MSU's President Says University Will Probably Lose Millions With Decision To Keep Campus Closed

Aug 21, 2020

This fall, Michigan State University's campus is going to be a lot emptier.

Earlier this week, President Samuel Stanley Jr. announced undergraduate courses would stay fully online, and that most students are being asked to stay off campus and stay home for the semester.


This comes after Stanley said in May he would fully reopen campus for fall classes.

He says a rise in cases statewide throughout the summer, several outbreaks in East Lansing and within MSU’s Athletic Department and seeing other universities face an explosion of cases as students moved in brought him to this week’s decision.

RELATED: Stanley: COVID-19 Spikes At Other Institutions Drove Decision To Cancel On-Campus Undergrad Courses

Now, he has ruled out any possibility of bringing undergrads back to campus at any point in the fall semester, and it’s too early to decide on the spring.

There still remains much uncertainty about how the university will ensure accessibility to all students, and especially, how it will cope with the massive financial fallout of keeping campus closed.

“The overall losses are probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Stanley said. “But I think we also are doing a number of things to try and mitigate it.”

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with President Stanley about the change of plans and the impact of that decision.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I'm Sophia Saliby.

This fall, Michigan State University's campus is going to be a lot emptier. Earlier this week, President Samuel Stanley Jr. announced undergraduate courses would stay fully online, and that most students are being asked to stay off campus and stay home for the semester.

I spoke to President Stanley in June when he outlined an initial plan to allow students to learn in person. Now as those plans change, he joins me again. Thank you for being here.

President Samuel Stanley Jr.: My pleasure, Sophia.

Saliby: Just briefly, can you talk me through your decision making process that led us to this shift back to remote classes for undergrads?

Stanley: So obviously, we were more optimistic in June, and I think we were driven by the fact that cases had come down very significantly in Michigan, even into the double digits essentially on a daily basis. Since then, a couple of things have happened. So, one obviously, was the cases continued to go up again, and it was primarily in the 18 to 24 age group, which was obviously of concern to us, because that's the age group of many or most of our students. 

At the same time, we had the episode at Harper's, which was concerning again, because it did represent an outbreak. And then we had the experience with athletics Where, as you know, we brought students in, we tested them before they came. About 0.8%, or close to 1%, were positive in the initial testing. And then over time, though, we had more positive tests and ended up with about 30 athletes, and or staff testing positive.

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I think all of those things, though, we felt we had modalities in place, we understood what had happened in some of them. We thought we had modalities in place to help counter that, and we really were encouraged by the fact that we had brought more than 1000 people back for work on campus and laboratories and so on. We reopened our laboratories, and really did that without widespread testing simply by the same measures we plan to use for students.

But then we watched what happened when other universities began to open and that was really in these past couple weeks, really the past three weeks we watched this.  We saw in two universities particularly, widespread outbreaks among students. This had always been something that concerned us greatly. We thought the modalities they were using were very close to the things we were planning to do as well. We couldn't determine what was really a difference between the two, so we made the decision.

Saliby: Classes do start in a few weeks. They might not be able to go on campus, but at least some MSU students will be back in East Lansing, in houses and apartments. Do you feel responsible for their health and safety even though they're not going to be on campus?

Stanley: Well, we want to do everything we can to help keep them safe, and we'll cooperate with fraternities and sororities. I've met with, actually, the fraternity and sorority council today to talk to them about some of their responsibilities. We talked to landlords about ways in which we can be helpful. We've certainly been collaborating with East Lansing on shared approaches such as mask wearing between the municipalities, so we do have their responsibility.

On the other hand, they are adults. They are making choices about where they want to live. We have encouraged them to go home, but we understand some may have leases. We've encouraged them to talk to their landlords about the possibility of modifying those leases, but that's really a decision that will be made by those business owners.

People make choices, and we have to make sure we're doing everything we can to help them make the right choices, but we don't always control what people do.

So, I think we do feel a sense of trying to keep everybody safe. That's important to us on campus. At the same time, people make choices, and we have to make sure we're doing everything we can to help them make the right choices, but we don't always control what people do.

Saliby: MSU is not offering any type of tuition discount. Can you explain why, even though students might not be getting the same academic experience than they would in person?

Stanley: So, that's always a difficult issue. I think the challenge for us is that our costs essentially remain the same or if anything they're slightly more to deliver online, at least at this point in time. And that is because, of course, the key costs in any institution is the people, our extraordinary faculty and staff. And so, they're still doing their jobs. They're still out there teaching. Whether it's remotely now, online, they're still teaching that doesn't change.

So, the rest of the cost structure is really kind of baked into what we do already. And what I would say to people is that this is a Michigan State University education you're getting. It's Michigan State University faculty. It's their contact, or content, that's available to you. It's really, that's what makes the difference.

Saliby: And then with classes online, how do you plan on making them, and resources and technology all accessible to everyone?

Stanley: That remains a challenge for us, and so we spent a lot of time taking a look at that. We began some of that work, obviously, in the spring. We provided hotspots for certain students. We're looking at what the options are, where the needs are, and trying to determine the best way to kind of match the people who truly have need in this area. And so it is a challenge, but we're looking at how to provide and make sure they have access to internet.

Saliby: You said there is no possibility of undergrads coming back for any part of the fall semester. And it's a changing situation. But is there a timeline on when a decision will be made for the spring semester?

Stanley: So, I'm reluctant to say at this point in time. As we said, I think with this virus the more time we have generally to make decisions, hopefully the more informed decisions we make. Circumstances change right away. We talked about how much better things looked in June compared to when they look now, but now it looks a little better than it did a couple of weeks ago.

So, it's changing all the time, and I think we want to be able to adapt. And again, we'll learn a lot from what's happening in the fall, we'll learn a lot from other institutions, there may be some that do, are moving forward with opening. If they have strategies that are effective, we can find ways to adapt that. We can gear up in particular areas that we think will make us more effective.

Saliby: Other universities are tracking COVID-19 cases through contact tracing apps or even wearable technology. Is that something you would consider doing in future semesters when students return?

Stanley: Yeah, we've been doing a lot of conversations with a couple of major companies who have developed these. And actually, we've had the possibility of being pilots for them. Whether that'll go ahead or not, now that we don't have quite as many students on campus, we'll see. But this would have been something for all campus, all students to have, and would be an app that one was able to take on one's phone that would provide evidence about proximity to other phones and so on, provide that kind of information. We're working through issues around data and privacy and so on, but we think that's a real option for us in the very near future.

Saliby: You mentioned this earlier, but obviously, it costs a lot to run a university and things are changing. There's not going to be as many students here in East Lansing and on the campus. What is the economic impact going to be of this decision when it comes to both MSU but also its employees?

Stanley: What we've seen and what had seen up until the days before we made this decision was, we really were holding most of our in state enrollment. So, the number of students coming in-state was really holding maybe slightly higher than years past. Credits are up, so people were taking more courses. Domestic out-of-state was down very slightly, but international was definitely down. So,that was going to have a significant financial impact certainly in the tens of millions of dollars, for sure, because of that. How this changes with this decision, I think remains to be seen.

I think it is possible that some students unable to come to campus may decide they're sitting out [or] may decide to go elsewhere, so there could be further decline in enrollment both in-state and out-of-state because of that.

And then the other key question for us, is what's happening in Congress right now. The aid that will be provided by another stimulus act, is really important for us. The previous bills, there was direct aid that came to higher education that would be beneficial. And of course, any aid to the state of Michigan, would help us in terms of our state on occasion. So, the losses are going to be considerable. We have losses associated with athletics as well.

The overall losses are probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but I think we also are doing a number of things to try and mitigate it.

So, the overall losses are probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but I think we also are doing a number of things to try and mitigate it. In terms of workforce, all of our academic workforce, I think are working, so we don't plan to make any changes there.

Where there might be changes, which we've had before, would be in some of the support staff in the dormitories or other areas, and we're working through that. We have a furlough plan that, again, provides health benefits to everybody until the end of this year.

And so, if we had to let some people off for a time being, it would probably be by that furlough mechanism, which would again, at least protect them in terms of their health care benefits. And what they would get in terms of unemployment would depend again on what happens in the federal bill going forward. 

Saliby: Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr. is the president of Michigan State University. Thank you for joining me.

Stanley: My pleasure again and anytime.

Saliby: This is WKAR. I'm Sophia Saliby.