Ohio University students, faculty and staff are still getting acclimated to the “new normal,” with a transition to online learning amid the campus closure due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis in Ohio; that transition has not been without some speed bumps.
Meanwhile, OU President Duane Nellis announced Wednesday that despite the university’s ongoing budget struggles due to declining enrollment and plans to consider major cutbacks and layoffs, OU leadership will “pause” the “personnel-related budget reductions” that OU administration has been considering.
“We will re-evaluate our budget planning assumptions and our institutional priorities as we respond to these unprecedented and unpredictable times at OHIO and more broadly in higher education,” Nellis wrote in an email to staff. “Difficult decisions remain, and we will reassess once we have more clarity about our global and local contexts as they impact our situation this fiscal year and beyond.”
Jennifer Fredette, communications director with the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said that her group – which has been raising the alarm about the impact budget cuts will have on instructional, non-tenure track faculty – applauds this decision.
“We appreciate the security that this statement provides to Ohio University employees, especially the 315 Instructional Faculty members whose jobs have been on the chopping block this year,” Fredette wrote. “However, the financial challenges facing the university remain. As President Nellis wrote in his statement, ‘Now, more than ever, our attention must be on providing a quality educational experience for our students.’ This includes supporting the hardworking, valuable Instructional Faculty members who are the front-line teaching professors at Ohio University and support the core academic mission of the entire OHIO community.”
Interviewed before Nellis’ announcement on Wednesday, Loren Lybarger, president of the AAUP chapter, noted that instructional faculty have worked hard to redevelop their courses to an online environment. Still, they were among the staffers at greatest risk of having their jobs cut, he said.
Lybarger added that OU faculty have put an “immense amount of work on very short notice” to implement the remote learning/online learning model. He explained that faculty are doing that because they are dedicated to their work and their students.
“Still, many faculty locally and nationally and also the AAUP worry that this massive shift to online instruction will further undermine traditional in-person teaching,” Lybarger said. “The Fearlessly First Strategic Framework (at OU) had called for precisely this sort of move to online, at least to a much greater degree than had been the case in the past at OU, as a way to shore up the university’s declining enrollment.”
Lybarger said he and other faculty are worried that the move to online instruction will become the “new normal” for the long term. He said it’s no replacement for in-person mentoring and instruction.
“What will this do to Ohio University’s core identity as a large, public liberal arts university with strong professional programs?” Lybarger asked. “Maybe these fears about heading to a ‘new normal’ are misplaced; but how we respond to the present crisis are very likely to have lasting ramifications for what OU looks like as an institution in the future. We need to be thinking very carefully about these possible consequences as we respond to this emergency.”
Still, as Lybarger noted, many faculty are doing their best to adjust and do right by their students.
Kirstine Taylor, an assistant professor of political science and law, justice & culture, said she has switched all of her written assignments for the rest of her semester to a complete/incomplete, or “pass/fail” system.
“With everything so disrupted (students suddenly needing to move to new housing, find work to replace on-campus jobs, and potentially taking care of sick loved ones or kids in the family), I wanted to find ways to make my courses as flexible as possible,” she explained in an email Tuesday. “Being flexible on due dates, switching certain aspects of my classes to complete/incomplete, moving to asynchronous discussions, and checking in with students about how they’re coping are all ways of implementing flexibility and support. More than anything else, that’s what they need right now.”
RaeAnn Ensworth, an OU senior in Taylor’s Black Political Thought class, said those efforts are not lost on her and her fellow classmates.
“She also has made a point to ask about our health and safety in every email!” Ensworth said Tuesday.
David Herman, another OU senior, said the transition to online learning hasn’t been too difficult for him personally, and attributed that to regular communication from his professors, along with several of his classes canceling some exams and in-class assignments.
Still, he said he – like many other college seniors in Ohio – is having a hard time coming to grips with losing out on in-person senior year experiences in Athens.
“I feel like I got robbed of something incredibly memorable,” he said. “I’ve grown a ton since freshman year on both a personal and academic level – I was looking to this semester as the proper ending to that story.”
He said he’s grateful that OU took the proper precautions for everyone’s health and safety, of course. Still, he acknowledged being upset about not being able to experience Commencement ceremonies (OU has cancelled those ceremonies but said it will try to host them at a later, as yet announced date).
“I’ve already accepted a job and have no idea whether I’ll be able to get back to Athens for whenever they reschedule Commencement,” he said.
In other news, some students have taken to social media to criticize OU for not providing a reimbursement for some part of their tuition due to the transition to online classes, as some colleges are doing. OU student Michael Chaney in a viral Tweet Tuesday shared an email he had sent to the OU Bursar’s office asking for a reimbursement along those lines.
“There’s a stark difference in cost between in-person classes and online classes, not to mention that a week was removed from this semester (which I shouldn’t have to pay for),” Chaney said. “I’m also paying extra for out-of-state tuition, even though no one has the ability to be back in Athens taking classes anyway.”
The Bursar Office’s email account responded, “tuition will not be adjusted” in an email Chaney screen-shot. “Instruction is still taking place; only the mode of delivery is changing.”
OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood provided the following statement Wednesday.
“Ohio University cares deeply for our students, and we are working through a process to adjust charges for those students who reside on the Athens campus and/or have dining plans,” she said. “Students can expect to hear more about this process by March 31. Tuition will not be refunded, as we continue to provide a high-quality education to our students through alternate modalities.”
IN OTHER NEWS, Hocking College also has moved to an all-online/remote-only instruction like OU and other Ohio colleges during the coronavirus crisis.
Hocking College states on an informational page on its website about the college’s response to the coronavirus that the remainder of Hocking’s spring semester will be split into two parts. The first part (March 23 – April 19) will be conducted online, as mentioned above, with students not asked to return to campus. The second part (April 20 – May 15) “will be determined at a later date as more information becomes available.”