Sunday’s episode of “Face the Nation,” hosted on CBS by University of Virginia alumna Margaret Brennan, featured University President James Ryan, who elaborated on his preparations for the fall semester. Brennan and Ryan’s discussion focused on the University’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and Ryan explained his decision to accept $5.8 million in federal assistance for financial aid.
Ryan described the difficulty of planning for the upcoming fall semester amid a global pandemic.
“We are in the midst of trying to figure out how we can have as many students back on Grounds in the fall and in classrooms and to do that safely,” Ryan told Brennan. “And we’re working night and day to figure out exactly how to do that, and we’ll make an announcement about the fall in mid-June. We’re trying to push back as far as we can so we’ll have the best information when we make the decision, but we also realize that people need to be able to make plans.”
When the University transitioned to online learning in March, there were no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Charlottesville. Many students subsequently returned to their hometowns — some of which experienced much greater rates of infection, including the Richmond and Northern Virginia regions. Welcoming students back to Grounds in the fall therefore presents a challenge in keeping the risk to the University community as low as possible.
Ryan and Brennan discussed measures that the University could take to mitigate the spread of the virus once students return.
“Do you expect to have to test every student before they come back to Grounds?” Brennan asked.
“I think we would need to test students when they first arrive and faculty and staff before the students arrive,” Ryan said. “We’re going to need to have the ability to do contact tracing. We’re going to need the ability to be able to isolate and quarantine students who have been exposed. And then we’re also going to need to enact a bunch of social distancing protocols in terms of how far away students need to be from each other in the classroom or in dining halls. As you can imagine, it’s a complicated task. College campuses are a difficult and challenging place for contagious viruses.”
Ryan’s “Face the Nation” interview also addressed the University’s multimillion-dollar relief package from the CARES Act.
“So, you know, the federal government passed this massive package called the CARES Act and private universities with very substantial endowments like Harvard and Princeton took a lot of public pressure for even applying for any kind of financial help,” Brennan said. “UVA has an endowment just short of 10 billion dollars and did take it. How do you explain that?”
Ryan cited financial benefits to the UVA student body as the primary motivation behind accepting government assistance.
“Half of the funding that we receive goes directly to students in need,” Ryan said. “We created a student hardship fund that we’ve been using to provide grants for technology, for online learning, for transportation, for living expenses. And those needs are only going to continue throughout the summer and the fall. So half of the funding we received is directly related to providing assistance to our students, including rebating housing and dining costs. So we’re really passing on these savings to our students. And I think that’s a good thing to do.”
Ryan committed to having online instruction available to anyone who cannot return to Grounds in time — of particular importance to international students. He did not have the same level of certainty with respect to fall athletics, including football, but expressed confidence that Athletic Director Carla Williams would allow practice when medical experts say that it is safe.
In her conversation with Ryan, Brennan touched on the connections between “Face the Nation” and the University of Virginia. The program’s executive producer, Mary Hager, and former moderator John Dickerson are also UVA alumni.
Brennan spoke to WUVA News last year during the University’s Presidential Ideas Festival. Brennan discussed the difficulties in reporting during the information age — challenges of continuing significance as the coronavirus pandemic dominates both traditional media outlets and the internet.
“I think the fact that so much information is constantly coming out and it’s sort of moment-by-moment, headline-to-headline — all of us in the media are certainly trying to keep up in some ways,” Brennan said. “I think one of the things that is a challenge about that is it doesn’t allow you to really have a full conversation to talk through policy issues. It’s reactive; it’s not necessarily encouraging conversation in this country.”
For the full transcript of President Ryan’s “Face the Nation” interview, click here.
Video recap produced by Heather Thomas