As coronavirus threat looms large over universities, UT president explains why his isn’t going online-only
Students walk past the main building at the University of Texas at Austin campus. Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Tribune
A crush of Texas universities this week announced they are moving to online classes after spring break to avoid spread of the new coronavirus, but the University of Texas at Austin will continue to offer at least some in-person instruction. On Thursday, university leaders explained it's a delicate balance between safety and ensuring students have access to the resources they need.
On Wednesday, the school announced it would extend spring break a week and then shift some lectures online.
When asked why UT-Austin took a more tempered approach — compared with other schools who will administer all classes exclusively online and, in some cases, ask students to move out for the remainder of the semester — University President Gregory Fenves said the administration wants to ensure all students are able to graduate on time and any who rely on the campus for accommodations and other resources don’t suffer.
“For many of our students, this is their home. This is where they live; this is where they work,” Fenves said. “We have 10,000 students who expect to graduate. ... These are students who are going to go on and contribute to society. Interrupting that graduation, interrupting getting a degree from the University of Texas has tremendous consequences on a large number of our students.”
He also noted logistically, some classes can't be replicated online.
In the case of courses like science labs, performing arts and others, the university is looking at “reconfiguring classroom space” and using “alternative instructional modes,” Fenves said. For example, a lab with 15 students that typically meets once a week may instead meet three times a week with five students each, he explained.
However, in 500-person lectures where social distancing isn't feasible, online instruction will be mandatory, said Executive Vice President and Provost Maurie McInnis.
The campus and its libraries will remain open, so students who stay will have internet and computer access.
Though degrees will be awarded, it’s too early to know how commencement will be impacted, Fenves said. As of now, there are no plans to extend the semester to make up for the lost week of instruction.
Fenves said administrators are working with human resources to put flexible policies in place for faculty and staff, some of whom may need to work from home or take time off. Events in the Bass Concert Hall and the Frank Erwin Center are canceled for at least two weeks, and campus visits by prospective students will be replaced by virtual experiences.
All university-sponsored travel will be suspended for employees until April 30, and university-sponsored international travel for students is banned through summer, effective Friday. Students currently abroad have been recalled, and those who plan to engage in personal travel will be asked to self-report to the university for monitoring purposes.
The university's home sporting events will also be played without fans in attendance through March 22. Its athletics teams will continue to "travel to road competitions as scheduled at this time," according to its website.
“We recognize that these changes are very disruptive to our students and faculty in the middle of a very busy semester of learning, search and discovery here on the Forty Acres,” Fenves said. “But we’re also mindful of the very serious public health concerns and the health of our community.”
2020 Texas Tribune