Report from USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman to the USM Board of Regents on Nov. 13

Baltimore, Md. (Nov. 13, 2020) – Thank you, Chair Gooden. I’m grateful, as always, to this board for remaining so deeply engaged in the work we’ve undertaken together to meet the grave challenges before us.

Let me also thank Dr. Nancy Shapiro, and our student leaders, Delanie and Lauren, for their presentation—and their impressive work—in civic engagement. I’m so proud of our students Systemwide who’ve been deeply invested in this election, and in our democratic process writ large.

As Chair Gooden mentioned, this year was indeed historic in terms of voter turnout—especially among our young people. We need to bottle this enthusiasm for the midterms, and reinforce the message that not only does every vote count—every election counts. We need to engage students in the full complement of our democratic process—public policy, public dialogue, public action and activism.

I look forward to working with our leaders in Washington to protect and advance higher education.

I echo Chair Gooden’s congratulations to Regent Bobby Neall. Regent Neall, you’ve been an invaluable asset to the state and to the University System, and I’m delighted that your service on this board will continue.

We have some new leaders with us today. Dr. Anne Khademian is attending her first board meeting since taking over as executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove. Dr. Khademian’s been on the job for less than a month, but she’s already launched a weekly podcast, called This is USG. I was delighted to be this week’s guest. I hope you’ll tune in and keep up with all the great things going on at the Universities at Shady Grove.

Today is also the first board meeting for Dr. Larry Leak as interim president of the University of Maryland Global Campus. Dr. Leak previously served as the university’s chief academic officer, and we’re thrilled that he’s agreed to lead UMGC as Regent Malhotra heads up the search for its next president. Larry’s exemplary five-decade career in Maryland education is well known, and I’m grateful for his leadership.  

And finally, I’m delighted to acknowledge that we’ve selected the next leader of the USM at Southern Maryland. Dr. Eileen Abel will step in as the executive director on December 1. Dr. Abel comes to us from the College of Southern Maryland, where she was vice president for academic affairs. She knows the region, the student population, and the needs—and assets—of the center. I look forward to her leadership, and I thank USMSM Chief Academic Officer Ben Latigo, who’s been serving as interim director.

There’s no other way to start the body of my remarks today than with the devastating news of COVID’s spike in Maryland and across the nation. We’re all acutely aware of the deteriorating numbers in terms of infections, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and—yes—deaths. Maryland has seen several consecutive days with more than 1,000 new cases reported, and our positivity rate has crossed the 5% mark for the first time since June.

We’re heeding the governor’s warnings about the dangers of this virus and its quick spread—now taking a grave toll in rural areas that were once spared the brunt of the disease. We’re conscious, too, of COVID fatigue, which baits us into lowering our guard and relaxing the very practices that have kept so many of us safe thus far.

In view of this escalation, it turns out we were prescient in our semester planning. Virtually all of our institutions had always planned to end their semester by Thanksgiving or to use the holiday as the transition point to online-only instruction.

And we’re almost there. But just in case, in a phone call this week with the presidents, center directors, and their executive teams, I stressed that we must be ready—fully ready—for a possible pivot to earlier online-only instruction and student move-outs. We would need to accomplish this transition—should it come—quickly and safely. And as we prepare for this possibility, we have several things working in our favor, not the least of which is the fact that we have far fewer students on campus to return home in the first place.

For instance, with cases climbing in Allegany County, Frostburg announced on Wednesday that all classes would move online immediately. Bowie State University also announced an immediate move to online instruction, and the university is allowing students to begin scheduling their move-outs. And College Park—pivoting to online course delivery after Thanksgiving—has told students traveling for the holiday to stay home for the remainder of the semester.

Certainly, for these universities—for any university—an accelerated pivot to online-only education is disappointing. But we knew all along that it was a possibility. We planned for it. We understood from the outset that our campuses wouldn’t be COVID-free—and, of course, they’re not.

But in committing to some on-campus instruction this semester, we got a lot of things right. Cases were managed effectively. Positivity rates were mostly down. Regular reporting kept students, faculty, staff, and neighbors apprised of disease prevalence and risk. Students who wanted to maintain the privilege of an on-campus experience did, by and large, follow our rules for doing so. Our institutions were able to resume robust research operations and make material contributions to combatting COVID itself. I’m so impressed with the engagement and accomplishment of our research faculty. And, through it all, state and local health departments were our constant collaborators and guides.

Of course, we hope for a spring semester starting January 25 that looks very much like our fall—some classes online-only, some in-person, and some hybrid, with face-to-face instruction supplementing online work. Campus de-densification—together with a regimen of COVID testing, symptom monitoring, and disease prevention protocols—will continue to be central to our ability to control virus spread.

Our main advantage this spring is knowledge, experience, battle scars. Just as epidemiologists now know more about the virus itself and how to contain it; just as medical professionals now have better diagnostics and treatments available to patients, those of us in higher education have our lessons learned.

I’ve mentioned to you before our intention to take time, as a System, to reflect on what we’ve learned, and what lessons we can apply to our immediate and long-term efforts. We’re compiling those lessons from the universities—in teaching and learning, in campus life and student services, facilities management, communication, IT, athletics.

There are major issues, like the fact that students very much want synchronous learning vs. asynchronous—meaning they want to be with their professors and classmates in real time; they want to interact. So we need to expand access to those platforms. We heard that promoting student compliance with health protocols is more likely achieved through an educational model vs. a punitive one.

I think every single institution said they needed more communication with students and employees and more ways to deliver information—on the platforms that students actually use. There are lessons in facilities capacity, ventilation systems, and water service. There are innumerable logistics issues: how to accomplish a streamlined move-in; where signage is most effective; how to get hot meals to students in isolation and quarantine.

We have hundreds of lessons to sort through.

Which speaks to the complexity of what our institutions are managing, and who needs to be at the table when decisions are made. Never has shared governance been so important to the University System. I’ve been deeply engaged over the last several months with our shared governance bodies—our student, faculty, and staff councils—securing their advice on how to proceed with our work, and their feedback on how we’re doing.

I’m thrilled that I’ve also begun monthly get-togethers with students across the System. This was something I used to do at UMB—host Sunday brunches at my house for a dozen or so students. The sessions are virtual for now, but I look forward to a time when we can be together again in person. These chats help me connect with students—better understand their experiences, their challenges, what they want from their education and whether they’re getting it. Last month, I talked with a group of student leaders responsible for our huge Get Out the Vote effort, and later this month, I’ll be meeting with some of our international students.

Of course, I continue to meet regularly with the presidents, center directors, and their cabinets. These meetings are the root of our collaboration—our solidarity—as a System. They help us understand the daily conditions and issues on each campus, and the remarkable things our students, faculty, and staff are achieving despite them.

Just some of those things are in the full board report, and I ask you to read it. It’s an amazing compilation of accomplishments. And even though it only scratches the surface, it’s important that we recognize the hard work—harder than ever before—that goes into the achievements our institutions and their people rack up every day. The report is in your board materials, it’s posted online, and the newsletter you’ll receive on Monday will detail these institutional accolades.

I just said that my regular conversations with the presidents and their leadership teams keep me connected to the campuses. But I was fortunate over the summer and fall to do more than talk. I got out for some campus visits and saw firsthand how our institutions are teaching, discovering, innovating, and serving—all in the midst of a pandemic that’s put obstacles in the way of each of these missions.

I have a short slideshow of these visits—over the summer to the USM at Southern Maryland, and this fall, to Bowie State, UMBC, Coppin, and College Park. I was supposed to visit Towson University just yesterday, but Tropical Storm Eta foiled those plans. I look forward to rescheduling that visit soon.

Of course, my aim is to get to every campus and regional center and to make regular visits a priority in my schedule. COVID has obviously thwarted those plans somewhat. But as soon as it’s safe to, I’ll be visiting the campuses as often as I can, and meeting with students, faculty, and staff. Because this University System—as deeply affected as it’s been by the COVID crisis—is not defined by it. And I look forward to talking not only about how we’re weathering this pandemic but about our vision for the USM long after it ends.

Before I play the slideshow, I want to give you just a little context.

At USMSM, Dr. Latigo and I toured the new academic building that’s going up. I visited the UAS test site, where they’re innovating drone technology, and the TechPort incubator, which has been a hub for COVID solutions.

At UMBC, Pres. Hrabowski showed me the new Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building. We met with research staff, and talked with students. I also threw in a couple of photos from UMBC’s COVID testing pilot this summer. It was the first time we attempted to collect baseline data on COVID prevalence.

At College Park, Pres. Pines took me on a tour of campus dorms and dining halls so I could see firsthand how the university is keeping students and employees safe. We dropped in on some classes, too, and it was great to see everyone distanced, masked, and learning.

At Coppin, Pres. Jenkins showed me the university’s incredible Science and Technology Center. And I was glued to a nursing class, where they were doing some state-of-the-art simulations. It made me feel like I was back at UMB.

At Bowie, I got to meet with a great group of student-athletes, who have a unique perspective on this pandemic—and unique challenges in dealing with it. When you see them in the photos, remember they’re all on teams together; that’s why they’re not distanced. President Breaux and I also talked about the Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community that’s opening next year.

Let’s play the slideshow. It’s just 90 seconds; don’t worry.

As you’re looking at the photos, I do want to mention that you’ll see a picture in here of Pres. Pines and me talking to a student in the Edward St. John Teaching and Learning Center. We asked her what she was working on—what class she was heading to, or coming from. She lives at home. She told us she didn’t actually have any in-person classes this semester. They’re all online.

But she came to campus every day, to this quiet space, where she could concentrate on her virtual courses—where she had the silence and calm and safety she needed to put in her best work. This is what keeping our campuses open has allowed.

I’ve said many times that this virus doesn’t grant anyone a mission accomplished moment. I can’t see the future, and I don’t know whether our best efforts in this fight against COVID will be enough.

But I’m glad we’ve tried to fulfill our missions in education, research, and service. I’m glad we’ve tried to support the students who need what our campuses provide, and to keep them safe when the very concept of safety is threatened.

I’m glad I put my faith in the System’s faculty and staff, who’ve worked so hard to provide an education worthy of the USM’s name. And I’m glad for the trust of our students, who remind us every day why we took on this work in the first place.

Thank you, Madam Chair. This concludes my report.

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Contact: Mike Lurie
Phone: 301.445.2719