Episode 86 - Strange days and New opportunities: SUU and the Coronavirus

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith sit 6 feet apart and discuss SUU and COVID-19, how the coronavirus has impacted Southern Utah University and higher education.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined in-studio today, as I always am, by Scott Wyatt. President, how are you?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks.

Meredith: We have been…I don't think it's been any big secret to some of our listeners that the nature of my schedule, and especially your schedule, requires that you and I do recordings sometimes in advance, and so, we'll get together and record two or three at a time—two or three podcasts. And I don't think that anybody would dispute that since the last time you and I did a podcast, the world has changed significantly around us.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Meredith: We are sitting here on April 21, 2020, carefully sitting six feet apart and we are in the midst of leading Southern Utah University, as leaders of every other institution are doing, through the coronavirus outbreak which has had some devastation and has required that, most states anyway, Utah among them, have some form of lockdown, and that that lockdown has had significant economic impact and social impact and…so, anyway, welcome to the COVID-19 podcast.

Wyatt: We've spent this semester talking about disruptions and changes in higher education, enrollment projections and all of these kinds of things that are happening, and of all of the disruptions, nothing equals the one no one expected.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Which was a global pandemic.

Meredith: Always the thing you're not worried about that gets you. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, we thought, Steve, we thought that it would be interesting maybe to just talk about what it's like to be a university during a pandemic. To work at, to study at, to lead or teach, to have different kinds of jobs, and so this…maybe this will be kind of fun to just…you and I are doing this almost every day or every other day and early on, it was very intense because we were making decisions every day and now it's…

Meredith: Almost changing hourly originally.

Wyatt: Yeah. In fact, it was changing hourly.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And now, we're just a little bit more in smooth seas, but the storm is not over of course.

Meredith: No.

Wyatt: So, maybe now is a good time to pause and talk about this at the end of the semester as we move into summer semester. So, this will be our last podcast for spring semester.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: 2020.

Meredith: Which is a semester unlike you or I have seen in our lifetimes.

Wyatt: Ever experienced.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: The…I've had a lot of people say things like, "Wow, this is the first time anything like this has ever happened," or, "Government is taking so much control, they'll never give it back."

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: "This is a precedent, this is terrible," or, "Why are we prioritizing one form of health over another form of health?" You know, just all of these interesting discussions that happen between people when you're responding to something that they have never seen in their lifetime.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But, it's…but one of the fun things is to always look at history. And so, this isn't the first time that Southern Utah University has been involved in a pandemic. We had the smallpox back in 1901. The university completely closed down for two weeks.

Meredith: Oh, wow.

Wyatt: And then in 1918-1919, the university closed down for four weeks because of the Spanish Flu or the Great Influenza, whatever we call it.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: The poor Spaniards got blamed for this, but…

Meredith: The "Spanish Kansas City Flu."

Wyatt: [Laughs] Yeah, it probably started in rural Kansas.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: It might have started in China, it might have started in France, but it did not start in Spain.

Meredith: Because this was all during World War I, or the wrap up of World War I, so, people were traveling in ways they may not have and in numbers that they may not have. And so, people brought sickness home with them.

Wyatt: Spread it everywhere. Yeah, there were three waves. The wave in 1918 spring, early summer, that was a big wave. And then it came back in the fall, the largest number of deaths occurred in October in the United States, the second wave. And then the third wave was the spring of 1919, and that was when the war was over and soldiers were waiting to come home…

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And these soldiers that were in camps in France, "Hooray!" You know? "We've got this thing, the war is over, we're ready to come home" and then so many of them died because they got the influenza. And kind of one of those…I think that people were more angry about the deaths that occurred in the third wave than any of the other waves, even though the second wave was the hardest hit.

Meredith: Hmm.

Wyatt: But, during that second wave, Cedar City had its own experience with it beginning in October when residents of Cedar City came home from a church conference, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Conference that was held in Salt Lake…

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And also came home from the State Fair, they brought with them from the Big City and all the travelers that had come to the fair and to the conference, brought it back to Cedar City and it was really difficult. But the rules that were imposed back then were not national or state, they were local.

Meredith: Hmm.

Wyatt: And so, the most restrictive rules were imposed by the mayor of this small community of Cedar City. It was against the law, punishable by fine or imprisonment, to be out on the streets without a face mask.

Meredith: Hmm.

Wyatt: It was punishable by fine or imprisonment to get together in groups, even in private residences. It was against the law to invite your neighbors to come over to your home and have an evening together playing games or something. So, the lockdown that occurred then was far more dramatic than the lockdown that we have now. They still had restaurants open back then, so that's a different thing.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But, if you were in the restaurant not eating, you had to have your mask on and…so, this is such a great time to be alive right now. Because back in 1918, November, when the university shut down for four weeks and one of our classroom buildings became a temporary hospital and students went home, they couldn't take their homework with them, really. And when they got home, they couldn't stay in contact with their professors or their friends.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Back then, only one third of Americans had telephone service in their homes and Cedar City is kind of rural, so I'm guessing that it was less than a third.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Of our students would have had telephone access, certainly they didn't have the ability to drive around in cars and we're at the end of World War I, so you've got all of that interplaying with it. So, when students went home, they went home. And our students that are going home, or went home, the semester is over now, but the students that went home, they were able to get online and talk face-to-face with their classmates and talk face-to-face with their faculty members and our mental health counselors can still have sessions with them…wow. This generation that has been sometimes accused of being overly socially engaged on technology and not socially enough engaged face-to-face…

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Is the most well-equipped generation of all time to be able to handle a pandemic like this.

Meredith: Yep. And what a miracle the technology is, too...

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: That has made this possible. Even ten years ago, we wouldn't have been able to snap our fingers and say, "You know what? Over spring break, let's change the way that we deliver every class."

Wyatt: Everything.

Meredith: I mean, it just…that just would have been completely unthinkable. We wouldn't have had the capacity. Maybe even five years ago. We probably had the software, but not the capacity to do it five years ago. So, you would never say, "Hooray that the pandemic waited until now to attack." [Both laugh] But, if you had to have it come, it's wonderful that we've, even though we've seen shortages in grocery stores and strange hoarding of toilet paper and other things, that, in fact, the technology that we have has allowed us to continue business, not "as usual," but to continue to stay in business.

Wyatt: Continue.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Yeah, I imagine in 1918, students couldn't graduate. They couldn't…I don't actually know, but four weeks without school is a long time. Four months.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Well, let's talk about the student experience and the issues that we deal with. As you said, over spring break…it was fortunate that us that spring break hit when it did. Our spring break was good because by the time spring break ended and before spring break…by the time spring break started, after spring break started, and before it ended, we had to make this decision to go online. And it really wasn't our decision, it was a statewide decision.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But, we were able during that week to shift everything. And we were expecting something, so there had been training and work going in case we had to go online, but students found themselves going online or in a remote delivery. Online meaning the kind of class that you log into anytime you want.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And you do the work as fast or slow as you won't. And remote meaning that you log on to an online conference that's live.

Meredith: Right. A Zoom meeting or a Google meeting of some kind.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: You still show up at the same time and get your lectures remotely. So, the student issues were everything from, "OK, we're going to go online. Are we going to do these online or remotely? How do we help everyone get trained up to be able to do this? Do we encourage students to move back or do we encourage students to go home? How are we going to offer all of the services that we have in terms of counseling, mental health counseling, academic advising, tutoring, all of these kinds of services that are typically face-to-face services. We're going to have to adjust all those so that we can deliver them remotely. How about housing? What happens when students, if we encourage them to go home, do we give them a refund for the housing and a refund for the meal plans?" Those have financial implications for us and for the students. And then, we ultimately decided that we were going to give refunds for housing and for meal plans so that we didn't hurt the students financially from having to move home. But, then a lot of the landlords in town weren't able to do that. They just couldn't do it. They didn't have the kind of resources available to be able to do it, and so that created some tension between landlords and the university as a houser. And then we've got all of these shows. You know, even my daughter who had a fine arts show to present, by the time the show got up towards the end of the semester, then nobody could go see it. So, the shows, the concerts, all of the recitals…

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: The plays, everything including commencement and all of these things. The psychology department has their annual research conference that is a spectacular conference.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And nobody could present any of that stuff.

Meredith: Nobody could be involved, yeah.

Wyatt: Tuition and fees. How do we deal with tuition and fees when we're not offering the services on campus that they thought they were buying? How do we communicate everything to the students? That was a real challenge for us figuring out how to best communicate. And then the international students…we've got a lot of international students here. About 7% of our students are international and what's happening with them? And some of the sad pieces of this are that we've got a partnership with a university in Wuhan where this pandemic started and a lot of Chinese students, some from Wuhan. None of them brought this virus with them, but the students that we have from those countries, some people in the community looked at them with suspicion.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And with a lot of nervousness. And out of politeness, a lot of international students, particularly from the Asian countries, wear masks. So, the first masks that were seen in Cedar City were being worn by them and some people would look at them and think, "You must be sick, I need to stay away from you." When they are just either being careful or polite. And all along, we're registering students for summer and not sure what we can do about summer, and ultimately, that decision was mostly made for us as well, but the entire summer is going to be either online or remote so that we won't have anything being offered during the summer.

Meredith: Now, that's actually a big deal for us because we've been working on an initiative that we've talked a little bit about here, this "get a degree in three years" initiative that the state had given us some funding for and we were concerned that we were going to end up really, really having a super negative impact on our summer enrollment by the fact that we weren't able to offer any face-to-face courses. That has turned out to be a little bit less of an impact than we had feared, I think, that we actually have seen that summer enrollments—I'm knocking on wood here silently—that so far, summer enrollment has held. It's not been quite what it was, but it's mostly held. And, again, as you suggest, we're delivering these either online in the traditional asynchronous sense, or we're delivering them face-to-face, but face-to-face meaning a Google Hangout or a Zoom meeting. There's not going to be anything taught actually face-to-face here on campus. And we ask students a lot about what their experience has been. I don't know if you remember, but we actually held a student feedback loop where we asked students…I always circle back to this because I think it was quite interesting. When we talked to students about this delivery mode question, we said, "So, was your experience better or worse or the same when you left after spring break and were not able to return to campus to normal face-to-face courses?" And I think we all imagined that a significant number of students would say, "Worse." We actually would not be surprised by that, our faculty are great face-to-face teachers and that they would not be able to finish in the fashion they were expecting would be disappointing to students. And so, 35%—we had more than 1,000 students respond to this survey—35% said, "Yeah, it was worse." But it was a little bit of a surprise to us that 33% said it was the same, and 14% were undecided, they couldn't decide if it was better or worse, and 8% said it was better. So, if you factor those that were, "Yeah, it's the same" or, "Eh, I can't decide" or, "Gee, I thought it was better" together, it's actually a…

Wyatt: The majority of the students were…

Meredith: Were fine.

Wyatt: Were fine.

Meredith: Yeah. And as you and I have worked with individual students, we hear complaints, certainly. As you said, "This isn't what I paid for" or, "Why am I paying a student fee for something I'm not going to be able to participate in?" But a number of students and faculty have indicated to us that, while they certainly weren't rooting for this to continue and they'd love to see a return to normalcy, that in fact, this has actually been OK. That either delivering or receiving the course in this fashion has not significantly negatively impacted their learning, and some actually have enjoyed it.

Wyatt: Yeah. What we've learned is several things relative to students, and one is that everyone is different. And some people are thriving in this environment. They love being home and having a little more flexibility.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: They love watching their courses online, they love being able to move at their own speed if that's the mode that they're getting they're class in, they love putting on a nice shirt and keeping their pajama bottoms on, because nobody can see the pajamas.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: They love lots of pieces of that. And then we have some students that are struggling to get out of bed because they are so depressed by all of this.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And it reminds me that of all the things that we're trying to teach, the character is probably the supreme. We're trying to help people develop grit, the ability to face change, to adjust their lives. Because the students that leave here are going to see multiple, significant changes throughout their careers, they're going to have many different jobs, the job that they end up doing may not have been invented yet, but they're going to have a lot of disruptions. And perhaps this is helping them realize that they can weather storms. But it puts a lot of responsibility on us to try to continue to deliver the services that we have.

Meredith: It does.

Wyatt: And have our mental health counselors continuing to stay in connect with them. Just really interesting. It's really super interesting. And how do we register students for summer when they're expecting one thing and now it's going to be online again? And how do we plan for fall?

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: When everybody is worried about…

Meredith: "Will there be a second wave?" Yeah.

Wyatt: Will there be a second wave.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: "And if there is, what are you going to do to keep things safe?" But right now, enrollments are trending positive for fall.

Meredith: I'm also knocking on wood for that. [Laughs]

Wyatt: Yeah, we've been…it's just really super interesting.

Meredith: Well, the reason that you and I care so much about enrollment, of course, is because we're just altruistic people and we love the fact that people come to the university and that it's a life changing experience, but in the back of our minds, too, yours especially, you are an administrator of a large business concern.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: I don't think that's wrong to say it that way. And the budgetary impact of everybody deciding to stay home would be dramatically negative for higher education and SUU, specifically, of course. And so, the unknown of this for students is upsetting and the unknown of it for administrators is equally upsetting. We don't know where the bottom is, right?

Wyatt: Right.

Meredith: We don't know what to plan for.

Wyatt: Right. And even as simple of a question, "Do we encourage students to return after spring break or do we encourage them to stay home?" Is something that we spend hours talking about. Every one of these issues is enormous.

Meredith: Well, because it's of enormous consequence. That means we end up refunding housing, right?

Wyatt: There's a financial aspect to it and there's a health aspect to it.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And one of the questions that we had is, is it safer for the students to return to a rural environment like Cedar City or go home to a big city where there's a lot more chances to get the virus?

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: So, those were all the kinds of questions. And literally, it was every day or every other day. Speaking of students, let's talk about athletics for just a moment.

Meredith: Oh, wow.

Wyatt: Most people probably know that the athletic conferences, SUU is a Division I school part of the Big Sky Conference. We have a lot of rules that are imposed on us by the NCAA and some of those things we just don't have a choice on. But a lot of the decisions are made at the conference level and the conference is governed by the presidents of all the member schools. And so, as this thing was…as this pandemic was just starting to really spread, we were in Boise, Idaho with a tournament.

Meredith: That's right, men's and women's Big Sky basketball tournament.

Wyatt: Men's and women's basketball. So, the basketball tournament is occurring an during those few days, we have a lot of meetings of the governing body and I remember sitting there talking about whether or not…well, it was the third day of the tournament out of six, so most of the schools had played their first game or two, some of them had already lost and were on their way home, but the question was posed, "What are we going to do? Other conferences have cancelled their tournaments. We're halfway through ours…do we continue? Do we not continue? And the options were: cancel the tournament or continue the tournament without fans. And if we continue without fans, who do we actually allow in? And so, we spent a lot of time debating this and it was not a close…I mean, it was a very close vote, but we decided to continue the tournament. Everybody was there, there were no verified cases in Boise at the time, and then…so, "We're going to continue  with the tournament and we're going to continue without fans, but who are we going to let stay?" And so, we spent all of this time talking about, "Do we let the cheerleaders stay? Do we let the band stay? How many family members are we going to allow to come in?" So, each student athlete can have five tickets for their family that can watch, everybody else has to go home. And we finally decided that we were going to let the bands stay and the cheerleaders stay. And then we moved on to the next topic and within 30 minutes, the commissioner said, "Just off the wire," and listed five conferences that had just cancelled their tournaments.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: Some of them at halftime of a game.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And we looked at each other and said…we just revisited the decision and cancelled the rest of the tournament from then on out. And then the next question was, "What are we doing with all of the spring sports?" And some conferences, this is a big financial decision. It's not for us. There's no finances really involved. In fact, if we cancel it, we're probably financially better off. We lose money on athletics; we don't gain money on athletics. For us, it's mostly, "I just feel so bad for these students that have worked so hard and some of them are seniors and this is their year to win a championship and we're taking it all away."

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: It's like cancelling an Olympics.

Meredith: It is.

Wyatt: For them.

Meredith: Which has happened.

Wyatt: Which has happened. But those are all really difficult challenges. And then, in terms…so, we ended up cancelling the spring season as did all of the programs around the country.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Then we had all of these rules about, "You can't train, you can't get into the gyms, you can't practice together." The runners can go off all by themselves and run, but if you're a defensive lineman, you can't go lift weights and you can't practice. And so, we've…nobody's training, nobody's practicing, no sports, all of the championships cancelled, and then a whole series of other questions come up. "Are we going to be able to do this in the fall?"

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: What about the seniors that didn't get a championship? Are we going to let them come back for one more year? And the NCAA said, "If you're a spring sport student and you didn't get a chance to go to a championship, we're going to let you come back for a fifth year." And that has an interesting impact, as that makes five years of students instead of four, which increases the cost for the schools and disrupts all of the recruiting and everything.

Meredith: Right. You thought you had a certain number of scholarships but now you don't.

Wyatt: Now something is different. And then fall, and I was talking to a president of another university, because what we're waiting for right now is what to do with the fall sports. And we can plan to go forward, but if we can't get them together to start training until the end of July, you can't safely put Division I football players on the field one month later. So, we can't do that. So, are we going to delay the football season? Or are we going to move it until spring? Or are we just going to cancel it? And I was talking…and those decisions haven't been made yet.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: By the time or listeners listen to this…

Meredith: It will be close, maybe.

Wyatt: The decision will be close or else it will be…we'll send this out and then within a day or two, that decision will be made. So, it may be made by the time they listen. But, I was talking to the president of one of the big schools who said, "If the football season is cancelled, we lose 55 million dollars."

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: If the football season is cancelled at SUU, we gain a couple hundred thousand dollars. We're not making money on athletics, it's an expense, where some schools make money. So, just all these interesting pieces that play together. So, athletics is one of those big ones that is really actually quite difficult to manage.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Well, as we talk about athletics, then the next…students, the student experience which includes athletes and artists and musicians and everything else, the next question is, "How about the faculty and the staff and the employees? How are they responding?" And we ended up making a decision that, based on the requirements, everybody should work from home. And that was a slow decision. Steve, you remember.

Meredith: I do.

Wyatt: We'd debate something one day and then we'd change it the next day and the next day and the next day and the next day as we just kept revisiting this question as more information came out. Finally, we landed on encouraging everybody to work from home that could, but, if somebody's job didn't allow them to work from home then they could come in. And if, for some reason, somebody's job made it really difficult to work from home that we would let them have the discretion to make that call but ask them to make sure they socially distanced when they came in and that we were extra careful on keeping things clean. And so, we have a variety of people that are coming in.

Meredith: But, for the most part, the campus…

Wyatt: For the most part, everybody's home.

Meredith: It's not closed, there are signs on every office door that say, "Hey, if you want help, visit this website or call this number and we'll be happy to help you."

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: But there aren't people inside most of those offices.

Wyatt: Yeah, that's right. The receptionists, the faculty, everybody's got a phone number at home. And so, now everyone is trying to adjust to being home and working, and in the midst of all of this was the decision to close the public schools and a lot of our faculty and staff members have small children.

Meredith: Yeah, have children at home. That's right.

Wyatt: So, now they're home schooling. Not completely, but largely. Our district has been great and I think school districts around the country have been great to have their teachers help and send things home with them and all that kind of stuff, but nevertheless, parents are now the disciplinarians and the teachers and the tutors.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: The babysitters, depending on the age of the students. So, now there's just this huge distraction and it makes it really complicated and hard for people to work.

Meredith: I told you that I think the internet has never been more creative and interesting than it is right now, and that's one of the funny memes that's been going around. "I can't wait to meet my child's teacher for next year. She's got to be better than the teacher she's got now." [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah, that's right.

Meredith: I think parents are struggling with that part of it. Not just the juggling of job and helping their children, but the fact that you're just together on top of each other all day long and all night long.

Wyatt: All night long.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: And what we're learning about our faculty and staff is the same thing that we're learning about students. And that is that some of them thrive in this environment.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And some of them are struggling.

Meredith: So, President, that's actually interesting. Do you think that we'll see some things that never come back the way they were? I mean, are we going to just, now, looking at something that we've been discussing here, are we going to suggest that some people continue to work from home after this is over? We save office space, we don't have to heat or cool quite so much of the campus, we have better parking that way. Is…I mean, surely there are things from this pandemic that we'll probably do differently going forward. I imagine handshakes will maybe make a comeback but maybe never to the point that they were before. What do you think about that?

Wyatt: Well, we have…that's a great question and it's a very personal question for each employee, but we, before this whole thing started, we had a whole bunch of employees who were working from home. Some of them live in Las Vegas and some of them live in Texas.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And they're very productive, do a great service, and we're happy to have them as our employees. But, we may be learning that there's another 10 or 20 or 100 or 200 employees that say, "You know, after working from home for quite a while, I think I like it. Can I stay?"

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And if they do do that, you're spot on. The taxpayer and the student who is paying tuition can save money because we don't have to build offices or parking lots or anything else. And for the state as a whole, the more people that work from home, the less traffic there is on the roads…

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And so, we spend less money on roads, we have less air pollution, just all the way around.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And for some, they…I've got a variety of kids that are working from home, as do you, and one of them cannot work at home. Just cannot do it. He's a very productive person, but when he's home, the kids distract him and he's got all these things that remind him of the non-work stuff and it's just hard for him to motivate himself.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: So, he goes into his office and he's the only one there and really productive. And I have another one that it took him a few weeks, but now he's really enjoying working from home.

Meredith: Mhmm. Well, and we were saying the other day, you've been really good about having campus forums. And in the past, we hold them in an auditorium on our campus that holds a couple hundred people. The attendance at the online forums has been significantly better than our face-to-face forums, and the interactions have been more interesting. More pointed, I guess, in some ways.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: People are not afraid to ask difficult questions that they might hesitate to ask in a social situation, but you also have not been afraid to answer candidly. Maybe even more candidly than if you were in a room full of 200 people. And so, doubling the number of people that hear a given forum, we may decide online forums are the way going ahead.

Wyatt: Yeah, we've had…you're absolutely right. And some of the…if you…well, my own experience is that I miss seeing these students because they're energizing for me to see them on campus and to smile and get that from them, but I don't miss burning up the highway I-15 to Salt Lake and back constantly for meetings.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: So, we just had, in Utah, the very first in the country, a virtual legislative session.

Meredith: Really? I didn't know that.

Wyatt: It was the very first one ever. That was kind of hard because they weren't able to do floor amendments to bills.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: They had to submit any possible amendments in advance, and you can't kind of sit there in the aisle—I used to be in the legislature—you can't sit in the aisles and negotiate with somebody…

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And lobby your bill.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: because everybody is sitting in their home doing this online. But it worked. But I've been going to region meetings in Salt Lake and I've got to tell you, I absolutely love sitting in my office at home or at work and Zooming into a governing board meeting.

Meredith: Save the wear and tear on you and your vehicle and the roadway and…

Wyatt: Yeah, two days' worth of meetings that just a couple weeks ago, two days of meetings I didn't have to pay for transportation up and back.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And I didn't have to pay in the hotel for a couple nights. And so, on the one hand, we save money for the school, that means we're saving money for the students and the taxpayer, and on the other hand, I got three times as much work done because I could sit in my office and when the agenda item had nothing to do with me or our school, I could then work on something else and listen in. And then when the topic came up that was relevant to us, I could be fully engaged again.

Meredith: The ability to mute video may be the single best invention ever. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: That's right.

Meredith: You're in a meeting, but nobody can see you.

Wyatt: Nobody can see you. And I've been in more than one Zoom meeting when someone said, "I haven't finished breakfast yet, so I haven't turned on my video." [Laughs]

Meredith: Right, or combed my hair or whatever. Yeah.

Wyatt: So, what I'm experiencing and what you're experiencing is the same thing that a lot of our faculty and staff experience, which is, if it's a virtual forum instead of leaving their office or wherever they are and coming down, they can just sit at their home and listen to everything and send in questions and get them answered and then they can be more productive too. So, the faculty and staff are experiencing this the same way students are.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: A lot of them are telling us, "We like this better." And a lot of them are telling us, "It doesn't matter." And some of them are telling us, "I'm having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning."

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: "This is really depressing to me." And I think it's…there's no simple answer for why people respond differently except that we all respond differently.

Meredith: Yep. You know I've been an evangelist for online learning because of my experience here starting the Master of Music Program in Music Technology, and I continue to be an evangelist for online learning and I've…part of me has been thrilled that we, as a university, have had to embrace this new style of delivery in a much more direct manner than I think we had ever planned to do it. But it also brings those different learning styles and different personality styles to the floor as well. There are people who simply will learn better in a face-to-face environment, whether it's because they're an extrovert and they just need to be with people or they simply are better learners if it's a tactile situation, they need to be able to touch and handle and move to be able to learn more effectively. And then there are other people who you couldn't teach them in a better fashion than in a Zoom meeting where they can read and they can access their computer for a minute and when they have a question they can try to answer it and then if they can't get it answered, they can submit it to the teacher. And all of that can happen without disturbing those around them and they can ask more pointed questions. You know, I've often said that I think that the students that are in my online program feel free to be more honest and open with me about what their needs and desires for their music career really are. And I have some proof of that, because there was a test group of students that I taught face-to-face for many years that then moved into the online program, and I learned a great deal about those students because the interaction online is different. But, for people who struggle with that, I'm very sympathetic. And I think there will always be the need for brick and mortar, let's go to a football game or a prom kind of experiences in college, those socialization experiences of living with someone in a dorm, of hearing face-to-face opinions that differ from yours, sitting in a classroom, those are experiences that for those students who are fortunate enough to be able to come to Cedar City are really irreplaceable experiences. But, for those that can't be here or, in our case, that the government won't let people be here, this has been a really remarkable change. And it's been heartwarming to me to see our faculty and students embrace this change as much as they have. I know it's been a struggle for many faculty included, but it's been heartwarming to see it happen.

Wyatt: And it's partly based on our personalities and it's partly based on conditioning. And I look back at…it seems today that much of our social interaction is work-based. And that's why it's really hard for a lot of people is that they really get that validation at work…

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And with friends and encouragement.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Wyatt: It's super important. But I look at my…and it's the way they grow up, we don't know anything different. I look back at my mother's father who was a farmer in a small little community in southern Idaho, and maybe even my great-grandfather and mother would be better examples, but their entire social world was based on church and community and there was nothing social about work. Because every family did their labor together and it was either a little farm or they were artisans or they had some little thing that they were doing. Back before big corporations and the Industrial Revolution and all of these things, people were mostly just working at home.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And they worked as families. And it feels like we've kind of gone back to that a little bit where…

Meredith: Circled back around, yeah.

Wyatt: Where everybody is working from home, they're working as families, and they're teaching as families and learning. So, we're certainly capable of doing that, because the majority of people lived that way for a very, very long time. But, some of these pieces are really hilarious. I was talking to a friend who's married to a judge who is holding court from home.

Meredith: Oh, really?

Wyatt: My son is an attorney and he's trying cases from home.

Meredith: Hmm.

Wyatt: They're not really doing evidentiary hearings, but they're doing court. And she said that it got other family members that are at home, everybody is kind of working, so they've got five or six workers at home.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: All trying to work in this house.

Meredith: Yep. Yeah, we've got separate offices at our house where we close the door.

Wyatt: Every once in a while, somebody will say, "Everybody be quiet, I'm on the phone!" [Both laugh] Or, "I'm doing this!" And we thought she probably needed to get some cubicles and set up the living room. [Both laugh] So that they could operate together. But, it's interesting. In some respects, it feels like we're back to the 19th century social world.

Meredith: Working the family farm, yeah.

Wyatt: Except for today, we don't have community and we don't have church or other kinds of things to have social. It's mostly all gone, and so it's very different than what we've ever experienced.

Meredith: So, the big question as we wrap up our discussion of what it's been like to be at a university during our coronavirus outbreak, "Are we going to be in business?" And we've spent a lot of time talking about the fact that the hard part of our job right now, and nobody is looking for any sympathy, but the hard part of our job as leaders is knowing…like I said, knowing where the bottom is. Do we think that Southern Utah will be able to survive without enormous budget cuts or enormous personnel cuts? What is your thinking as of today, with the caveat that things can always change?

Wyatt: You made a comment that I wanted to respond to really quickly right there that it's…or add something to it, and that is, it's difficult to have these decisions every day, but I think it might be as difficult to be waiting for decisions.

Meredith: To wonder, yep.

Wyatt: To have less information and be hopeful than it is to try to figure out how to make decisions. And the assumption is for most people that government jobs are secure and non-government jobs aren't. But, as we look around the country, there are colleges and universities that this is going to put under, for sure. And reading in The Chronicle of Higher Education is an example of University of Connecticut lost, this semester, 20 million dollars in housing reimbursements.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: And other universities…one university reported that they're anticipating the potential of a 1 billion dollar loss. Now, these are universities that are on a scale far bigger than ours, because our total annual budget, if you include everything, is 206 million. But, we have a Shakespeare Festival and we have a Utah Summer Games, and we're moving forward hoping that we can do it, but if we can't do it, then we lose more money.

Meredith: WE lose money.

Wyatt: So, we've done, as you've alluded to, we've done a whole lot of as educated of guesses as we can possibly do to try to figure out what is the range of financial impact for us and all of them are negative.

Meredith: It's just how negative.

Wyatt: It's just how negative.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And how do we best prepare? And that is with soft hiring freezes and soft purchasing freezes and being very careful about…

Meredith: And that's where we are right now…

Wyatt: That's exactly where we are.

Meredith: As you and I are recording this podcast.

Wyatt: But across the country, there will be thousands and thousands and thousands, maybe millions, of jobs in higher education that will be lost as a result of all of this at different schools depending on where they are. And a lot of them are just going under completely. Most of them will survive, and most employees will survive.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And we're optimistic here. Very optimistic. We've set as one of our…we've set as our number one goal to maintain quality for students and as our number two goal to try to maintain as many jobs as possible with the hope that we don't have any layoffs.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But the odds are there that we may have some. So, very disruptive and unsettling, and as we make all this effort to try to make sure that we're taking care of our students, we have to remember that the employees are going through their own set of challenges and need re-encouragement…encouragement and support, all those kinds of things. But, yeah. It's really challenging. And we have a third priority, and the third priority is to help our community, because this university has been here since 1897, supported, sustained and built by this community and we want our decisions to be helpful to them. And so, for example, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, do we proceed with plays this summer? And we've made the decision that we're going to proceed with plays and make the decision, if we have to cancel them, at the last minute, knowing that that creates more financial challenges for the university but gives some hope for the community that they'll be supported…

Meredith: Because the Utah Shakespeare Festival is critical to the financial health of Cedar City.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: But as we look at saving jobs and working through financial challenges at the university, we've committed, and we will, we will begin with administration costs first and the last thing that will be affected will be those direct services that help students, and that's always important. To lead these things at the top and not start cutting at the bottom.

Meredith: Right. Right. Well, it will be interesting to see where we end up.

Wyatt: That's right. That's right, and we will learn things from this and one of the things we will learn is that we're capable of doing things we didn't know we were capable of doing.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And we will also learn that we have more personal strength than we thought we had. Or we will learn that this isn't…some will learn that this was harder than expected, but that will just provide a challenge moving forward. And I love looking at all of my colleagues and seeing in each one of them a strength I don't have. And so, when I see somebody struggling with something that's not a struggle for me, I just…it's easy for me to say, "Yes, but I struggle with something that you do very well." And so, there isn't good and bad, there isn't strong and weak necessarily, it's "We all have different strengths." It's like taking a runner who is a sprinter and saying, "You are the best sprinter ever. Now, go run a marathon." And they're not going to do very well. It's just beyond our strengths, and we're put into environments that we're not conditioned for, we're not ready for, and then it's really difficult. So, we have some employees that are struggling to be as productive as normal, and we're understanding of that and patient. And some are being more productive than normal, and that's great. But anyway, what an interesting period of time. And I choose, as you and I have talked about a lot, Steve, our choice is, is to do our very best and to realize we're living through history and that these times are fascinating and by focusing a little bit on the fact that we're living through history, we're seeing things that we've never experienced before, we're doing our best to help take care of those around us as best as we can, and our belief, Steve, that there will be a shift as a result of this. It will leave us unchanged…it will leave us changed, excuse me, both as individuals and as a higher education community nationwide.

Meredith: To be sure.

Wyatt: To think that every single teacher in America is teaching remotely right now and that every single student is learning remotely right now, we will not come out of this…

Meredith: It's an astounding thought.

Wyatt: It is.

Meredith: It really is, yeah.

Wyatt: From Harvard and Yale to community colleges to rural schools to urban centers, everybody is online.

Meredith: K-12.

Wyatt: Our dependence on technology has gone way up and…anyways, it's interesting. Super interesting times.

Meredith: It is. Thanks for the conversation.

Wyatt: Yeah, this has been fun.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. Wherever you're listening, we hope that you and yours are safe, and we look forward to having another podcast for you very soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.