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Q&A with CSULB President Conoley: ‘Bumpy roads ahead’

The Daily Forty-Niner, in conjunction with the Long Beach Post, held a live-streamed conference with President Jane Close Conoley, April 9. Conoley answered COVID-19-related questions that were submitted by the Long Beach State community.

Talk about the university’s early decisions regarding COVID-19

The early days were all about checking if somebody was sick on campus, especially looking at our residential group. Trying to figure out what was going to be the trigger to go to remote if we had to go to remote instruction. Really learning what the parameters were of the situation.

I’ve been in higher [education] and I thought I had seen everything, but I had never seen anything like this.

So the biggest decision was the remote learning. We couldn’t keep that many people meeting together on the campus. Then we had to look at students in the residence halls. Would we require them to leave? We decided not to require but to urge them to leave for their own safety.

We ended up with 130 students who still are in housing. And then it went to trying to figure out the supports for faculty so they could transform their classes from face-to-face to remote.

The biggest thing has been monitoring health and safety: custodians and what we would have to buy for them, what kind of new stuff. We have a new disinfectant machine where they just have to use a wand with tiny little droplets that will disinfect a room very quickly. Also, another thing called a nebulizer that looks like a space gun.

There were so many layers of protecting people, getting new equipment, understanding how many people could be on campus and be safe. It was quite the whirlwind. I was taking notes the whole time. Maybe someday I’ll work up the courage to go back and read what it was.

We changed our executive committee to include our medical director and our police chief. It’s been on the fly creating things and who needs to be involved in every conversation has been a big issue.

Was there a protocol?

Well surprisingly, the university has many continuity plans. In all the offices there was an understanding about what we would do if a bunch of people got sick or earthquake or accident.

I went immediately to those plans to start dusting them off and showed them to the deans and the academic side.

It was true I had never experienced anything, but it turned out the university had created some of these contingencies when there was a measles outbreak, swine flu, SARS. I’m sure I was at a university during those times, but I didn’t have this role so I wasn’t responsible for everything.

It’s a very difficult situation, but it has definitely been a learning situation.

Summer classes have gone online; what about fall semester?

We’re hoping that fall will be face-to-face. It really comes down to if public health officials will allow for gatherings at all or gatherings of a certain size.

We have started thinking about “what if they said ‘You could only have 25 people together?’ How would we make the classes smaller?”

What are the plans for the 2020 commencement?

It is our hope that we will be back to face-to-face in the fall, and we will have the 2020 commencement in the fall.

Commencement will be face-to-face. There is no date for it yet; we’re kind of waiting on it.

We were tossing around times around Thanksgiving. We thought that might give us enough buffer.

I meet every afternoon with the other [CSU] presidents in the system, and the president at San Francisco immediately said: “Oh they’re not going to allow mass gatherings [in San Francisco] until 2021.”

So that made me think, but I know we’ll figure something out. Students said they really look forward to face-to-face and don’t want some virtual creation.

I like shaking everybody’s hand too.

Why was there a discrepancy among CSUs about the COVID-19 response?

The universities in the system are so different if you compare us to Humboldt or Chico or Sonoma, and the rate of the spread of the [virus] was different in each county.

But one reason [CSU presidents are] meeting is to try to get our acts together. Because it creates confusion and sometimes bad feelings if one campus does one thing and the other campus doesn’t.

We have a lot of autonomy, but we try to tell each other “Here’s what I’m going to do.”

[For example in the meeting today] I would have told the other presidents we’ve made the decision that if students are paying on an installment plan, usually if they hadn’t paid they wouldn’t be able to enroll for the summer but we’ve made the decision not to enforce that. Students can enroll for the summer even if they still owe money for the spring.

As soon as we do it, other students across the system will say “Well Long Beach is doing it, why aren’t you doing it?”

What’s the policy for grading this semester?

Right now we are just using our usual approach, which is [that] certain classes are approved ahead of time to be credit-no credit and students have a deadline to ask for credit-no credit. But this afternoon at 2:00 p.m. I’m going to talk to the Academic Senate, and they are debating that.

What I think will happen is that all classes will be available for credit-no credit and the deadline for students to ask for it will be extended.

Certain student groups would be harmed by a credit-no credit. Vets can face consequences, student-athletes. It would take changing a lot of regulations.

I think by this afternoon we’ll have a student opt-in or not for credit-no credit for the classes they’re taking. In fact, I’m 99% sure.

Update April 10: “CSULB changes grading policy to allow credit or no-credit for all courses”

Is the university still monitoring the two students who tested positive for COVID-19?

It turned out that at this point we know of four students who tested positive. We’re in very constant contact with them. They’re all recovered, and none of them needed hospitalization.

We’re aware of one staff person who was briefly hospitalized and is now home already.

Our medical director, Dr. Fodran, has done a great job in her community-help approach. She contacts everybody and stays in touch, asks when they were on campus and who they contacted.

We do have two additional students now who we have tested, but we don’t have the results back yet. It’s slow to get results.

Has COVID-19 affected admissions?

Not this year’s admissions because that’s done. The numbers are comparable and even better than last year to students getting back to us about if they’re coming.

But next year, fall 2021, there will be some changes. We will not be requiring an SAT or ACT because we’re worried about students not being able to access the tests.

It’s likely for one year only we’ll develop a different strategy to come up with that index number. So looking at the GPAs on the “A” through “G” courses and other more holistic measures.

What do you think this will change at universities once it’s over?

In the short term, I worry because we’ve already gotten strong signals from the state government to expect pretty significant cuts.

We were a little bit upset a month ago because we weren’t getting the increase that we felt we needed. Now we’re faced with not only not getting an increase, but actually getting cuts.

I think there will be changes in the short term that will be about how many people we can hire.

Can we support travel anymore? Levels of hospitality and sponsorship. But those are core issues.

What a lot of people are talking about it is, “Will more things be online?” …to be insulated against this kind of situation where so many students are together and it could be dangerous…
We have a lot of online courses and online programs, but it doesn’t really match our DNA — to be an online university. We have a strong connection to our students.

We had a long meeting with athletics. Athletics is taking a triple whammy because the NCAA disbursements are down, they lost their spring season, they have seniors remaining eligible.

Every part of the university is likely to have to shrink a bit and then see what makes sense going forward. I’ve given myself a breather, that I don’t have to figure this out until July.

Will training for teaching online courses be mandatory now?

It will not be mandatory. But this summer we will be offering more training sessions for faculty members who want to learn the intricacies of how to do it.

My husband is a professor and he spent all day yesterday on how to put his 66 students in 11 different groups so they could talk with each other. He’s interested, for example, in learning more about that.

It would be great for our parking situation and for the environment if we had more hybrid-classes. If students came one day then they were online the other day. That might be something that happens.

We will definitely be offering more training and try to create a situation where we may be able to offer a stipend to faculty who would take the time to do that.

Will the university be offering refunds for student fees?

We refunded fees for parking, meal plans and housing. We are not planning to do other fee refunds. The reason why is when [students] pay a fee for the recreation center, for example, I’m sure students in their experience think they are paying to go into the recreation center.

What they’re really doing is paying the mortgage on that building, and that building is really owned by the students. There’s no general funds allowed to be involved in that.

I got a tweet from a student who said “I bet some of my tuition is paying for that” but I replied back “No, there’s no general fund, there’s no tuition in that.”

I know that’s disappointing. We’re trying to do what we can. We have, for example, almost overnight, successfully raised $200,000 to add to our student emergency fund. We’re still doing the pantry, and we’re looking for other things we can do.

That’s another thing about the future. We gave the parking refunds but that may have [consequences] downstream from that. Can we still afford to have shuttles? That money really pays the mortgage for the parking structures and paving the roads.

When you get into fees, personal experience is not always what’s behind it. I know a lot of students have asked about tuition refunds because this is not what they signed up for. But we have two major sources of money: The state sends us general funds and we get tuition.

We have now used all the general funds to pay all the salaries of all the faculty, and now we’re using tuition dollars to pay the faculty.

In fact, some of our staff have, in their contracts, hazard pay, so they get paid time-and-a-half. Actually our compensation costs have gone way up.

Has the university received its allocation from the $6 billion stimulus funding, and what does the university plan to do with it?

We have not received it and we don’t know when we will receive it. We’re trying to figure out who’s going to get that and how it’s going to be distributed. What are the conditions of it being distributed?

We have a team at the chancellor’s office and a team on campus reading that bill trying to figure it out.

Out of our auxiliaries, the 49er Shops immediately applied for a $2 million grant because they had to shut down. They depend on revenue coming in, and that’s why so many students lost work at the [49er] Shops.

Update April 10: “CSULB sees $41.7 million in federal coronavirus funding; ninth-most in nation”

Have there been any department budget cuts or staff layoffs?

It hasn’t happened yet, but I have to say yet. Everybody has been given the task to look at a 10% to 20% cut and how we would manage that. I’ll be having conversations with a lot of departments and divisions.

I had a discussion with athletics because they’re pretty vulnerable in that way.

What will probably happen is we’ll be putting in a hiring [freeze]. We will not be replacing some people. I’m hoping we get through with a hiring freeze rather than laying anyone off.

This article has been edited for clarity and flow.

One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Dale Lendrum

    This is great. Thank you Daily 49er! Could you do one of these with the ASI Execs? I know the Associated Students of Cal State Long Beach have a lot of questions for them as well. Mahalo.

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