UT System Chancellor discusses coronavirus’ effect on higher education with Texas Tribune


AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — As universities throughout Texas are beginning to unveil plans for reopening and changing operations amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Texas Tribune sat down with University of Texas System Chancellor J.B. Milliken to discuss how the virus has affected higher education in the state.

Milliken spoke to Texas Tribune Multimedia Reporter Alana Rocha and answer questions about how the UT System is responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

What will the fall semester look like for the UT System? Will athletic programs — including football — be reopened?

  • Milliken said that “most people are now convinced that the question isn’t whether or not [the university will] open in the fall, it’s how we will open in the fall.” He added that his office would be working closely with the UT Board of Regents as well as Gov. Greg Abbott’s recently formed “strike force” to ensure that the reopening of UT campuses will be done in a way that is consistent with health and safety standards.
  • Asked how the overall plan would be applied to individual campuses across the system, Milliken said that while he doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening, he also doesn’t foresee anything having a major impact on individual universities’ ability to reopen.
  • On the subject of resuming sports programing in the fall — particularly the system’s football programs, as other universities have indicated they would — Milliken said that “sports are maybe the only thing above the chancellor’s pay grade,” adding that such decisions would need to be made in partnership with multiple stakeholders, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the athletic directors across the system. “Of course [our football program] is hugely important,” Milliken said, “but it’s nowhere near as important as the health and safety of our students and our visitors to our institution.”

How have current university operations been impacted by the virus?

  • While Milliken declined to say how many individuals within the UT System had been tested for the coronavirus, he did say that numerous institutions within the system are administering thousands of tests combined per day. He added that nearly all system employees are working remotely, though he did note that there are a few staff members and students who are still working and living on campus. Milliken also said that all health and safety measures are being observed to limit the spread of the virus across the system and its surrounding communities.
  • On the subject of how the coronavirus outbreak has financially affected the UT system, Milliken said that the initial elimination of elective surgeries back in early March had resulted in estimated losses of $500 million for the year for the system’s six health institutions alone. Milliken said the lifting of the ban on elective surgeries is a welcome measure and that “we need to take care of the whole population, and going forward we need to have the protections [and resources] in place to be able to do both things at once.”
  • In terms of how the UT System is responding to the virus, Milliken said that the UT System has put measures in place, including accelerated graduation for health professionals, in order to support the health care system combat the spread of the virus. He also said that over 130 different research projects are currently being conducted across the system related to vaccine and treatment options for the coronavirus, with all non-COVID research having been suspended. “It’s essential that we continue at at least the speed we’re doing now,” Milliken said, “so that we can continue to to provide health care that Texans need in the future.”
  • Asked about how spring commencement ceremonies would be impacted, Milliken said that while he knows that online ceremonies are no substitute for traditional graduation ceremonies, he’s hopeful that the online events will create new and rewarding opportunities to celebrate the graduating students.

What is being done to assist students in need right now? And how will this reshape the way the UT System approaches education for all students?

  • Milliken said that half of the $170 million that the UT System will receive from the CARES Act package will be used for emergency grants to students, with the remaining half of the funding going toward as yet undetermined “institutional purposes.” He added that his office will work with the Board of Regents to determine how institutions within the UT System will use their portion of the federal funding.
  • While he said that the funding from the CARES Act is welcomed, Milliken also stipulated that he has no expectation that it will be enough to cover the substantial financial setbacks the UT System is facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • “It’s hard to overstate the [negative impacts] of coronavirus,” Milliken said, “but on the other hand there are some, I think, [positives] that will come out of this in the future and one of them is an increasing comfort level with the use of technology in education,” which he believes will help to provide greater access to education for the growing number of Texans.
  • Milliken also said that he hopes that another positive to come out of the current situation will be increased momentum for policies and funding for addressing the digital divide in the state which impacts hundreds of thousands of Texans.
  • For its own part, the UT System has put several measures in place to address the impact of the digital divide on students – including setting up hotspots, computer labs and emergency relief for students in need.
  • Milliken also said that he is on a national task force that is working to strengthen the transfer process for students who opt to attend community college as a way of mitigating financial costs for pursuing bachelor’s degrees. He said he believes this will be one of the key ways of serving Texans in the future and meeting the demands for higher education.
  • Milliken said that the coronavirus has initiated a moment of radical change in higher education. He also said that “[I think] this is the beginning of a different way of thinking about [education out] of necessity…[and] I think we’ll see an impact not just in education but in all organizations,” including health care and real estate.
  • Ultimately, one of the things in the short term that Milliken is focused on is how to reopen institutions in the state like his own. “We can’t continue to have a lockdown on society and the economy and life … that won’t work,” he said. “And I don’t think anybody agrees with that … and until we have an effective treatment … we are going to have to take things a step at a time, and be managing this every day.”

Milliken was named head of the University of Texas System in 2018. Previously, he served as chancellor of City University of New York, president of the University of Nebraska and senior vice president at the University of North Carolina.

The interview was streamed on the Tribune’s website, Facebook page and Twitter, as well as by our media partners at KXAN, KPRC2 and Community Impact to a live audience of more than 2800 viewers.

Disclosure: The University of Texas System, UT Southwestern Medical Center and the MD Anderson Cancer Center have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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