Diacon discusses university finances, outlook amid coronavirus pandemic


KentWired staff interviews President Diacon, Thursday Feb. 13, 2020.

KentWired Staff

Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

KW: To get started with talking about finances, looking forward after COVID-19 or as it continues to progress, what’s the type of situation that the university is facing? Are we going to get help from the state and federal government? What happens if we don’t pull enough assistance to cover the losses that we’re going through right now?

President Todd Diacon: Well, I think the first thing to say is that the past five years we’ve been engaged in some pretty aggressive cost-containment work and becoming more effective, more efficient. This year, for example, we presented — and every year presented — a balanced budget. So we’ve been really good stewards of the institution’s research resources. And so when we started this fiscal year we didn’t know there was going to be a pandemic. We were doing well financially before the pandemic. And really that just goes to about five years’ worth of really hard work and making hard decisions and doing good things. The one-time cost this year from the pandemic is going to be around $25 million. That’s the cost of the refunds plus some various other costs. We’ll get about $9 million of that back from the federal government. So we’re looking at somewhere around $18 to $19 million that we will have to come up with and we’ll do that through some reserves that we have and then we’ll put some projects on hold. So for example, we had planned on doing a $7.5 million HVAC project adding air conditioning to Verder this summer and we’ll put that on hold for at least a year and use that $7.5 million to help us cover our one-time cost. So, is it easy? It’s not easy at all. Next year will also be a challenge, but I think we’re as well-placed [financially] as anybody in Ohio going into the pandemic.

KW: You said the refund in total is about $25 million. Are you still on track? Has everything processed refund-wise? Are people still waiting for their prorated room and board, parking pass refunds?

Diacon: So, just to clarify, the total one-time cost that we expect to have for this year because of the pandemic is around $25 million. Those are costs that are in addition to the refunds. The refunds themselves are somewhere around $14 or $15 million. My understanding is that four or five days ago, many and even most of the refunds had been paid already and I suspect all of them will be paid shortly. We announced we would pay them by April 30 and I think we’ll meet that deadline. We’ll exceed that deadline by two weeks. We will be early two weeks on those payments. 

KW: Now I wanted to talk about the general fee the university charges. I know that wasn’t included in the refund. I mean, it’s almost $22 million worth these students pay and with the semester being cut short it leaves a roughly $8 million that would’ve gone to Student Services and student departments that students aren’t necessarily receiving anymore. I know that I spoke with Eric [Mansfield] and he told me that money went toward moving courses online. However, Blackboard already has Ultra built in where instructors are able to use things such as video chatting software similar to Zoom and Skype. Do you know how this transition to move these courses online became so expensive, and what exactly did the money pay for? 

Diacon: So school is still in session. We moved all of our courses to remote learning and the university continues. Our health centers are still operational. That’s something that general fees pay for. General fees pay for our psychological counseling services. Those are still in full operation through tele-counseling. So, as the university continues to operate, we continue to use those general fees. Now, we also did have some expenses moving fully online, not so much because of any expansion of Blackboard, but because of having to purchase particularly more pieces of hardware. For example, some remote hot spots for students that didn’t have access to the internet. We had to make several purchases of laptops for faculty that did not have computers at home. And so it wasn’t just a software for costs and the transition, there were other costs as well.

KW: Looking into the fall 2020 class, do we have an idea of when that class size will be available and then what does that mean for our budget based on the class size if it’s lower than we expected?

Diacon: Well, we certainly derive a considerable portion of our operating budget from tuition revenues. And so of course any increase or decrease in tuition would impact the size of the budget. It’s too early to know yet. We pushed back the deadline from May 1 to June 1 because of the uncertainty created by the pandemic and the fact that people were moving as high school students to online instruction and they had their own issues to deal with. So, in a normal year, we’d have a pretty good idea of how many students will be in our freshman class, but since we pushed back acceptance by a month, it’s too early to tell yet.

KW: And to piggyback off of that, is there a date set to decide whether the fall semester will be online or if we’ll return to campus?

Diacon: Well, we’ll always follow CDC and particularly the Ohio Department of Health guidelines. At this moment, we are confident we’ll be back in the fall. If you look at the modeling that’s out there, that suggests that will happen.

KW: What is the plan for student employees going forward? For those who had jobs on campus this semester that were hoping to continue them into the summer and even further than that, but what’s the plan for student employees? Will they still be getting paid throughout the summer?

Diacon: I don’t have any information on student employment in the summer. That’s not something I’ve been in any conversations about. I am very proud of the fact that we were able to keep our student employees whole through the spring semester. I guess I just haven’t been involved in discussions about the summer. 

KW: The university sent an email about the pass/fail [classes], but there were some exceptions with it. When will we know what those exceptions were to pass/fail? Then also, what was the motivation? Why was it such an important thing to put out for students?

Diacon: I think that was something that made sense to us. It’s something that students were mentioning. It’s something that a lot of schools have done nationwide. A lot of students were having to deal with a lot. It was a rapid transition in the pandemic so it made sense. I think that the guiding rubric was there were some courses for national licensure, state licensure and assessment or accreditation purposes where there were some state and national reasons why those faculty did not want to move to pass/fail. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. 

KW: Along similar lines, I know a lot of the on-campus colleges have internship requirements for graduation. But some summer internships specifically have been canceled or have just been removed completely. Is the university considering adding internship courses to any of the plans to allow seniors to graduate in the fall if that’s what they’re looking at or even next spring?

Diacon: So that’s a great question for Provost Tankersley; that’s the unit that would be directing those things. I will say that when internships have been required for national licensure, state licensure, national accreditation, or at least for this semester, most national and state waived those for students who were graduating this semester. And then for going forward, I would encourage you to talk to Provost Tankersley.

KW: Do you know of any Kent State employees or families who contracted coronavirus? Is the university reaching out to anyone who has contracted it?

Diacon: I have not read any reports of a Kent State community member and by that I mean an employee or a student who’s contracted coronavirus. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been, but I have not [seen it].

KW: I know Kent State is doing a lot to help with everything going on with COVID-19. Can you speak a little bit about the donations, the mask-making and what other things employees are doing to help out?

Diacon: Well, I mean, I think it’s been a heroic effort all the way around and amidst everybody dealing with their own family situations. You know, people worrying about their parents and grandparents, their children, themselves. So in the midst of all that, people have also done great acts of charity. So our DI initiative opened up their makerspace and are making protective shields, facial shields. Our nursing school donated ventilators to area hospitals. All of our labs, all of our nursing clinical spaces donated all of their protective equipment. So what I really am impressed by is at a time when we’re all dealing with our own personal impacts from the coronavirus, people nevertheless are looking outside of themselves and are doing wonderful acts.

KW: I know there are plans for the business building and other master plan construction that we’re planning to happen. Is that still planning to happen? 

Diacon: So now we’re talking about what we would call fiscal year ’21, which begins July 1. And it’s early yet depending on how enrollments look and other budgetary items, then we’ll have to decide if we’ll do a momentary pause on our construction projects or not. Certainly that would be one big lever we could move as we address our budget situation for fiscal year ’21. We haven’t made those decisions yet, but I can say that it’s very likely we will not do the Verder Hall conversion to air conditioning project in the summer because we’ll need those funds to help us cover the cost of the response.

KW: But as of right now, everything else is set to continue but could potentially change?

Diacon: I think I would put it differently. I would say that as we each plan out our budget, if there’s a need to cut our budget, and I can imagine that there will be, I think those projects would be one of the first things to be paused. 

KW: So I wanted to go back really quick and have you clarify something for me. I just did some quick math and I looked at the general fee and I know that you spoke about the services that still are accessible to students, but there’s still 75 percent of services that are no longer accessible like athletics, the recreational center, building operations, and that makes up almost $7.5 million dollars that you’re saying went to hardware for instructors, correct? I just wanted to clarify.

Diacon: What I gave you was an illustrative example. I don’t have in front of me a list of all of the additional expenses that we have encountered that will legitimately be included in a general fee expenditure. I gave you some examples, but I know that Provost Tankersley is looking into a few courses where it makes sense to return certain course fees and I know that her unit is looking into that and so I don’t have the list in front of me of all the things that we’ve been spending — general fee funds on that we weren’t expecting to for the pandemic. So again, what I gave you were some examples.

KW: I know if everything was normal, one of the big focuses would be the May 4 commemoration. I know that there have been press releases about it being a virtual May 4 now. Did you have any other details about what it’s going to look like?

Diacon: So we will indeed have a virtual May 4 commemoration. Today, I finished up my remarks that I will record in a video for that. We’ll have videos by other people that have been involved in both May 4 itself and involved in the planning of May 4. I think we’ll have some videos by popular musicians who’ve reached out to us. We will include some excerpts from a film known as Fire in the Heartland. That was a film that’s about Kent State that would have been shown that weekend, and I think we’ll have a 10 or 12-minute clip of that film. Some other aspects of the virtual commemoration will feature some footage from past commemorations and it will be roughly an hour in length.

KW: Are there any more details or decisions that have been made about commencement? 

Diacon: So our plan is to combine spring commencement with summer commencement. I’m hopeful that we can still do that. And then of course when it comes time to do that, we’ll have to follow whatever the CDC and state of Ohio guidelines are.

Diacon: What I’d like to finish up with is just particularly to thank students for their patience, their forbearance and really to salute them for continuing with their studies. None of us would have wanted to endure a pandemic, but I’m so very impressed that our faculty and that our administrators pushed out over 9,000 courses online in three working days. And that you all have been so patient in allowing us to do that and then finishing out your semester. Then finally, I just want to give a special shoutout to our graduating seniors. I’ll have a special note to them that’ll be going out in the near future, but certainly we want to salute their work and their careers at Kent State.