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caption: University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce
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University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce
Credit: Courtesy of the University of Washington

Amid uncertainty, UW plans to bring students back next fall

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty in our lives. For college students who plan on attending this fall, that's especially true.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

We spoke with University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce about the impact of Covid-19 on the university, and what students can expect when classes begin this September.

In all likelihood, our large lecture classes will be done more as flipping the classroom. That means that you might watch the lectures online, then also have study group quiz sections, often led by TA’s that provide for smaller discussion groups.

There'll be other classes where there might be a class of 50 students that will now be offered in a classroom that can fit 100 or 150, so that there'll be seats in between. I don't want to get too precise because we're still in the planning stage.

Those are the kinds of things we're thinking about. We have a little bit of advantage in that we don't start until late September. We'll have a lot to learn from other countries across the world that are beginning instruction. We’ll be able to learn what's worked well there.

You're weighing all these different options, how to keep students and staff safe, and provide the best instruction possible. Why consider opening in the fall at all? Just hypothetically, why not wait, since we're still some time away from a possible vaccine or even widely available, proven therapies?

If you look at the surveys, students who want to come back. Our faculty has done an absolutely amazing job creating a very rich online experience for many, many of our classes. There's no question about it.

There's also no question that, for example, some of our areas that are more performance-oriented, our dance, our music, our art, we just haven't been able to offer. And, there are other classes that although they are going well online, we do think that they're richer in an in-person environment.

I understand there are some students who were accepted for Fall 2020 at the university, and they're being told that they're not going to be permitted to defer their admission to a future quarter. Why not?

I believe that that is how we have always done it. It's not that we're doing anything differently, because of Covid, that we've instituted any new rules, but rather, this has always been the way that we do things.

Could you understand, though, why some students might want to delay their education right now, considering that we are in a pandemic?

Absolutely, and I think that they would still have the option of reapplying. And, by the way, I should have added that one of the reasons why deferrals are tough for us is that it means fewer spaces for future students. Having to hold a space for a lot of students makes it more difficult in the future. And, we have students that want to start now.

During the last big recession we had in 2009 the University of Washington was facing a drop in enrollment, which meant less tuition being paid. There were budget cuts that came down from the legislature. Your university had to lay people off. Is this current situation going to be worse for you?

We tend to look at 2008-2009 as a guide, and that makes sense, but, there are things about this period that are very different. For example, during 2008-2009 the parts of the university that suffered the most were those with state funding. It's important to look at the university as a whole. State funding is only a piece of our budget.

Right now, where we're seeing the biggest budget pain is, for example, in the hospitals, that receive very little state funding, and Housing and Food Services, which receive no state funding.

The other thing that's important to keep in mind is that in 2008, there were some major structural issues with our economy that led to the recession. Here, we've really got this outside event.

Right now, I can't tell you whether that's going to make the recession quicker to get over. Part of it, of course, will depend on whether we get a vaccine or whether we get treatments. But, we did come into this from a very strong economic position.

Right now, what we're looking at are furloughs. We're looking at furloughs partly as a way to minimize the number of permanent layoffs that are needed. I certainly cannot say that we will do no layoffs, but we are doing our best to minimize that.

During a virtual Town Hall last month, you said that running a university during a pandemic has been the most challenging period of your lifetime. Can you expand a bit on what you meant by that?

We as academics in particular, we're planners. When I'm working on a five year grant, I may be collecting data, and I don't know what it's gonna look like three years from now, but I have a plan. What is so incredibly difficult about this time is that every plan comes with an asterisk.

We've talked to our students about how their transcripts will have an asterisk for this quarter. In some ways, that's the asterisk year. I think that one of the things that's very, very difficult is the uncertainty.

The last thing I want to do is to start comparing cancer to leukemia, or an earthquake to a pandemic. But, when you do have a natural disaster, there's devastation, but then you immediately start rebuilding, and you can assess what the damage is. You can set up a plan.

Here, we're planning for in-person classes, and our best prediction suggests that we should be able to do that. But, no matter how much we plan, right now the virus is in charge. We might be set to open on September 22, then September 15 something happens that changes everything.

We're having to have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Just think about all the questions that you've asked me today, and how much I've had to equivocate on every single answer. People who know me know that I tend to be very direct, but it's very difficult to do that because we are surrounded by uncertainty.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.