UNT's path forward

  • Learn UNT's latest information related to COVID-19 at healthalerts.unt.edu.
  • CORRECTED INFORMATION: During Monday’s Town Hall, the wrong last date that federal work study students would be funded was provided in response to a question. The final date is May 15.

President Smatresk's virtual Town Hall recap

UNT President Neal Smatresk outlined the university’s path forward in the wake of the COVID-19 global health crisis during a virtual Town Hall May 4 in which he discussed perhaps the most pressing issue on the minds of students, staff and faculty: the gradual reopening of the university for the Summer II and Fall 2020 semesters.

President Smatresk, along with Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jennifer Cowley and Vice President of Student Affairs Elizabeth With, also discussed some of the other major concerns that have arisen as the university has adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer enrollment is up roughly 7%, he said, though fall enrollment is currently down 2% to 3%. While fall enrollment could ultimately stay neutral, Smatresk noted there are obvious challenges when it comes to international students — who contributed to a record-setting number of master’s applications — returning to campus this fall. Cowley said she and her team hope to create more online options for those international students who are unable to come to the U.S. at this time due to the health crisis.

Other developments of note included the $31 million in federal CARES Act funding UNT received from the federal government. The money will go toward emergency grants for students, as well as helping the campus cover COVID-19 expenses and prepare for the fall semester, which includes developing more virtual programs for student retention and recruitment. Smatresk said UNT is ahead of many other universities in distributing money, with more than 10,000 students applying for assistance so far.

“If you are experiencing financial hardship, or if you’re having trouble paying your bills or your college expenses, please apply for this money,” Smatresk urged students. “Those funds are meant specifically to help you through this crisis, stay enrolled and graduate in a timely fashion.”

He said the remaining balance will be used to help the university recover from the budget challenges he believes it will face, which could potentially include a $35 million to $45 million shortfall.

“It’s not a number that’s different in any way from the numbers that all major universities are facing,” Smatresk said. “The question is how will we deal with it?”

While UNT is expecting to retain about $25 million this fiscal year to help pay bills and continue services, every unit needs to prepare for budget reductions. The university also is looking to reduce construction costs and will place some projects on hold, with the exception of those that will most help increase enrollment and retention.

“As we look at the cuts that we’re making, we believe we’ll emerge from this a healthier institution with better cost controls and the ability to reinvest quickly to prepare and to continue to make the kind of progress we have made as one of the top universities on the rise in the country,” Smatresk said.

One of the biggest questions of the day — how will the university handle gradually reopening over the next few weeks and months? Already, some services have reopened, including the Student Health and Wellness Center, which began seeing students for non-emergency appointments last week. Core facilities have begun to get back up to speed this week, With said, with the UNT Bookstore expected to reopen June 1. Willis Library also is open. Some research activities also have resumed under a plan developed by Vice President for Research and Innovation Mark McLellan. And spring graduates may come to campus to take pictures, Smatresk said, though it is essential that they practice social distancing.

Summer II, beginning July 6, will open up the campus to experiential classes — such as music, art and laboratories — and other courses that most benefit from in-person instruction, with strict adherence to CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, the required wearing of masks, and deep cleaning. Those guidelines also will inform the fall reopening, which according to Cowley will include a hybrid of remote and face-to-face instruction to free up classroom space for the courses that most benefit from in-person learning. She said UNT’s Learning Spaces Committee is currently coming up with a plan to safely use existing classrooms and other meeting spaces for in-person courses. The plan for all fall courses is expected to be announced July 1.

As for large gatherings, the campus community should not anticipate any to take place until UNT receives a green light from the federal government, or a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed. That likely includes the previously delayed in-person graduation ceremonies for spring graduates that were hoped to take place in August.

“Come fall, we hope to have a limited but still more or less open campus,” Smatresk said, while noting that the COVID-19 situation evolves on an almost daily basis — and the campus must respond accordingly.

He also acknowledged that an open campus brings anxieties, especially for faculty and staff who are in high-risk groups. Smatresk encouraged them to continue working remotely — noting that the pandemic has resulted in what will likely be lasting changes.

“We don’t ever want to go back to the old way of doing things,” Smatresk said. “Whether it’s going paperless or telecommuting, it’s part of our future.”

During the live event — moderated by Jim Berscheidt, Vice President of University Brand Strategy and Communications — Smatresk, Cowley and With answered pre-submitted questions, as well as live queries and comments submitted by viewers. Smatresk invited the audience to describe what has gone well, what hasn’t gone well, and what UNT can do better moving forward.

Nearly all the comments were positive, with students, faculty and staff championing divisions and departments such as Housing and Residence Life, Student Financial Services, Dining, Student Health and Wellness, Facilities, CLEAR and Information Technology. Smatresk also singled out the efforts of faculty from the College of Visual Arts and Design and College of Engineering who have used additive manufacturing to create personal protective equipment and ventilation splitters.

“These types of individual activities and many heroic acts on the part of our faculty and staff have really highlighted our Mean Green family,” he said. “Our hallmarks are caring, creativity and resilience, and I like to believe each of these have been displayed over the past weeks and months. There are other institutions that have begun to pull apart, but that’s not what we do. We work together and solve problems because our mission is to help our students.”

During the Town Hall, Smatresk, Cowley and With answered questions about other topics including the reopening of UNT’s Food Pantry, work-study opportunities for students, athletics, Greek life and graduate admissions.

Smatresk said all questions and comments will be used to help administrators best manage student, staff and faculty needs as the university moves forward in a “very challenging environment.”

Those who would still like to submit a comment or question can do so by emailing untpresident@unt.edu.