UO Board of Trustees discusses student reengagement

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Days before UO freshmen moved into campus residence halls, the Board of Trustees of the University of Oregon reviewed the university’s plans to reengage thousands of students into campus life after their lengthy COVID-19-enforced absence.

The board’s agenda at its September quarterly meeting also included an update on the UO’s short- and long-term finances and approval of two construction projects, as well as briefings on the UO’s institutional diversity, equity and inclusion work and its student success initiatives.

The meeting was the board’s first in-person gathering on campus since March 2020. It also served as an opportunity to formally welcome the 15-member board’s seven new trustees, who were nominated by Gov. Kate Brown and confirmed by the Oregon Senate earlier this year.

Board Chair Chuck Lillis noted, as the meeting began, that “almost half of the trustees are new,” which is a first since the creation of the UO’s governing board in 2013.

“Thank you, all of you, for taking time away from your very busy schedules to come assist and help our very special university,” Lillis said. Service on the board “is about the continual pursuit of academic excellence and all of you, I know, are as passionate about that as we all are.”

President Michael Schill said the start of fall term marks an “important time” for the UO with the resumption of mostly in-person instruction and the campus community being brought together again.

“It’s going to take some time, I think, for all of us — faculty, students, staff — to get over some of the anxiety that all of us feel” about returning to campus amid concerns about the delta variant, he said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge and empathize with that feeling.”

“Fortunately,” Schill added, “we are well-prepared in our layered approach to prevention, response and support. This is going to allow us to return safely to campus.”

That plan includes, most critically, a vaccination requirement for students and employees, Schill said, as well as a weekly testing requirement for those who claim an exemption to that requirement. More than 95 percent of student and employee respondents are fully vaccinated, according to the latest UO figures, with more than 90 percent now reporting.

Other strategies the UO has implemented include a face-covering requirement, an in-house testing program, a robust case management strategy, and environmental safety tactics, including enhanced ventilation and thorough cleaning.

Schill also highlighted the recent news that UO had easily surpassed its $3 billion fundraising goal and expressed confidence that the UO’s fall enrollment numbers will be strong.

“We are very hopeful that this will be one of our largest, most diverse and most academically prepared classes ever,” he said.

Part of the challenge of fall term will be successfully welcoming and integrating two full undergraduate classes that have not yet had an in-person college experience in Eugene, Provost Patrick Phillips said.

“We know that students have suffered more than any other (university) constituency during the pandemic,” he said, pointing to data that showed high rates of depression among certain student groups. “As a public institution, we have to take these numbers seriously and show our commitment to addressing them.”

Kris Winter, senior associate vice president for student life, and Grant Schoonover, senior director for undergraduate academic success, presented the university’s initiatives for engaging students, including a summer bridge program to ease transition in college, new peer academic coaching, expanded academic and co-curricular engagement through First-Year Interest Groups, and greater advising and peer mentorship support.

Isiah Boyd, president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, told the trustees that the student organization is also focused on the same goal.

“One of our main priorities is making campus feel like a campus again,” he said.

In other business, trustees approved without dissent a proposed operating expenditure authorization for fiscal year 2022.

Jamie Moffitt, vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer, said UO revenues in the education and general fund remained steady in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020-21, while expenses dipped by $9 million due COVID‐19-related one‐time cost savings tied to the university hiring freeze and supplies and services reductions.

However, the loss of at least 800 first-year students in fall 2020 due to the pandemic dramatically affected the university’s 2020-21 finances, Moffitt said, and will continue to hurt the education and general fund for the next three years because of lost tuition dollars.

The board approved $15 million in funding for preliminary expenses tied to phase 2 of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. That work will include schematic design, property surveys and assessments, site preparation, and other preconstruction costs for a second building.

Trustees also gave the green light to a significant renovation of Huestis Hall in the Lokey Science Complex. Planned improvements include increased programmatic square footage, more flexible lab space, modernized public areas, and new mechanical and plumbing systems and network infrastructure. The $63.6 million project will be largely funded by state-backed bonds, which the Oregon Legislature has already approved.

The board received an update on the Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact from Executive Director Robert Guldberg. Guldberg highlighted new ventures and businesses that have launched from the campus in its first year, as well as new staff hires and academic programs, and the establishment of the UO’s COVID-19 MAP testing program.

In July, the Knight Campus was selected for a partnership with five other institutions to work on understanding peak physical performance, thanks to a $220 million grant from the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation.

“It’s remarkable that it was only a year ago that we moved in” to the building, Guldberg said.

On the second day of the meeting, the board heard an update on the UO’s institutional diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

A cross-disciplinary team presented information on its data collection work so far, which will help inform the institution’s projects to increase the recruitment and retention of more diverse students and employees.

Trustees asked how the UO might use the data on employee diversity to get more buy-in from individual departments to embrace tactics to increase diversity in job applicant pools and what common barriers exist in terms of bringing people from minority groups to campus.

“Higher education has a tradition issue: We tend to do things the way they’ve always been done,” said Yvette Alex-Assensoh, vice president for equity and inclusion. “So when we have an opening for a job in an academic department, we go through existing professional networks …. The problem is that in America our networks are racially and ethnically bounded.”

Additionally, Kimberly Johnson, vice provost for undergraduate education and student success, briefed the trustees on the UO’s student success initiatives. One big area of achievement, Johnson said, is the increase in the four-year graduation rates of UO students from 49.9 percent in 2016 to 61.3 percent in 2020, realizing a goal set by Schill, though she noted there’s “still more progress and work to be done.”

Moving forward, Johnson said her team has identified some key metrics for further improving student success, which include measuring students’ career placement within six months of graduation, core education learning outcomes expressed in student experience surveys, and indebtedness at graduation.

To improve those, “we cannot operate in silos,” she said. “Students have to navigate and connect to the entire institution. That requires us as departments to integrate together and be more student-centered, so our services make sense for all students.”

Trustees asked about the feasibility of further increasing UO graduation rates, whether the administration’s definition of student success lines up with students’ perspective, and plans to help students to catch up on their four-year graduation target if they’ve fallen behind due to COVID-19 disruptions.

Finally, Leah Ladley, the UO’s internal auditor, reviewed her office’s charge with the trustees and provided a report on the work her staff has completed this fiscal year as well as on ongoing and upcoming projects.

By  Saul Hubbard, University Communications