Statement by Chancellor Jay A. Perman on Why the USM Is Preparing for a Hybrid Instructional Model This Fall

Baltimore, Md. (July 22, 2020) – Thank you, Madam Chair. Good afternoon, everyone.

I’d like to begin my remarks today by taking a moment to reflect on the life of David Ramsay, former president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and my predecessor there. David passed away last month after a remarkable life full of accomplishment. I was fortunate to know David early in my career at UCSF, where he was senior vice chancellor. He was remarkably kind—unfailingly generous with his time and his brilliance.

When I succeeded David at UMB, I saw what he had built there. I saw that his signature development, the University of Maryland BioPark, was, in fact, much more than a thriving research park. It was a research park set in a long-neglected neighborhood of West Baltimore; a research park built on abandoned lots reclaimed from overgrown weeds.

David had a vision of how a university might lift up the communities around it. How a university could put its resources and its people into neighborhoods that need our attention, our assets, our partnership. He had a vision for what a university could mean for people who might not ever step foot onto campus. How we could fuel more than economic growth; how we could feed community strength, community resilience.

David’s legacy became my purpose at UMB: Higher education for the public good. I think that’s what drives many of us here today, and I’d be grateful for a moment of silence in David’s honor.

I’d also like to echo Linda and congratulate Coppin President Anthony Jenkins for surviving—thriving—during these first two months on the job. I wish I could say it gets easier from here, Anthony.

And I’d like to officially welcome Darryll Pines as president of the University of Maryland, College Park. Darryll has said he assumed this role in the midst of twin pandemics: the cataclysm of COVID-19 and the cruelty of racism. On his first day in the presidency, Darryll addressed both in a thoughtful letter to the College Park community, outlining his plans to seize this moment of uncertainty, anxiety, anger—and engage the university for even greater impact.

This is our crucible moment. Fortunately, it’s in the fire of the crucible that we make real and lasting change. Chair Gooden will speak later to the USM’s plans to examine racism, bias, inequity; to lay bare what the System has done—and still needs to do—to adequately confront these injustices, and how we must do better going forward.

COVID, too, presents a crucible moment. Obviously, conditions on the ground change daily, as do the decisions that follow. We’re attentive to guidance from our state and local leaders, and mindful that Gov. Hogan will hold a press conference shortly to discuss implications for Maryland’s K–12 schools.

Certainly, in the wake of this pandemic, there’s been no dearth of articles—and especially, opinions—examining the purpose, the structure, and the value of higher education (along with some premature reports of its death). I’ve seen some very fair indictments of higher ed, an industry that extols innovation but often fails to apply that enthusiasm to itself—fails to examine practices entrenched not by merit but by tradition, protection, a failure of imagination.

There have been countless articles explaining why remote instruction is the right way to go, and a comparable number exhorting the resumption of in-person classes. The insidious politicizing of both perspectives only adds to the confusion.

But here’s the thing: The division between “online” and “on-campus” is often a hazy division at best, a shorthand that doesn’t account for the nuance that universities like the USM’s institutions are managing every day. We’ve been clear that the University System will resume some in-person instruction this fall. But “returning to campus” doesn’t mean everyone comes back. “In-person classes” doesn’t mean in-person all of the time.

The majority of our classes won’t be taught in a traditional face-to-face format. Some will be remote or online-only. Some will be a hybrid, with face-to-face sessions supplementing online work. Some students will be on campus with a largely online course load. And that’s because the campus itself—the support, the connection, the camaraderie—is important.

What we can do effectively in a remote format, we will, because the health of our students, faculty, and staff is our abiding priority. The thoughtful plans we’re developing don’t undermine that. But oversimplification does.

Of course, there’s been a lot of dialogue, a lot of disagreement, about how this country’s universities might best serve their mission while protecting their people. I don’t think there’s one answer to this dilemma. So I’ll just give you mine.

Opting for a hybrid model—combining in-person and remote learning—is, by no stretch, an easy out. It doesn’t save us money, it doesn’t save us time, it doesn’t save us planning. It’s a high-cost, high-effort undertaking.

But these investments are worth it. Because some of our teaching does require in-person interaction, in-person demonstration, in-person performance, in-person observation. An online-only version of these courses simply wouldn’t meet our students’ needs.

We invest in this high-effort model because we have students who need the campus environment as much as they need our courses—students in stressful situations; students with nowhere else to go; students whose safety is jeopardized, whose finances are precarious; students who need the on-campus academic and emotional support we provide them, the support that helps them stay in school and succeed. This support is especially vital to low-income and first-generation students, students of color—the very students we fear losing most if we pivot to online-only education. To me, this is actually part of our work to dismantle structural racism.

We invest in this model because we have something to offer our students—safely, judiciously—and by not investing, we’re squandering what we’re still able to give. We invest because, COVID or no, we have a four-part mission to which we are joyfully obligated: to educate students for engaged citizenship and productive work, to drive discovery and innovation, to serve Maryland’s people and strengthen their communities, to fuel sustainable, inclusive economic growth.

I’m not arguing that we can’t accomplish any of this while we’re apart. We’ve spent months promulgating high-quality online courses, expanding instructional design and pedagogical support, and strengthening tech training. My colleague Jo Boughman will fill you in on these efforts in a moment.

And yet still, I maintain that fulfilling our mission without the benefit of connection is not ideal. The college campus has survived as long as it has because it offers inherent value. That’s why we’re putting in the effort.

All that said, I am not a stubborn man. If this effort isn’t enough, if the spread of COVID in Maryland presents challenges too tough to counter—now, or two weeks from now, or two months from now—we’ll pivot to remote instruction. We have an exit ramp. With most of our courses remote-ready, the transition this time around will be smoother.

We’re working in close partnership with our state and local health departments. They’ll be monitoring our campuses closely, every day. We’ll consult with them, and with the System’s own public health experts, to identify the trigger for remote learning.

We have no pride around this, no incentive to salvage an in-person semester if the science tells us we shouldn’t. We know that COVID has the last word in our plans, however carefully we’ve constructed them. If it’s not safe to return—if it becomes unsafe at any point—we will transition, immediately, to remote learning.

I want to make clear that our partnership with state and local health authorities isn’t limited to this online/on-campus trigger point either. We’re working with them to refine our COVID testing and tracing strategies, and we’ll continue to leverage this relationship to protect students and employees.

What’s more, through our own pilot programs—ongoing at UMB, College Park, UMBC, and Bowie State—we’ve been testing (and stressing) our capacity to do what we’ve promised to do in terms of preventing, detecting, containing, and managing this disease. Working with several hundred administrators, faculty, staff, and students who’ve already returned to campus, we’re evaluating the effectiveness and feasibility of the safety precautions we’ve implemented—the myriad processes and protocols involved in a comprehensive COVID response, each one dependent on another.

We’re tracking where problems crop up—in logistics, staffing, communication. We’re generating detailed procedural information for disease testing, surveillance, and control. What resources and partners need to be lined up ahead of time? How much time, and staff, and money will each component require? How much space do you need for testing, and how do you configure it? What does the contact-tracing flow chart look like as we collaborate with health officials? How does data transfer work once everyone begins logging their temperatures and symptoms every day?

I said earlier that our approach is a high-cost, high-effort undertaking. It is. But if we believe in the value of an on-campus component this fall—and we do—then road-testing how well we’ve prepared for it is key. It’s the only way to scale our safety protocols, so that they can best protect not just hundreds of people, but thousands. It’s the only way to help universities Systemwide learn the lessons of their colleague institutions and shape a strategy that works for them.

This careful, thoughtful, deliberate approach is the critical foundation for our confidence that we can do this—that we can safely return to campus this fall, and that we can pivot responsibly if, in fact, we find we must leave. Thank you, Madam Chair.

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Contact: Mike Lurie
Phone: 301.445.2719