Senate holds virtual town hall with administrators, questions remain unanswered

Ethan Tan

Staff Writer

Roughly 60 members of the USF community attended a virtual town hall in which ASUSF Vice President of Internal Affairs Cassie Murphy moderated a 90-minute forum with members of the administration answering student-submitted questions. 

The April 29 town hall featured Interim Provost Tyrone Cannon, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Shirley McGuire, and Vice Provosts Julie Orio, Michael Beseda, and Jeff Hamrick, who addressed student questions on the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and plans for the future.

Attendees submitted questions through an online platform, and Murphy asked the top-rated questions.

The discussion largely revolved around the decision not to issue partial tuition refunds for the spring semester. The Foghorn reported on this earlier this month. Questions also addressed what the fall would look like, the future of the University’s finances, and how students will be supported.

Fall 2020 plans

In speaking to the University’s outlook on the fall semester, Orio, vice provost of student life, said, “Our goal is that we’re back in person come fall. This is what we’re going for.” 

When asked when a decision will be made about the University’s fall plans, McGuire said that a plan will be announced in late May or early June, which will be in line with other universities’ timelines. Hamrick, vice provost for institutional budget, planning, and analytics, cautioned that even though they will be announcing a plan, it could change over the summer months. Orio also noted that factors are dependent on local, state, and federal restrictions, such as the San Francisco and statewide stay-at-home orders.

McGuire said that in case a return to campus would not be possible, her team is working on developing back-up online classes. 

All of the actions taken by working groups are tied to USF’s Roadmap to Reopening, which Orio described as being a document “that will provide a roadmap for navigating through the current COVID-19 pandemic at the University of San Francisco.”

For now, the University has no plan to discount fall tuition. Hamrick said that fall rates have been announced and will not change. Beseda, vice provost for strategic enrollment management, added that the University will be flexible on payment deadlines, although details have not been finalized.

Tuition refunds

Cannon explained that the University has made the decision not to refund tuition, as it continues to provide a “first-class” education and offer the same services it had provided in-person, but now in an online format. 

Students asked if they could be refunded for fees that pay for services and facilities not available from their homes — such as the student activity fee, transportation fee, and lab fees — along with on-campus services. 

Hamrick said class-specific fees would not be refunded as there are expenses that go along with moving from a lab to an online medium. For example, he cited that instead of a lab fee covering a test tube, it could now cover software.

Orio explained the transportation fee is not refundable as the fee has already been paid and negotiated with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and explained that students do not pay a direct fee for access to the Koret Health and Recreation Center or for Public Safety services. (Koret, Public Safety, and other services and facilities not covered by the student activity fee, but are provided as a service by the University.)

In regards to on-campus services, Orio said that students are still using resources such as the Center for Academic and Student Achievement (CASA), Career Services Center, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and Student Disability Services (SDS) at the same rate or even higher. Orio did not provide specific numbers.

CARES Act funding, University aid for students

According to Hamrick, the largest financial impact the pandemic has had on USF thus far has been the $5.5 million in prorated housing refunds given to students. Half of the school’s $7.2 million allocation from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is slated to cover the cost of the refunds

Numerous questions were asked about the status of the CARES Act funding. McGuire, who is heading the University working group tasked with managing the CARES Act money, said the University has already filed paperwork with the U.S. Department of Education and received the first half of its funding.

Beseda said, “We’re eager to release the funds to students,” but noted that there have been delays in the disbursement of funds because of the federal government’s conflicting guidelines. Beseda said that those guidelines have since been clarified, and the University is ready to move forward in issuing $500-$1,200 grants to students in need — this need will be determined based on FAFSA data and Pell Grant eligibility. All students will receive an email update about the CARES Act on a later date.

As CARES Act funds cannot be distributed to non-U.S. citizens, such as international students or Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, Beseda announced that the USF President’s Emergency Fund, as well as the $1 million donated by the Board of Trustees, will be used to issue grants of the same size to those ineligible for CARES Act funds.

Beseda noted that there will be two rounds of disbursements. If a student needs financial assistance and is not given funds in the first round because they were not considered to be “in-need” by FAFSA standards, they will be able to apply for a grant in the second round from the USF-provided funds.

The future of USF finances

Hamrick announced a significant change to the University’s fiscal structure in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic — the Board of Trustees asked his office to “completely rebuild” the University’s budget after the fall 2020 census date. According to Hamrick, “This is unprecedented in our university’s modern financial history.”

In giving an overview of the University’s finances and budget, Hamrick noted the distinction between the fiscal year 2020 and fiscal year 2021 budgets. (Each fiscal year runs from June 1 to May 31 of the next year.) He stated that he is not concerned about the budget for the fiscal year 2020, as it is coming to an end, but the University still needs to control its spending.

In regards to the fiscal year 2021 budget, Hamrick is concerned about the University not hitting matriculation and enrollment targets. While the matriculation target rates for undergraduate students are on target, he described the graduate programs’ target rates as “worrying.” 

Hamrick also speculated that the financial aid budget may grow for fiscal year 2021. “We expect many students to have a parent who will become unemployed, those families can make a financial aid appeal, that will then impact that financial aid budget for fiscal year 21,” he said.

Hamrick told viewers a hiring freeze is in place for employees, including student employees, and contractors. In addition, he is ensuring departments are only purchasing what is necessary and that deans are taking a 15% pay cut. He said that USF’s adjustments are in line with other universities. 

Students also asked about potential future tuition raises, as tuition increases are based on the budget. One student asked, “How will the current financial hardships impact any tuition increases for the following academic year?”

Hamrick answered, “This will be an unusual year for the budget office. It is premature for me to comment.” Hamrick said that when the University makes its annual decision about a potential tuition raise in December 2020, it could vote for an increase as it has over the past several years, or it could deviate from this pattern. But Hamrick assured that “both management and trustees will take into account different considerations, such as: are we in a depression, unemployment rates, etc.”

Students left with questions, concerns

At the end of the night, there were over 50 unanswered questions on the online question submission platform, with many revolving around refunds and the status of the fall semester. 

There was also concern that some questions were being deleted by ASUSF Senate.

In a statement to the Foghorn, ASUSF President Hector Bustos said, “There were a lot of concerns about questions and comments being deleted, but the only questions that were being deleted were questions that were already asked, and comments that were inappropriate language or were not relevant to the issue at hand were also deleted. In no way were we trying to limit the student body’s voice in this process.”

Bustos said that ASUSF, “prioritized [questions with the most ‘likes’] because they were the ones with the most unified support.”

ASUSF President-elect John Iosefo expressed in a statement to the Foghorn his reaction to the town hall. “If anything was evident tonight, it is that there needs to be more and more transparency surrounding the university’s decision making- including the decision to not issue partial tuition refunds.”

Iosefo also noted that he hopes that plans for the fall are communicated in a timely manner so students can plan accordingly, but understands it is difficult for the administration to provide concrete answers given the changing nature of a pandemic. “Through respectful dialogue and a shared interest in the prolonged success of USF, our community will emerge stronger than before.”

“I hope the student forum provided an opportunity for students to learn more about the efforts that the university is taking,” stated Orio. “We continue to appreciate everyone’s understanding during this difficult time.”

On Tuesday, May 5, President Paul Fitzgerald will be virtually hosting his annual spring town hall for only faculty and staff. He is slated to address the state of the university, mission-driven initiatives during this time, and answer any questions faculty or staff may have.

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