Fresno State president discusses the future of the university

Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro. (Khone Saysamongdy, The Collegian)

Written with a contribution from Zaeem Shaikh

Fresno State President Dr. Joseph I. Castro addressed the most concerning topics on the mind of the Fresno State student body, including prioritizing in-person classes, safety protocols against COVID-19, future of student workers and the state of athletics.

“I’d say the most important set of decisions right now is around planning for the fall and what the balance of in-person instruction will be with virtual instruction,” Castro said.

The Fall 2020 planning task force, co-chaired by Provost Saul Jimenez-Sandoval and Vice President Debbie Adishan-Astone, has been working together since early May to address different scenarios that Fresno State could face, based on public-health realities and projections in the region.

On May 22, the conceptual plan was delivered to Castro and his cabinet, and they have been working in the past several weeks on which scenario to enact in the fall.

This includes scenario one, which lays out a fall 2020 instruction that remains fully virtual with a limited number of students living in campus housing, and major events and activities remain suspended.

But given the recent information released by Castro, the university will be leaning toward going with scenario two for the fall 2020, and he is waiting for approval from California State University Chancellor Timothy White.

“We’ve been working on this now for several weeks and I’ve received some recommendations from them [CSU]. And the next step is for us to seek approval from Chancellor White, for exceptions to the virtual mode of instruction,” Castro said.

Scenario two is laid out accordingly: mostly virtual but also includes a limited number of specialized, in-person classes, and with a limited number of students living in campus housing. For this to occur, plans will need to be developed and implemented that ensure physical distancing, safe hygiene practices, health screenings, cleaning in between classes, and proper technology to livestream and record the limited number of in-person classes.

Castro stated that he has met with Jimenez-Sandoval this week to figure out the number of courses the university will need to add due to an increase in students and which courses will be offered in a face-to-face capacity.

“What I can say right now with a lot of confidence is that most courses are going to be offered virtually,” said Castro. “The courses that will be offered in person are the ones that are not offered optimally in a virtual format: laboratory courses in agriculture, engineering and health, some in the arts as well.”

VIRTUAL LEARNING

On May 12, the university announced that through the guidance of the CSU Chancellor’s Office the fall 2020 semester would be a largely virtual-instruction, with some exceptions for in-person classes.

Following the spring semester’s abrupt transition to virtual learning, many students felt that their course load was not transitioned effectively and professors were not well equipped when it came to the transition.

Castro admits that that everyone struggled with the transition, but the university will be working with faculty over the summer through a voluntary professional development program to help prepare them better for the virtual format. 

“As it relates to the faculty, we’re getting ready to invest the most that I’ve ever done as president in a significant professional development program for them,” Castro said. “It’s going to provide them with new tools to make their courses even more dynamic in the virtual format as possible…we all struggled with the transition. It was a very short transition for us as a university, and there are some professors who are very comfortable in the virtual format.”

So far, well over 600 faculty members signed up for the program, and nearly 800 are expected to sign up by the end of the registration deadline.

HEALTH PROTOCOL

When it comes to health, the concerns of COVID-19 still looms in the air and the university has had to plan around the safety of both its students and faculty for the fall 2020 semester.

 The university hopes that a plan could be finalized in the next few weeks as it pertains to health and safety protocol in the next few weeks after consulting the Academic Senate, as well as meeting with the labor council.

In recent interviews, Castro states that the plan is for those on campus in the fall to be required to get regular temperature checks, have protective face masks and practice social distancing in order to ensure the safety of others. He also hopes to have COVID-19 testing for those involved in face-to-face instruction.

“Temperature checking on a regular basis, plus protective equipment that people would be using…would kind of minimize the risk to everybody on campus during the fall,” Castro said. “I anticipate that we’ll be testing somewhere around 2,000 or so people, and we would be doing that in partnership with a healthcare organization.”

Of course, despite all the measures in place, people can still contract COVID-19, but Castro believes that the university is able to handle circumstances.

“So, let’s just say they tested positively at the beginning. Then we would ask them to stay off of campus for that period of time,” Castro said. “We all have a pretty good sense of when we’re not feeling well. So, we were going to ask students and faculty and staff, if they’re not feeling well, please don’t come to campus.

There is also a plan in place in the case that a person who is positive unknowingly has been in class and in close proximity to other people.

“In the event that did happen, we’d have to quarantine them and do contact tracing and figure out who else was affected. And then we’d do that in close collaboration with local public health officials,” Castro said.

For students, faculty or staff members who are still concerned that they will be at risk despite the protocol in place, Castro said that it will not be a requirement for anyone to remain on campus. The university plans to offer a virtual option for those who decide that being on campus is too much of a risk.

“We would offer a virtual option for everybody if in fact they don’t want to be on campus,” Castro said. “…I don’t think we’re going to go back to that normal, but it’ll be a new normal, having more students and faculty and staff on campus, but we want to make sure we do that safely.”

As for student-athletes, a committee of Mountain West Conference health experts has been working with PAC-12 health experts in order to achieve a protocol that will address concerns of how often they will be tested, what would happen if someone tests positive and how they can transition back into organized practices.

The NCAA Division I Council has cleared football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball to resume voluntary athletic activities workouts effective June 1, but Castro said that despite the clearance the university wants to be cautious before they resume athletics.

“The NCAA has allowed for student athletes to return to campus if the university and their state believe that it’s safe,” Castro said. “We have not scheduled that to happen yet. We’re going to make a decision about that, I’d say, in the early part of July.”

STUDENT JOBS

According to Castro, the university is still working on the budget for next year, but they anticipate that they will have to reduce operating expenses and this means that there is uncertainty in the future for many of the student workers.

“We’ve essentially paused on all hiring, unless…we have a couple of deans that we’re getting ready to hire, a few faculties that are connected to accreditation needs and a very small number of staff,” Castro said. “But otherwise we paused on hiring. We’ve really done that as much as we can, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. I don’t yet know exactly how it’s going to affect student assistants yet.”

 The university will continue to have student workers, but they are making a conscientious decision as to what areas to prioritize student employment as they decrease the investment in that area.

“I know that it’s both good for the university and good for students to have student assistant positions. So, we will continue to have them,” said Castro. “I just anticipate the possibility that we may have fewer of them in the fall than we did in the spring.”

In the spring, the university granted Temporary Paid Administrative Leave (CPAL) for CSU employees who were unable to work due to COVID-19 related reasons. But given the budgetary cutbacks, it seems less likely that this will be offered to workers in the fall, which include student workers.

ATHLETICS

With scenario two in place, this would allow sports to return in the fall. This would be good news for the Fresno State Athletics department, which still remains in limbo due to concerns of COVID-19.

 “I’m still hopeful that we’ll be able to compete in the fall. It will depend on the situation with COVID. It will also depend on what Governor [Gavin] Newsom’s guidance is in this area,” Castro said. “And we’ve been in consultation with the Mountain West Conference about the plans there. I believe the Mountain West will compete this fall in athletics.”

The ability to play in the fall will be crucial for the department, as the department is dependent on the revenue from football, which makes up nearly 70 percent of the department’s revenue. 

With nearly all 21 sports losing revenue before the pandemic, the future for some of the programs may come to an end, and some auxiliary athletic employees may find themselves out of work once again. Last month, Fresno State announced 60 part-time auxiliary workers were put on furlough for two months due to cutbacks in the budget.

And with the loss in revenue that the university faces due to COVID-19, the dependence on university support may be less as the university itself is dealing with revenue loss.

According to the 2018-19 budgets, university support made up $19,172,000 million or nearly 50 percent of the athletic departments budget. And if sports can’t be played in the fall, there will be considerable revenue loss.

“They [universities outside of California] understand that there could be a possibility in our situation where we can’t compete in the fall, but my hope is that we will be able to compete and we’re making plans to do that,” Castro said. “If we’re not able to compete, we anticipate there could be a revenue loss of up to $11 million. So that’s certainly an important factor.”

TUITION

Another point of contention between students and California universities is many feel that they have neither received the college experience they paid for nor do they feel the education they are receiving virtually justifies the tuition.

Students have even filed a class-action lawsuit toward the CSU and University of California systems demanding partial refunds of tuition or campus fees in April.

Last month, the university received $32 million through the funding from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. From that funding, $16 million was disbursed to students in order to help them during the pandemic.

In addition to CARES Act relief, the university allocated refunds on parking passes and on-campus room and board.

Castro said he believes that having the lowest cost of tuition and fees, coupled with the effort and quality of the professors at Fresno State justifies the tuition that students are currently paying.

“These are circumstances beyond anybody’s control and the faculty is still the same great faculty that we had before the pandemic. The staff is still the same staff that’s supporting all of you. We’ve moved all the support to virtual, to protect everybody,” Castro said. “So from that perspective, I do think that it’s fair to continue charging the tuition and fees that we’re charging the ones that are connected to support like housing or parking…But in the short term, I anticipate we’ll keep our tuition and fees structure, where it is.”

Castro stated that the university will continue to do everything in its power to keep the cost for students at a minimum and plans to increase private support for scholarship, which he said will offset some of the cost for students.

Fresno State has the lowest in-state tuition rate in the CSU system, $6,643 annually while living with parents according to the 2020-21 estimated undergraduate cost of attendance. 

As for a rise in tuition, a budget cut of nearly 10 percent to the general fund is the defining factor as to whether students could see an increase in tuition.

Castro said in January the plan was that Fresno State would have received an increase in funding from the state. But as of recently not only is the increase off the table, budget reduction seems more and more likely.

“We’ve been advocating with our elected officials in Sacramento asking them to do their best, to keep any reductions as close to zero as possible,” Castro said. “So, I think in the near term, the 10 percent reduction is what we’re planning for, but we’re hoping that it’ll actually be less and it might be possible, through federal funding.”

Castro said he is hoping that with the combination of federal support and the recent job growth in the economy, they won’t have to cut 10 percent. However, the university is planning for the reduction in order to remain strong if that were to happen.

The full conversation between The Collegian and Castro can be read here:

News_Castro-QA-1

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