A Fall Like No Other

Whether one is returning to college or entering college for the first time, Fall of 2020 is clearly a fall semester like no other. While higher education institutions (HEIs) have been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic since the Spring 2020 semester, what occurs at these institutions this fall will be highly scrutinized and analyzed. Important state and federal policy decisions will simultaneously impact and reflect how we allow students, staff, faculty, and visitors to “re-enter”, or continue entering, our colleges and universities.

New Mexico has, arguably, the most decentralized higher education system in the country, comprised of three research universities, four regional/comprehensive universities, 17 community colleges, one military academy, and four tribal colleges. Each HEI reports to its own board, the majority of which are true governing boards. There is no single entity that oversees any of the sectors – we have neither a state-wide governing board nor coordinating board. Additionally, we currently have no State Higher Education Executive Officer (SHEEO) in place. 

Although the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico has been well-managed by our governor, the impact upon higher education institutions across the state has been profound. The financial impact to UNM for the spring and summer semesters alone has been $92M. This, coupled with a decrease in our state’s oil and gas revenues, has created a significant financial shortfall for our state, and hence for all of our HEIs. All this is occurring during the same time period that we are grappling with the extra costs that HEIs must bear in the face of the pandemic: testing, contact tracing, enhanced cleaning, personal protective equipment, to name a few. Loss of auxiliary revenue from athletics and on-campus programs and services could easily tally in the tens of millions of dollars, assuming major disruptions continue for an extended period.

As New Mexico’s flagship university, UNM stands as the only Research 1 university in the state, a campus also supporting a strong Division I athletic program, and the home of the state’s only academic health science center. At the same time, we remain cognizant that UNM is also a Hispanic-Serving and a Minority-Serving Institution. How we “Bring Back the Pack” of Lobos to UNM impacts an extraordinarily diverse group of students, faculty, and staff. UNM has worked collaboratively with the governor, and with the other six universities in the state, as we planned our fall semester, mindful of our many constituencies. 

Under the leadership of President Garnett Stokes, UNM has developed and is implementing a comprehensive plan, Bringing Back the Pack (BBTP), to return our campus to fully operational status. From the moment the pandemic erupted in New Mexico, our health provider experts at UNM’s Health Sciences Center have been active not only at the university level, but at the entire state level, in providing leadership and expertise to the statewide management of COVID-19. An Incident Management Team (IMT) was quickly established at UNM, but also at the state level, with daily coordination between the two. Additionally, President Stokes appointed leads across our academic and health enterprises who staffed an internal COVID-19 task force, developing and implementing jointly our institutional response plan and all its component parts.

Our BBTP plan includes continuing guidance on every aspect of returning to campus:

  • Resident Life & Student Housing
  • Guide to Fall 2020 at UNM for Students
  • Guide to Fall 2020 at UNM for Instructors
  • Guidance for staff and departments on safely returning to campus
  • Travel guidelines
  • Guidelines for conducting research in both on- and off-campus facilities
  • Process for opening individual departments
  • Daily e-screening policy
  • Worksite protocols
  • COVID safe practices
  • Athletic guidance

In addition to the above, our UNM Government and Community Relations team worked to implement regularly-scheduled virtual briefings for Members of Congress and, separately, the New Mexico State Legislature. Each briefing has featured a different aspect of our COVID response plan, weaving together the evolution of our academic and health strategies to support a safe and supportive environment for all our students, our faculty, our researchers, health care professionals and other staff, and the community we serve. The pandemic has created these and other new opportunities to build stronger relationships with our government constituents, highlighting the many touchpoints by which UNM’s work informs their work, and, at the same time, how their decisions affect our own. The integration of federal, state, tribal, and local government responses has been critical as we attempt to align new and existing resources.

If we had to offer one single recommendation we could share from our experience with the pandemic, it would be to fully integrate professionals working in government relations, community relations, and university communications in your ongoing COVID response planning. Given UNM’s many unique roles within the state, it was imperative that we chart an effective path forward that synchronizes our operations with the surrounding communities and the governmental bodies who represent them. Being open and adaptable to both internal and community pressures has allowed us to remain responsive, to meet the expectations of stakeholders, and position UNM for emerging from the pandemic a stronger and more resilient institution, capable of withstanding the long-term pressures that lie ahead.