Kent State University President Eyes the Path Forward and the Challenges Ahead
All throughout society, the coronavirus pandemic has meant upheaval, and that is certainly true in higher education. Universities and colleges have had to make drastic changes in how they operate: suspending in-person classes, sending all students home and shifting to virtual learning. How long will this last, how big of an impact will this have on schools and will they be able to survive this crisis?
We spoke with Kent State University President Todd Diacon about the path forward for the university.
When it comes to when students will come back to campus, Diacon says it’s just too early to say at this point. He consults regularly with nationally renowned professors in the School of Public Health including epidemiologist Tara Smith, PhD and public health policy expert Chris Woolverton, PhD. “I think it’s too early to make any pronouncments or to reveal any certainties except to say we’ll continue to follow the advice of our own experts and those at the national level.”
A financial hit from the pandemic
For this fiscal year, Diacon says the refunds issued to students who had to move out of dorms are costing the university about $14 million. When you combine that with other one-time costs such as the move to online learning, the total unexpected cost from the pandemic this year is around $20 million. He does expect to get $7 million to $8 million from the CARES federal stimulus act. There are other savings. All travel has been suspended as has the use of facilities that would generate costs. “In the end, we’ll have to come up with $12-$14 million in one-time savings.”
Diacon says the school was in pretty good shape for fiscal year 2020. He believes the combination of “cost-avoidance” and the federal stimulus should cover the shortfall. For the next fiscal year, beginning July 1st, he and school officials are trying to analyze the impact of a 20% reduction in state funding. He says that’s almost a certainty translating to “multiple millions of dollars.”
In a normal year, Diacon says he would have a good idea of expected fall enrollment based on years of data. “This year, they’ve just gone out the window.” The normal deadline for incoming freshmen to accept admission is May 1st. That’s been pushed back this year to June 1st. What they’ll do in the meantime is monitor the year-to-date enrollment numbers. He expects to have a better idea by June 1st for freshmen on the Kent Campus, but the regional campuses tend to have a different calendar, so that information may not be available until later in the summer.
The concerns among higher ed
Diacon says, personally, the most challenging aspect of the pandemic, aside from the health concerns, is uncertainty. That manifests itself in three ways: “uncertainty, constant uncertainty and how quickly things can change.” As he talks with the leaders of other public universities in Ohio and around the country, the main focus is on how to reduce costs to deal with these uncertainties.
Serving the students, planning for further contingencies
Diacon credits the leadership of Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton. He feels fairly confident living in Ohio as opposed to some other states that there will be good guidance from top state officials. When Kent State does reopen to on-campus learning, Diacon says the school will do so with “appropriate social distancing measures in place, public health measures in place.” He meets weekly with Tara Smith and Chris Wolverton to get their advice. "IUC (Inter University Council) schools (public universities in Ohio) are starting to meet on a weekly basis to look into reopening and what that would be,” he said.
Less than a year on the job
Diacon says he never imagined a scenario like the one we’re experiencing, but he knew he’d be called upon to deal with the expected and unexpected when he became Kent State's 13th president in July 2019. At this point, he feels both privilege and responsibility in serving as president and would not want to be at any other institution at this moment. He’s proud of how quickly and effectively the school moved to remote learning and calls it a testimony to faculty and students.
He says he and his family are doing great. His son and daughter-in-law, who live in New Orleans (which has had a high number of COVID-19 cases), have moved in with them, and after two weeks of distancing, they emerged. They’re all doing fine and taking lots of walks.
Diacon says what he misses the most is the people. He took a drive through campus in the past week, probably for the first time in about a month. “It drove home to me what a truly special place Kent State University is, and those are just the buildings.” He says he had a lot of interaction with people but mainly the leadership. “It will be really great driving through campus and going to campus when everyone’s there.”