University leaders answer faculty, staff questions during virtual town hall

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As Penn State confronts the impacts of the coronavirus, University leaders took time to answer questions and concerns from faculty and staff during a 90-minute virtual Town Hall on March 24.

“I want you to know that the decisions the University is making are based on three objectives: the first and foremost objective is the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students. The second is to get our students to the finish line, so they can graduate and continue to meet their learning outcomes that we know are so important to their success. And the third is founded on a concern for the financial health and well-being of our employees,” said Penn State President Eric Barron at the start of the event. “I want you to know how much we appreciate all the work our faculty and staff are doing to deal with these issues as they emerge. You have our gratitude — thank you so much for what you do.”

The virtual Town Hall event was the first of two held to address questions as Penn State responds to the novel coronavirus. A second 90-minute event focusing on students and families was held virtually in the afternoon.

Joining Barron for the faculty and staff event were:

  • Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost;
  • David Gray, senior vice president for finance and business/treasurer;
  • Lorraine Goffe, vice president for human resources; and
  • Matthew Ferrari, associate professor of biology and researcher in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

With large segments of Penn State employees working from home and students attending classes remotely, Barron sought to address concerns with faculty and staff continuing to be paid and announced that Penn State will continue to pay employees at least through the end of April. “Our objective here is, with all of this stress, not for you to have an abrupt financial dislocation when you’re dealing with so many other different things,” Barron said.

After the event, Barron added, “It is important to note that there are not plans for a sudden transition on April 30. The University shared information about the decision to pay faculty, staff and student workers through April 30 in order to help members of our community manage their short-term financial needs. This decision enables the University to take time to think through how to best conduct financial planning to minimize the potential need for further actions should this situation and a challenged economy continue. Further, it gives the University time to consult with the Board of Trustees, and to take active steps, like advocating for stimulus support, and determining how available state or federal funds may help Penn State navigate these challenging times. The University anticipates being able to share with our community by mid-April decisions regarding any pay changes, furloughs and/or lay-offs, which, if necessary, would not take effect until May, at the earliest.”

Jones said the University is taking steps to manage the situation. “At this moment, we are asking units to not fill new positions or open positions unless they are mission critical. While we maintain critical reserves, it is reasonable to assume that we will not have a GSI [general salary increase] program this year, which I know will be a big disappointment to many. We feel it’s important to acknowledge some of these challenges. Together, we will see Penn State through this crisis and eventually emerge an even stronger University and community.”

As the vast majority of Penn State employees entered their second full week of remote work, a number of staff members asked for clarification about performing their duties and balancing the demands of work and family life.

Goffe said, “We’re encouraging leaders to be as flexible as possible, as creative as possible and looking at opportunities for telecommuting. For example, there may be work that lends itself to telecommuting that simply haven’t been done in the unit — projects, for example. And so we ask all employees to work with their unit leadership and their HR representative to think creatively about the kinds of work they can take on during the time of change and transition for the organization.”

To assist employees who have been working remotely, Penn State Human Resources:

  • Has launched a remote work website to assist employees, as well as managers and supervisors, with resources as they continue the transition into remote working;
  • Is reminding employees who require help in their personal or professional lives of its free Employee Assistance Program for benefits-eligible employees and their families; and
  • Has publicized the employee assistance fund to help with those experiencing hardship.

“We encourage you to reach out to them and use these resources,” Goffe said.

Gray acknowledged the remaining employees who still must come to campus and the importance of safety and social distancing. “We have sent out a powerful — and I think clear — message through our unit leaders, and through all of our managers and supervisors for those staff and faculty who really find it absolutely essential to the functioning of their jobs. I prefer to call it ‘physical distancing’ when we want to maintain our social connections. But we need to maintain that physical distance of a minimum of six feet.”

For tenure-track faculty members concerned about the coronavirus’ disruption of the promotion and tenure process, Jones said that faculty members will have an additional year before their tenure review.

“This emerged very early as a concern among our faculty because, quite frankly, our promotion process is a rigorous one and our expectations are high,” Jones said. “We made a decision to extend the tenure clock for anyone who is in the probationary pre-tenure period by one year. What this means is, no one will have to request an exception. So we’re hoping that this one-year, across-the-board extension will relieve a lot of the concern that the faculty may have during this interruption of their research.”

To assist with faculty members transitioning their courses from the classroom to a remote-learning environment, the University:

  • Established a separate website with teaching and technology resources; and
  • Issued guidance for instructors on academic questions related to the outbreak.

As Penn State works to confront large issues, University leaders also acknowledged smaller-scale concerns expressed by faculty and staff, including parking permit fees, travel reimbursements, fitness membership fees and so on.

“I would just ask for a little bit of patience and forbearance,” Gray said. “It’s not that we have forgotten about those. We’re asking our colleagues to give us a little bit of time and patience as we work through those and we will be responding to those requests.”

Despite all of the challenges posed by the coronavirus, Barron said he was inspired by the Penn State community’s response to the outbreak. “I’m really, really heartened —and I think the entire administrative team is really heartened — by the degree to which people are stepping up and are being creative.”

He continued, “When I hear from a student that was going to interview through Career Services, and the interviews are canceled (because of coronavirus), and someone in Career Services is connecting an employer to the student so that they can connect through a Zoom interview, I get this sense of how powerful this community is.”

With thousands of questions submitted by the University community and limited time to answer every question during the event, faculty and staff can review the FAQs at psu.edu/virusinfo/faqs, which have been and will continue to be updated following the town hall. To view both the student and employee Town Halls in their entirety, the sessions will soon be archived and available to watch online at LiveEvents.psu.edu.

Since 2015, Town Hall meetings have provided opportunities for members of the Penn State community to receive updates on University initiatives, hear from administrative leaders about key issues, ask questions and provide feedback.