Fall Semester Update - University of Houston
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Fall Semester Update

November 9, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

I hope you and your family are safe and healthy. If you were able to join me for the Fall Address, you know how proud I am of our collective performance, which has resulted in not only continuing our daily tasks, but also forging ahead with conviction. Resiliency is a part of our culture and the pandemic has certainly tested it. We are serving more students than ever and performing at a higher level than ever on research and scholarship measures. We have also concluded our $1 billion campaign by raising $240 million over the goal. Congratulations on our many successes!  Once again, I am humbled to be with you as we work our way through the current crisis.

Here are some important items to share with you.

Fall Semester: Please remember that the Fall Semester academic calendar remains the same; however, all classes shift online after Thanksgiving. Buildings – offices, research labs, computer labs and library – will remain open, some with limited hours and access.  Commencement for 2020 graduates (Spring, Summer and Fall) will be held virtually on Dec. 17. However, we are making efforts to recognize our graduates’ special day with some interactive events like special celebrations organized by colleges, Senior Decal Drive-Thru and Ring Pick-Up Celebration organized by UH Alumni Association, and a special outdoor “Graduation Stage” set up by Special Events for our graduates to make special memories with their families.

Spring Semester: It is time for us to finalize our plans for the Spring Semester. On the one hand, we know that the COVID-19 infections are rising in the nation, Texas and Houston.  We also understand that winter months, when people are more likely to stay indoors, may make containing the virus even more difficult.  On the other hand, we also know that our students, particularly freshmen, sophomores and those in our professional programs, wish to take more in-person classes. Added to this equation is the fact that, so far, contact tracing has not found any evidence of transmission in classrooms. Overall, our students, faculty and staff are following COVID protocol.  As a result, out of 3,000-plus students living on campus this Fall Semester, only 68 – or about 2% – have tested positive.

While all of this is reassuring, none of this guarantees anything. Therefore, our principle will be to remain flexible, and our strategy will be to prepare two plans.  While developing this strategy, we have considered the following:

  1. Based on a student survey conducted by the Office of the Provost, nearly half of our students (48%) would enroll in at least one traditional face-to-face class if offered in the spring.
  2. Based on a faculty survey conducted by the Faculty Senate and the Office of the Provost, over one third (38%) of the faculty are willing to teach a class with a face-to-face component.
  3. It is easier to switch from in-person to online instruction than vice versa.
  4. There are still two months until the first day of classes.  The situation could change significantly in either direction. Our COVID team will continue to monitor the situation and a number of criteria, including direction from the Governor, will guide us as we approach the Spring Semester.

Plan A:  This assumes that the virus will be contained, and the environment will be generally safe for campus instruction.

  1. A quarter of the classes will provide a face-to-face option for students.
  2. All staff will come to campus to work at least two days a week.  If our students are on campus, it is important that all services are available on campus.  Supervisors will have the authority to grant exceptions on a case- by-case basis for valid reasons.
  3. All research labs will be fully functional.
  4. We will remain flexible enough to shift online should the conditions warrant.

Plan B:  This assumes that the virus is spreading rapidly, and the environment is not safe for students, faculty and staff to return to campus. 

  1. Limited classes will be held on campus, the same as for Fall Semester.
  2. Faculty and staff will work remotely. Essential personnel will continue to be on campus, the same as for Fall Semester.
  3. Research labs and offices will be open, the same as for Fall Semester.

I am asking all vice presidents to prepare their units for these two plans.

University Finances: I had mentioned in my last update that our 2020-21 finances will depend upon several factors: state of the virus, state of the economy in Texas, action by the Texas Legislature, and finally, the extent to which Spring Semester instruction will be offered face-to-face. All these factors are still in flux; however, based on the Fall Semester alone, we are likely to suffer a one-time budget shortfall emanating from COVID safety measures, losses in auxiliary revenue and the fixed cost of operations. We are preparing a plan that can absorb these losses while sustaining our ability to build in areas of critical needs and growth.  I understand that we need to be strategic because we have a mission to fulfill and a vision to aspire to.

I once again thank the Financial Task Force for its diligent work during summer months to analyze various financial tools at our disposal. Their invaluable insights will be helpful in our planning this year.

Strategic Plan:  After a good deal of thoughtful consideration by hundreds of people serving on various planning committees, the draft strategic plan is finally ready for your feedback. A short summary with mission, vision, values and goals is available here. In the coming weeks, Provost Short will be inviting you to offer your feedback either through attending town halls, participating in focus groups or responding via the web. We are in the midst of a global pandemic currently, but it will not last forever. I hope that you will review the plan with a 10-year or longer horizon in mind.  I look forward to getting your thoughts on the plan.

Legislative Session: The 87th Texas Legislature will begin its session in January of 2021; however, committee hearings are already starting.  It goes without saying that budget will be our top priority. We have submitted our legislative budget request which you can study here.

Your Health, Your Safety: You have my commitment that we will continue to keep your safety and health as our top priority. I am sure that I can count on your commitment to follow the University’s guidelines by wearing a mask, keeping social distance and maintaining good handwashing hygiene.  And I request you to do so whether you are on campus or in the community because you are our most cherished asset.

That’s all for now. Stay safe!

With warm regards,

Renu Khator