Chancellor, Campus Leaders Discuss Fall Preparations, Actions on Racial Climate

A screenshot of the campus officials participating in the final summer forum: From top left: Flo Johnson, Terry Martin and Mike Johnson; middle row: Yvette Murphy-Erby, Huda Sharaf and Charles Robinson; and bottom row: Laura Jacobs and Chancellor Joe Steinmetz.
University Relations

A screenshot of the campus officials participating in the final summer forum: From top left: Flo Johnson, Terry Martin and Mike Johnson; middle row: Yvette Murphy-Erby, Huda Sharaf and Charles Robinson; and bottom row: Laura Jacobs and Chancellor Joe Steinmetz.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – In the fourth of a series of summer forums, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz and Yvette Murphy-Erby, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, talked online with about 400 students, faculty and staff about the return to campus and efforts being taken to improve the racial climate on campus.

The 10 deans of the colleges and schools within the university led the three previous forums, which started in July. As with the previous forums, the discussion was moderated by Charles Robinson, interim provost and vice chancellor for student and academic affairs.

The additional panelists for the final summer forum included:

  • Dr. Huda Sharaf, medical director for the Pat Walker Health Center
  • Terry Martin, senior vice provost for academic affairs
  • Flo Johnson, assistant vice chancellor for university housing
  • Mike Johnson, associate vice chancellor for facilities management
  • Laura Jacobs, associate vice chancellor and chief of staff 

RETURNING TO CAMPUS

In measured phases, the return to campus has been happening since July, starting with faculty and graduate students in June whose research work required being on site, followed by staff members in July who were needed to prepare for the fall opening and most recently by the first in-person classes since March, held as part of the fall intersession currently underway.

"This will be a year like no other," Steinmetz said. "And it's not going to be like the spring either when we had to pivot in 10 days. … We've had time to prepare. Hundreds of our faculty have trained in new technology during the summer."

The university will offer a blend of in-person, hybrid and remotely taught classes during the fall semester. About 65% of the classes will be in-person or hybrid.

The benefits of offering hybrid and remotely taught courses are two-fold. First, they allow a reduced density of students in academic buildings and classrooms for the in-person classes, and reduced density is one of the key factors in preventing spread of the COVID-19 virus. Second, they allow faculty and students to make choices about whether to attend in-person or remotely, based on their personal situations.

Steinmetz said that emails to the administration about in-person classes have been polarized, with one group believing that all classes should be remotely taught and another group believing that no classes need to be taught remotely.

The U of A Board of Trustees passed a resolution in May to ask all system institutions to prepare for reopening campuses this fall, and Chancellor Steinmetz allowed faculty members to choose their delivery method.

All of the campus planning has been developed with advice from the Arkansas Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as collaboration with other peer universities.

In response to a question about what would trigger a return to all remote classes, Steinmetz said that there's no single metric for such a decision. The Arkansas Department of Health has given us guidance: wear a mask, maintain 6 feet of physical distance, wash your hands and avoid crowds.

"That's tough to do in our society, but absolutely necessary," Steinmetz said. "If I detect that we're not doing that, we would have to consider a return to remote teaching."

He said that the behavior of our faculty, staff and students will determine how the semester goes. "We have to make sure that as a community we adhere to this plan," Steinmetz said.

One question sent in specifically asked about how the campus will deal with a student who doesn't wear a mask.

Terry Martin, vice provost for academic affairs, said that faculty members should follow guidelines for any other class disruption. First, talk to the student about wearing a mask. If the student doesn't comply, the faculty member has the option of dismissing class and then referring the student to the university's conduct board.

Martin said he was very impressed with how students and faculty rose to the occasion during the spring and hoped that they would rise to this semester's challenge in the same way.

HEALTH CARE ON THE HILL

Dr. Huda Sharaf, medical director for the Pat Walker Health Center, fielded questions about testing and contact tracing on campus. The university's health center has continued operating throughout the pandemic.

"We continue to offer medical care without interruption with physicians and nurse practitioners on site," Sharaf said.

The health center provides testing by appointment at the Garland Garage for members of the university community. The health center is prioritizing the testing for those who have symptoms or who have been in contact with someone who is positive for COVID-19.

Currently, the university is using a private lab in Little Rock to process the tests, which so far have a turn-around time averaging between 36 and 48 hours. Sharaf said that the health center is also trying to add supplies for rapid antigen testing, which is used to test patients with symptoms and gives results much quicker; however, these testing supplies are in high demand across the country.

If a member of the campus community tests positive, the health center will follow health protocols that are standard for dealing with infectious diseases, Sharaf said. The campus health center will contact the patient, provide health counseling with regular check-ins and next steps, to include writing out a list of contacts. Contact tracing will by handled by UAMS-Northwest in Fayetteville on behalf of the Arkansas Department of Health.

Similar to the mumps outbreak that occurred last year, the pandemic poses a likelihood that some members of the campus community will become infected.

"We will try to decrease transmission on campus, limit the outbreaks and mitigate risk," she said.

Students, faculty and staff can help by abiding by the health guidance both on campus and off campus: wear a mask, wash your hands, stay physically distanced from other people.

"The action of one affects all. … We know what works," she said. "As Chancellor Steinmetz previously said, 'I protect you. You protect me. We protect each other.'"

ACADEMIC FACILITIES

Mike Johnson, associate vice chancellor for facilities management, answered questions about the safety protocols being established during the summer to improve safety within campus buildings.

"We've literally been working on a return to campus since March," Johnson said, developing seating charts for more than 400 classrooms and determining signage for hundreds more locations.

The seating charts are designed to help students stay 6 feet away from each other and 10 feet away from the faculty member. The extra spacing means that most lecture spaces can hold about a third of their normal capacity. So some classes will move to larger rooms and rotate in-person meetings. Smaller classes may be able to move to a larger classroom so where the entire class can fit, and large survey courses may be better taught remotely.

The seats in each classroom will be numbered and students will be assigned to a seat so that, if a student becomes infected, tracing of nearby contacts in classrooms will be quicker and easier.

In each classroom, there will be disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer available, Johnson said. Likewise, every classroom will get a deep clean every night. The heating and air-conditioning systems in buildings have also been revised to maximize fresh air intake for buildings. Students, faculty and staff will also be provided with face coverings, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and other supplies.

Face shields are not a substitute for cloth face coverings with one exception. Face shields can be used by faculty while teaching as long as the faculty member is more than 10 feet away from students. This exception was put into place to lectures to be more easily heard.

"We think we're raising the bar from what Centers for Disease Control, the Arkansas Department of Health and higher education is expecting," Johnson said. "All of us raising our game."

RESIDENTIAL FACILITIES

Flo Johnson, assistant vice chancellor for university housing, took questions about the residence halls and the Greek chapter houses that are managed by the university.

The Office of University Housing has reset occupancy for the various halls and living spaces based on space, she said. Bathrooms will be cleaned twice a day, including weekends, and staff will provide multiple cleanings daily of high-touch areas in the halls.

If a student living on campus becomes infected, she said, the student will be moved to a room identified for quarantine or isolation. About 200 such spaces are identified across campus. Staff members will check in on the student, either in person or virtually depending on the student's preference. Chartwells, the company that provides the university's dining services, will provide food by delivery to students in quarantine.

For fraternity and sorority chapter houses, Johnson said, the university is doing the same things, setting expectations for use of common spaces and developing plans if a student does become infected.

Move-in for students continues this week with timed arrivals and set protocols for the move-in process.

"We're very excited to see the students moving in," Johnson said. "We're very committed to providing a safe space and to have some fun. … Students won't just be sitting in their room."

CAMPUS CLIMATE

In June, the Black Student Caucus organized a campaign on Twitter called #BlackatUark, which allowed Black students on campus to express the iniquities they experience and the desires they have for a more inclusive university.

Yvette Murphy-Erby, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, discussed some of the actions already taking place on campus as well as the needs that she has heard put forward by students, faculty, staff and alumni.

"One of the things we did initially was conduct a Transforming the U of A series of discussions online," she said.

More than 1,000 people joined those conversations, and it was clear that people want to have more dialogues and more resources to better understand racism, how the university got where it is now and what can members of the campus community can do moving forward, Murphy-Erby said.

She said that the university is considering actions at every imaginable level, from faculty to staff to students and even the surrounding community.

The students are asking for authenticity and action, Murphy-Erby said. "We have to get to the place where we all can talk about the truth, and then take concrete action to move our university forward."

Chancellor Steinmetz said that through the discussions with an advisory committee of Black student leaders on campus some initial steps are clear.

"We need a much more diverse faculty and staff. We need to hire more faculty of color," he said. "We also have to do a better job of recruiting students to campus. Many of our minority students in the state don't see themselves at the university. We have to take concrete actions to make this campus welcoming and inclusive."

Provost Robinson asked Murphy-Erby what three big steps she would like to see tackled this coming semester.

She responded with three aspirations that people have been mentioning during the Transforming U of A Sessions:

  • Implement strategies to create a sense of community for all that do not feel such on our campus.
  • Provide additional opportunities to facilitate dialogue and scholarly discussion related to race, racism and what it means to be an antiracist institution.
  • Enhanced education and training at all levels — faculty, staff, students — to increase awareness and reduce occurrence of bias and microaggressions.

FUTURE FORUMS

Laura Jacobs, associate vice chancellor and chief of staff, said that the summer forums have proven to be among the best ways to share information and get feedback from the campus.

"We've learned that no decision is too small for collective response," she said. "Sessions like this one have been very, very helpful."

She proposed that the chancellor, deans and other university officials continue to use similar online forums during the semester to check-in for updates on what's working and what can still use improvement.

"I hope you go into the semester with an open heart and an open mind," Jacobs told the campus community listening in.

The three previous forums covered a variety of similar questions. Read more at:

Due to the high response to these summer forums, the university will hold similar fall forums to continue the broader campus discussions during the coming semester.

For more information about the return to campus, visit the university's Coronavirus Update site and Returning to Campus guide will continue to provide the latest updates and resources.

For more information about the actions being taken improve the campus climate, visit the university's Diversity and Inclusion website or learn about the IDEALS Institute, which offers training, education and strategies for implementing best practices related to diversity, equity and inclusion. For students, the Multicultural Center

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among fewer than 3% of colleges and universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.

Contacts

Charlie Alison, executive editor
University Relations
479-575-6731, calison@uark.edu

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