Audio: Meehan and UMass prepare for next semester

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The University of Massachusetts system is preparing for everything from complete remote learning to having all students back to campuses as it faces the future with COVID-19, about $123 million in lost revenue, and seeks to make a decision about fall classes by July, system President Marty Meehan told The Sun.

But Meehan also said focus on research and emerging technologies, as well as focus on remote learning, has left the system positioned better than most to face a post-pandemic world that could be extremely difficult for some institutions.

“We’re planning for everything from fully back in classes to fully remote and everywhere in between,” Meehan said.

He said he believes a decision about the fall semester must be made by July.

Meehan said he agrees that reopening colleges should be a national priority, but that the decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis and in response to what science says.

“I think it should be a national priority, and I think it is a state priority, but it has to be done within the science,” Meehan said. “We can’t afford to make a decision that puts our students or our faculty in an unhealthy situation, so it depends on the science. It’s a little early to figure out what we ought to be doing, but I would certainly like to see us back in some capacity.”

Meehan said about $70 million of the $123 million in lost revenue the system faces in Fiscal 2020, which ends June 30, came from fees and other costs refunded to students.

“It’s a obviously a challenging time, and we’re also seeing increased costs related to technology because we have 18,000 employees working at home and 75,000 students learning at home,” Meehan said.

Meehan said he and some other top administrators have taken furlough days to at least begin to address the unexpected budget shortfall, but that debt service and other costs cannot be so easily cut. Meehan said that as of three weeks ago he will furloughed one day a week for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2020.

“We have to pay the bonds on the buildings and all of that, so it’s not like we were able to cut costs that quickly, but we did feel it was important to pay students and their families back.”

Meehan said he is in contact with former colleagues in the state congressional delegation, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, about the system’s fiscal challenges.

He said each campus is looking at measures like furloughs and other ways to save, and that the system as a whole has already cut costs by combining some functions across campuses.

“Each campus is looking at vendor contracts or any way that they can cut, including looking at furloughs and personnel decisions,” Meehan said. “And (those decisions) will be made on a campus by campus basis because every campus is different.”

Meehan said he is proud of how quickly the system reacted to the pandemic, moving 75,000 students to an all remote learning system in about two weeks.

“Is everything 100 percent perfect? Of course not, but we at least feel good about the fact that our students that need to graduate will graduate,” he said.

Meehan said much remains uncertain about what the future holds, even as soon as this fall, but that the need for more remote learning was becoming clear even before the pandemic.

“It’s pretty clear that remote work and remote learning is going to be a bigger part of our lives from now on,” Meehan said.

Meehan said UMass has a 20-year history of online classes, and that he has pushed for even more prior to the pandemic.

“We’ve got nearly a million adults in Massachusetts who have started a degree program but not finished. So we need to expand our online offerings to meet students needs… when they’re available and where they’re available,” Meehan said. “Online learning is critically important, and we’re looking at expanding what we offer online. And I think that’s going to be a critical part of what our mission is going forward.”

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