July 7, 2020

Dear UAF faculty and staff,

As we continue to prepare for the fall semester, the uptick in COVID-19 cases has been the start of many of our conversations. With the safety of our faculty, staff and students in mind, and with our mission to provide access to education, I want to let you know where I and your leadership team are on some important issues.

First, let me say that many of you have reached out and expressed concerns, both with having in-person classes but also with not having them. This pandemic is rapidly changing, and the picture was different two weeks ago from what it was four weeks ago. I share many if not all of the same concerns of others across campus (including students and parents). Faculty are the front line, so it is important that faculty are comfortable with the conditions in which they teach, conduct research or engage with students. As a former faculty member, it is my perspective that faculty know their courses and their students best, and it is critical that this perspective affects how we move forward with fall planning.

What follows is not a response to all of the questions I have received, but hopefully this helps clarify a few things. I will continue to send out a COVID-19 update on Tuesdays so you know where things stand on a weekly basis and can weigh in accordingly.

Phases B and C:
Last week I stated that our planning efforts were for UAF to be in Phase C. This effort remains. What this really means, though, is that we will have Phase C available to us. When the system moves to Phase C it means that Chancellors may consider this as an option for units within their respective universities. It does not mean that everyone goes into Phase C across UAF or even across entire units. Whether a unit is in A, B or C is up to decisions made at the university and our ability to maintain safe living, learning and working conditions.

It has been our position that having this designation is important for three reasons. First, it allows us to have faculty who need to be on campus to teach, either by distance or in person, or to do research. We ran into many problems last spring when faculty could not access their required distance technology from home or did not have adequate bandwidth. Second, it allows UAF to have the option of in-person classes for those we deem necessary. And third, it allows us to have students, at our discretion, in residence halls. While we will have restrictions, it is an important option to keep open for many in the UAF demographic. Access to residence is for many access to education. Our commitment to respect, diversity, inclusion and caring includes providing access to education for all UAF students, not just those with a fast internet connection. This must be accomplished in a safe environment, but UAF serves many students who simply do not have safe or reliable housing, or dependable access to distance education.

After the pandemic began this spring, UAF operated with between 80 and 120 students in our residence halls. We currently have more than 600 students who have asked to live in the residence halls this fall. This can be accommodated with single-occupancy rooms, including keeping a spare residence hall for quarantine and a second for isolation if that were needed. Much was learned since March and much has gone into the planning to keep this many students safe during the pandemic. Students are weighing their options and asking to live on campus for the sake of their education. This would likely be the case even if all classes were online. Many students simply need residency.

So the question arises, what if the system does not go to C, but instead stays at B? The approach to fall that UAF is taking is very close to B but in the C domain for some operations. Even without changing how we are planning, it is my expectation that we could accomplish most of what we want while in Phase B through exceptions. So please, continue planning as you have been and continue to plan to provide access to education for UAF’s students.

Fall classes:
I mentioned last week that UAF expects to offer one third of our classes online, another third in person and the remainder as a mix. This balance is a function of where we expected faculty to land in their desire for online vs. in-person and hybrid classes. At a UAF level, we have not mandated that a certain percentage of classes will be in-person. The only mandate would be if we mandated that none could be in-person, and that is not our plan given the conditions as we understand them. While many faculty are moving their courses online or to distance, we want to keep open the in-person option as some of our courses simply do not lend themselves to online (e.g., welding, culinary arts), the learning outcomes are not the same (hands-on science labs), or the classes involve laboratory research. Where possible, I encourage faculty to modify their classes to be adaptable. We are providing some new funding for that purpose.

As of earlier this week, the mix of in-person and distance classes has a new and important impact on access to education for our international students. A new federal mandate established that the visas our international students hold are now dependent on the number of in-person classes they are enrolled in. If an insufficient number of classes are held in person for these students, their visas will be revoked and they will not be allowed in the United States. This is an issue of access, diversity and inclusion for UAF. By offering in-person classes we are allowing a segment of students to access education they wouldn’t otherwise have. While they could still participate online without a visa, many of our international students are our graduate student workforce. They are teaching assistants, research assistants and athletes. They are part of our fabric.

What does the future hold?
We do not know exactly what the pandemic will do, but the number of cases being reported is on the rise. Hospitalizations, however, remain low in Alaska. Some states are rolling back some or all of their reopening plans, others are not. What happens out of state or even off campus is not within our control. Also, what the governor may adjust or mandate moving forward remains to be seen. However, with many more of our classes online now than before and with many faculty working on getting courses in a hybrid or online form this summer, we are in a much different position to respond to unknowns than we were in March. During the shutdown, we learned a lot of useful lessons.

We face many uncertainties, and there are risks posed by all of our choices. I’ve been asked if we are focusing on in-person options to bolster tuition revenue. The answer is no. This is about access to education and managing risk. It is about weighing the risks of different decisions and different approaches to provide access to labs for researchers, access to living facilities to students who need them, and access to education to as many students as possible. We must do so in a safe way. We will do the best that we can to navigate this pandemic and the twists and turns that await us.

As the risk balance changes, we will seek to change. I recognize that the closer we get to the fall semester, the more difficult it becomes to pivot, and we must remain flexible. However, this must be balanced with the added insight that one gains by keeping options open a little longer. I encourage you to continue to express your feelings, fears, hopes and dreams. Your leadership team is listening.

Thanks for choosing UAF.

— Dan White, chancellor

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