While the pandemic’s effects are still being felt, the university is finding creative ways to move forward.
Appearing as part of the "Impacts of COVID-19 on Higher Education in Texas" webinar hosted by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) on Wednesday (Aug. 26), Texas Tech University President Lawrence Schovanec said COVID-19 had an immediate impact on all aspects of Texas Tech, which was compacted by the simultaneous impacts throughout the state and nation.
"That confluence of factors – the closures of businesses, day care facilities and K-12 – created some really unique challenges that have resulted in more than financial issues," Schovanec said. "There also are mental and social impacts that we see in faculty, staff and students. It has been really important for us to communicate with our community in ways that show we're sensitive to the stresses they're subjected to."
By pulling together, the Texas Tech community has met and even found innovative ways to overcome the obstacles presented.
Some of the earliest challenges involved technology. As campus closed, many students returned home and settled into online learning as best they could. With travel restrictions, international students felt cut off from their families.
Adapting to the changing situation, university administrators ensured everyone had equal access to resources they needed.
"Last spring, we began to distribute mobile hotspots and laptops," Schovanec said. "I certainly don't diminish the challenges of those in urban areas, but some of the difficulties in far West Texas relate to access to technology, which disproportionately affects lower socioeconomic groups."
After the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided financial assistance to more than 21,000 students at Texas Tech, the offices and staff members responsible for distributing that aid found effective ways to access the funding and communicate with students who could benefit from it.
Because most high schools are not allowing in-person events this year, Texas Tech's recruitment efforts could have suffered. To help high school students unable to take the standardized tests normally required for admission, the university adopted a test-optional enrollment policy in the spring. The policy did not make a significant difference in applications for this fall, and 43% of fall 2021 applicants have already applied with no standardized test scores.
"Now we are finding innovative ways to do a holistic review to be sure we're admitting students with adequate qualifications and the potential to succeed," Schovanec explained.
Campus research activities have increased during the shutdown. In addition to conducting research in their own disciplines, many faculty members have donated their laboratory personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline health care workers battling COVID-19. Texas Tech's Biological Threat Research Laboratory (BTRL), the first in the state to conduct coronavirus testing, has now completed and reported results for more than 14,000 samples.
"The pandemic has given universities a chance to highlight the impact and power of scholarship and the research we do," Schovanec said. "We all can cite a list of initiatives that show our contributions."
Going forward, Texas Tech's personnel will ensure the continuation of research of all kinds, much that does relate to COVID-19 and much that does not
Alumni engagement also looks different this year.
"Charitable giving hasn't been affected by the pandemic, because we have fantastic alumni, but we've had to communicate in other ways," Schovanec said. "Digital communication has provided some efficiencies, but the gold standard will always be face-to-face, personal interactions."
The questions surrounding athletics, of course, have been some of the largest challenges for the university to find a solution to – but it has.
"With the cancellations of events and the questions of name, image and likeness in recent court cases such as Alston v. NCAA that affect the status of amateur athletics, the challenges facing athletics are enormous," Schovanec said. "Also, the amount of planning that must go into maintaining a 25% capacity at games is significant. But access to athletic events is an important part of the culture we offer our students and alumni."
To help students dealing with financial harships and the realities of social distancing and access to some student services, the university has made a number of changes in the way students are billed. The athletics fee is just one of the fees Texas Tech has eliminated for this year. Over the summer, all campus and online learning fees were removed, even for students who returned to campus for Summer II.
"For the fall, we eliminated the distance-learning fee for all of our courses that traditionally would have been face-to-face," Schovanec said. "And, contrary to belief, online is not a less expensive mode of education because of personnel and overhead costs as well as ADA compliance."
Schovanec said he has been impressed so far with how well students are complying with mandatory face coverings and social distancing regulations, but stressed that continued vigilance will be necessary to maintain progress and the return to campus life.
"Of course, students consider academics in choosing a university, but also the culture, and that is the people," he said. "I received an email from a Spanish professor who was teaching in an Engineering building. He said, 'All I could see of students were their eyes above their masks, but in their eyes, I could see how excited they were to be back in a classroom, dealing with a person.'"
He believes that's something all students value.