Deets on Dietz: COVID-19, diversity to be main focuses of coming year

After a rocky start to the fall semester due to a school year like no other, Illinois State University has adapted to life in new ways. From more online and asynchronous classes to many Redbirds scattered across different living situations, ISU continues to persevere through the impacts that the coronavirus has caused.

Vidette News Editors Kellie Foy and Grace Kinnicutt sat down with ISU President Larry Dietz to talk about how COVID-19 has shaped the fall semester, what the future for spring semester and future events will be like for students, staff and faculty and how the pandemic has financially impacted the Redbird community.

Diversity updates and mandatory testing in spring semester

Will all students be required to get tested regularly next semester?

“Our goal is to have something in line with the saliva-based testing from the U of I, maybe even before the end of this year. In order for that to happen, our laboratories have to be approved [and] they have to be approved by the FDA. A lot of things have to come together to allow that to occur. Once that’s all set up and we’ve got the physical facility set up over between here [by] Watterson as one of those [laboratories] and we’ve got the drive-thru by Cardinal Court, [and] those will remain. The saliva-based testing will allow us to do a lot more, so our hope is that for the students that are living in residence halls, [testing] will be mandatory. For students that are working on campus, for students that are on campus taking classes and clinics or laboratories, [testing] will be mandatory.”

What is the outlook for the spring semester and when do you think decisions will be finalized?

“You’re never done with [decisions]. But [Thursday’s weekly COVID-19 update is] as final as we know how to get right now. We thought that we needed to put that out because students are registering for the spring semester [and] we wanted them to have a full idea about expectations. We’re going to be a lot in the spring like we were in the fall to stay on the health and safety side.”

Considering that the administration wasn’t originally planning on having spring break, what went into the decision of keeping it?

ISU President Larry Dietz answers a question from Vidette News Editor Grace Kinnicutt.

MAIA HUDDLESTON | Photo Editor | @maiawrites

“I commend our provost (Aondover Tarhule) and his staff and a lot of other people for putting together a good survey. We gathered information from that survey and one of the things that became pretty convincing, particularly from students we received, was [that they] need a break. Mentally to maybe slow down a little bit or get caught up on papers and studying in such a way they haven’t had time to do. For some folks, that means just staying here and not even going home, but just getting a break from the pressures of the semester. We took that to heart and talked about it a lot internally. We want people here, who are not only healthy physically but are healthy, emotionally and mentally. The word came back pretty clear that the spring break was conducive to that, so we turned that around. It was on the Academic Senate agenda to ask for a change in the calendar and we asked for the removal of that. There are a lot of smiles all around the table from faculty and students alike, so I think it was the right decision. The part that’s going to be very important is that if people do go somewhere, they go home or if they take a break somewhere else that they continue to wear a mask, be safe, wash your hands and avoid large crowds. When they come back, [they should] get tested [since] the testing allows us to isolate individuals who need to be isolated.”

Do you have any updates about moving forward with the Multicultural Center and other diversity plans?

“We’re finally working on [the Multicultural Center]. The plan for that is to look for that to be open by the end of the spring semester. [On Thursday], we had another meeting with the Anti-Black ISU group [and] that’s coming along well. [With] the demands that they’ve expressed to us, we’re working hard with them to get some traction on those things. [This] week, we’ll have a Board of Trustees meeting [and are] preparing a report as an update to the Board of Trustees. Dr. Doris Houston, the new interim for the president for Diversity and Inclusion, has been working with a lot of our other vice presidents and other folks [to prepare] the report. One of the things that has been a concern is that some folks have expressed that they don’t know where we are on things that maybe that committee does. We’re [going to] figure out a way like the other communication that you read [with the COVID-19 updates] that covers a lot of different topics and we will try to do the same thing related to diversity and inclusion.”

Major fall semester decisions

Will the residence halls be open until the end of fall semester?

“[They] will continue to be open because that’s the only home that some of our students have. Others will be encouraged to go home, but the residence halls will be open for those that want to stay or don’t have a place to go. After Thanksgiving, we hope that most folks will go home, stay home and take all their classes online because there really only be another week after that of class and then another week of prep for finals [week].”

What led to the decision of pushing Homecoming Week to the spring semester?

“I rely on recommendations from our advancement folks or Alumni Engagement folks. The recommendation came back that says moving football [season] in the spring and Homecoming has been tied to a football game typically. [We decided that] maybe we would try something different for the spring and have Homecoming tied to the football game. I think what we’re trying to do [is] a couple of different models [to] test out what works and what works the best with a hopeful realization that we won’t have to worry about this next fall.”

With a virtual December graduation, will May and December 2020 students be offered to walk in the May 2021 graduation? 

“Obviously, there may be some people that would have graduated this December that couldn’t or maybe you graduated last spring and couldn’t in person. The same is true for this December and maybe for next spring. If we’re at a place, and we hope we will be, where we can have in-person graduations, we will stagger that. There will be the population that would normally graduate in the spring, they will be honored first and then December grads and opportunities for other folks across the stage somewhere. We’re still working on the details of that, and again, all that is going to be guided by health and safety issues and where we are with COVID. [This] really gets back to the point as the best thing we can do to plan for the future is to be safe today, [which is] for everybody to wear masks, to social distance, to wash your hands [and] to not gather in large crowds.”

COVID-19’s financial impact on ISU

How much has COVID drastically changed the university’s current fiscal year?

“It started in the last fiscal year as we refunded nearly $18 million in room and board and we refunded some student activity fee money at the end of last year. This year, we’re at about 50% capacity of the residence halls, so our dining and housing budgets have been pretty dramatically impacted. The other piece of that is that we have a lot of lost revenue, we usually have events in the Bone Student Center, in the fine arts areas and athletics (…) [the] other part of that is lost revenues through very few events. The third part is [the] expenses directly related to COVID. That includes testing, face coverings, hand sanitizers, hiring extra staff for maintenance and cleanliness work. Despite the cataclysmic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois State University’s brand remains strong, its reputation remains solid and its future remains bright.”

Where is the $16 million grant money provided through FAFSA and split with other entities on campus going?

“The Federal CARES Act resulted in a grant to Illinois State of approximately $16 million. $8 million was for students, $4 million of that went out the door last fiscal year in the spring semester and some expenses through the summer. Those are predominantly emergency expenses with students not able to pay the rent, need some food money [and] need some books. The other $4 million was reserved for this fiscal year. The items that we’re spending [the $4 million] on are basically the same that they were for the spring semester. The [other $8 million] for the university [is what] we can’t draw that down until we’ve spent the student life money. We’ve drawn down last fiscal year’s money, but we’re not drawing down the current fiscal year until we have more of the money spent on the student side. [The other $8 million] has gone for a lot of technology enhancements that we had to do to switch our courses from face to face to online.”

How have the grants ISU received helped students and the university?

“Thanks to the generous donations of alumni, faculty, staff and friends, the university has also used the COVID-19 Redbirds Response Fund to provide emergency assistance to students. To date, almost 7,000 students have claimed CARES Act funds and 160 students have received support from the COVID-19 Redbirds Response Fund. The generosity of donors further contributes to the reduced net cost for students and helps make enrolling and progressing in college possible for many students who would otherwise not be able to achieve their higher education goals. Meanwhile, Illinois State concluded its largest fundraising campaign on June 30, raising nearly $181 million for the Redbirds Rising campaign and smashing our original goal by more than $30 million. When Redbirds Rising began, we knew our goal was ambitious. Over the course of the campaign, thousands of alumni and friends stepped up, making Redbirds Rising the university’s most successful fundraising campaign to date.”

KELLIE FOY is News Editor for The Vidette. She can be contacted at  Follow Foy on Twitter at @kellie_foy 

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October 14, 2020 at 09:07PM

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