Tony Frank: On navigating a pandemic

Wrestling with the operational and budgetary challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged employers in nearly every industry. Here is what the month of May has looked like in the Colorado State University System.

  • May 5, we broke ground on the CSU System Spur campus at the National Western Center. This project – an urban learning center focused on food, water, and health that connects CSU’s research strengths with children and adults across Colorado – has been in development for years, and the funding was secured some time ago, ensuring its continuation even as other construction projects around the state are hitting pause. Seeing the shovels start to turn over dirt was a powerful reminder that we have not stopped – our goals and dreams still matter, and the ability to deliver education in ways that matter to people’s lives has never been more important. It was a good day.
  • The next day, May 6, our Board of Governors met and asked the presidents of our campuses to prepare budget-cutting scenarios based on our best estimates of what funding for next year might look like. No matter which scenario we go with, the impact will be deeply felt on campuses that still haven’t fully recovered from the hits of the Great Recession a decade ago. Presidents McConnell, Mottet, and Takeda-Tinker are all leading thoughtful exercises on their campuses to look for ways to cut expenses while preserving our full-time workforce and keeping our universities moving forward in critical ways. The Board of Governors of the CSU System will be looking for ways to support their efforts with strategic deployment of System and campus reserves, to ensure we preserve quality and access even while facing the worst budget picture in any of our memories. The CSU System office will share in the cuts because we’re all in this together. Not all U.S. public colleges and universities will survive the devastation of this crisis. The CSU System universities will, thanks to the exceptional leadership of these presidents and Board members, our state legislators, Governor, Congressional delegation, and our campus community members. But the challenge is very real.
  • Later that same week, in my role as a Boettcher Foundation Board member, we reviewed a set of dynamic proposals from Colorado research teams fighting COVID-19 on the biomedical front. This was something new that Boettcher, a longtime supporter of biomedical research, wanted to try this spring — to deploy the Foundation’s generosity in support of critical research innovations with potential for real near-term impact in a time of global crisis. The Foundation moved swiftly, short-circuiting the usual, lengthy grant process on which most scientific research depends. Among six grants awarded in Colorado, two went to CSU faculty: Dr. Rushika Perera is leading a team that partners with private industry to test existing drugs, compounds, and chemicals to see what might have an impact on COVID-19. Dr. Sue VandeWoude and Dr. Nicole Ehrhart are heading a pilot study to develop workforce testing that might help Colorado get back to work while protecting vulnerable populations. This kind of research is the key to a future in which COVID-19 is no longer the threat it is today.
  • Friday of that same week, we supported a bipartisan call by Representatives Neguse, Crow, DeGette, and Perlmutter and Senators Gardner and Bennet for stronger federal support for colleges and universities, which are primary employers and thus essential to the economic recovery of communities across the country – rural and urban, red and blue. This call by our state leaders echoed what we know: without additional federal support, higher education in Colorado and around the country will be in serious trouble.
  • Tuesday, May 12, we heard the state’s latest revenue projections, which were as grim as anticipated but in line with the budget scenarios we’ve already been mapping for our CSU campuses. The pressure on our state leaders – and those leading cities and towns across Colorado – is enormous right now as they try to keep our systems functioning in the face of massive shortfalls.
  • That same afternoon, the California State University System announced it would be moving to online instruction for fall classes. This sent ripples through the entire higher education community, including CSU, where we remain committed to our goal of being open in the fall. These aren’t easy choices, but we are confident we can take the steps needed to safeguard the health and safety of our students and faculty while returning to at least some new version of normal. Plans may change, and we will always follow the state’s public health guidelines first, but our decisions are different from those our colleagues have made in California. For higher education, as for everyone, this is a time of great uncertainty. We have to protect our people while also resisting the urge to stall, to hunker down, even as budget and safety challenges force a re-shaping and re-imagining of what and how we do our work.
  • The weekend of May 16 in Fort Collins, a few parents and students could be spied on the Oval, taking pictures of graduates in their caps and gowns. But there were no ceremonies. Just like graduates at CSU Pueblo earlier in the month, these students will have to wait to celebrate at ceremonies in December. CSU Global will host a virtual commencement for its graduates this month. Meanwhile, these students are already heading into the workforce – nurses, scientists, scholars, teachers, business leaders. Their goals and dreams still matter, and this won’t stop them.
  • Monday, May 19, Governor Polis announced plans to deploy a portion of federal CARES Act funding to keep higher education going as a driver of economic recovery. Higher education is one of the state and nation’s largest employment sectors, and our campuses provide the skills and preparation needed to keep our workforce strong. People facing layoffs and furloughs often turn to higher education in times of crisis to rebuild and refocus. The General Assembly will be taking up the full budget soon, and we are grateful for the work so far by the Joint Budget Committee and Governor to keep our funding as stable as possible. More to come on this point as it gets finalized.
  • And now we’re looking ahead to the next Board of Governors meeting in the first week of June, when they’ll review the budget plans for each of our campuses and how each will deal with the reductions we anticipate in revenues and enrollment. We have to be accountable to the taxpayers of Colorado and deliver budgets to the Board in June that are in line with our new fiscal reality, which won’t be easy or popular.

But this is the time we’re in, and none of us gets to choose the times in which we live or the challenges that come our way. We have a responsibility, as stewards of these three great universities, to move forward where we can – setting our sites on opening campuses in the fall, keeping the Spur project on track, continuing to deliver on our mission through Extension, 4-H, and our research programs. We have to keep our focus on equity and opportunity, even as the resources to address both are threatened. We have to protect our essential employees who are sustaining operations on campus while also doing what we can to stay connected and plugged in with the thousands of employees working remotely.

It all matters – because higher education is core to our state’s economic recovery. It matters because the steps we take day by day, week by week, over the next few months, will reflect our character, principles, and values as a university system – who we are and what we stand for, even in the most challenging times. And it matters because Colorado State University has been here for the people of this state through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the Spanish Flu, two world wars, Vietnam, and 9/11. We’ve survived fires and floods, and we will get through this and ensure that CSU will be here to serve our state for another 150 years.

– tony

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3D magazine with the Winter 2021 cover