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Will college campuses reopen in the fall? Cal State’s chancellor weighs in

Colleges and universities across the country are wrestling with how and when to reopen for classes in the fall. While some are planning to bring students and faculty back to campus, others feel such a move would be unwise and will conduct only online learning. Judy Woodruff talks to Timothy White, chancellor of California State University, about his institution’s shift to mostly remote classes.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Colleges and universities across the country are wrestling with how and when to reopen for classes in the fall.

    Many are planning to bring students and faculty back to campus for classes. But not all schools believe it's wise for students to return. And some may include a mix of online learning.

    The California State University System, the largest four-year public university in the country, announced that it plans to offer primarily online remote classes this fall, with only a few exceptions.

    Timothy White is the chancellor. And he joins me now.

    Chancellor White, you so much for talking with us.

    So, for your, what, almost 500,000 students and 50,000 faculty and staff, what is this fall going to look like for them?

  • Timothy White:

    Well, Judy, nice to join you.

    And, of course, the health and well-being of our students, but our faculty and staff, and also the communities where our 23 campuses are located across the state of California — it's almost 800 miles from the northernmost campus in Humboldt to San Diego state in the south.

    But we think it's in our best interest for our students, allowing them to make progress towards their degree, which is so vitally important for them individually and for the state of California, but also doing it in the COVID-19 era that will, sadly, persist over the next academic year.

    And so this is precisely the moment for students to lean into their education, and we want to create as many options for as many students as is humanly possible. And that's why we decided to — in the fall, to be prepared to be as 100 percent virtual as you can be.

    There's some courses that you could never do, some of the laboratory courses or hands-on experiments in engineering, architecture, or agriculture, things of that nature.

    But we want to be prepared for that, the worst-case scenario, so that, hopefully, things will be better in some parts of the state, and we can actually do a little bit more in person.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    So, there will be some exceptions, as you say, for labs, and you mentioned architecture.

    I'm curious to know what percentage of your classes before now were being taught online?

  • Timothy White:

    We were about 10 percent of our courses online before.

    And when we pivoted two months ago, in March, to be online to finish out this academic term here in the spring of 2020, we converted 72,000 courses from in-person to online in the course of about a week-and-a-half, quite a monumental undertaking by our faculty and by our students and staff.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I wanted to ask you.

    How much of your faculty has had experience with this, because it is a change?

  • Timothy White:

    It is a change.

    And that's reason we're announcing now, is so our faculty over the summer months can prepare. They're brilliant when it comes to their content area, whether it's in biochemistry or physics or business or whatever the case may be.

    But some have experience with technology, virtual technology, assisted learning, and others have not. They have been more of a traditional faculty member over the years.

    So, we're actually putting summer institutes across the system, where faculty come in for a — virtually come in for an intensive, immersive experience to learn how to use all this amazing new technology that's developing on a daily basis to create that same vibrant, engaged learning experience in the fall in the virtual space, rather than in the physical space.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, with most people then being from home, is your tuition going to go down? Are costs going to go down?

  • Timothy White:

    No, the cost of delivery through virtual technology actually increases, with the purchasing of hardware, software, firmware, and the training of faculty.

    And tuition, of course, only pays a portion of what it costs to educate a student. The other part comes from the state of California.

    So, we're clear on keeping our tuition and mandatory fees constant, because our costs, the support (AUDIO GAP) delivering the education through a virtual means remains.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But how do you make the case to your students, though, that an online education is every bit as valuable as an in-person education?

  • Timothy White:

    Well, you know, that's the adaptation to the moment of this COVID era.

    We have to find a way to make sure that our students — and I will tell you, it will be different in the fall, but it will be very, very good, and not only the faculty teaching, but also very robust virtual academic support and student support.

    So, in the virtual space, it will be as robust as we humanly can. We will have, on campus, laboratories, for example, capstone for seniors that are graduating. But instead of having 20 students in a lab, there will be something like five students in a lab. And they will be physically distanced.

    And in between use of the instrumentation, there will be cleaning of the instrumentation, and people will have on personal protective gear.

    So, we believe very strongly it's time for our students, new ones, and continuing to lean in and to get that all-important degree, because that can never be taken away from them. And at any given moment in time, if you have a college degree, your unemployment rate is about half what of the rest of the population is, and income is about a million dollars more over your lifetime.

    So, it's not a time to stop, even though there are some inconveniences. It's a way to adapt and cope and keep moving forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have said that you are open, though, to reinstating classes if you get different news. What experts are you listening to for that kind of information?

  • Timothy White:

    We're using science, following the data.

    We're using international epidemiologists, and also local epidemiologists here in the state of California. We have infectious disease practitioners that are advising us, and, of course, our regional and local public health officials, as well as state public health officials.

    And so, since the health and well-being is at the top of the list, it's going to be that advice, that forecasting that guides us through this. And, quite frankly, it's one of the main reasons why we have decided to do what we're doing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chancellor Timothy White, California State University System, thank you very much.

  • Timothy White:

    Thank you, Judy. Bye-bye.

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