Q&A with UCCS chancellor Venkat Reddy

Scribe Editors

[email protected]

Sept. 10, 2020

Before COVID-19, we were already struggling with not meeting enrollment projections and some severe budget cuts. How does that impact us now?   
Our  campus responded well to the fall 2019 enrollment dip,  and  we made  budget adjustments in response. This spring,  COVID-19  had an unwelcome impact on the campus budget – particularly in our auxiliary operations, which  provide so many essential student services. We  took a very conservative  approach  with our budget assumptions for this fall  and  prepared  the campus with furloughs and position controls.  I  challenged faculty and staff to focus on returning and new students this summer to improve on our enrollment estimates. The initial results are positive, and the campus will likely come through fall census without having to make further cuts.  

What is UCCS’ current financial situation?   
The campus financial situation is guarded but not dire given the tremendous economic impacts we have seen across the community, state and nation. Our leadership  made conservative estimates of the budget this year,  making cuts early and challenging the campus to improve on enrollment estimates. The primary components of the campus budget – tuition and fees, state funding, auxiliary service revenues and fundraising – have all seen reductions  due to COVID-19. The largest percentage reduction of our budget was  from  a 58% cut to our state funding.  Our  fall 2020  enrollment is higher than we factored for in our budget predictions, although it is  still  lower  relative to last year.  Our auxiliary services  are  significantly impacted by the ability to deliver services on campus, and so the COVID driven decisions to reduce the in-person footprint on campus negatively impacts its budget. Fundraising support from the community continues to be strong but is constrained by  COVID’s  impact on the economy. We have received federal and state allocations of CARES  Act  funds that have helped our students with emergency aid and relieved some of the impacts on our expenses in response to COVID.  

  Will parking permits be reimbursed to students, staff, and faculty if the university were to transfer to online classes or close down the university again?   
We  would  expect to follow protocols  similar  to  our response during  the spring and summer semesters.  

What about activities fees vs tuition?

Tuition  pays for the  courses  that students enroll in each semester and covers costs like academic buildings, laboratories, course supplies and faculty salaries. Fees are approved by a vote of the student body, with approval by the Board of Regents. The benefits of college that are so valuable to student growth and development and that extend beyond what is learned in the classroom are generally not covered by tuition.  Fees  support  additional services and facilities not covered by tuition,  including the University Center, Gallogly Recreation and Wellness Center and the Family Development Center. The fees cover the staffing, equipment, utilities, maintenance and programs. Some  fees  are also used to cover bond payments on facilities, which are often made in 30-year terms. The university is legally required to make those payments with the fees that students agreed to cover at the time of those votes. We were able to  support  the costs of some of those fees for students who enrolled in classes  during  the summer semester to reduce the burden on  students, and we will continue to evaluate those after the fall census date of Sept. 10.  

How are you responding to the nationwide call for tuition to be lowered because of online learning? What is UCCS doing to ensure that students are receiving the education that they are paying for?  

We have fixed costs related to instruction. We have faculty members who  teach, counselors who advise, tutors who help students and other academic support expenses. These  expenses are still incurred even if instruction shifts to  a remote environment and these  real costs to colleges are  all  covered by tuition.    

The amount of work for faculty to teach online is at least as much,  if not greater, than in-person instruction. Faculty, with the help of instructional designers, build the course in the online platform in advance so students can progress at their own pace. Then faculty  provide  weekly grading and feedback to make sure students are keeping up with the assignments and are mastering the material. They are also  available by email and phone to answer questions. All of this  requires faculty time, preplanning and consistent execution. Beyond actual instruction, online classes and programs have their own associated costs. Institutions need instructional technology staff to make sure that each course is fully supported by a course management system. Staff members need to be available to help professors when glitches occur in delivery. For all these reasons, and some not covered here, tuition is set at a certain rate and is not able to be reduced.  

In summary, UCCS faculty and staff are working very hard to offer a variety of delivery modes so that students can make good, timely progress towards their degree, acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to have successful careers. Ultimately, that is what students and  their  families want, and that is what their tuition dollars make possible.  

What is the administration at UCCS doing to support professors during this unprecedented time?   

Faculty members work with their department chairs and deans to choose  the format that  works best for their content and courses. Faculty have been given as much flexibility as possible in choosing how to offer their classes (whether on-campus, remote or hybrid) within the constraints imposed by reduced classroom capacity due to social distancing. The  Faculty Resource Center has provided training to faculty over the summer and is working with faculty this fall on effective online teaching and how to use various technology. The Office of Information Technology  has also been working  to better equip classrooms with appropriate technology, such as projectors, webcams, audio devices, Wi-Fi hotspots and more.  

Could you speak to the value of higher education, as pundits are questioning the cost of higher-ed?  

To answer this question on the value of higher education, allow me to share the opinion piece I  wrote for  the  Colorado Springs  Gazette  last year  at  this time:  

I understand that more than ever before, the value of a college degree is under intense scrutiny — especially from those who wonder if a degree is necessary to find a good job. There is real economic value in a college degree. A recent study from Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime than those with a high school education. Investing in a college degree delivers a 15 percent rate of return — more than double the average return on the stock market.  

But beyond economic success, its most significant value is in improving the quality of graduates’ lives and the lives of those around them.  

Education provides the analytical and critical thinking skills necessary for graduates to pivot into new fields. Our University of Colorado President Mark Kennedy has been speaking across the state about the Fourth Industrial Revolution that could leave millions of less skilled Americans unemployed. Research tells us that as many as 40 percent of today’s jobs could be lost to automation in 20 years.  

On the other hand, these emerging technologies will create jobs and change those that still exist. A college education prepares our graduates to navigate these uncharted territories and transform them into opportunities. It is important to recognize that a college degree is not just about creating individual economic value. College education pays at an individual and a societal level.  

Education widens your mind. It raises the quality of your life. Research shows us that those with college degrees are more likely to vote, more likely to have global awareness and more likely to be philanthropic. They are less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise and lead healthier lifestyles. They volunteer at twice the rate of those with high school diplomas and are more likely to be civically engaged. They go out into their communities and make a difference.  

When I speak about the power of education to transform lives and communities, I often share the story of Mike  Fryt, a 1977 UCCS graduate with a successful career at FedEx as the senior vice president of global tax affairs. Mike grew up here in the region. His education, provided by our local public schools and UCCS, created countless opportunities for him and fueled his successful career.  

Education opened doors for Mike — and through his determination and hard work, he committed to providing a similar opportunity for Colorado students. He created a scholarship endowment with a matching challenge that creates access to higher education for students coming — as he did — from middle-income families. His Bridge Forward scholarship opens doors for bright, talented students, many of whom will continue to live and work in Colorado Springs long after graduation.  

This is just one story of many that illustrate how our college graduates give back to support education, our community and the communities they call home.  

Education doesn’t just grant individual financial freedom. It gives graduates the tools to become powerful catalysts to transform their communities for the better — one day, one action, one person at a time.  

Beyond  Chromebooks, what are we doing to ensure access to online education for lower income students?  
We are providing  Wi-Fi  hot spots for checkout at the Kraemer Family Library and making sure that computer labs are still accessible. We have implemented more remote desktop connections, which allow students to use some of the high-end software packages from home, instead of coming to campus.  

What are some of the COVID-19 safety measures, and how has this changed campus life?  

We established five recovery teams  of faculty, staff and students at the end of the spring semester to develop our Returning Stronger Together plan, which we released in early July. I encourage people to read the  details of that plan at returnto.uccs.edu  

We continue to ask our campus citizens, through a variety of channels, to keep themselves and others safe by wearing a face covering, maintaining social distance and following hand hygiene.   

We have implemented new signage and  Plexiglass barriers, launched new apps and online tools for students to make reservations at some of the high-traffic points on campus, and increased cleaning operations across campus. We have found that face coverings have been very effective in limiting the spread of the virus,  evidenced by  the county’s positive case rate, which  has  been drastically  reduced  since Governor  Polis  implemented the mandate  in July. We have been requiring them on campus since  beginning  our limited reopening in June for faculty and researchers and will likely continue to  require them  after the state order expires.  

Why are students still paying the same activity fees when many activities are not even happening or are very different from pre-COVID times, especially since student fees have largely to do with the college experience, which is vastly different? For example, the athletics fee pays for students to attend all athletic games at the university, but there won’t even be any collegiate sports games this fall due to COVID.  

Services are still being provided, but the experiences are different in order to comply with public health orders. For example, the  Gallogly Recreation  and Wellness Center  remains open, students can still take children to the Family Development Center for childcare  and  our arts program is producing virtual content. The Scribe is also a good example, as the media fee supports its operations  despite its moving  to an online-only format this semester.  

We are excited to have competition this fall from our cross country and golf  teams and  look forward to hosting the 2020 RMAC Cross Country Championships next month. The rest of the fall sports are scheduled to compete in the spring semester, and we are planning, at the moment, to play basketball as scheduled. The student-athletes are still practicing and training withing public health guidelines and NCAA rules, and we are anticipating have a very busy spring season.  

 Since there are 3 confirmed cases of COVID-19 from UCCS students, it is apparent that this number could continue to increase. What is the threshold for the amount of cases for UCCS to close campus or have to quarantine?  

The threshold on closing or quarantining will depend on the severity of the situation as well as the  public health orders in place at the time of the event. We have protocols in place to address cases in classrooms, offices and residence halls. Students living in the residence halls who test positive will be asked to go home to quarantine for two weeks if possible. Those who cannot go home will be moved to rooms that we have reserved for self-isolation.  

If the campus has to transition to entirely online again if COVID-19 cases spike, like last spring, how will we transition? Will students living in the dorms be sent home again?  

This will depend on the severity of the event and the public health orders in place at the time of the event. If it is safer to keep students on campus, we will certainly consider that option. If it is safer to send student home, we will send them home. In either case, we will have emergency housing available for those students who cannot return home safely if public health orders allow it. We will make every decision with your safety and success in mind.  

If we return to online only classes, will students be allowed to drop classes even after the census date?  

The drop deadline is not the census date. The census day is the last opportunity a student can drop a course and still receive a full refund. A student can drop a class without instructor approval up to  Oct. 30 but  wouldn’t  receive a full refund in that scenario.   

Is this semester the beginning of implementing the strategic plan of 2030, and how has COVID-19 affected this progress and how will the plan be adjusted given the current circumstances?  

Even as we focus on working on current challenges, we have not lost sight of our long-term goals. The 2030  Strategic  Plan  was put into motion before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and  progress continues on the  several initiatives targeted as the first pieces of the plan:  for example, the renewed emphasis on research growth as seen with the advent of the National  Institute for  Human Resilience and growth in  cybersecurity  programs and research. The  incentive-based  budget  model project remains on track as it enters its parallel prototyping year. We opened the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center on time  just a few weeks ago, despite some construction delays due to COVID.  COVID is providing valuable lessons learned in the way we communicate, work, use facilities and engage our students. Those lessons learned will be applied to  all of  our strategic goals as we move forward.  

How will UCCS enforce wearing masks and social distancing? If someone on campus does not respect these COVID guidelines, what will happen?  

As part of the mission to Protect the Pride, it is expected that everyone who comes to campus will follow all public health guidelines and direction. In the first couple of weeks of classes, I have been impressed with the level of compliance by students, faculty and staff.  

But if someone does not agree to follow the expectations, we will address them within the appropriate conduct processes. For students, they will be referred to the Dean of Students, who will implement the discipline process as part of any other infraction of the Code of Conduct. For employees, they will be handled as part of the conduct process with their supervisor.  

We are also committed to helping individuals who may need accommodations to fully comply. For those who can’t wear a face covering, we have developed alternatives with face shields, which have been approved by El Paso County Public Health. We are also making sure that if a student or employee can’t come to campus because they  are a high-risk individual, that those people are not penalized  in their studies or work.  

How is the university dealing with technology issues, specifically with Canvas not functioning or virtual meetings not working?  

COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of certain technology platforms, most of which were already in development or in implementation when  we moved to remote learning. We had started to move to more cloud-based services, which allowed us to accommodate the increase in technology usage that we wouldn’t have been able to handle if we were running applications from our servers.   

I know it’s frustrating when technology doesn’t work, and faculty  is  just as equally frustrated as students when a program goes down. While we are at the mercy of any mass outages with any platform, like those institutions who are relying on Zoom experienced a couple of weeks ago, we have been fortunate that any outages we’ve experienced have been limited in their impact to overall operations.  

What is UCCS doing to support minority students, especially BIPOC students, and make them feel safe on campus and supported off campus?

UCCS has always celebrated our historically underrepresented students, especially Black and Indigenous People  of Color students. We are currently in the initial phases of a project to expand the M.O.S.A.I.C.  office in order to accommodate more BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students as well as expand services to this population of students. In addition, campus leadership, among others, will undergo additional training in matters of equity, diversity and inclusion this semester and moving forward.    

How is the Black Lives Matter movement and the current situation of our country being taken into consideration at UCCS?  

I often talk about the  goal to create a culture on campus  of  respect,  compassion, safety and excellence. But it often starts with respect – because if someone doesn’t feel respected, it’s almost impossible to  achieve the other three.  

One day, I would like to see a world in which racism is something we study as history, and not something that individuals experience in their lives. I  am  proud of the students who organized a protest during the  summer and  was  humbled to speak with them and join them that morning.  Despite our best efforts, I know that we have some work to do on campus to  create an environment where  everyone feels respected and safe. I told them that morning that, for me, it starts with listening. My experiences are not their experiences. I’ve been able to meet with students again this summer and fall  to  hear their ideas on how UCCS can  achieve those goals. One of those  ideas  is expanding the facilities for our M.O.S.A.I.C. office, and we will involve students in those discussions as we begin our fundraising efforts. I recognize that there is much progress to me made in the diversity, equity and inclusion areas of our campus and I am committed to keep my focus and efforts on it.  

Portrait of Venkat Reddy, the UCCS chancellor.
Portrait of Venkat Reddy. Photo taken by Glenn J. Asakawa. Courtesy of Communique.