success in diversity and inclusion and neither have we measured it consistently,” she said. “President Schill’s goals to provide new measures of accountability are promising and we are eager to move into this new space.”

The UO plans conduct a campuswide climate survey in 2021, Schmelz said, after the effort was paused this year due to the pandemic.

The board approved a new Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance, which has also been approved by the University Senate. If approved by the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the program will be the first BFA in dance degree in Oregon and the only BFA degree nationwide to place equal emphasis on dances of the African diaspora and those of European roots.

The board also approved on an $8.8 million renovation and expansion of the UO’s Zebrafish International Resource Center, including upgrading much of center’s 20-year-old aquaculture equipment, research space and biosafety features.

The majority of the funds for the project will come from two National Institutes of Health grants, totaling $8.3 million. The UO Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation has pledged $550,000 towards the project. Former UO faculty member George Streisinger pioneered the use of zebrafish in biological research, and the center supports the UO’s ongoing work as well as zebrafish research worldwide.

Mike Harwood, associate vice president for campus planning and facilities management, said the project will replace equipment that’s now reached “the end of its useful life.” Construction is slated to begin in spring, he added. Harwood also provided the board with an update on existing construction projects on campus and the university’s deferred maintenance needs.

For the board’s academic area in focus this quarter, professor John Halliwill, department head of human physiology, showcased the department and its work, including its undergraduate and graduate offerings, faculty profiles, and expansion plans.

The department has grown substantially over the last two decades and now ranks as the third-largest undergraduate major at the UO. It is opening new labs inside a wing of Hayward Field, which will help “get rid of the wall between athletics and academics and science,” Halliwell said.

“Students are drawn to the science of the human condition,” he said. “They want science that connects to their everyday lives and their future professions.”

The next quarterly meeting of the board of trustees is scheduled for March 8-9. The board’s website has more information, including how best to contact the board with any comments or questions.

By Saul Hubbard, University Communications