Faculty, staff gather for town hall; leadership calls for unity

Ethan Tan

Staff Writer

With the status of the fall semester unknown, over 800 faculty, staff, and invited guests tuned in to President Paul Fitzgerald’s annual spring town hall on Tuesday, May 5. Traditionally held in the McLaren Complex, the COVID-19 pandemic — which prompted many of the questions at the town hall — forced the event to move online.

The 90-minute town hall was mainly presentation-based, with 10 speakers invited by Fitzgerald to deliver updates on various campus departments and working groups. The speakers, who filled the first hour, included members of University leadership, as well as invited guests such as Sonja Martin Poole, president of the USF Faculty Association (USFFA), the full-time faculty union.

The remaining 30 minutes were used to answer questions submitted prior to the start of the event or during the Zoom webinar. According to Kellie Samson, head of media relations at USF, the 800 attendees posed over 70 questions before and during the gathering — 12 were answered by members of the president’s cabinet or the USF leadership team. Samson noted that in the coming days, the Office of Marketing Communications will post a video recording of the town hall with captions as well as answers to the remaining questions.

Fitzgerald noted in his opening remarks that he wanted to focus on the unity and collaboration that has occurred from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He cited the dedication of faculty and staff in transitioning classes to a remote format and helping move campus resources online. He also praised collaboration among faculty, staff, and administration in working to address the challenges COVID-19 has brought to the institution. 

The fall semester

Similar to last week’s ASUSF Senate town hall, which was designed for students, the most pressing questions involved the status of the fall semester. Fitzgerald reiterated that the University wants to be open and in-person in the fall, with programming returning to the Hilltop by August 1. 

But Fitzgerald and Julie Orio, vice provost of student life, cautioned that circumstances might change between now and then and said that more guidance on the fall semester would be coming at a later date.

“The administration is working on the plans now and we hope to announce decisions in June, and possibly earlier,” Senior Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Shirley McGuire clarified over email. 

This guidance is similar to what Orio and others said to students last week. However, she added that there is the possibility that the fall could consist of online-only classes, in-person-only classes, or a hybrid method.

Orio also noted that if the campus is reopened in the fall, everyone would be expected to follow appropriate social distancing guidelines. She added that the Facilities Department along with other essential workers are inventorying all areas of campus with social distancing measures in mind to determine feasibility.

McGuire, who is leading the Continuity of Instruction working group, said that her group is looking into improving technology and resources should the fall semester be online. She expressed pride in the University’s execution of the remote portion of the spring semester. “The input that we received from students, from parents, from actually many of your peers, just tells us that we have done an outstanding job, and that job has allowed students to continue with coursework.”

She noted that her group is working closely with each of the deans’ offices to coordinate an instructional delivery plan for the fall. McGuire also announced that there will be more faculty training for remote learning in the case that the fall semester has an online component, as well as for faculty who will be teaching classes that are part of a “robust” online option for international students.

Opinder Bawa, vice president of information technology and the University’s chief information officer, said that if there is an online fall semester, Information Technology Services (ITS) is looking to purchase or license software that can help automate manual activities or manage virtual cues. In terms of communication software, he expressed interest in purchasing a license for Slack, a popular team communications platform.

The community

Lester Deanes, assistant vice provost for student engagement, spoke on how USF students are staying involved and connected to the campus community with the help of the Department of Student Life. 

Deanes said that he is proud of the work that the department has done in creating and curating a student engagement hub. “USF is the people, the connections, the relationships […] I work at a Jesuit school because of the community.”

Fitzgerald also announced plans for virtual celebrations next week to mark what would have been spring commencement. Students and their families can visit the virtual commencement hub to view video messages from him and various deans. In addition, Fitzgerald stated, “We will continue to populate this site with students submitted photos, videos, features, and more.”

Unions

Poole was invited to speak by Fitzgerald and spoke about how she is proud of faculty, who have worked “tirelessly” to move education online. Poole was the only town hall speaker who was not a member of University administration. 

In her short address, Poole touched upon shared governance and how the USFFA is working with the administration to create new groups in addition to resurrecting old ones, such as the University Curriculum Committee, which reviews curriculum proposals.

In addition to the USFFA, the University is committed to including the USF Part-Time Faculty Association (USFPTFA), the law school faculty union, and a future staff council in shared governance, according to McGuire.

Poole affirmed that in light of the uncertainty the University is facing, increased transparency and communication will help the community move forward.

“I’m optimistic that if we’re able to keep the lines of communication open and decision making transparent, inclusive, and mission based, we will transform the challenge into an opportunity to become stronger and better collectively,” Poole said.

Summer

Vice Provost for Institutional Budget, Planning, and Analytics Jeff Hamrick touched on plans for the summer. As previously reported in the Foghorn, all summer sessions will be taught remotely, and some orientation programs, such as the Muscat Scholars program, will be partially moved online. 

USF will miss out on expected revenue from now-canceled summer conferences and summer housing but is expected to make $28 million in tuition revenue from summer sessions. To boost summer enrollment, the University has put funds toward a new digital marketing campaign aimed at current students who are not yet enrolled in summer sessions, as well as adult learners looking to earn certificates. The marketing strategy also includes an email campaign which sends students personalized summer course offerings.

Government assistance

During the question and answer session, Fitzgerald was asked how USF is engaging with government officials to get support. Fitzgerald noted that he has been working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to lobby for federal support for private not-for-profit educational institutions like USF. Fitzgerald pointed out that in a town hall with Pelosi on March 20, he was able to ask Pelosi to include private higher education institutions in the coronavirus relief aid package. The University later received approximately $7.2 million from the federal relief bill.

Fitzgerald also highlighted his working relationships with California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. 

Mayor of San Francisco and USF alumna London Breed ‘13 has also asked Fitzgerald to be on the city’s Economic Recovery Task Force.

“Philanthropy and public assistance, you know, are going to be part, they’re not going to close the gap completely but they’re going to help. They’re going to be important pieces as we weather this — not just the pandemic, but especially the recession,” Fitzgerald expressed.

“Shared sacrifice”

Looking ahead, Fitzerald said the future will “require some shared sacrifice on the part of everyone.” He further elaborated that he expects the shared sacrifice to be “progressive,” explaining, “The lowest paid people in our community will be the most protected and the highest paid people will make the greatest sacrifice.” He announced that the deans and cabinet members will take 15% reduction in compensation. 

Fitzgerald himself will take a 20% reduction in his compensation. However, as he has taken a vow of poverty, his compensation is paid directly to the Loyola House Jesuit Community and to the Society of Jesus. The University has confirmed to the Foghorn that Fitzgerald’s annual salary is $588,300. With a 20% cut in compensation, as of June 1, 2020, Fitzgerald will be compensated $470,640.

“If we and if other members of the community take a reduction in our compensation, this will save us from having to do as much reduction in force as might otherwise be necessary,” Fitzgerald added.

For information regarding the University’s budget for fiscal year 2021 and the state of USF’s finances and unions, refer to the adjacent article. 

Reactions to the town hall

Keally McBride, vice president of the USFFA, told the Foghorn after the town hall that the University is facing a lot of uncertainty. In response to fall planning, she said, “[USFFA] just started to talk with them with the different scenarios when it comes to planning for the fall. We’re in a holding pattern for now just the rest of the Bay Area.” 

McBride is hopeful for the fall, saying that USF’s small class sizes may allow in-person instruction, unlike bigger Bay Area schools such as San Jose State University, which has already announced plans for online instruction in the fall.

John Higgins, president of the USFPTFA, said in a statement that while the town hall had good “production value,” he felt that the theme of unity did not resonate with part-time faculty. “When the President and Provosts say ‘we’re all in this together,’ they really mean ‘how can we use a global pandemic to violate the part time contract and further take advantage of part time faculty?’”

Higgins is referring to a “demand to bargain” request that the union sent to the administration for additional compensation related to classes being moved online. The union is seeking compensation for online training, technology costs, and additional hours of work related to remote teaching, amongst other things. According to Higgins, the University rejected the request. 

Numerous faculty members expressed frustration after the town hall.

One faculty member described the town hall as “authoritarian,” complaining about a lack of details and the inability of participants who were not a part of administration to access chat or audio. Another claimed that there was an absence of faculty and staff representation and the town hall was filled with “complete corporate speak.” 

A faculty member said that the University leadership was not focusing on students and stated students should be included in decision making, citing the Foghorn’s April 30 staff editorial on returning for the fall. “There really are no authentic student-centered grownups in our leadership, are there?”

But McBride believes that everyone is doing their best given the confusion and uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re just trying to perceive where the carnage is going,” she said.

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