On Monday, Dec. 13 The State News editorial board sat down with President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. and Provost Teresa Woodruff to discuss COVID-19 vaccination policies, satisfactory and non-satisfactory grading, athletic investments and more.
The following answers have been edited for length and clarity.
On the first semester back in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic…
Students returned to campus for the first time since spring 2020 this fall. Stanley said he feels that the semester went well and the precautions MSU put in place helped protect the community from a large outbreak.
Stanley: “Obviously, there’s been several incidents on campus that have been very tragic and I don’t want to minimize those in any way, but I think overall, it’s gone very well for the campus, and I really appreciate … the effort that has gone in — the measures we've taken, the mandate of vaccination, the mandate of mask wearing … I think has really helped us keep the number of COVID cases down to a lower level than we would have had otherwise, I think significantly lower.
We haven't gotten to zero — I never expected to get to zero cases. But what we have seen is very few cases overall, and we've been able to manage ... We never hit above 40 individuals in isolation (or) quarantine during this year.
We have no plans to change things in spring, we've talked about that already. So continue the same type of precautions we have. (The) Delta (variant) has proved to be very challenging and continues to be challenging. Boosters are becoming more and more important. So I think that's something we'll continue to want to emphasize. Every communication I do, I talked about people getting a booster, talk about people getting their influenza shot as well. Both those things can be helpful to us going forward.
I'm excited about it. I think (with) the same things in place, we'll be continuing to communicate about the requirements. We will continue to communicate about the Early Detection Program (or EDP) and making sure people who are supposed to be enrolled in it, who have exemptions or exceptions are enrolled in it. That's really important.”
Woodruff seconded Stanley’s comments, while also touching on the excitement and spirit she felt with students back in East Lansing.
Woodruff: “This has been a really exciting, new first adventure for two classes and a homecoming for the other classes ... I think that beginning gratitude, that knowledge that this entire group of your generation has gone through something that no other generation has gone through and just the gratitude to be back and to be able to pursue your curricular, extracurricular, co-curricular goals ... It's just great to be back on campus and I think that has persisted through this semester, that sense of gratitude and the value proposition for what it is to be a Spartan, and until the world really stopped, we didn't get to think about that.
When the world stopped, we had to think 'What matters to me, what's valuable to me?' And it turns out that being here and together is one of those great things that we value. I think that's one of the enduring moments that I'll remember from this semester, really on that first week, and people's gratitude — the students’ gratitude — for being back ... At the end of this week, we're going to have graduation, so really the culmination of all the efforts that many students have made. ... And it really represents the fact that our students have persisted in (their) goals. And I said to the (Associated Students of Michigan State University), in the spring, last year, I really wish that I could take these buckets from you. I wish we could do something to have made this time for you, during this period of the pandemic, different, but I can't. But what I do know is that because of what you've gone through, you will be ready for whatever comes next.”
On prioritizing students' mental health with the return to campus...
Stanley made it clear that the university's approach to students’ health, both mentally and physically, needs to improve but does believe that remote learning did make things easier for some.
Stanley: “It’s certainly been a major issue for the campus. We have heard many times the kind of stresses and strains people have been under. Not just obviously from the academic burden but also from what happened with families. One of the things we discovered during the pandemic was that remote provision of services actually works ... typically when they need counseling related to mental health issues.”
The ability for individuals to meet for counseling face to face in private settings has been a plus for students according to Stanley. The push for a better Counseling and Psychiatric Services, or CAPS, program is also in the works on top of a collaborative project with Stanley and facilities in creating a better wellness program for students.
“People call and find there are delays, people can’t respond right away, can’t get appointments ... What we're working on right now is providing more resources and expanding that.”
On Friday at the Board of Trustees meeting, Stanley plans to bring the idea of an improved health and wellness recreational center to the board, to promote wellness mentally and physically for students. The facility would replace a former facility on campus by tearing down the old and bringing in the new.
“Setting up a facility would really provide students at MSU, a kind of an experience they deserve.”
Woodruff: “As you know, last year, in the fall semester, I worked with our academic governance partners, and the University Committee on Undergraduate Education and the Council of Undergraduate Deans, and with ASMSU, to look at the opportunity to record grades with the S/NS model and part of the reason we did that ... was appreciating that we were going through a semester that was unlike all others ... My instinct was that it would not be overused by students, it will be used appropriately so that students would pursue their goals and educational ambitions, but would use this in a way that would allow them to continue with a lowering of the stress ... It took time to decide if we were going to do this and when we decided I decided that we were going to do that not just for the fall semester, but for the spring semester (2020-21). I didn't want to re-litigate that across the two semesters and it would allow the students to then really understand what was ahead of them. It was going to allow a certain level of level of solidity. I also then in early spring, allowed that for the summer, but I indicated very clearly that given the circumstances would return to a more normative fall semester and, and that my feeling was that the the ability to achieve a grade is an important metric for students as you're moving through your curriculum, we indicated that the fall semester would be back to the normal grading kind of scheme."
Despite announcing the fall 2021 semester would return to a traditional grading scale, Woodruff and the university did a review to ensure this was the right decision. In conclusion, Woodruff said it would have hindered students' sense of consistency to once again implement a change midway through the semester.
“In the first half (of the) semester, we did go through the review process to evaluate if our classes were sustainably back to the pre-pandemic modalities, if there were ongoing challenges, if in fact, it would be more detrimental to students to have one more thing start in one way and change mid semester ... Conversations with ASMSU showed that we would continue a persistence course. So we reported that back to those groups. In the last two weeks, there was a petition that came forth. And in fact, there are generally petitions that come forward or emails that come forward around midterms and around final exams and that is traditional within the academic setting. That said, I decided to review this yet again. And this was really largely at the further request of ASMSU leadership ... I further asked my Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, Mark Largent ... to further review the matter. And I asked he and the registrar to evaluate across the United States, if there were other universities that have made other decisions. And so all of the weight of that was done in the last two weeks. And the recommendation came back to me that there was no support for changing the grade modality. I confirmed, and thanked the committees for their good work, and then refer that back to the student group so that they recognized what the decision was. So I think it was really based on a good deal of evidence on whether or not students success and persistence would be significantly impacted in a positive way if we move to that, and the evidence is that it would not and so, therefore, I concur with those decisions and will not move forward with that process.”
On campus safety...
With the return of students to campus, several instances have occurred that have sparked concern about safety on campus. On Monday, MSUPD released the “SafeMSU” App in hopes to provide additional measures to increase the safety of students on campus.
Stanley: “Let’s begin with the disappearance of Brendan Santo. That’s a tragic event that occurred (and) it’s tragic in so many different ways. It has impacted our campus and has raised concerns about safety on campus. I hope some of you have had the chance to attend the town halls. … trying to give more facts. I think all the evidence that's been presented so far in this particular incident was a tragic accident, there’s no reason to suspect foul play. This has been an investigation that’s been carried out by MSUPD ... there were a number of people involved in this."
“The other issue we should talk about (is) some of the violent crimes that took place off-campus. We’ve been in constant touch with East Lansing police … We continue to talk about these issues. I’m concerned about a rise of crimes there.
Safety on campus remains a very high priority for us. We will continue to have these kinds of conversations, some of them may not be in our direct control but there are things that we try to influence."
On the two-year live-on requirement, and if the university has plans to aide upperclassmen who planned to live on campus, but no longer have space to do so...
Stanley said the move to a two-year living requirement is backed by data that shows that an additional year on campus correlates with higher retention and graduation rates, especially among students who are economically disadvantaged.
Stanley: “I think we didn’t anticipate necessarily that there would be such a growing need to live on campus because what we’ve seen is second year students who haven’t had the chance to live on campus want to. We had about 16,000 students, which is higher than we anticipated. So we’ll be looking at spaces … We’re working through that. Taking a look at the 1855 (Place) complex and those apartments … This year we had the isolation space. Based on our experience in the semester we haven’t come close to capacity (in those facilities). … Long term, I think we will create exemptions about a series of criteria where we will have to decide if students are eligible. But I think we’ll have to take a look at our possibilities, maybe looking at spaces around campus, but that’s purely speculation. But we’re excited for students to be on campus again."
On understaffing in campus facilities, and how this problem will be resolved before an influx of students move in next year...
Stanley said MSU will have to be able to pay service workers competitively and add better benefits packages that will attract workers. He also said student recruitment is important.
Stanley: “We’ve done a couple things. One we’ve increased salary considerations to make it more attractive, we’ve done more recruiting among students. Students are key components to that workforce ... I think when students came back after the pandemic, fewer wanted to work because I think more of them wanted to be able to spend all of their time getting back to class and adjusting to that. I think as the semester’s gone on, we’ve seen more students have decided that they probably could manage their schedules in ways that they could work effectively. I do appreciate, very much so, the patience of people who have been going through this. I know it’s disruptive for students to have to go to other places for dining."
On making a commitment to athletics...
Amid recent surges in spending on athletics, Stanley emphasized that the university budget is different from the athletic budget, and the differentiation between the two is a "very firm" line.
Stanley: “I think we — a number of years ago — made a commitment for Michigan State University to be in the top tier of athletic programs in the country. The decision was based on a strong tradition we have in Michigan State athletics as well as extraordinary support we get from our donors and our alumni for these programs and the way in which that it has the ability — and say what you will about athletics — it has the ability to unite people in the ways others don’t.
When you see 75,000 people or 70,000 people in the stadium coming together, all cheering for the same thing and you think about the political divides in our country, the inequalities and all the things that divide our countries in many ways, it’s wonderful to see people more united.
It also has practical repercussions for the university as well. For example, a couple years ago when we beat Michigan — not this season but the previous season — we actually saw a spike in application numbers come in after that. Victory in athletics translates into more interest for the campus.”
Stanley: “We want to be in a position to be competitive ... One of the things coach (Mel) Tucker has done very well is that you have to do three things to be a successful football coach. You have to be able to coach football. You have to really be able to assemble a good team, but you also have to be able to recruit. You have to be able to identify talent and recruit talent.
The third thing you have to be able to do nowadays is like a president, you have to be able to raise money. You have to get people interested in the program and get support for the program because the athletic budget alone is dependent on the work you put in. The renovated football facilities would be helpful for all sports as well.
The football program really generates the revenue that drives the other programs — men’s basketball and football primarily are the two major revenue sports. So investing into success into that is really investing into success with the athletic program as a whole, I think that’s how we look at it.
One of the things that I said that (Tucker) has been able to do is to really connect with donors and increase donations. We have seen a very significant increase in fundraising in just these past six months with the success we’ve seen. So this is an investment in MSU athletics’ future."
On how to increase accountability and safety for those involved in sorority and fraternity life...
Stanley: “MSU needs to be more engaged and it has been in the past. Not many of them are approved MSU organizations, they do not get money essentially either from MSU (or) ASMSU, they do not get direct support to the organizations. There has been a feeling to treat them as independent and I think we are working to change that ... There have been challenges with compliance to COVID-19, there have been challenges in terms of alcohol, we have had accusations of hazing — I do not know the details at this point in time so I am not prepared to comment on the validity of them.
We want to create an environment where there is more engagement between us and the Panhellenic Council. We want more discussion. We mentioned the secondary housing requirement. In terms of the criteria we look upon: what constitutes an environment, what we think is appropriate and safe. So we are going to continue to look at that and have conversations with them about what we expect. Where there are violations, we want to make sure that there is follow-up. That has been an issue. We want to make sure that these things have follow-through categories. We have done that and compliance with COVID-19, with referrals that we have gotten, we take referrals from the community and put it in the student discipline that way. ... We expect for them to create an environment where students will be safe.
I can not take full responsibility since I am not in charge of it at this point in time, but we are finding ways in which we can get more engaged. I would say there are many of (the fraternities and sororities) that said they will welcome this. There are fraternities and sororities that say they appreciate this (and) self-report themselves. We are talking about accountability but we need more. There have been places that have tackled this and it is not about being putative but working together. I am not opposed to sorority and fraternity at all — they are part of the college experience for many individuals but we really have to measure the things like hazing (and) toxic drinking."
On updated numbers of disciplined students, staff and faculty for not getting the vaccine and not filling out an exemption form...
Stanley: "I think we're rolling out some things that are designed to give us more opportunities essentially to monitor what's happening in that realm. I think one of the challenges of Michigan State and any other university is scale. When you decide to run a program that's going to capture 62,000 people, it turns out to be kind of hard to find any individual and how to deal with that, particularly if you haven't set before the systems that allow you to identify these things. The couple of issues that we are concerned about, the most prominent one I think is people's participation in the EDP program. So there's two groups that need to participate in EDP, basically, people who haven't been fully vaccinated yet need to be in the Early Detection Program, and that should be a short term that they need to be in there and then people that have an exemption essentially that allows them to not get vaccinated or not to take the vaccine if they don’t want to because of religious or medical exemption. I think part of the challenge has been in identifying those people and monitoring their testing protocols. I think we're putting things in place that are going to allow us to do this.
We have been able to identify some individuals already. We’ve identified some people, even back to the time when they didn't disclose whether they'd been vaccinated or not. There have been termination moves on that, I'm being sued by people who object to that from the faculty and staff and so that’s something that’s been in the news ... We’re really automating in much more ways to get better so people will be getting communication, probably over the next few days, to talk about some of the things we'll be doing for this. Again, if you've been fully vaccinated, (or) if you haven’t been vaccinated, (but) you have an exemption and you’re in EDP you have nothing to worry about. But if you don't meet those criteria, people will be getting notification of things they need to do, both to finish up this semester (and) what they’re going to do next semester to make sure they are able to continue in the way they want to continue."
On the possibility of mandating a booster shot among students and faculty...
Stanley: "We're going to continue to look at data before we talk about mandating boosters. That's been something people have asked us about and I think we're really looking towards the (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, or) CDC, generally for guidance on things, so we really try and follow the CDC guidance."
Stanley did mention at this point the university is looking to the CDC. However, there is a possibility that the university may have to work ahead of the CDC to keep students safe.
"(The) Omicron (variant) raises the question of more variants and what comes next. I think from what I've read about Omicron so far, and it's still too early to come down with solid recommendations. It does appear to be more transmissible potentially than Delta, at least that’s what the data in South Africa suggests, and still infecting primarily unvaccinated individuals."
The State News Editorial Board is composed of Editor-in-Chief Karly Graham, Managing Editor Jayna Bardahl, Campus Editor Wendy Guzman, City Editor Griffin Wiles, Culture Editor Dina Kaur, Sports Editor Eli McKown, Multimedia Editor Chandra Fleming, Copy Chief SaMya Overall, Staff Rep. Morgan Womack and Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator Tessa Jazwinski.
Multimedia Editor Devin Anderson-Torrez and Social Media Manager Jillie Gretzinger did not sit in for this interview.
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