Brad Byrd: This is InDEPTH, welcome. Millions of college students are wondering, am I going back to the classroom come fall semester? Right now there is no answer to that question. Well, joining me tonight is University of Evansville president Christopher Pietruszkiewicz. Dr. I see you have a nice screenshot of UE’s Harlaxton college behind you and we’ll begin with this question right now. How is UE monitoring the Coronavirus data and is there a deadline it has to consider on reopening campus for fall semester?
Christopher Pietruszkiewicz: We have a coronavirus healthcare task force that continues to monitor all of the data. I would love to make a bold pronouncement and say that we’re coming back in the fall. But right now, we still need a little bit more information before we can make a decision like that. But I think some of the signs are very encouraging, particularly as the state is rolling out more testing and contact tracing.
BB: Is there a deadline, though, for that decision? Because as you well know better than anyone, it takes a lot to open up a school in the fall not only from the faculty standpoint, but also from the student standpoint.
CP: Yeah, I think we’ll make sure that we give the students as much notice as we can, the more that we wait, the more information that we’re able to have to make a better informed decision and make sure that we can bring them back as safely and quickly as we can. But we have to we have to continue to watch the data first.
BB: Is a hybrid of in class [and] online reopening possible? Are you looking at that possibility?
CP: Yeah, we’re looking at a variety of possibilities. Whether we come back in person and certainly our faculty and our staff and our students want to be able to come back in person, the expectation is that social distancing will still be in place. And so as a result, there will be some hybrid education. I expect that will happen, where our students are both in the classroom and doing some online learning, assuming that we are in a residential environment.
BB: Could enrollment, and this is something that every school in the country is facing, could enrollment President Pietruszkiewicz be impacted? Could it be hit hard by what has happened?
CP: There’s a lot of national data that suggests that assuming that you have a semester in the fall that is entirely online, that the numbers of retention students that are retained and entering students may go down. But I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing here at the University of Evansville. 98% of our students say they’re, they’re coming back with us and we’re very excited about that. And over 70% of them really enjoy their online learning environment and another 20% or so were relatively neutral. So I think we’ve done a pretty good job of engaging them in an online environment, but we know that they want to be back here in person and we can’t wait to welcome them back.
BB: They have been divvying up the federal money for universities throughout the country. Is that really easing the burden somewhat that schools like UE are facing?
CP: Yeah, I think the operative word is somewhat, it doesn’t offset the challenges for universities and it certainly doesn’t offset the challenges for students. We know that the federal funds that we received through the CARES act allow us to be able to provide emergency grants directly to students. So that is helping them in their transition, whether it’s through an online learning environment, Internet access, or otherwise. So that does help I think a little bit, but it doesn’t offset the significant impact that this has had both on a university and on students.
BB: President Pietruszkiewicz, I want you to speak now from the heart. What would you tell that student for example, entering his or her senior year after all of those years of hard work? Who would ever think that they’d be facing something like this?
CP: I completely agree. I do a weekly update to our students called the Friday Wrap, in which I talked to them about what they’ve been experiencing throughout the semester, and particularly those finishing their college careers. We struggled with you just as you’re struggling with the idea that you’re learning from your dining room or your kitchen, as opposed to learning with us in person. I think when you decide to become part of the university, and certainly to be a university president, the number one thing on your mind is where you get your energy and I get my energy from students and I know most of our students get their energy from themselves and from interacting with their classmates and their faculty members. So while we recognize that we would rather see them here in person with us, we’re trying to same provide the same type of transformational educational experience, even if it is in a virtual environment, and we can’t wait to welcome them back for our commencement exercises that will happen in September. We’ll do a little virtual event for them on Saturday which was the original commencement date, but I can’t wait for them to walk across the stage at the Ford Center and celebrate with their families and friends and the rest of the university their significant accomplishments and all they’ve been able to do whether the last semester or their last four years.
BB: I’ll tell you nothing can beat walking from class to class running a little late on a beautiful campus that’s something that is very hard to replace. UE president Christopher Pietruszkiewicz, thank you so much for joining us tonight and stay safe and best of luck to you in your endeavors at UE.
CP: My pleasure, thank you very much.
BB: Well, tomorrow night I’ll be joined by Dr. Ron Rochon, President of the University of Southern Indiana on the impact COVID-19 is having on those students at USI.