Campus life this fall is a little surreal, and it feels like a poorly attended day in the summer, UT Interim President Jay Hartzell said.
Hartzell sat down to talk about his plans for handling the COVID-19 pandemic at the University, the continuation of football games and online learning during his one-on-one live discussion for the 2020 Texas Tribune Festival Monday morning.
“In our summer semesters, we probably have about 20% of the typical (number of) students on campus versus the fall and the spring, and (the current number of students on campus) is even lighter than that,” Hartzell said. “We’re glad the students are back. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a regular semester.”
Hartzell said the University is mitigating the effects of COVID-19 among the UT community by contact tracing quickly and recommending all students voluntarily get asymptomatic testing.
“Another part is trying to encourage everybody, especially our students, to do what we all hope they will do in terms of behavior — wear a mask, social distance, don’t have big indoor parties with masks off,” Hartzell said. “Most of their time is not (spent) on campus, so it’s trying to encourage good behavior (and) good choices for all of us, but especially our students, which is hard because of what 18 to 20-year-olds are thinking about when they think of traditional college.”
Hartzell said the decision-making and trade-offs that went into holding football games were discussed with medical professionals beforehand, but the University has not set hard limits for determining when holding football games becomes too dangerous.
“The student-athletes wanted to play if they could play safely, so a lot of conversations were around (if) we feel comfortable with the risk our athletes are subjected to,” Hartzell said. “We are now testing all of our athletes three times a week, including the test right before the game day. If enough athletes test positive, then we can’t have a game.”
Hartzell said he met with five or six Greek life leaders to discuss COVID-19 guidelines because the University does not have much control over houses off campus.
“A lot of this has been trying to be cooperative and communicative with them,” Hartzell said. “These governance leaders were a little stressed that they were enforcing rules among their own fraternities and sororities. I felt for them because they are trying to do the right thing. One of the sorority leaders even said it’s hard because the typical penalty that they would impose on each other is no events, but they can’t have events anyway.”
Hartzell said because most students live off campus, University disciplinary action for violating COVID-19 rules may discourage students from getting tested.
“We only have about 3,700 students on campus,” Hartzell said. “When we think about trade-offs, we would prefer to focus on health, and we don’t want to discourage testing if testing gets people in trouble. There’s no stigma if you test positive.”
In regards to recent national protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police, Hartzell said he wants all students, staff and faculty to feel welcome on campus.
“When a student is admitted to the University, we want them to know that they belong here, they should feel comfortable,” Hartzell said. “The summer was challenging and it brought some things back up that I think are worth being brought up. I think we have a chance to make substantive progress, not only for our Black students and staff, but for all of our community.”
Hartzell said he has been focusing on bringing the University community together by highlighting similarities among the UT community.
“I think universities can have a very positive role in that kind of regression,” Hartzell said. “It’s so much focus on how we’re different. I think we can help our students, faculty and staff focus on how we’re similar.”