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OC’s Top Universities To Reopen in Stages

School is nearly out for the summer—though it has already looked that way for the past few months at the campuses of the area’s top schools.

Furthermore, when students return to Orange County’s largest universities this fall, it’s clear the education experience will look and feel dramatically different.

Plans to boost investment in software, technology, professional development and remote student services are well underway, in addition to virus prevention.

At the same time, the top three local universities have reported revenue losses between $15 million and $45 million in student refunds for housing, dinning, parking and more.

Still, leaders of those trio of schools continue to prove their commitment to the OC community, and it’s their swift action that earned them spots on the latest edition of the Business Journal’s OC 50.

“I would say to students: come,” said Fram Virjee, president of California State University-Fullerton.

“There has never been a more important time for you to go to college, whether you’re starting or continuing. We will be back, face-to-face in the future. In the meantime, we’re going to create a vibrant education for you.”

Below, OC’s university leaders discuss their plans for the future.

California State University-Fullerton

For CSUF, OC’s largest public-serving institution with about 40,000 students, the majority of classes next school year will begin online, with exceptions for courses that require machinery, instruments or other equipment.

CSUF was the first major institution in OC to announce preparation for a virtual format in mid-April. A month later, the 23-campus California State University system confirmed its plans to cancel in-person instruction.

Of the decision, President Virjee said, “Our No. 1 North Star is the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff, and following that is continuity of instruction.”

“We’re listening to scientists and doctors, and they are telling us to expect a large spike [in coronavirus cases] in the fall. We decided to start virtual because we can pivot to face-to-face instruction whenever it is safe.”

The university has already handed out more than 1,000 laptops, cables and Wi-Fi hot spots to students and invested about $1 million in software for remote instruction. It also plans to spend “millions and millions” more on professional training, online learning and supplemental services.

Still, tough financial decisions are ahead.

Virjee said while the university is committed to investing in the future, it is also “bleeding resources” due to student refunds and a 10% budget cut from the state.

Housing will account for a large portion of lost revenue, as the campus expects to accommodate about 600 students in university-owned dorms, down from its normal capacity of 2,000.

Fundraising efforts for its recently unveiled $200 million campaign continue, and priorities have shifted to address urgent needs; two coronavirus-related funds were established for students and staff, which includes a donation from Virjee and his wife, Julie, about 10% of the president’s take-home pay for the remainder of the year.

University of California-Irvine

It’s likely the University of California-Irvine, which is fast approaching 40,000 enrollees, will offer a hybrid form of instruction that blends virtual and in-person instruction, though an official decision hasn’t been reached.

Chancellor Howard Gillman said the university is looking “at a number of scenarios.”

“While we do not see the possibility of a complete return to pre-coronavirus campus operations in the fall, we are planning to scale up operations based on guidance from state and local officials, bolstered by the expertise of UCI Health,” he said.

UCI Health, OC’s only academic health system, resumed regular operations earlier this month, including elective procedures at its UCI Medical Center, the area’s largest hospital.

On-campus operations are set to reopen in stages, similar to the orders from the California governor’s office, led by Interim Provost Hal Stern and the recently unveiled Strategic Advisory Group.

The group will focus on research, health, technology and instruction, as well as incoming and prospective students and the workforce—the second largest in OC with about 25,800 workers.

Graduate instruction and housing for graduate students will likely be provided on campus, due to the demand and nature of the instruction, added Gillman.

A decision hasn’t been made about on-campus housing, though the university is likely to limit capacity in a manner consistent with state and federal guidelines.

Meanwhile Pramod Khargonekar, vice chancellor for research, is leading a four-stage plan to reopen research operations, though essential projects and COVID-19 research activities have continued throughout the shutdown.

“Our staff and faculty have demonstrated exceptional and pioneering work, which has enabled the university to continue to fulfill its core mission. As we look to the future, however, it is imperative that the university take action to mitigate significant economic losses we have incurred or will incur as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gillman said.

The University of California system stated there would be no COVID-19 layoffs through June 30 and locally UCI is carefully reviewing new staff positions and hires.

UCI hasn’t disclosed projections for revenue loss and unanticipated expenditures beyond its spring quarter, though it’s already signed an agreement with enterprise platform Yuja Inc. to boost its online leaning options.

On the fundraising side, Gillman said “donors who are able have signaled their desire to be a part of the solution-building during this pandemic, and are responding with their support.” 

The university last year unveiled a $2 billion fundraising goal, which continues. It announced several large donations over the last few weeks, including a $2.5 million gift from the Tu Foundation (see more, page 1) and $1.5 million gift to support quantum science research from Roy Eddleman.

Chapman University

Of the three schools, Orange’s Chapman University has the most aggressive plans in the works to have on-site classes at the start of next semester, owing to it being a private school, the mentality of its leadership, and its smaller student body.

It said it aims to resume classes for its some 10,000 students on campus, though it continues to plan for scenarios that include blended and remote learning.

President Daniele Struppa told the Business Journal he sees two scenarios playing out: the first involves resuming in-person classes in the fall with a staggered class schedule and strict social distancing practices in place, while the second and more dire scenario entails an entirely online semester.

Struppa said, “It’s expensive for us, but we have a financial plan for that and we are counting on an enrollment decrease. I know we can weather it, but I hope it won’t come to pass.”

Privately held Chapman rarely offers classes with more than 50 students, which gives the university more flexibility in its options, compared to CSUF and UCI.

Either way, the school will adjust the size of its on-campus housing, something the school has prioritized in the last few years, as requested by the city of Orange and its residents.

Fourteen separate task forces are working to address reopening concerns under the CU Safely Back initiative, led by Harold Hewitt, senior vice president and chief financial officer. Plans in the works include temperature-taking stations across campus, and free virus testing for students.

Struppa said the university could lose between $60 million and $110 million, due to refunds and unanticipated costs for significant investments in e-learning tools and training programs for faculty.

In further efforts to reduce costs, the university has paused hiring and non-essential travel. Senior staff and deans have also voluntarily agreed to take pay cuts as high as 15% and Struppa will be taking a pay cut of 20% beginning June 1.

“While this will help offset some costs, it won’t cover all our losses that come with a fully remote semester, so we have stepped up fundraising efforts,” university officials said.

The university also handed out $5.5 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to students.

“More than 80% of our undergraduate and graduate students receive grants and/or scholarship aid. The goal of the CARES Act is to support students who are negatively affected by the pandemic and we intend to do just that,” officials said.

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