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Whitworth, Gonzaga presidents say campus reopenings are delicate balancing act

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 30, 2020

When Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh reflects on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, he recalls a trip he once took to a famed glass factory in Waterford, Ireland, where he watched artisans blow and sculpt delicate pieces of crystal by hand.

“At the very end, there’s a quality-control person. And she’s looking at this glass, and if it has any flaws she throws the glass into a big pile of crystal, and it shatters,” McCulloh said. “It’s a mental image for me of what has happened for us.”

Like a glass being shattered, he said, Gonzaga’s business model fell apart when the pandemic hit, “and we’ve been trying to pick up the pieces and put it back together in this context.”

Rebuilding something so carefully constructed is no small task while the threat of a deadly virus looms. In interviews this week, McCulloh and Whitworth University President Beck Taylor described the steps they have taken over the summer to protect the health of students, faculty and staff, while both private schools reopen their residence halls and prepare to resume in-person classes this fall.

Both presidents said their institutions would lose tens of millions of dollars, mostly in room and board fees, if they don’t reopen campus for the fall – though both say lost fees are far from the biggest reasons they’re going forward with even limited on-campus learning.

McCulloh said Gonzaga’s losses could top $45 million if the campus is forced to close – a massive slice of the university’s $220 million operating budget.

Whitworth faces similar high stakes with its $80 million operating budget.

Both presidents also said their top priority is to provide a worthwhile educational experience at a time when many prospective students are questioning whether online courses are worth the cost. McCulloh cited a recent Harvard University survey that found about 20% of students who had planned to attend the school this fall decided to take a gap year instead.

While Gonzaga won’t have official enrollment numbers until mid-September, McCulloh anticipates that of the 1,225 students accepted for their freshman year, about 1,050 will enroll in classes.

About 2,000 new and returning students have been moving onto Gonzaga’s campus this week, and most Whitworth students are expected to move in next week. Reactions from students and their parents were mostly positive and in support of being on Gonzaga’s campus.

“There’s no question that the pandemic poses real threats to our ability to host students in a safe manner and to take care of our employees,” Taylor said of Whitworth. But those health threats, he said, must be weighed against the risk of further disadvantaging students who don’t have all the resources they need to perform well remotely.

“Both Gonzaga and Whitworth enroll very bright students, but our students come from very diverse backgrounds. And what we learned in the spring was that many of our students simply were not able to succeed to the extent that they were capable because we were in an online format,” Taylor said.

“That was largely because they had little or no access to reliable technology. They were in homes where they were sharing that technology with other individuals. Or, in the worst cases, our students really had no other home, other than the university.”

McCulloh, a psychologist who received both his master’s and doctoral degrees from Oxford University, emphasized that social interaction is important for developing minds. While Gonzaga will strongly discourage students from attending parties and other large gatherings, he said, there is value in providing a sense of community on campus.

The health threat of the pandemic is real, but so too are the health risks associated with long-term isolation, he said.

“I believe that it is possible for students to make decisions to manage risk. I also believe that there are things about being social creatures that are perfectly normal, reasonable and to be expected,” McCulloh said. “If we can find a kind of middle way through that, then I think we’re doing pretty good work.”

Gonzaga and Whitworth have consulted with Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz, who shared concerns but also said he believed the schools were trying to be responsible and “impart leadership and responsibility on the students.”

Lutz recently told The Spokesman-Review he’s most concerned about students’ social interactions outside of classrooms, which will be somewhat controlled settings with mask requirements and physical distancing. Another concern is that many students will live in dorms with roommates.

Lutz’s concerns are not unfounded as universities that have already started on-campus classes are tracing outbreaks to off-campus gatherings and parties.

That puts a high degree of responsibility for a university to be able to have students on campus directly on the students themselves. That point is not lost on Taylor and McCulloh, but it’s also not a simple problem to solve.

McCulloh also noted the importance of preserving jobs. Many Gonzaga employees’ spouses or family members have been laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic, he said, so the university has endeavored to keep its nearly 1,700 employees on the payroll. With an annual payroll close to $100 million, Gonzaga is one of Spokane’s largest employers. Whitworth’s annual payroll is about $36 million for its roughly 550 employees.

“We do not, at this point in time, plan to or have intentions to furlough or lay people off,” McCulloh said.

However, the university likely will choose not to fill some positions after employees retire or leave voluntarily, he said.

While many students will be living on and around campus, McCulloh said about half of their courses will be taught entirely online, while about half will be some mix of online and in-person instruction.

Professors, he said, are working directly with students to split classes into smaller groups that will take turns using physical classrooms. Underscoring those efforts, McCulloh noted Gonzaga has put 2,200 desks into storage.

“A percentage of classes will be entirely in person, and that is largely driven by the curricular demands of the discipline,” McCulloh said.

McCulloh said Gonzaga must offer in-person learning opportunities for nursing students, who need to work in clinical settings to obtain licenses, and mechanical and civil engineering students, whose courses involve large, hands-on group projects.

“Some things are impossible to do online,” McCulloh said. “They just are, and we actually have a lot of in-person intensive work.”

Gonzaga and Whitworth have forged ahead with their reopening plans even as other universities – including Notre Dame, Michigan State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – have reverted to online-only models following outbreaks of the virus.

Even in Pullman, where Washington State University decided to go online-only in July, cases of COVID-19 quickly doubled as the fall semester began this month, which Whitman County health officials attributed to students throwing parties and “making poor choices.”

Taylor expressed hope that Whitworth can avoid a similar outcome.

“Every college president, every institution of higher learning, has to make the best decisions for itself, given its student body, its size, its complexity, where it’s located,” Taylor said. “Whitworth is a smaller residential liberal arts institution. And as a private, religious institution, and as one that is located in north Spokane, we feel like we have some advantages that perhaps other institutions don’t think they have.”

McCulloh said Gonzaga’s reopening presents students with choices, opportunities and responsibilities.

“You have to decide for yourself whether it’s safe or not, whether you want to continue or not, whether you want to live on campus or not,” he said. “We’re not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do. But if you choose, you got to play by our rules.”

To that end, Gonzaga has required students to sign a pledge they will take recommended health precautions, including wearing masks and socially distancing. McCulloh and Taylor said they will continue to stress the importance of those measures throughout the academic year, while also discouraging students from attending parties and other large gatherings.

At Whitworth, Taylor said students will be encouraged to limit social interactions to the groups of peers living on their residence hall floors.

“I certainly would not hesitate to suspend or expel a student who blatantly and repeatedly jeopardized their own health and the health of fellow students on our campus, and employees by extension,” Taylor said. But, he added, “we certainly hope that those extreme cases don’t happen.”

The costs of adapting to the pandemic have been immense. School officials have said Gonzaga lost about $9 million and Whitworth lost about $10 million last spring, but they were able to offset most or all of those impacts through federal assistance and determined belt-tightening efforts. Both universities have endowments that have been growing in recent years, but most of those funds are restricted in how they can be used.

That means dipping into the endowment isn’t a realistic long-term, or even short-term, option for the schools. Officials at each university confirmed both schools had healthy balance sheets before the pandemic.

As Gonzaga switched to an online learning model after spring break, the school not only issued reimbursements for room and board but also had to empty hundreds of dorm rooms and ship home students’ personal belongings. It was an enormous undertaking for staff as Gonzaga students come from across the country, including about 25% from California.

McCulloh and Taylor said they hope to have balanced budgets by the end of this fiscal year, but it won’t be easy.

Colleges and universities across the country received help from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that Congress passed in March. Gonzaga and Whitworth each received about $2.8 million at the time.

About half of that money helped provide refunds to students for unused housing and dining services last semester, while the other half was distributed as emergency grants to 923 Gonzaga students and 514 Whitworth students.

This month, in a joint letter to the Spokane County commissioners, the two universities requested an additional $6 million from the county’s allotment of CARES Act funding, saying it would help them maintain safe campus environments. Their joint request was denied.

In a breakdown of expenses, Gonzaga and Whitworth said the federal aid they requested from the county would help pay for contact tracing and COVID-19 testing of students and employees, isolation and quarantine facilities, personal protective equipment and cleaning services, the creation of additional class sections with fewer students, classroom technology upgrades to allow for some online instruction, and new COVID-19 compliance officers and response coordinators. Both schools already have invested heavily in those programs.

All three commissioners told The Spokesman-Review they didn’t intend to give either university federal coronavirus aid because the county likely will need it for economic recovery efforts, and to cover the growing cost of the Spokane Regional Health District’s efforts to mitigate the virus.

Though it is tough to determine the exact economic impact of the universities on this region’s economy, there are rough numbers often used in studies regarding Gonzaga’s annual financial effects on the Spokane area. With its annual payroll numbers, as well as direct spending by the university, alumni, students and campus visitors, analysts project that Gonzaga contributes nearly $350 million into the Spokane community every year.

This number doesn’t include any multipliers related to jobs and services around Spokane directly related to Gonzaga, such as restaurants adjacent to the campus or when, for example, ESPN brings in a crew to broadcast a Zags basketball game.

As disappointing as it was for the nationally ranked women’s and men’s Gonzaga basketball teams when the NCAA canceled its national basketball tournament, the news was even more devastating for the Spokane community. The Spokane Arena was the site for four first-round men’s games and two second-round games. Gonzaga also had the possibility of hosting women’s first-round games.

Eric Sawyer, CEO of the Spokane Sports Commission, said past NCAA events in Spokane translated into about $4 million in revenue for area businesses.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the national outlook for some private, religious, liberal-arts universities was bleak.

In this region, some had already closed, echoing a national trend. Trinity Lutheran College in Everett shut down in 2016. Maryhurst University near Portland ceased operations in 2018 after 125 years, and Portland’s Concordia University closed this past spring.

Recent stories on MarketWatch, CNBC, Forbes and the Wall Street journal point to possibly hundreds of private universities closing in the next few years due to the fallout related to the coronavirus pandemic as cash-strapped schools see both their enrollment and endowments drop.

Taylor and McCulloh don’t foresee anything that drastic for their schools, but they both say that universities are much more fragile than the general public recognizes. COVID-19 has only made it more difficult and fragile – maybe not as fragile as the shattering crystal McCulloh saw in that Irish factory, yet it’s that same crystal’s beauty that also is so similar to what he sees in higher education.

“Few of the essays and articles I have read mention the truly important cultural purposes for which colleges and universities exist,” McCulloh said. “Colleges hold out the possibility of being places where – in unique, creative and beautiful ways – the people who attend our institutions have the opportunity to learn subjects and deepen their knowledge of specific fields, but also to develop the frameworks needed to make sense of the chaos in their worlds and ours.

“It’s important to remember universities like Gonzaga represent a truly life-changing opportunity for their students. It is still very much the case that the successful attainment of a college degree affords one the best chance of obtaining work in the professions and opportunities for a higher quality of life. With all of the uncertainty that COVID-19 has introduced into our lives, the opportunities created by having a college degree are more significant.”

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