Statement by USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman on Large-Scale COVID-19 Testing, a Task Force Marshalling USM Innovation in COVID-19 Response, and the Transformation of Online Teaching and Learning

Baltimore, MD (April 13, 2020)

Thank you, Madam Chair. Each week, I’m grateful for this opportunity to update the Board on decisions we’ve made with regard to our COVID-19 response.

Today was an especially gratifying day because I was able to get together online with the University System Office staff in a virtual Town Hall. It was an opportunity to speak with staff directly and offer an update similar to the one I provide to you each week. But even more importantly, it was an opportunity to answer their questions—about the virus, about the actions we’ve undertaken to protect our people, and about the future of our work in higher education.

Last week was troubling for many of our employees. Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot offered a sobering forecast of the state’s potential revenue losses, and Gov. Hogan announced hiring and spending freezes across all state agencies. Staff are understandably concerned about their jobs, about their salaries, and about the cost-cutting measures we might have to take in the wake of this economic downturn.

Unfortunately, I’m not able right now to allay those concerns, nor to give firm answers to their questions. I was frank in my assessment that the University System won’t be immune to cost-cutting, and that we should anticipate, at the state level, tougher measures to come. During the recession a dozen years ago, the state eliminated vacant positions and mandated expense reductions. They implemented hiring freezes, salary freezes, and furloughs.

We expect that the Department of Budget and Management will give us direction in terms of a budget reduction target that we’ll need to hit, and we’ll work with the universities to implement cuts that will get us to that number. As in the past, that process will involve some very hard decisions.

While we don’t know yet what our budget reduction target will be, we do expect to hear from the state in the next few weeks. And, of course, I’ll share that information—with you, with our universities, and with the System Office staff—as soon as it’s available.

Aside from questions about job impacts, the USM Office staff primarily wanted to know when we could expect this crisis to be over—when they could return to the office, when students could return to campus. And here, again, I had to give an answer that’s hardly satisfying: I don’t know. Our scientists, our public health experts, our state leaders simply don’t know.

But I did say how proud I am that Maryland is putting the science first—putting human lives first—and doing everything possible to protect the health and safety of our citizens. As a physician, and as a human being, it reassures me that we have our priorities straight, and that those priorities will continue to guide our decision-making in the weeks and months ahead.

There was another reason it was so important that I speak with staff as a whole: I needed to thank them in person (or as close to “in person” as possible) for what they’re accomplishing under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The USM Office staff—like employees across the System—are stepping up in heroic ways to advance our work and fulfill our mission, while juggling responsibilities that would be all-consuming on their own. Many are tasked with the full-time care of their children and maybe their parents. Many are home-schooling their children with virtually no training to do it. Many are on call for neighbors and friends in need—getting groceries, delivering supplies, running errands, helping with chores. Many of our employees are the very ones who make sure, every day, that everyone else is okay.

And I needed them to know they’re doing an incredible job, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. I needed them to know that I see the hours they’re putting in, I see the work they’re producing, when so many other obligations—essential obligations—are tugging at their time. To have staff of this caliber and dedication, during a crisis of this scope, is a blessing I will never forget.

Across the System, our presidents are using virtual town halls like these to communicate with their students, faculty, and staff, to share information, to answer questions, and to thank their people for pulling together, for inspiring and supporting one another, for holding fast to our connections as a community of scholars, and for keeping public higher education in Maryland as strong as it’s ever been.

We had evidence of that strength on Friday, when Gov. Hogan announced that the state was working with the University of Maryland School of Medicine to ramp up COVID-19 testing. With $2.5 million from the state, the medical school can get the technology it needs to launch large-scale testing—a capacity of 20,000 tests per day, with results returned in just 24 to 48 hours.

Widespread testing is essential to getting COVID-19 under control—essential to us understanding the spread of the disease, to mitigating it, and to surveilling infection density once we relax social distancing measures. When you’re talking about infectious disease management, rapid diagnosis and treatment are key, because they protect the lives not only of affected patients but of everyone else those patients are exposed to. So we’re indebted to UMB, to the School of Medicine, and to the Institute for Genome Sciences for this massive win in our battle against COVID-19.

But COVID-19 testing is far from the only way the University System is leading in our pandemic response. Across the System, we have projects underway right now advancing the discovery and development of solutions: medical interventions and protocols, virology and vaccine research, engineering solutions, IT and informatics projects, artificial intelligence projects that inform and accelerate our public health strategy.

Experts across the USM are influencing our policy response, and shaping the public narrative about the disease and its impacts. We have faculty in the field, serving populations and communities that are acutely in need; connecting people with care and counseling, with services and resources; strengthening social cohesion; and spreading hope as an antidote to despair. We have equipment and facilities across the state—labs, classrooms, sterilization rooms,  makerspaces—being put to work for Maryland.

And all of these independent activities are yielding targeted innovations that speed our adaptation to COVID-19 needs. But to advance and scale our projects, it’s incumbent upon us as a System to make connections—to facilitate collaborations among our universities, our departments, and our people. We have to help our faculty leverage each other’s expertise and assets. We have to help them do their jobs by waiving or revising policies that inhibit joint work and rapid action.

And, of course, an insular response isn’t enough. We need to give business and industry a portal into our work so they can advance what we’re already doing, so they can share their own ideas, and solicit our collaboration, so they can help us get our products and processes into the marketplace and into established practice.

Innovation is what we do. But we can do it bigger, better, and stronger if we do it together. That’s what Maryland’s people deserve, and that’s where our focus is. So we’re now standing up a Systemwide task force to steer this essential work—to make sure that the full power of the USM can be applied at this critical moment in time.

When we talk about innovation, I don’t want to overlook one really important aspect of it—and that’s the innovation in teaching and learning that’s happening across our universities. Online instruction is no longer an “opt-in” opportunity. It can’t be. We need to acknowledge that our higher education landscape has already changed. Things are different now. Even when we’re able to resume aspects of our pre-outbreak operations, I don’t think we’ll fully go back to the way things were. Nor do I think we should.

Across the System, our academic innovators are helping us make a hugely important pivot right now—from crisis response (which manifests as emergency remote teaching) to something much better, which is innovative and robust online instruction. They’re helping us take what we’ve learned from this remote teaching experiment, what we’ve practiced, what we’ve pioneered, and apply them to a distance learning enterprise that moves us closer to our ideal: one that’s flexible, one that’s indulgent of our creativity, and one that’s accommodating of the disparate needs of our students and faculty.

They’re helping us think and act much more systematically about how we help faculty try new things and learn as they go—about what works and what doesn’t, about how to know the difference, and how to use what they know to make changes that improve their practice and help students thrive.

This COVID-19 crisis is academic disruption as we’ve never seen it before. Taking innovation to scale seldom means a scale that includes everyone, and seldom at our staggering pace. But as challenging as this sounds, this is an opportunity for growth: to find out what resources we need for thoughtful and deliberate online instruction, to share ideas and assets Systemwide, to assign responsibilities, assess our efforts, and measure our return on investment. I thank the Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation and all of our university experts in academic transformation, who are leading this vital work.

What this entire discussion makes clear is that our work continues—not just our crisis work, though, yes, that, too. Our big-picture, mission-critical work to educate and train students—to develop the next generation of leaders—continues. Our work to support our faculty and staff continues. Our work to drive discovery, and apply our knowledge, and fuel economic recovery and growth continues. 

We are looking past next week, next month, the summer, the fall. We are looking forward. And I thank everyone across the System who has put us in this position of strength, so that we can ably pivot from response to strategy, from crisis to continuity, from catching up to moving boldly, swiftly ahead. Thank you.

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Contact: Mike Lurie
Phone: 301.445.2719