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Our college presidents face unprecedented challenges

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 5/16/2020 Carol Cain, Detroit Free Press Business Columnist
Samuel L. Stanley, Mark Schlissel are posing for a picture: In Michigan, the Big Three research universities — Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — are led by medical doctors - (top left) Samuel Stanley, (top right) Mark Schlissel and (bottom left) M. Roy Wilson and (bottom right) Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, a pediatrician, served as executive vice president for medical affairs and CEO of U-M’s Health system earlier in her career. © Detroit Free Press In Michigan, the Big Three research universities — Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — are led by medical doctors - (top left) Samuel Stanley, (top right) Mark Schlissel and (bottom left) M. Roy Wilson and (bottom right) Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, a pediatrician, served as executive vice president for medical affairs and CEO of U-M’s Health system earlier in her career.

There's the same vibe every August at college campuses across the country. Young adults, filled with unwavering excitement about their futures, unpacking their belongings with the help of family and friends into dorms and apartments, ready to begin (or continue) their higher education journeys.

Seeing old friends, meeting new ones, registering for classes, and preparing for a new year of the Academy. Oh ... and, are you ready for some football?  College stadiums — big and small — prepare to be filled with students, alumni and fans, rooting for the home team.

But that was then, and this is now. Across America, college presidents and chancellors are faced with undoubtedly the biggest challenge of their careers: not just educating the children they become (in a very real sense) custodians of, but now, keeping them physically healthy and safe in a country ravaged by COVID-19, the biggest public health crisis of our lives.

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In Michigan, the Big Three research universities — Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — are led by medical doctors (Samuel Stanley, Mark Schlissel and M. Roy Wilson, respectively). And at Oakland University, President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, a pediatrician, served as executive vice president for medical affairs and CEO of U-M’s Health system earlier in her career.

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Stanley and Wilson — both epidemiologists — attended Harvard’s medical school at the same time (this week was to be their 40th reunion).

While Wilson and Pescovitz are charged with running campuses located in Wayne and Oakland counties, the two “hot spots" for COVID-19 cases in the state. Over in Ann Arbor and East Lansing, Schlissel and Stanley would typically be preparing for hundreds of thousands of people to descend on their campuses for football Saturdays.

But, at the core of ALL their problems. is the safe education and housing of young people.

How do you social distance in the campus environment? Should you shift more classes online? And, if so, what’s the economic impact of that? How big should class sizes be? And, what about dining and residence halls? The problems and issues are almost too numerous to fathom. 

Then there is the gaping budget hole of each institution created by the crisis. Hospitals unable to perform surgeries and other procedures have been financially affected, and Michigan Medicine is no different. The system represents about 50% of U-M’s budget.

“One of things I think is unappreciated is our health care systems — not just Michigan’s — but Beaumont, Henry Ford, Spectrum — have all taken enormous financial losses during this time,” said Schlissel. “We emptied our hospitals of elective care and went from 90-95% capacity down to 60-65%.”

Applications to UM, which top 60,000 for 5,000 spots in their incoming freshman class, are actually up from last year, Schlissel said, though the school has seen a decline in international applicants.

Wilson, who estimates WSU has lost about $10 million so far and projects losses could grow to $50 million, said not having a hospital has been a silver lining.

“There have been times we wished we had a hospital,” said Wilson. “This is one of the times we’re glad we don’t. We have partnerships but we aren’t financially responsible for those hospitals.”

College athletic department budgets are also among the many casualties of the COVID-19 war. On last Sunday’s “Michigan Matters” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made it clear there would most likely not be capacity crowds allowed at Spartan Stadium or the Big House even if games are played, leaving both schools with another big problem.

“We have amazing donors and supporters for Spartan football, and that’s a good thing. We may be looking to them for a little help,” said Stanley.

While Pescovitz and Wilson have smaller athletic departments than the other two, their programs are affected as well.

Indeed, prospective layoffs, salary reductions, furloughs and other cost containment measures are all on the table as they await word from Lansing on the state’s budget allocation for higher education. The state’s 15 public universities received $1.6 billion from the state this year with the expectation funding will be reduced in the upcoming budget.

“It’s been quite severe,” said Pescovitz of the pandemic’s impact on her university. She announced pay cuts for herself and other top level cabinet members knowing more pain was likely ahead.

She lauded OU’s instructors and students for their “Herculean” efforts to go from in-person classes to online in a matter of days.

Plans are underway to figure out what the fall will look like with respect to their campus environment and all remain “to a degree” bullish on being able to hopefully figure out some plan for in-person instruction.

But it’s only mid-May and August in this war is light years away. 

The COVID-19 crisis and its extraordinarily debilitating impact won’t be here forever. Nor will this way of life continue for all of us forever. As for Schlissel, Stanley, Pescovitz and Wilson they remain determined that when it ends, students will once again enjoy the benefit of a full experience on their campuses.

Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or clcain@cbs.com. She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 11:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See Mark Schlissel, Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, M. Roy Wilson and Samuel Stanley on this Sunday’s show.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Our college presidents face unprecedented challenges

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