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University officials face uncertainty as COVID-19 tensions mount

Sophie Smith Jasper Jones

Editor-in-chief News editor

Since early last week, University officials have been working overtime to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and to comply with the directions of local and federal health agencies. Already, major changes have rocked campus, most notably the decision to transition all classes to online learning for the rest of the semester. University staff members have been meeting daily to make such decisions and to plan for the upcoming months. In a March 17 interview, University President Steve Thorsett discussed the possibility of closing campus and the uncertain futures of Commencement and Bearcat Days, as well as who is involved in making decisions about subjects like these.

Thorsett said the University is currently unlikely to close, unless the Oregon Health Authority [OHA] directs otherwise.

“If there were a time that the health authority told us we have to close, then we’d have to close. I don’t foresee that at the moment,” he said. “To date, all of the advice continues to be that schools should remain open.”

Thorsett also noted that the University is aware that some students are unable to leave campus, for a variety of reasons.

“We have students who don’t really have good options, whether they’re international students or if they’re students who don’t have a safe space to go to. We feel it’s important that we provide that.” 

Regarding Commencement, Thorsett said, “It’s hard to make definitive decisions.” 

On March 15, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that gatherings of 50 or more people be cancelled or postponed until at least May 10. Commencement is scheduled for May 17. 

The University is in the early stages of devising alternatives should Commencement be unable to take place as scheduled. It may be postponed until later in the summer or during Opening Days, for example, Thorsett said, or the University may modify Commencement events in order to avoid drawing such a large crowd. The University will make a decision about Commencement by April 3.

“Commencement is a really important event, for lots of reasons, and I think we’re going to work really hard not to cancel it,” Thorsett said.

Similar uncertainties surround Bearcat Days, the admissions events that take place three times each spring semester. The first Bearcat Days happened last week. The second and third are scheduled for April 2 and April 16.

“We aren’t going to do the Bearcat Days as they have been done,” Thorsett said. Most likely, many prospective students will be taking virtual visits, which may include pre-recorded campus tours and panels or meetings with faculty and students conducted through Zoom.

“At the last Bearcat Days, there was a camera crew filming the events, in part to get ready for the idea that we might have to put more of that on the web,” said Thorsett.

Two University task forces are at work addressing issues surrounding the pandemic. Both groups are responsible for tracking updates from external organizations such as the OHA and CDC, and for making decisions based on these updates and on the community’s needs. The main task force, headed by Director of Bishop Wellness Center Don Thomson, is composed of about 28 University officials, as well as ASWU President Amarit Ubhi (’20), who recently joined the group as a student representative. The second, smaller group, includes Thorsett, Thomson, several University vice presidents and staff from the Communications office. Since the beginning of last week, both groups have been meeting at least once a day. 

Emphasizing how quickly the University has had to respond to the virus, Thorsett noted that many staff and faculty members have had to work well over their normal hours in recent days.

“Don [Thomson] is working almost 24/7, I think,” Thorsett said, adding that Thomson is frequently in conversation with the OHA and other agencies about updates concerning the virus.  

Thorsett and other University leaders are also in communication with their counterparts at other colleges and universities, particularly the schools affiliated with the Northwest Conference, or the athletics league Willamette competes in.

“We’re all in this together,” Thorsett said. “It is really useful, at a time like this, to be able to talk about these really big challenges that we’re all facing.”

Thorsett urged community members to offer their feedback to staff and faculty members during this time of transition. 

“There are a lot of people working really hard to try to figure out how to make what is a really, really hard situation as good as it can be,” he said. “People need to hear what’s working, and what the priorities need to be if everything can’t be done at once. There are lots of people listening.”

All updates about the University’s response to COVID-19 can be found on the Coronavirus Updates page on the Willamette website.

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