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ON THE RECORD | Tressel discusses the pandemic and YSU's future

With many changes amid the pandemic — from classes moved online to the cancellation of sports — Youngstown State University looks different this fall. Mahoning Matters sat down with President Jim Tressel to discuss the changes at the university and what it means for its future.

YOUNGSTOWN — The downsides to life on college campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic seem obvious — and daunting.

In-person classes were abandoned last spring. Universities are facing budget constraints. Campuses now resemble ghost towns with most learning done online. Even precious fall football is on the back burner until spring.

Despite this and more — including a fact-finding report that seems to side with the faculty union in an ongoing contract dispute — Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel remains indefatigable.

After the pandemic is over, he believes his institution, where he has been president since 2014, will be transformed for the better. 

To meet with Mahoning Matters, Tressel, 67, sat on the back patio of the Pollock House, where he lives with his wife Ellen. The patio overlooks the Valley and has been the spot for many meetings since the pandemic. It's perfect for social distancing while the weather is still nice.

In the first six weeks of the fall semester, things at YSU have not been perfect, Tressel concedes, but they are going as best as they can. He's optimistic that YSU will be a better institution three years from now.

“I don’t know what, why, how but we’re going to make that happen in the midst of this adversity,” Tressel said.

FALL AND SPRING SEMESTERS

When COVID-19 struck in March, students and faculty did their best when forced to go completely online about halfway through the semester, Tressel said.

“I think in the spring, it was such a quick pivot that I think everyone did the best they could both the students and the faculty, and we really ended up with a good ending to the semester,” Tressel said.

The faculty spent the summer taking what they learned from remote learning in the spring to shape the fall semester. Five instructional modes were then created for faculty to choose based on their comfort level for the fall semester, including face-to-face, agile, hybrid, online and web-based.

Tressel said about 20 percent of classes are face-to-face with the remainder being online or through a hybrid model.

Some classes, like nursing clinicals or laboratory work, must be done in-person. YSU was forced to innovate means to maintain the integrity of face-to-face instruction for these courses without severely impacting students’ learning.

“I think education will change forever because there are some things that you maybe you can even do more effectively,” Tressel said.

He expects the spring semester to look about the same. He is hopeful that by next fall, there will be more face-to-face classes.

“We have to wait and see,” Tressel said. “This virus is a tough one.”

Midterm surveys were sent out to students to examine how the different modalities have worked thus far. YSU will use the responses to determine whether changes need to be made for the spring. Tressel said the university won’t be afraid to adjust plans if new ideas are presented.

“One thing we learned ... in March was that we’re very capable of making big changes quickly,” Tressel said.

At the same time, the university also has plans in place if another shutdown occurs, though the university’s primary goal is to keep students on campus.

“From a mental health standpoint, if we can make it a safe environment, let’s do everything we can [to keep students on campus],” Tressel said.

CONCERNS FOR STUDENTS

Like other universities, whether YSU remains open depends almost exclusively on student behaviors.

Students signed the Penguin Pledge before returning to campus, which states that they will take care of themselves to keep everyone on campus healthy and safe.

Yet the weekend before classes started on Aug. 17, pictures of large gatherings at The Edge apartments were posted on social media.

Repeatedly violating the pledge can result in a wide range of consequences, including warning, probation or suspension.

There have been a total of 11 student COVID-related violations that have gone before Student Conduct, YSU spokesman Ron Cole said. Six of the violations were for off-campus parties and five were for leaving quarantine. All violations have resulted in deferred fines or probation.

To help keep crowds at bay, large portions of the social aspect of college — such as clubs, sports and other activities — were sacrificed this fall in favor of pandemic safety. Students' options to socialize are drastically limited. They can meet with friends in small groups or engage in alternative, pandemic-friendly events like the small concert at the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre the marching band has planned in October.

Yet, Tressel is worried that as the weather gets colder, students will be forced inside.

“While the virus is a concern, where I’m really concerned is on the mental health side of things,” Tressel said.

YSU has improved access to mental health services by boosting telehealth offerings, but Tressel said the university does not have the necessary range of services available.

“One of the pleas we’re making to [Gov. Mike DeWine] would be to designate some funds from the CARES Act specifically for the mental health challenges we know we have and will continue to grow,” Tressel said.

Saying the pandemic has created stress and anxiety about the unknown, Tressel said students should receive mental health counseling as frequently as they go to the doctor for regular checkups.

“We need to get there because while the COVID statistics are disappointing to say the least [so are] the mental health statistics in our nation,” Tressel said.

While other universities like Ohio State University have already canceled spring break to prevent students from traveling and spreading the coronavirus even more, YSU is still contemplating the traditional March pause in the semester. Tressel maintained students and faculty will need a break.

He noted many YSU students opt to stay and work anyway. It is also impossible to predict what travel restrictions will be in place or what the pandemic will look like five months from now.

“We will keep studying it,” Tressel said. “If we decide later that maybe it is a good idea, we will [cancel spring break].”

COVID DASHBOARD

YSU experienced challenges at the start of the semester while setting up a live dashboard to track COVID-19 cases among students and faculty.

To keep track of cases, the university has to work with multiple health departments outside of Youngstown and Mahoning County since students are commuting or working remotely in different counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

YSU launched a dashboard on Sept. 9 and updates it every Monday.

Tressel said live dashboarding can result in a lag in reporting real-time data. The university plans on updating the dashboard with cases even if it’s found out a few weeks later.

The university has been able to meet with the various health departments every other Friday since July to keep communication and receive guidance, Tressel added.

Testing for YSU students has been voluntary since the start of the semester. Tressel said YSU plans to screen a percentage of students in two weeks since testing capabilities have improved and DeWine has encouraged universities to have regular screenings.

“Especially our students that live on or around campus, we’re going to encourage them to be a part of the social experiment and the social awareness,” Tressel said.

If a student who lives on campus tests positive, they are moved to Weller House for isolation. The university also has the top two floors of the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Youngstown reserved in the case of a large outbreak.

ATHLETICS DELAYED, NOT DENIED

YSU’s football team plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, which voted to postpone its season to the spring.

“Our students and our coaches voted to go to the spring,” Tressel said. “They said you know what? We want playoffs.”

Within the next week, YSU is expected to announce the football season schedule that will start at the end of February and go until April. The football team started three weeks of practice on Monday.

“The difference between us and like the Big 10 is the Big 10 football is not under the guise of the NCAA in terms of their postseason,” Tressel said. “So they could choose to come back and still have a chance to play in the college football playoffs because that's not governed necessarily by the NCAA.”

The remainder of the university’s sports is a part of the Horizon League, which also voted to move the rest of the fall sports to the spring so they would be able to have championships. Tressel said the decisions to move sports to the spring were based on athletes, coaches and athletic directors. If it was up to him, he might have opted to play in the fall to avoid having two football seasons in 2021.

“I’m a little concerned about an athletic department our size that is trying to service fall and winter sports,” Tressel said.

Typically in the spring, about four teams are practicing on the indoor field at once. With fall sports moved to the spring, about 20 teams will have to share trainers and facilities.

“It’s going to be interesting because this fall is going to seem like nothing is going on,” Tressel said. “This spring will be like ‘Oh my gosh I am tired of going to games.’”

From a financial standpoint, Tressel said YSU will be impacted by the loss of revenue from concessions and ticket sales. However, the university has been able to save some money without needing to have teams travel.

Also, student-athletes scholarships will not be affected by the cancellation of fall sports, even if they opt-out of playing due to safety concerns.

THE FUTURE OF YSU

For the past 18 months, YSU has worked on a strategic plan to chart a path forward. The pandemic has also given time for the university to adjust the strategic plan.

“The good news is that I've seen that the people making decisions haven't been afraid to say, ‘You know what? That wasn't a good idea. We're gonna go do this,’” Tressel said. “So we'll just constantly keep evaluating.”

In developing the strategic plan, YSU is also working to match student opportunities with Youngstown's future job needs. 

It’s no secret the pandemic threatens to exacerbate the university’s financial challenges. This year, YSU experienced a 3.2 percent drop in enrollment and other revenue losses. Tressel is hopeful these financial blows will be one-time impacts.

While CARES Act funds helped the university over the summer to fund students who needed financial aid with housing, food and tuition and helped make campus safer, Tressel has already told the governor he'd like more funding. Compared to other universities in Ohio, YSU has less debt, Tressel said.

YSU has about $60 million in debt with about $160 million in revenue as of fiscal year 2020.

“We’re not out of the woods financially, but I think that we’re cognizant of our financial challenges,” Tressel said.

Among the challenges, YSU is currently negotiating a new contract with the university's faculty union, YSU-OEA. The rocky negotiations have resulted in a strike authorization vote which passed with an overwhelming majority in July. The decision to authorize a strike was in part spurred by the university's academic restructuring plan announced May 28. The plan cut 18 departmental chair positions and will save the university $1 million annually.

Both parties agreed to hire a neutral fact-finder, who released her report last week. The union found the report fair, especially recommendations involved preserving the union's current contract. In a letter obtained by Mahoning Matters, a YSU representative argued the report did not take into consideration the financial circumstances facing higher education.

Both parties will vote on the report in the next week.

There might be hope for a remedy. In the interview with Mahoning Matters just days prior to the fact-finder's report, Tressel said faculty and employees who have taken furloughs and pay cuts to help the university deal with pandemic budget constraints need to have their normal salaries returned.

And Kevin M. Kralj, director Labor and Employee Relations for the university, told a union negotiator, "We remain hopeful that we can continue to work together to develop a contract that is fair, equitable and focused squarely on the future success of our students and our entire university community."

Tressel said he hoped the results would be as good as it could be for everyone, but it probably won't be what everyone wants.

"If you're happy about negotiations, that means someone probably lost," Tressel said. "I hope everyone gets treated as fair as they can."



Ellen Wagner

About the Author: Ellen Wagner

Ellen Wagner reports on municipal services and budget cuts in Youngstown. She is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
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