Statement by USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman on the Remainder of the Semester, Commencement, and Other Issues

March 19, 2020

This morning, as you likely heard, Gov. Hogan announced that he’s encouraging USM universities to deliver instruction through distance-learning for the remainder of the semester. Let’s be frank: That’s the same decision this Board was moving toward. It’s certainly a decision that’s uniformly supported by the USM presidents. They’ve been planning for long-term remote instruction for weeks now, knowing that this was a possibility.

So it is, indeed, our decision that all undergraduate face-to-face instruction will shift to remote instruction for the rest of the semester. It will be up to presidents, provosts, deans, and department heads to work out detailed plans that allow students to complete their work and to fulfill all of their requirements. I believe this is important not only for our institutions but for our students themselves, who should be assured that they did the work—and successfully demonstrated the knowledge and skills—that their courses required.

It’s appropriate that each university’s leaders determine what the rest of their semester looks like in terms of remote instruction and assessment.

I must note here that, in terms of graduate students and students in professional programs, we have a different set of considerations. We’re working through those considerations now, and we’ll certainly need guidance from the relevant accrediting bodies and boards that provide certification.

Turning back to our undergraduates, as we roll out plans for remote instruction this semester, we’re cognizant that we have students who have limited access to computers or to the Internet while off-campus. All of our universities have been united in finding ways to provide these students with laptops, and to arrange free Internet service through various carriers. Similarly, universities are sharing with one another their technology plans and platforms for things like final exams, clinical simulations, and lab demonstrations.

It’s been deeply gratifying to see the universities going out of their way to help each other through the challenges we’re facing. The degree to which the campuses are sharing with one another and collaborating on policies and protocols is just incredible.

I do want to share one word of caution as we enter this period of distance-learning. This isn’t a break. It’s not a respite from the semester. It’s not a party. I urge students staying in their family homes or in off-campus housing to follow the state and federal guidelines on gatherings.

I think many of us saw the coverage in the last couple days showing students celebrating spring break in Florida. And I think many of us were disturbed by it. So I’d like to remind all of us that we follow social distancing and self-isolating guidelines not only for our own health, but for the health of others—for those who are more susceptible to this virus than we may be, and for those who will have more difficulty recovering from it.

We all need to practice good citizenship. And the way we do that during a crisis like COVID-19 is to follow the guidance of the epidemiologists and policymakers who want nothing more than to safeguard public health.

Given that students will not be returning to campus for instruction this semester, the universities are formulating plans and schedules for students to retrieve their belongings from dorms and on-campus housing. Obviously, this needs to be done in an orderly fashion—with special attention given to the fact that we cannot have people gathering in large crowds, and that we need to be able to maintain social distancing.

Universities will be especially concerned about what we call “pinch points,” small spaces where large numbers of people could gather—such as elevators and entrance and exit doorways. Staff will be thoroughly disinfecting high-touch areas between these shifts of returning students. And, of course, we’ll need to be able to manage circumstances in which students are unable to retrieve their things—for whatever reason.

Now that we’ve made the decision to go to distance-learning for the rest of the semester, universities can start rolling out their student move-out plans quickly.

Distance-learning has still more implications for housing, specifically the fair adjustment of costs associated with room and board. The universities are, again, united in their support of refunding room and board on a prorated basis.

We have good guidance from the federal government that financial aid packages will not be affected by a refund on room and board. This means that students receiving financial aid should not have that aid reduced or clawed back because of these refunds.

We recommend, as well, prorated refunds of various university fees. In the short term, we think students and families should be able to know how much money is coming back to them through these refunds, and our campuses are working on how we might do that.

I think given our discussions about long-term distance-learning and given the state and federal guidance against gatherings larger than 10 people, it’ll come as no surprise that USM universities will not be holding traditional, in-person commencement ceremonies.

I’ve encouraged universities to be creative in how they celebrate their graduates. Many are talking about celebrating in a virtual environment. I’d certainly also support in-person commencement gatherings once this period of COVID-19 threat has lifted.  

The System presidents and I are looking at implications beyond commencement, as well, and into the fall semester. For instance, we have consensus around pushing back the tuition deposit deadline, which is traditionally May 1. And we’re looking at pushing back housing deposits as well. The universities will come to a uniform decision on these deadlines, and I’ll share those with you when a final decision is made.

It’s important to remember that our response to the coronavirus affects not only our education mission, but our research mission as well. Our research-intensive universities are working with one another on research restrictions, moving rapidly to protect their people, programs, and equipment.

The restrictions we’re putting in place now affect basic research, animal research, clinical trials, and electronic data research. We’re advising that laboratories ramp down their research significantly and continue only those research activities currently in a critical phase, meaning that abandoning them would cause a major or irreversible loss in project viability.

Of course, some of our research is directly related to this coronavirus pandemic, and I’m deeply proud that the USM has a significant role in finding biologic and clinical solutions to this crisis.

I’d like to end my update with a thank you to the System’s leaders, faculty, and staff. The last few weeks have been extraordinary in terms of the amount and pace of work needed to support our students, our employees, and our institutions.

These are uncharted waters—in teaching and learning, research, patient care and client services, and absolutely every facet of our administrative, financial, and student support operations.

I’m overwhelmed by what I see in the University System’s people: their unparalleled dedication, their deep expertise, and their singular eagerness to help their colleagues succeed. It’s been incredibly gratifying to be part of an organization so wholly focused on the well-being of our students and on the quality of our academic enterprise. Thank you.

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Contact: Mike Lurie
Phone: 301.445.2719