ETSU President: COVID-19 impact on university 'beyond description'

Jonathan Roberts • Mar 24, 2020 at 10:24 AM

In a virtual special called Board of Trustees meeting Monday afternoon, East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland called the impact the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has had on the university “beyond description” and said the cancellation of all university events feels “as if a piece of the institution has been removed.”  

“The depth and breadth of change that’s underway across your institution is, in many respects, beyond description,” Noland told the board. 

On a video call with reporters following the meeting, Noland said he watched as students and their families packed up their dorms, not knowing if they’d be able to return — noting the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the economy.  

“I’m hopeful that the economy of this nation affords the opportunity for them to come back to school,” Noland said. “I think all of us are concerned about what the future holds economically, and how that future impacts the university.”

Of the roughly 2,700 students who live on campus, fewer than 500 remain — around 100 of which are international students.

“I think this is a moment of disruption for higher education as a whole that really has a chance to reshape the academy as we know it,” he said. 

The university hasn’t escaped economic damage either, with Noland telling the board the university’s endowment has dropped about $18.4 million since the start of the year. 

“Our losses aren’t as extreme as the aggregate, but $20 million is a hit and we’re doing all we can to protect that,” Noland said, noting that scholarship endowments and endowment chairs will still be supported moving forward. 

Noland also said the university is continuing to reach out to prospective students and those who’ve already applied, and was providing increased support to current students. 

“I don’t have all the answers right now — they didn’t teach this in president school — but we’re doing our best to ensure that we’re positioned to support our current students and let prospective students know that ETSU is here, it’s been here since 1911, and it’s not going anywhere,” Noland said. 

Other items to note

• All university buildings will be locked to the public, with limited access for faculty members. Critical infrastructure to students remaining on campus, such as the student health center, will remain open. 

• Noland said degrees will be conferred in May, but an exact decision on commencement hasn’t been made yet. “I’m not going to cancel graduation, but I can’t sit here on March (23) and tell you the date on which it will occur,” Noland said. 

• All university events this semester have been canceled, with Noland saying he “cannot share how hard this is for an institution to absorb.”

• At the start of the semester, fewer than one-third of courses were taught online — now all of the university’s roughly 3,000 courses are fully online. “In less than a two-week time period we've transformed our operating structures on the fly,” Noland said.

• A decision or process for refunding students has not yet been made or established, with the university’s financial committee expected to discuss it in their meeting on April 1. Noland also said he expects the university will be “extremely lenient” for students with late tuition or housing payments.

• University construction projects are “moving forward,” though that could change if the governor orders a “safer at home” order as other states have. 

• Discussions on moving to a pass/fail grading system for this semester are ongoing, but a final decision has not been made yet.

• On Friday, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission asked universities to find ways to help the state deal with COVID-19. In response, several institutions across the state — including ETSU — have begun 3D printing face shields for medical workers in need. “The chance to set things down and know that you’re doing something to help is empowering,” Noland said. 





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