As the state begins to recover from a summer of skyrocketing coronavirus cases, the University of Arizona will soon begin instruction for the 2020-21 school year and bring thousands of people back to its campus.
The university is offering students four instructional options this semester: in-person classes with safety precautions in place, flexible classes that include a mix of in-person and online work, online-only classes where a traditional class format is adapted for virtual use, and iCourses, which are self-paced classes that students complete through the university's D2L online platform.
The university expects to begin a phased reopening on Monday, Aug 24. Initially, only a few courses that are deemed essential will have students come to the campus to participate. These will be research labs, medical courses, fine arts studios and other hands-on classes that are difficult to conduct virtually.
During a press conference earlier this month, UA President Robert Robbins said about 5,000 students are expected to come to campus for those initial courses. All other classes will be taught online.
The following week, in-person and flexible classes of up to 30 students are scheduled to begin, bringing 14,000 people to campus. Larger classes will continue to be taught online.
On Sept. 8, the university will allow larger in-person and flexible courses to join the campus as well, increasing the daily population from 25,000 to 30,000. Robbins said about half of all classes taught in the fall semester will have some kind of in-person component.
Campus libraries, dining and outdoor recreational services will be available beginning on Aug. 24. Students who choose to move into dorm rooms will be tested for COVID-19 with a rapid antigen test and must get a negative result before they move in, according to Robbins.
Any dorm student who tests positive for COVID-19 will live in an isolation dorm for 10 days and their regular room will be reserved for them in the meantime.
The university has established enhanced cleaning protocols throughout campus and will require face masks in all university buildings and outdoor spaces when six feet of physical distance is difficult to maintain. The "Test, Trace and Treat" initiative continues, which includes free antibody testing for all employees and students, traditional contact tracing and a new exposure notification smartphone app for the university community.
All employees and students can also access COVID-19 testing for free through the university. Two types of tests will be provided: Polymerase Chain Reaction diagnostic tests which produce results within 24 to 48 hours, and rapid antigen tests which give results in one to two hours.
During their Aug. 13 press conference, President Robbins and Reentry Task Force Director Dr. Richard Carmona said they were cautiously optimistic about the continuing average decline of new COVID-19 cases in Pima County and across Arizona. They hope the trend will continue, but Robbins said if case numbers begin to multiply within the university community, they will have no choice but to revert back to a fully online instructional system.
Robbins reported that out of 1,200 tests performed on students who live on and off campus, only one had a positive result.
While the state is still recovering from a high number of cases and hospitalizations over the last three months, Robbins said the university is monitoring public health conditions and will make adjustments to their reopening plans as necessary.
"This all depends on the public health conditions and whether students, faculty and staff follow good public health measures to minimize transmission of this virus," Robbins said. "We have a plan, and we have confidence that our students, faculty and staff will carry it out, but if we see noncompliance or if the public health conditions require it, we will shut this down" and return to fully online instruction.
But many university faculty, staff and students oppose Robbins' plan and believe opening the campus during the COVID-19 pandemic will ensure widespread transmission, and risk severe illness and deaths for people who step onto the UA campus.
"While university leadership claims that it has adequately addressed the needs of its instructors, students, and staff during re-entry, that does not reflect reality," said the Coalition for Academic Justice at UArizona in a press release. "There is a lack of clarity on practical procedures in case of an outbreak, alongside the push for re-entry to be driven by dates rather than data implies an indifference to the human costs of Fall re-entry, as the university prioritizes financial concerns instead.
"The question now is not if, but when the campus will see an outbreak of COVID-19 that could very likely reverberate throughout the larger Tucson community."
The Coalition for Academic Justice at UArizona was formed after President Robbins announced a furlough plan consisting of 5 to 20 percent pay reductions for all faculty and staff making over $40,000 annually beginning Aug. 10. The coalition is a group of graduate students, faculty and other university employees that have moved forward with unionization in an effort to force the university administration to live up to its "shared governance" principles.
"I support the faculty to have self determination and if they think unionization is the way they want to go, I fully support whatever the faculty choose to do," Robbins said when asked about the unionization at his Aug. 6 press conference.
The UA's General Faculty Financial Advisory Council published a report earlier this month that showed "widespread dissatisfaction" with the university's furlough plan among the 2,816 faculty and staff that were surveyed. They have a strong desire for alternatives to mitigating the financial impact of COVID-19. The report states this plan will negatively impact the university in the long run through retention of faculty and staff.
They explained that morale among university employees is dropping as the administration established a furlough plan that is four times the size of any comparable institution in the country. They say it creates an "enormous personal burden" on the faculty and staff and nearly 40 percent of those surveyed have expressed they are likely to seek employment elsewhere.
"The employees of the University of Arizona are its greatest asset, and the value of this asset is greatly and unnecessarily jeopardized by the furlough and furlough-based salary plans," the report states.
Rather than furlough its faculty and employees, the advisory council recommends the university use its cash reserves and take out bonds—which reportedly have historically low rates.
The group pointed out that the University of Minnesota, Indiana University, the University of Michigan, State University of New York, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Alabama, among others, have all established large lines of credit in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Ultimately, the GFFAC wants to see the furlough plan significantly reduced or eliminated completely. They believe that furloughs will only provide budgetary relief during the period in which they are in effect, whereas taking out lines of credit and bonds can help with budget issues for multiple future years.
Another strong point of contention currently simmering between the UA administration and its faculty and staff members is the recent purchase of the for-profit online college Ashford University, which will be incorporated into the new "UA Global Campus," a fully online degree program available to international students.
The University of Arizona paid $1 to acquire Ashford, which serves mostly non-traditional students over the age of 25. Robbins said the university is guaranteed to gain $225 million over the next 15 years as a result of this deal. This proposes attractive new revenue, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Robbins said they chose to acquire the online college in order to better serve a student base consisting of working adults.
Robbins called this a "complex and very sensitive" deal, and said the shared governance process was not as robust as usual because they were contemplating a purchase of a publicly traded company. All leadership staff involved with the process had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Once the deal was final and the news was released, Robbins acknowledged that there was a vocal group of faculty that raised concerns about this purchase.
As detailed in a June 19 letter from the UA's Eller College of Management faculty, Ashford University has a history of predatory recruitment and illegal debt collection practices.
In 2014, Ashford University settled a lawsuit with the State of Iowa for $7.25 million. Former Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa called Ashford "an absolute scam," according to the letter.
In 2016, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau levied an $8 million penalty against Ashford University's owner, Zovio, and forced them to refund $23.5 million in student loans. The California Attorney General filed a lawsuit with Ashford University in 2017 and is set to go to trial in 2021.
Due to this alarming track record, the Eller group wrote that the University of Arizona is bound to see future lawsuits once it is legally tied to Ashford University.
"A quick Google search reveals that less than 29 percent of their students graduate," the letter states. "Furthermore, the average student leaves with $36,000 in debt. Essentially, [Ashford University] takes money from vulnerable individuals and provides little to no value in return."
The group warned Robbins and other executive leadership that this partnership with Ashford will "impair the value of the University of Arizona, expose the University of Arizona to litigation, impede our ability to compete in the high-quality secondary education online space and harm relationships with current and prospective donors and faculty."
During his press conference, Robbins responded to some of these criticisms saying that although Ashford has a history of taking advantage of their students, none of that culture will carry over into the new operation under the University of Arizona.
"This is going to be under our management, our guidance and certainly we will not participate in those kinds of practices," Robbins said. "There are always risks to reputation, I'm well aware of those. I think we need to execute and make sure we deliver a high quality and ethical education to these students."