Interview: EU President talks beginning of semester, COVID-19 and Slippery Rock merger

Category:  News
Wednesday, August 26th, 2020 at 5:24 PM
Interview: EU President talks beginning of semester, COVID-19 and Slippery Rock merger by Kimberly Firestine
Photo: Shayma Musa

The fall 2020 semester is off to a mostly remote start for Edinboro University students and faculty, and The Spectator is no different. On Aug. 18, we spoke with Edinboro University President Dr. Guiyou Huang over Zoom. We discussed the impact of the pandemic on the university and its community, the PASSHE integration study, and what Huang would need to see happen for Edinboro University to return to “normal."    

How do we keep the Edinboro University community together during this semester? Edinboro has quite literally never had to build community at such distance from each other.  

Great question. It’s important because we don’t live and work together on one campus right now, nor did we in the spring. What we have been doing over the past many months — five or six months — is staying together through communications. You know Angela (Burrows), our vice president in communications and marketing, has been doing a lot of Zooms between her and me and many, many others keeping people informed. We sent a gift to the students in the spring to let them know we think about them all the time and that their welfare is important, their learning is important. We are continuing to do certain things and communication is the most important — written, video, audio, all of those formats. When possible, I have spoken to students over Zoom and phone personally. For example, the Student Government Association President Nick (Helfer) I spoke with personally. We have the technology; this is something we’re confident in doing throughout the semester until we come back in person.

Walk me through the moment you and your team decided to go mainly virtual with classes. More schools are going that way after large amounts of cases, but we were relatively early in this choice.  

We were, but we were not among the earliest. We did make the decision to reopen in-person when we were more optimistic. However, over the course of a few months, we learned that the spike in our state of Pennsylvania, and many other states — particularly the southern states like Florida and Texas, as well as California on the west coast — did have a lot of cases spiking, so there was a concern. Even in our own area, there were some known cases of COVID-19 here and there in Northwestern Pennsylvania, so that was concerning. I came from another country many, many years ago, and that country opened their schools only to cancel school again, to have students go back home to remote instruction. Even now, we know even more. For example, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill — a large public research university — opened in person. However, they just made the decision a couple of days ago to go back online.

So now we believe we made the right decision. The decision was not made lightly, though. On our campus, we have a group called the ERT (Emergency Response Team) that manages the crisis, and that includes all of the campus officers, faculty representatives and staff; there is a lot of expertise on our team. They monitor the situation very closely and they make very good recommendations. Their recommendation was discussed thoroughly by the ERT and our cabinet; we spent an entire hour discussing that topic alone, and we all agreed it would be a right decision, a moral decision, to offer classes largely online in the fall semester. Largely meaning 85%.

In our interview last year, you said you felt like coming to Edinboro was a kind of “fate.” There were all these coincidences. How do you reckon that positivity with everything that’s happened since? COVID-19, the future integration with Slippery Rock. Does it shake that faith for you at all?  

No, it doesn’t. Life has its own curves, and you think you have some control over your own destiny. And that’s partially true, but there are other things that you have no control over. They, to some degree, either influence you or help you determine your direction or control part of your life. Nobody lives in a vacuum. Nobody lives in a silo alone. Nobody is prepared for everything — I often acknowledge that. I know I was very well prepared to be a president, but not to be a good doctor of COVID-19. You could not have possibly anticipated everything that could’ve happened, otherwise we would all be Nostradamus. Nothing shook my faith. This is a good university, there are very good people here; our students, our faculty are very dedicated, our staff works almost 24/7 for the students’ benefit, and I’m the same way. We do have challenges — financial, enrollment and they go hand-in-hand. We are overcoming those difficulties by implementing a number of very important initiatives that I know, I believe, will help us achieve financial balance within a couple of years.  

We’re also trying to strengthen our enrollment efforts and retention efforts. I want all students to come here, feel appreciated, feel that they are learning and that they will be successful. So, retention is very important. If we graduate students in four or six years, say, at 60% by the sixth year, that would be a great accomplishment. We don’t have that, but we are working toward that goal and everybody’s on board.

I want to talk about student happiness. And I think this will tie in with the financial end of the university. Do you see any early signs as to how students are taking this change? It’s a lot for them to digest. It’s such a different atmosphere. 

I wish the spring semester didn’t go like that. I’m pretty new, this is my 13th month, and I was thinking that in the spring, another semester would give me more time to interact with students, faculty and staff, and the community, but I was deprived of it all. The in-person interaction was taken away — it was a lot. However, we did do a survey of students and we were the only university within PASSHE that did such a survey. I reported it to all of my fellow presidents and shared it with the (PASSHE) Chancellor. The survey gave us a sense of how students were doing, whether or not they were learning, what they were concerned about. That helped us understand the mindset of the students in a very unusual time, with learning online and teaching from home.  

I had a son who came home and stayed with us for three or so months from college, and now he’s back in Houston where the cases are even more dramatic than here, so still a dangerous time. I certainly want to hear our students. I want them to tell me ‘we are happy about this, not happy about that’ [and] whatever I can do to make it better. That’s my job. When the students succeed, I succeed, faculty succeeds. Your success comes before mine. Feel free to pass the word around that I am willing to listen. Good ideas, good suggestions. I do talk to the Student Government Association president. I had a phone call with him Monday, for 30-40 minutes, and we had good conversation about activities, the budget. I spent the morning learning from him, through him. I’m hoping to have more engagement with you guys throughout the semester — when I walk out on campus, trying to keep social distance, but still finding a way to talk to students. I told Nick that I wanted to do some Zoom meetings with them, with the student senate, the SGA leadership team, with any group. Dr. Terrence Mitchell — our chief diversity and inclusion officer — and I were talking late last week about how to engage our students of color and underrepresented students. This will be a challenging semester. We know that because we can’t shake hands. We can’t just eat at a table without any concerns. But we’ll find a way to engage the students and everybody else. 

How does the university make sure this semester doesn’t have a negative, long-term impact on enrollment? 

Our enrollment, as of yesterday (Aug. 17), looked decent. Better than I thought. We adjusted our enrollment goals from 750 to 705. If the benchmark is 705, we are very close. Against that benchmark, we lost 39 new students. Regardless of COVID-19, you are going to see what some famously call “summer melt.” They (enrolled students) are going to melt away. Yesterday I also saw some retention numbers. Our goal for first to second year student retention was set at 73%. The numbers I saw yesterday were at 75.1% in 2019, compared to 71.3% in 2018, which means we increased by actually nearly 4% compared to 2018, which is very good news considering this is a very challenging year. By taking a gap year, people are trying to stay home, not traveling too far to go to college, and people are just concerned of being in a classroom with a bunch of people when you could get sick because of COVID-19. We were, to some degree, affected but it’s better than I thought at this point.  

Let’s talk instruction. How were faculty trained to manage this change? What is being emphasized at the administration level in regard to virtual instruction and how students best learn?   

Faculty were already, I believe, very well-prepared. The good news is when we switched to online modality back in March, students were on spring break. Faculty had a little extra time versus faculty on other campuses. [They] switched when classes were ongoing; suddenly it stopped and move onto another modality. (Edinboro) faculty had a little time for the transition to online because of that break. Between that and the summer support that was offered to faculty who wanted to have someone help or assist them in using technology for instruction, I believe all faculty are fully equipped to teach online. There are glitches here and there. Even in the house I live in, sometimes the Wi-Fi is not always reliable, there you will see glitches. Hopefully it’s not rampant. We had a summer semester with some classes, so faculty, I hope, have had more time to prepare for the fall classes they’re going to teach online — again, it’s roughly 85%.  

For the remainder of the classes that are taught in person, that’s a small fraction of classes. However, they all either have an in-person component, or a studio component, or an internship that requires physical presence. Those are all offered in person, but of course we are asking all faculty and students to keep social distancing and wear masks while they are in class or group activities. I have faith in our faculty. They are professionals, they know their business, and they know that their health and the health of their students is very, very important and it’s important to me as their president.

There’s a certain experience that seems like it will be impossible to replicate. How will students involved in hands-on learning be able to keep on track to graduate since the pandemic started limiting the ability for in person internships and other field training?

The students have a responsibility to know their graduation requirements and the expectations of their professors in class. I would hope they’re paying attention to their own curricular structure, their own curricular map. They know how many curricular hours are needed to graduate and by when they are going to graduate. And they need to stay engaged and stay informed about their graduation timeline. I also know that our faculty are very good professionals — they know their students well. They can give them reminders, they can talk to them about graduation requirements. I was a faculty member for many years at Kutztown, within PASSHE (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education), so a student expecting to graduate’s material would come to me to review whether or not they have met their requirements. That was many years ago, but I think things are still similar today.

Between the student and the faculty advisor, they should know where they are relative to their graduation requirements and make sure the progress was at the goal. Keeping in mind that there is a timeline is very, very important. Being attentive is important. I have a college-age son and I often ask him ‘did you remember to do this? Do that?’ Students will remind each other of the things they are committed to. That’s the way to make sure the progress is made toward their degree.   

We’ve already seen situations throughout the U.S. — North Carolina, Alabama — where students are congregating off-campus. At bars and parties, events of that nature. How do we make sure that doesn’t happen here? 

We have been doing a lot of reminding over the last few months. We will keep reminding people the imperative importance of social distancing and wearing masks and also washing hands. To me, those are the three most important things: wash your hands constantly, wear a mask — especially when you’re not alone — keep your social distance. Some people say six feet is good enough. As long as you can hear somebody, you can keep nine feet for all I care. The important thing to me, Kimberly, is self-discipline. The students need to remember these things and need to exercise discipline, remember to do it. Saying and reminding is one thing. I have been a teacher all my life, you can teach something, but if the person refuses to listen to the teaching, that teaching is no good. What’s the use of it? Remembering the teaching and practicing the teaching is very important. We are continuing to do this throughout my office, Angela’s office, Jim Dahle’s office (Safety and Risk Management), reminding people to self-monitor and self-discipline. It is so important. I know our students are energetic and young, they want to have a good life and that’s all good, but if you don’t have a life there’s no good life to talk about. You want to have a life first before you talk about a good life. In terms of action, we are constantly reminding them. 

The Iowa State University Department of Residency conducted a study in 2011 that showed freshman that live on campus during their first year have a higher graduation rate and return rate compared to those that live off campus. Do you worry about how living off campus is going to affect the motivation of those that weren’t able to be selected as one of the 175 residents? 

I do worry. To me, as a former student — I went to three colleges for three degrees — and as a person who read an autobiography written in the 1940s in San Francisco called “Fifth Chinese Daughter” by a Chinese-American woman. It talks about not being able to live on campus because she didn’t have money. She was fortunate that she was able by accident to talk to her college president — the college was in Oakland, I believe — and the president said to her “oh, you are poor, you can’t live on campus, that’s too bad” because for that president living on campus is such an important experience for a student. She said “I can help.” In the end, she found some employment for this “Fifth Chinese Daughter” who was able to live on campus, who, in the end, learned that living on campus was such an important part of her early life and it really shaped her career.  

What I’m trying to say is this: living on campus is good for relationship building, for community building, for engagement with a professor and learning in a lot more personal style. I understand all of that. The risk we did not want to take was many more people getting sick because of being together. Being together is good, but not today. I worry, but at the same time we are trying to look for as many ways as possible to engage our students. One good example is something I saw on LinkedIn with the (Baron-Forness) Library on it. I commented on it, only three sentences, and my last sentence said “a special welcome to our new students.” Because I was thinking about it that way — I was thinking about those students. Otherwise, they would be on campus playing a game, talking with friends, eating lunch together, ice cream together — what would be a beautiful picture, but now it’s not possible. We are able to allow only 175 students to live here on campus to ensure social distancing, to ensure that each student has one room to live in and not share a room with others. I do worry about that, and I hope students are listening to me. We want them to be here as soon as a vaccine becomes available, as soon as the campus is safe even without a vaccine. 

Going further, there’s a worry that missing out on this second home can have a mental health impact. That missing out on certain experiences can also do that. How do we help students that are isolated through this semester? 

I’ve mentioned I have a college-aged son, but I also have a daughter who is only nine. What I have been doing with her and my wife, we make sure she studies during the day but give her a chance to take breaks. She will go out on a bike — she does biking around the back yard often, maybe half an hour at a time. Many, many evenings we walk out to the lake; Claire will ride her bicycle and my wife and I will walk. I don’t know how many circles we do around the lake over the last few months — many, many — almost every day unless it rains or I became too busy. Mental health is important and so is physical health. A sound mind lies in a sound body. I want the students to not only study but also find time to talk to their friends on the phone, on Zoom and go outside their house in the yard or along the river and maybe do some running and keep social distancing. I think that’s very important, both physical and mental health. 

What would it take to see a “normal” Spring 2021 semester at Edinboro University? 

Normal would be relative now — to Einstein, everything is relative. I heard news this morning that Pfizer is advancing very well with a trial of a vaccine. The news from Oxford (University) is also encouraging. There is another company, I think in Israel, with some encouraging news. I saw a Tulane University professor, Walter Issacson, is now one of those trial patients. He had the vaccine in his arm and he feels good; he said he’s aching a little bit here and there, but then again overall he feels good. I do think a vaccine is the most important step to take for the campus to become safer, but I don’t think it will be all together completely enough because it depends on the health status of the individual. If you’re healthy, you’re generally healthy, but what if you have a condition related to your respiratory system? What if you have a problem where you’re vulnerable to the cold or flu? Personal hygiene and environmental sanitation are almost just as important as a vaccine. The vaccine will be the critical player in making people feel safe to come back to campus. 

Do you have any hope for winter or spring athletics right now? 

I feel hopeful. But we’ll know more/better hopefully soon. Right now, nobody likes the uncertainty. If a vaccine did become available in November or December, then the hope of having sports back will be much larger, much more robust. I’ve heard a lot recently, whether through friends or colleagues who live in different parts of the world. [I heard] a comment about a colleague who recently left to go back to China. He said this: “No wonder it took so long for the U.S. to contain the virus.” People are enjoying freedom, and nobody is against freedom, but the problem is they’re not falling in line enough to have a period where you can stop the spreading of the virus because it spreads from person to person and is airborne as well. Those are dangerous things. Hopefully people have learned that lesson and they are keeping social distance and everybody’s wearing a mask. My own, personal advice — not as a doctor, just as a human being — is if you can help it, don’t go out. Don’t go into a lot of crowds. Don’t go to a restaurant where too many people are eating but not wearing anything to protect themselves.  

Let’s talk about the announced integration with Slippery Rock. On July 16 it was announced that the PASSHE Board of Governors is going to study the integration of six PASSHE schools, Edinboro and Slippery Rock being paired together in this plan. How soon will we start to see effects of this and what can students, faculty and staff expect? 

The system just started a financial review studying the financial impact of integration. That review is ongoing, and I hope it will be completed before October when the Board of Governors meets. That’s when they’re going to make the decision on the next steps — move forward or otherwise — so we have a better understanding of where things are from a financial viewpoint. Between October 2020 and April 2021, if the decision is to move forward with the integration, then we will be developing a plan to recommend to the board. If the board approves that, then there will be specific actions taken to integrate the universities. The timeline is by fall 2022, the new model from the integration plan will be fully implemented. At this point, we know financial reviews are being conducted and we will know more as a result of those reviews.   

There’s some program crossover between the schools. Do we know what it would look like for students in those programs, whether they would be absorbed by the other in any way? 

Not 100%, not exactly. What is happening in that area is our Provost and the Slippery Rock Provost will hold discussions with each other and our Provost will lead discussions with the Deans and faculty to evaluate our programs. Many campuses within PASSHE are evaluating those programs. Until the evaluations are complete, there is nothing new I can say. To a degree, our programs may be redundant or not because different campuses have different strengths in academic programming. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, to be honest, and when the review process is complete, we will know better how the program area will be handled relative to integration. 

We also have the issue of the potential faculty retrenchment. We know a retrenchment letter went out. When will we know the results of that letter — is it pending the financial review? When will we know if faculty are being let go?  

The financial review process is newer. It just started a week or two ago. The financial stability planning that we have undertaken has been going on for at least eight months. Faculty retrenchment is called for in the financial plan. It is separate from integration. We are implementing the financial stability plan in terms of faculty retrenchment that is not directly related to the financial reviews I mentioned earlier. 

The letter being out there right now, coupled with the integration news and everything we’re going through now…do you worry for the morale of the faculty?

I always worry. We want people to feel appreciated, respected, consulted. I’m looking at this issue from a human viewpoint as well, not just a president. Ideally, none of these things have to happen because it affects a number of faculty and their career. The university, however, is facing the financial exigency that has been there for quite a while, quite a number of years. To deal with this exigency, to ensure the survival of the university in such a manner, it needs to happen. I am also listening to faculty and colleagues for any good ideas, any good alternatives — if we don’t do this and do that, how will we achieve our financial balance? That’s the question. We did see a significant decline in student enrollment over the past 10 years — a whole decade — but the same magnitude of decline cannot be said of faculty and staff. Most of our expenses are related to salary and benefits, which represent 73 or 74% of our operating budget. We want the university to survive. In a few years I’m hopeful that we will achieve our balance but doing nothing, hoping to achieve balance, wouldn’t make the budget balance. Only by doing certain things can we achieve that goal.  

With the financial stability plan, it certainly makes you think that faculty reductions could lead to program reductions. Are cuts to programs a possibility in the immediate future?  

We did some program cutting before my time here. Several years ago some programs were eliminated, some were put in moratorium, so whether or not we cut a program will depend, to a lot of degree, on program evaluation that is ongoing right now. I like data-driven decisions. If the data shows a program is healthy in terms of finance, enrollment, or fulfilling a major component of our mission, there is no reason to get rid of the program. But otherwise is also true. I will be better able to answer that question after the program review is completed. 

Kimberly Firestine is the executive editor of The Spectator. She can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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