Three chancellors of Texas’ largest public university systems said the reopening of their campuses for the fall semester was important to provide students with the “highest quality education.”
The chancellors of the University of Texas System, University of Houston System and the Texas A&M University System spoke in a prerecorded panel Thursday morning for the 2020 Texas Tribune Festival to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education at their universities.
“We have an incredibly important mission to deliver education to Texans, and the way we do that best is by having them on our campuses,” said James Milliken, chancellor of the University of Texas System.
Milliken said while UT System universities can’t control everything happening off campus, such as large gatherings hosted by Greek life organizations, the universities would be able to scale back in-person operations to maintain public health and safety on campus if needed.
“Each of our institutions developed a set of messages and a way of approaching the culture of being on campus that (students) must take responsibility for each other,” Milliken said. “The guiding principles were health and safety first … and (being) able to adapt and change as quickly as possible.”
John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, said his universities have done a “good job” so far in containing the spread of COVID-19 on college campuses.
“When (students) came back, they gave us a pledge that they would try to stay away from large gatherings and things like that, and it's been reasonably successful,” Sharp said.
Sharp said the message of social distancing took a little bit to sink in with students who threw parties when they initially returned to campus.
“The off-campus stuff is self-policing itself,” Sharp said. “If we saw a huge spread among the campus, we would be concerned, and we're not seeing that at all.”
Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System, said the UH System developed campus safety protocols such as a voluntary self-reporting system. There is an element of luck involved in making sure students act responsibly, Khator said.
“We cannot create a bubble because our students are coming every day and going every day,” Khator said. “The best thing is to do what we are good at, which is educating and making them aware and making them responsible.”
Milliken said he has been impressed by the UT System universities’ execution of the new protocols. A silver lining of the pandemic has been universities learning to work remotely more effectively, which will affect how the universities’ physical spaces are utilized for the future, Milliken said.
“We have the tools and (are) learning much more about how we're going to deal with a rapidly growing population in Texas that needs education,” Milliken said. “We are going to emerge from this with some solutions we didn't have before.”