UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez On COVID-19, Distance Learning, And The State Of SUNY | WAMC

UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez On COVID-19, Distance Learning, And The State Of SUNY

Jun 5, 2020

Higher education is in a time of flux in the country as college campuses try to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. In New York, classes moved online in March when it was deemed unsafe to keep thousands of college students and their professors in close quarters. Now, the fall semester is fast approaching.

Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, the president of the University at Albany, was tapped by Governor Andrew Cuomo to work with the state Department of Health to research COVID-19’s disproportionate impacts on minority communities.

How has your job changed in the last couple of months?

Oh, it's changed quite significantly with the you know, with COVID-19 coming in and impacting communities literally throughout the globe. And UAlbany has not been an exception, we've had to go from being an almost fully in person institution to a fully remote institution teaching online and teaching by different modes of instruction, going from a full campus to basically an almost empty campus. We've got a COVID-19 testing site, we have an antibody testing site as well, which both were established here in partnership with New York State. And so it's a different way of living and learning today in today's society. And as we look at the significant and devastating impacts of COVID-19 throughout the state, throughout the country and throughout the world, it raises the importance of the role of higher education and the impact that we can have in dealing with these types of pandemics or disasters.

You've been an academic, you've been an administrator at other colleges. Is this the biggest upheaval you've faced in your career in terms of administration?

Absolutely. I think without a doubt, there's no one in our generation who has really confronted a pandemic of this magnitude and the impact. That has been, as I said before, not only local but national and global in terms of its impact it on hospitalizations, on health, on mortality, the economic impacts of this pandemic will be felt for decades to come. It is an unprecedented event. And so it requires a whole different set of strategies and initiatives to move forward. But you know, part of building the institution is trying to prepare to deal with these types of situations and that's what we're doing at the University at Albany.

What did you learn by having the second half of the spring semester suddenly shift online that could be applied going forward? And we should say, there's not been a decision yet about what the fall semester will look like.

That's correct. And so as you know, on March 13, we had one of the first COVID, if not the first COVID case, within the SUNY system here at the University at Albany, and shortly thereafter, we decided to move to our spring break, which was right around that time, and then do our instruction remotely. And that meant that faculty that were teaching online, kept teaching online, some faculty developed a whole variety of strategies to work with and teach with their students.

So, you know, I tell people that if we have to really plan for this, and this is the strategy the university was going to pursue long-term, which would probably take a few years to sort of work everything out. Right, into all the approval processes. And as you know, as an adjunct faculty at UAlbany, we literally had to do this overnight. So within a week, we were off campus students were basically for the most part, back home, faculty were teaching from their homes, research for the most part was stopped at the university.

We had a number of challenges that we've learned from in terms of how do we move forward. And we've learned a variety of things that we think are of benefit to the institution that we can continue to implement long term as well.

Like what?

For example, we're having a whole variety of community meetings, if you will, here with the University at Albany, we've extended what we call my president's council, we call it now Extended President's Council. And so we have meetings every two weeks. The last one we had we had, I think the number was 723 participants. All this is through some of the online or virtual platforms. But it's become a way of communicating much more directly with the university on a regular basis trying to keep people informed and up to date in terms of what's happening with the community. And as we think about this, we say, wow, this is this is a great level of participation. This is a great level of engagement. And when we move past this situation, maybe we won't keep it with the same intensity as we have it now, but certainly something that we need to continue to implement to continue to engage our community and have dialogues about important things that are transpiring at our institution.

Now, we're speaking in the first week of June. Typically students would start returning to campus in mid to late August. So when do you expect to know what will happen this fall?

So we established what we call the UAlbany Forward Together. It's a steering committee and a number of workgroups that are looking at different aspects to develop a plan for the fall. We have right now about 175 people, faculty, staff and students that have been act actively engaged in developing this plan, you know, first and foremost, health, safety and wel being of the of the campus community, right? That is an imperative of paramount importance, so we're not going to jeopardize that as best as possible.

And the next goal is to provide an excellent and high quality education and excellent services to our students, and they expect nothing less than we should deliver nothing less. So those are the sort of the two major goals. And so the group has already developed a draft plan, actually, it's in my inbox and I'm in the process of reviewing. Tomorrow, that draft plan will be submitted to SUNY for their review and approval and recommendations. From there, it goes on to New York State for their review. Because first of all, we need to be in alignment with what's happening in New York state. We have to be mindful whether there will be a resurgence or what they call a second wave of COVID. And we have to follow the guidelines provided by SUNY and New York state as well. And so we hope that once we submit the plan tomorrow, that, you know, this will be expedited, we will know as soon as possible, when we will start and what will be the parameters of our education moving forward?

I don't know if you'll answer this but do you yourself foresee a traditional fall semester, you know, kids in dorms, that kind of thing?

Well, I think it's going you know, eventually it's going to be a mixture of things. I don't think that anybody can say, for the most part that you will have a fully in-person semester in the fall. I think it'll be a combination of modalities of teaching. modalities and so you know, if we have a lecture class with 100, 150 200 students, we're not going to move in that direction having those in person. So that might be a fully online course or a sort of a hybrid model which some students are in the classroom and others are online. So it's going to be a different sets of modality. We've done outreach to the different schools and colleges here asking for feedback, what courses can be taught online, fully online, what courses need to be taught in person, for example, chemistry lab, a biology lab, you might need to have that in person or you know, in an art class or theater class, a performance class, which there are small groups of students in which you can ensure physical distancing, wearing a mask, etc. those courses might be in person.

So we're looking at all the different types of courses that we have at UAlbany and then trying to make a determination based on the feedback we received from the schools and colleges, what would be the best modality for teaching that course. So I think it's going to be a mixture of strategies and initiatives. And I think that's the modality when we look at institutions of higher education across the country. That is what a lot of institutions are looking at. That's the type of model that's emerging.

You mentioned submitting a plan to SUNY and being in touch with New York State. As we speak this week, there's been a big shakeup at SUNY, the SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson, is going to be leaving and going to Ohio State University. We will have an interim chancellor moving in and then presumably a full-time hire. Some people have grumbled that that's very bad timing for the SUNY system, considering all the questions you've just been talking about. So what's your reaction to Johnson's exit here?

Well, you know, we certainly wish her all the best in her new position in Ohio. It's a great position. We've worked with her for now about three years. Chancellor Johnson and I started in our respective positions, more or less at the same time. So we've been working very strongly with her. She's taking strong leadership throughout this COVID pandemic, and sort of getting the universities and colleges, all 64, mind you. This is the largest a comprehensive university system in the country. So it's no easy task to lead and manage a system of this magnitude. And yet, you know, we meet on a regular basis all the presidents with the chancellor, now, of course, via phone or other modalities to discuss what is it that we're doing, we're developing our plans, we're developing our strategies. SUNY is developing their strategies. They're providing guidance to us. They're having conversations with New York state in terms of moving forward. And so I see this is not going to reduce the pace, the pace, I should say, in which we're moving forward. We have a major task to do. We have to be open in some shape or form in the in the fall, and we need to put our plans in place quickly. So I am assured and we will continue to work as expedient as effectively as possible with SUNY in New York State to make this happen.

Given the state's precarious finances because of the pandemic, how worried are you about funding for SUNY and for your campus?

Well, you know, we are all worried about funding. We're looking very carefully at enrollment. Enrollments may be significantly impacted. For example, we're very concerned about international enrollment at the University at Albany and that is true across the state and across the country. We have significant declines there that will have significant budgetary impacts. For the university we're carefully monitoring the students that are enrolling for the fall either as first-year students or returning students so we're carefully monitoring almost now on a daily basis, seeing where our numbers are going.

We're looking at the budget impacts that COVID-19 has had on UAlbany, for example, we had to return and it was the right thing to do to reimburse in the order of $22.4 million to students for fees, housing, room and board and things of that nature. So certainly, this has been a major impact. And you know, going from being here in person to being a fully remote institution has also required preparations, investments in technology and things of that nature. So the impacts have been significant. So we're monitoring the state budgets, we're monitoring, you know, the federal funding that we may receive for COVID-19, for example, the CARES Act, and developing scenarios, right. So we've got different scenarios, budget scenarios, in terms of what the financial impacts will be for you already and we have different enrollment scenarios as well, as you might imagine, at three different levels, looking at how these variables change, and the variables are changing, almost daily, if you will.

Yes, I don't envy you. Another higher ed question for you. There's been a lot of discussion nationally right now about the cost of higher ed, and whether kids should be paying a high amount. And I know SUNY is not as expensive as many private schools, but it's still a decent chunk of change for anybody. And if you, you can't have that traditional experience where you go away from home, you join the clubs, you go to the football game, you go to the pep rally, and you live in the dorms, is there a case to be made for the cost of higher ed right now? What are your thoughts on that?

Well, you know, and I think we need to look at that. We've been talking about the costs of higher ed for a very long time prior to COVID-19. And we will continue to do so in the future. You know, I'm very proud to report that, you know, at UAlbany you get an excellent high quality education at a relatively low cost nationally speaking. And so when our students graduate from UAlbany, they graduate with very low debt. And then then we have one of the lowest default rates across the country as well.

And so our goal has always been to try to keep our education as affordable as possible, but providing an actual level of education. And so, for me, one of my major responsibilities is to work with university advancement development on philanthropy. And you know, our major focus and our philanthropic efforts is to focus on generating funding for scholarships and fellowships for our students in order to try to maintain that education affordable. On the other hand, you know, we have about one third of our students are first generation students, about one third are low-income students, about 40% roughly, are students of color and so the socio and economic makeup of our student population demands that we pay more and more attention to the cost of education and what we're doing as an institution to provide funding, whether it be through the state government, whether it be to the federal government or to our philanthropic efforts to try to minimize the cost of education and trying to make education affordable because it should be accessible to all.

Let me change gears with you just for a moment. You were asked by Governor Cuomo to lead a study into the effects of the coronavirus pandemic especially on minority communities, which have had worse outcomes during the course of this thing. How did you get the call to do that job?

Well, you know, and this is a this is a critically important study, as you rightly say. We're looking at the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority communities. The governor has asked UAlbany to take the lead and work with the Department of Health and Northwell to try to disentangle these issues and these challenges that especially minority communities confront. And if you look at the data, it's not an issue for New York state only. It is an issue across the country, literally, in which you have reporting by states and minority communities, individuals and minority communities have disproportionately higher testing positive for COVID-19, higher hospitalization rate and higher mortality rates, as well.

We at the University at Albany have been doing extensive research on these types of initiatives for a very long time. We have the Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities funded by the National Institutes of Health. This is the type of research that they do. We have the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, and they do work in this area in terms of how do we respond to emergencies and to disasters. The School of Public Health, the dean and the faculty there have been doing great, great research on the treatment for COVID-19, particularly focusing on hydroxychloroquine.

We have a faculty member here at the RNA institute that just received the grant from the National Science Foundation to try to develop a rapid test for COVID 19. And I've, for the past 25, almost 30 years now had been working on the socioeconomic impacts of disasters. And clearly, this is a disaster of a different magnitude. But nevertheless, it's the same thing. One of the things that I like to highlight is that, you know, these types of pandemic disasters, they don't create poverty, they don't create inequality, they don't create racism or discrimination. What they do is they bring to the forefront issues that we as societies have been confronting for very long time, whether you're looking at Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, or, you know, the Indian Ocean tsunami in India and Sri Lanka, which I studied.

You know, they all bring to the forefront that there is a series of vulnerable populations in our societies, and they tend to have higher impacts from these disaster events, they have more difficulty in recovering because they don't have the resources to do so. So as we say, in the social science literature, disasters are not natural, but they are socially constructed events. And so our role here at the University at Albany, we set up a team to take a comprehensive look at what are the issues and challenges with the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority communities, particularly expanding and the vast literature that we already have in this area.

So that's the goal. That's the attempt and the idea is to take a comprehensive look and develop initiatives and strategies that hopefully will have a positive impact in terms of alleviating and mitigating future epidemics and crises that we confront.

I know it's early days still, and we're not out of the woods yet. But what should we as a society learn from this experience, you know, over the past few months, and, as you've mentioned, the way that the way our society is constructed has contributed to the way the virus has spread and the effects it's had?

One of the things that we need to do is we need to keep the impact of these types of events in mind, right, and put them into practice in terms of developing social policy, in terms of developing strategies and initiatives to systematically and holistically deal with these issues, because what tends to happen is, you know, let me just put in the context, like say, for example, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which I studied. Hurricane Maria goes and then it disappears, it jumps out of the news, it's no longer reported. And we tend to forget about what's happening in Puerto Rico as a consequence of Hurricane Maria. Then you have earthquakes in Puerto Rico, and then you have COVID-19 in Puerto Rico. And so the reporting and the shift and the priorities and the policies continue to change. And we need to systematically think about these issues, we need to think about what are the causes. What are the consequences? And how can we deal with these things systematically, and continuously so that, you know a few years from now, we'll take a look at the impact that COVID-19 has had on our societies and our global society. And we can also take a comprehensive look at what have we done strategically, systematically in terms of funding, in terms of policy to address those issues, and hopefully, we'll have a good story to tell.

True or false: I will attend a UAlbany basketball game in person this fall?

Maybe.

OK.

We're still we're still working with the NCAA regarding their guidance for these games as we move forward. We're working with America East, which is the conference that UAlbany participates in. And you know, the president, both at the NCAA and the America East, we're having a lot of conversations, and we’re coming up with comprehensive plans, including at UAlbany. So what do we do moving forward? Do we have basketball games? Do we have basketball games without an audience, without fans there? What happens with the athletes that are playing, right? We still have so many unknowns. I would love to answer these questions and say definitely yes or no. But speaking to a couple of epidemiologists at some conferences that we've been at, they say if someone tells you they know what's going to happen, walk away. So you don't want to walk away from me. So the answer is maybe, unfortunately.

OK, I'm giving you until November 15 to figure it out, but I'm hoping to see you there.

Absolutely. We hope to have to figured out before then, by the way.

That's a deal.