Board of Trustees discusses financial impact of COVID-19 campus closure: Board approves Mancuso Humanities Center

Executive Vice President Dale Hamel said the University has set aside $3.9 million for reimbursements to students for residence hall, parking, and dining charges at last Wednesday’s first-ever virtual Board of Trustees meeting.

The reimbursement checks, which President F. Javier Cevallos told The MetroWest Daily News are expected to be sent during the second week of April, were designed with equity for students in mind, trustees said.

“That is a significant blow to the budget,” Cevallos said in regard to the reimbursements, “But in our minds, the most important thing was not the money, but the students. … I know our students who are working … all need the funds – they need the resources – and I wanted to do what’s best for them.”

This budgetary blow comes at the same time the university projects greater declines in student enrollment, and fundraising efforts have been effectively put on hold, according to Hamel and Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Eric Gustafson, respectively.

Administrators also discussed ways to adapt to student needs during the coronavirus crisis – such as continuing to operate the counseling center virtually – as the campus and associated properties, including the Danforth Art Museum, have been deserted.

Board members finally discussed plans for when campus reopens, approving the founding of the Mancuso Humanities Workforce Preparation Center, which is designed to promote and increase enrollment for humanities majors.

Presently, though, trustees said reimbursements and finances were both pressing concerns.

Residence hall students will receive the bulk of reimbursements, with $2.8 million set aside.

The reimbursements – to be sent electronically, according to the FSU student accounts webpage – will be prorated. This means the checks will refund money that would have paid for residence, food, and parking costs for the rest of the semester.

Hamel said, “No paperwork is needed from the student. Student Accounts will be calculating the value of the various adjustments and will credit student accounts accordingly. Credits will be applied against any outstanding balances and refunds will be issued to students whose accounts result in a credit balance.”

Tuition will not be included in the reimbursements.

The money for residence hall reimbursements will come from an already-established trust fund that has a total of $3.6 million. “It’s essentially use of those funds that otherwise would have gone toward capital projects in the future,” he said.

Capital projects refer to the construction, development, expansion, and/or maintenance of campus infrastructure.

“We may or may not receive funding from the state or federal government to cover those costs,” Hamel said.

Meanwhile, $350,000 will go toward dining reimbursements out of a trust fund with “about $5 million in there.” He added that “Ram cash and dining dollar gifts will not be credited or adjusted, as these do not expire.

“Dining dollars, associated with any meal plan, will be refunded, based upon the unused portion of the dining dollars included in the specific plan. For block meal plans, which designate a specific number of meals purchased, the number of unused block meals will be credited based upon the per meal rate of the particular plan, after exclusion of any associated dining dollars, which as mentioned will be credited based upon the unused portion.

“For other non-block meal plans, the credit will be determined based on the date of the cancellation of dining services versus the number of days in the dining contract. Dining services were suspended about half of the way through the dining program for the semester, so approximately 50% of the meal plan cost (after exclusion of any associated dining dollars which will be credited based upon the unused portion) will be credited.”

“While this is certainly a big hit, the funds are available … and that’s not the case at a lot of campuses,” Hamel said. “I think you’ll see some campuses, especially the small private schools, that will see this as the last straw.”

Trustee Michael Grilli said, “We were bragging a lot about the success of our investments over the past year, that we were making some historic gains. Now we’re making some historic un-gains.”

The financial strains are aggravated by greater projected declines in student enrollment. Previously 5%, Hamel said the University’s models now show a 7% projected decline in enrollment over six years, though this number can be subject to change depending on any new developments.

Gustafson said the financial situation is even more complicated because the University’s “fundraising, for the large part, has shut down” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Student “phone-a-thons” to raise funds have been cancelled, along with fundraiser visitations to donors, and “we’re not doing any real direct mail right now [to donors], just out of sensitivity to folks who are adjusting to everything that’s happening around them,” he said.

“So we’re expecting fundraising to be pretty muted the rest of the fiscal year. We’re not expecting significant dollars coming in, primarily because we can’t make the one-to-one meetings with folks who are capable of giving large gifts to the institution right now,” Gustafson said.

“Our fundraising that we are putting out is entirely focused on our student emergency fund,” which will go toward laptops, textbook supports, and other items for students in need, he added.

FSU has currently raised $2,155,276 in FY20, which ends June 30th, according to information provided by Gustafson to trustees.

Gustafson said the University plans to focus on maintaining relationships with donors through social media and online outlets at the moment, as many donors are stuck at home due to social distancing. They plan to host events including a “pet teleconference,” where alum can chat on Zoom and show off their furry friends.

Connie Cabello, Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement, said she was “impressed” by university leaders “keeping equity at the center of all of our decision-making” on issues such as reimbursements, housing and food insecurity, and helping students and staff adjust to remote learning.

Cabello herself has been working with Framingham Public Schools, local community organizations, and Mayor Yvonne Spicer’s office “to think about how FSU can really be a good neighbor at this time,” providing for MetroWest community members on top of helping FSU students.

“One thing that has really come together is that Sodexo … is doing some really important work to help provide meals and food for Framingham families in need right now. There’s quite a high demand right now, and we have probably one of the largest kitchens in Framingham, and we have 40 students on campus.”

According to “FSU’s Focus on Equity During COVID-19,” an article with resources for students on the FSU News and Events page, the Rams Resource Center will remain open by appointment for students.

Along with equity and access issues, Cabello said DICE is focused on providing support for the Asian-American community in response to xenophobia and racism during the pandemic, hosting a “virtual space” last Friday with students to discuss how to address these prejudices.

Other, in-person events, including the Women Making History Now celebration and the Intercultural Graduation Ceremony, have been postponed. DICE is working to determine a course of action for these events and will make announcements once the future of this year’s commencement ceremony is determined, Cabello said.

As events are cancelled or moved to a virtual medium, classes, too, have gone online – necessitating changes to instruction and grading, said Ellen Zimmerman, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Undergraduate students will be most impacted by the University’s changes to Pass/Fail grading policies in courses, discussed during the meeting and approved by the All University Committee this Wednesday.

Students in undergraduate courses can now opt to take a course on a Pass/Fail basis, for this semester only, after having the opportunity to view their letter grade, according to a campus-wide email sent by Zimmerman.

She said using this option will not impact GPA as long as the student receives a grade higher than a D- in the class. Students who wish to take advantage of the Pass/Fail changes for a class should submit their request to the Registrar’s Office “starting May 18, 2020 and no later than May 27, 2020.”

At the Board of Trustees meeting, Zimmerman added professors will “not be sanctioned negatively with their teaching evaluations during this time” as professors adjust to an all-online format.

The counseling and health centers will also be changing operations by shifting to a “tele-counseling” model, said Lorretta Holloway, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Development. They will continue to host sessions and meetings with students, but virtually instead of in-person.

To make appointments with the Counseling Center, contact them at 508-626-4640 or counselingcenter@framingham.edu.

The Health Center can be contacted at 508-626-4900 or healthcenter@framingham.edu.

During his report, Gustafson said The Danforth Art Museum will join the rest of campus in moving to an online format. Patrons can still take “virtual tours” of the museum on the Danforth website and social media accounts to view works on display, from both current and permanent collections.

Though classes and workshops have been cancelled for the spring, Danforth still plans to host educational programs over the summer, according to a post on their Instagram page.

According to trustee Dana Neshe, despite the heavy volume of internet traffic, “the news here continues to be good” with regard to cybersecurity.

“We have only 32 machines that are exposed to the internet, which is wonderful. There’s been no critical vulnerabilities that have arisen, and those that do come up, which [are] not unusual, are handled just as they arise as a normal course of business,” she said.

Though much of the meeting focused on adapting to cancellations and cutbacks, trustees did discuss a new program aimed to increase enrollment in approving the founding of Mancuso Humanities Workforce Preparation Center.

Trustee Nancy Budwig said the “bold new initiative,” created with a financial gift to the university from professor Halcyon Mancuso, “could stand to put [a] very favorable light on Framingham State in this area – it will be a first of probably many institutions trying this.”

“The three main goals of this initiative and institute [are] to raise awareness for the value of humanities and humanities education, to increase enrollment in humanities areas, and third – quite important – to ensure that the humanities majors are ready for rewarding employment,” Budwig said.

The proposal was unanimously approved.

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