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University President: COVID-19 Part Of 'Powerful Punch' To Higher Education

A college student with a mask (Getty Images)
A college student with a mask (Getty Images)

Colleges are beginning to reveal their spring plans as the pandemic continues into the cooler months.

Ohio Wesleyan University — a small, private liberal arts school located in Delaware, Ohio — recently outlined its spring strategy to students and staff. President Rock Jones, who has been the university’s leader since 2008, says this year has been full of obstacles — not just for the university, but for the country.

“We have the COVID-19 pandemic and … a second pandemic of systemic racism and the racial reckoning in our country. We have financial challenges that have accompanied the pandemic with high levels of unemployment in the country,” he says. “It’s a challenging time for all of us.”

Ohio Wesleyan approved a plan to start the spring semester later and have the first two weeks of classes take place online. To limit student travel, spring break is a thing of the past for now, but students will have a few Tuesday or Wednesdays off over the course of the semester, Jones says.

The academic calendar will start later than usual, into the warmer months, in order to utilize outdoor spaces for in-person learning, he says.

So far during the fall semester, students have been taking coronavirus measures seriously, he says. On campus, masks are required, social distancing measures are in place and about 200 people receive random COVID-19 testing per week. A few students have tested positive, Jones says, but that’s “the vast minority of the experience on campus.”

Recently, the university announced that a committee of faculty members decided to drop 18 of their more than 95 majors and consolidate some academic departments as it stares down a projected budget deficit and stiff competition for a dwindling number of students.

Majors such as dance, Middle Eastern studies, journalism, German and Earth sciences have been axed from Ohio Wesleyan. The move is estimated to save the university about $4 million.

The decision was made knowing that “there are fewer students available to go to college” and people are “not able to save for college in the ways that they once were,” Jones says.

The process to eliminate certain departments took place several months before COVID-19 hit, he says. Shifting demographics is something the university could plan for, while a worldwide pandemic wasn’t a foreseeable crisis.

Students and staff have taken each challenge head-on, Jones says. The committee of faculty who ultimately decided on the department cuts, he says, are “deeply committed to the long-term mission” of a liberal arts education as “fundamental and foundational for American democracy.”

“While it is a powerful punch to the gut in some ways,” he says, “in other ways, this is looking ahead to ensure that the work that’s happened on this campus for 178 years will be around for another 178 years.”

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.