This weekend, as I watched the graduate parade from the steps of Johnson Hall and gave out diplomas (actually diploma covers) to jubilant students in the Memorial Quad, I found tears streaming down my face on more than one occasion. These were not tears of sadness; to the contrary, they were of relief and gratitude. As we close a very challenging year, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how the University of Oregon came through the pandemic and am looking ahead to what the future will hold. I’d like to start by acknowledging the efforts of folks who helped the university successfully navigate the past 15 months.
Thank you to our faculty who adapted their courses at a moment’s notice and learned new technologies with strange names like Zoom. Thank you to our academic advisors and numerous volunteers who contacted all of our students to see how they were doing during those early confusing and scary days of the pandemic. Thank you to our frontline workers on campus who continued to feed our students, clean our buildings, and keep us healthy and safe. Thank you to our researchers who shifted their work to develop our state-of-the-art testing program and address other COVID-19 impacts. And thank you to the 200-plus administrators and staff who took on many new responsibilities and navigated rapidly changing health guidance to successfully orchestrate our operations in emergency mode. There are so many people to thank across the university that I know this barely scratches the surface. We—all of us working together as a community—kept the university afloat and poised to prosper in the future.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t hardships. There most definitely were. Some staff who worked in parts of the university that were particularly impacted by the loss of people on campus (e.g., housing, dining, transportation) or by the cancellation of programs (e.g., global education, athletics) were laid off or had their FTE cut. All deans and vice presidents voluntarily took salary reductions for six months, and all employees in athletics had their compensation reduced for one year.
Economic losses were by no means the only hardships COVID-19 visited upon our community. Some of our faculty, staff, and students lost loved ones to the disease, and some became ill themselves. Many of our faculty and staff experienced—and are still experiencing—severe stress and disruption as they juggle work while caring for children or other family members or worry about what the future may hold. For some research-active faculty members and graduate students, interruptions to scholarly work may set back their career trajectories. And, for our students, COVID-19 was hard in so many ways. While some flourished in remote education, many did not. The pandemic created isolation and anxiety. And I recognize that it was particularly challenging for those from underrepresented populations. These stresses were amplified by the horrific murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that gripped our nation and community.
As I recount these very significant hardships of the last year, you may wonder how on earth I could write that we were “successful” in navigating through the crisis. Of course, expectations play a role in light of what I feared might happen once the gravity of the pandemic became apparent last year. As our student enrollment declined by over 900 students, and as our nation’s economy ground to a halt, I became very concerned about the long-range financial viability of the institution. Indeed, as some of you may remember, I wrote to you about these concerns and, along with University Senate leadership, appointed a task force to help us plan for possible draconian solutions, like the closing of programs, departments, or even schools or colleges should that have been necessary. My administration and United Academics also completed very challenging negotiations regarding potential temporary salary reductions that could be triggered in the event the university endured substantial losses.
And yet, we persevered. How could we have sustained over $200 million in pandemic-related expenses and lost revenue due to COVID-19 and not have had to make the program closures, university-wide salary cuts, or retirement contribution reductions that many of our much better-funded peer universities did? We moved quickly to dramatically reduce our costs. We stopped traveling, holding events, and buying new equipment. We instituted a one-year pay freeze for faculty and officers of administration and limited our hiring to only the most critical positions. We launched a summer workshare program. These temporary actions allowed us to conserve resources and avoid going over the cliff. In some cases, recapturing these savings so as to preserve jobs and the overall integrity of the university also led to budgetary realignments that are disruptive to individual units, and so I am appreciative of everyone’s sense of joint community support as we have made our way through this year.
Additionally, federal assistance is helping to fill some of the holes in our budget. Under three successful COVID-19 relief bills, the university will receive a total of $83 million. Just under half of this will be distributed directly to students as financial aid or emergency assistance.
As we move forward, our budget will continue to be difficult for three to four years, largely because of the impact of losing so many incoming students in the fall of 2020. We project only modest deficits as long as we limit increases in our expenses, receive sufficient state budgetary support, and experience robust fall 2021 student enrollment. We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to achieve all three of these conditions.
Due to the robust economic recovery and effective advocacy led by our government affairs staff and United Academics, we currently expect a modest increase in state funding. While it won’t be nearly enough to cover all of our increased costs, it will be welcome indeed. And we are experiencing strong indications that our first-year class enrollment will be very strong. We have a record number of deposits, and the cumulative GPA of deposited students is higher than it has ever been. Of course, many prospective students across the country placed deposits at multiple universities since they were not able to make college visits and wanted to keep their options open. Obviously, if a number of these students decide not to enroll at the UO, we could be facing a very grim situation. But I do not foresee that happening as long as we can return to in-person education, as planned.
In some sense, just staying afloat in the pandemic can be seen as successful but we did much better than that. Our research profile continued to expand despite the challenges. The first building of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact opened in December 2020, and its laboratories are now almost full with new faculty members and graduate students. Lab renovations in Klamath Hall have been completed, and planning is ongoing for a major renovation of Huestis Hall. Our fingers are crossed that the legislature will fund the renovation of Villard and University halls in the next two weeks. Provost Patrick Phillips and many faculty members are hard at work planning and implementing a series of interdisciplinary research initiatives on the environment, human performance and sport, racial disparities, and innovation. These research initiatives should ultimately lift every school and college in the university. In addition, new and exciting ideas are bubbling up from academic departments and schools and colleges across the university such as the School of Global Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, the business law program in the School of Law, and a new BFA in dance that requires mastery in both African- and European-based dance forms.
When I became president of the University of Oregon in 2015, I set three major objectives: (1) increase the research excellence of the university, (2) improve student success, and (3) enhance the experience, diversity, and inclusion of our community. Together, we have made significant progress on each of these goals, including creating the Knight Campus and increasing sponsored research, raising our four-year graduation rate by over 10 percentage points, building the Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center, and increasing student diversity. We also will complete our capital campaign in the next month or so, exceeding the original goal by over $1 billion.
But more, much more remains to be done. We need to complete the vision of the Knight Campus and implement the ambitious research initiatives planned all over our university. We need to increase graduation rates, reduce racial disparities in degree attainment, and redouble our efforts to make our students career ready. And, we need to work hard to build robust and stable diversity on campus by addressing faculty and staff recruitment and retention and by making the UO an inclusive and welcoming place for everyone.
For us to be successful in achieving these objectives, we must come together like never before in the coming school year. It won’t be easy but we have demonstrated over the past several months what we can achieve when we come together. As we plan for a return to in-person education in the fall, I understand we are all feeling various levels of discomfort. After all, for the past 15 months we stopped shaking hands, discussing important topics face to face, and sharing meals together. In our isolation and caution we have been conditioned to view others as vectors of risk. So, it is only natural for us to feel uneasy and vulnerable. But with vaccinations readily available, dropping infection rates, and new treatments we will need to overcome some of these newly learned instincts so we can work together to achieve the University of Oregon’s mission of exceptional teaching, discovery, and service.
I hope that I and other administrators have built your trust as we have led the university through the pandemic. I make you the following promise—we will continue to follow the science and best practices emerging from the CDC and our peer institutions. We understand we will need to accommodate the reasonable needs of our community members whenever we can in an equitable manner while providing a predominantly in-person experience. We will consult widely, and we will not be guided by fear or emotion. We will not make forced errors by making decisions prematurely. We will communicate transparently. And, we will look after the welfare of our community now and into the future.
We have made it through a very difficult time. I can’t wait to see what we can achieve together as we move forward.
Michael H. Schill
President and Professor of Law