President's Report to UO Board of Trustees, March 2021

March 8, 2021

President Schill delivered the following remarks at the UO Board of Trustees full board meeting. A recording of the meeting is available on the board website.

Good morning. I will address tuition when the board takes up that issue later in the meeting. This morning I will focus my remarks on some important recent developments. As you know, I announced last week that the University of Oregon will once again open in the fall to mostly in-person instruction in fall.

The vaccine picture continues to brighten, with the approval of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine and increasing supplies anticipated. In recognition of this, a couple of weeks ago, Governor Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority released a vaccine sequencing list that included higher education in Phase 1B of Oregon’s vaccine distribution. According to the governor, faculty and staff who are needed for on-campus teaching, student support, and research will become eligible for the vaccine by May 1. Students, along with all other state residents, will be eligible by July 1.

The knowledge that we will be able to be vaccinated over the late spring and summer, reinforced my confidence in our ability to safely resume predominately in-person classes by September.

As we have discussed on numerous occasions, our ability to hold mostly in-person classes in the fall is an extremely important development for many reasons:

  • Many of our students are unable to flourish in a remote environment. They need to be in a supportive classroom setting. This is especially true for our low-income students and students of color.
  • Our faculty also need to be back on campus. Covid-19 has taken a tremendous toll on our faculty and their research—particularly those who are parents with kids at home. The governor’s announcement Friday that public schools will be reopening should also help our employees with children.
  • Returning to campus and securing federal and state financial relief, and ensuring our long-run financial viability is also critical for the recovery of our community. The university’s footprint as an employer, role in responding to the pandemic, and the many ways our graduates will help the economy recover make our role more vital than ever. I will speak more about COVID relief and state funding in a moment.

Let me be clear, when we return more fully to campus, I am under no illusion that life will be identical to the way it was before COVID-19. The virus is not going away.

But with access to vaccinations for faculty and staff coming by early summer, continued declines in local positivity case rates, K-12 schools reopening, continued vigilance with respect to masks and distancing, and our continued partnership and collaboration with our local health authorities, we are well positioned for fall.

We’ve learned so much over the last year and we are prepared to react to the changing landscape that is COVID-19.

The pandemic challenged us to develop new skills and find new ways of doing things. Before COVID-19, the university had been investing in more robust online education delivery and improving curriculum, but the pandemic accelerated that work.

I am proud of how our how faculty and staff found ways to keep students engaged and to adjust courses to this new remote, online, and hybrid environment. I am also proud of the resilience of our students.

But, ultimately, the pandemic has reaffirmed the value and our community’s desire to be in person—learning, studying, and working together.

We will also continue our work to be strong partners with the state and county. As you know, the university is part of the “Lane County Vaccine Collaborative,” which is being led by state and local health officials. Drawing from our experience with staging large athletic events and with vaccinating students during the meningitis outbreak in Oregon, we are providing logistics expertise and guidance to public health and education partners.

To date, the UO has already helped plan and hold more than a dozen vaccination clinics and distributed tens of thousands of vaccines in Lane County for those who are eligible. We have a team that is preparing to vaccinate those on campus as supply is available.

We have also been able to leverage the university’s research power to sequence the genome of a number of testing samples to learn about whether variants are coming into Lane County. In fact, our pilot project by our researchers recently identified a variant, fortunately not one the CDC considers of concern.

As you are aware, both the vaccine and genome testing are in addition to our current public health efforts. This includes our community testing and contact tracing programs, which have allowed us to identify asymptomatic cases and reduce the spread of the virus.

Our efforts and the expertise of our faculty and staff have shown the value of having a research university embedded within a community.

In another positive development for our campus over the weekend, the US Senate passed the American Rescue package, the fifth time since the onset of the pandemic that Congress has passed legislation providing relief and support across a wide sector of the economy. The House is poised to pass it in the next day or two and it will be headed to the president’s desk for signature.

There is help for students and the university in this latest relief. The University of Oregon is projected to receive about $43 million, of which at least half will go to students in the form of direct grants.

With this package, there will have been three allocations of this federal relief to the UO totaling $83 million, nearly half of which will have gone to students. I would remind you that US Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon played a critical role in shaping the legislation.

While this relief is welcome and its importance cannot be over-stated, it is critical that everyone understands the scope of our new costs and lost revenue.

UO’s most recent report to HECC projects that we will sustain over $173 million in lost revenue and new costs between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 through the end of Spring 2021. That does not include student need, which is significant even without a pandemic.

The American Rescue package also contains other provisions important to us including support for state and local government, which should help the legislature complete a biennial budget that does not make disproportionate cuts to higher education. It also includes funds to states for testing, tracing, and vaccine dissemination. There are other provisions that benefit us as an employer as it relates to medical leave.

The federal relief package is great news for Oregon, especially for its direct aid to students, but we will have our work cut out for us to educate lawmakers that one-time federal resources are exactly that, one time. They don’t cover our ongoing lost tuition revenues and expenses. It is essential that they make increasing investments in the Public University Support Fund.

Related to state funding, the recent revenue forecast brought mixed news. Oregon’s economy and revenue collections have rebounded from the losses that occurred last spring, meaning we are likely spared from any cuts during the current biennium. In the medium and longer-term, economic growth is still modest, and Oregon’s kicker law means that the state may be returning approximately $500 million to taxpayers next year.

We are working with other universities and legislative champions to make a case for an increase of $63 million in the Support Fund, for a total ask of $900 million for the next biennium.

We have our work cut out for us, but our efforts are worth it for the sake of our students, our community, and society.