MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee used his annual State of the University address Thursday, Aug. 20, to praise the hard work of faculty and administrators to reopen the campus while adapting to the unprecedented and ongoing changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“In nearly four decades as a university administrator, I have never experienced anything like this pandemic and its devastation on our entire community,” said McPhee, whose address was shared live via MTSU’s True Blue TV station and social media channels.
“Yet, throughout these past few months, as we were forced to make major changes in our operations and campus life, I was constantly amazed by the incredible resilience and adaptability of our campus family.”
The president’s address is typically delivered at the annual Fall Faculty Meeting before several hundred faculty and staff inside Tucker Theatre. This year, however, the meeting joined the series of events staged virtually due to COVID-19 precautions.
Meanwhile, in the address, McPhee also said:
- MTSU was named to Princeton Review’s Best 386 Colleges list, the second consecutive year for this national recognition.
- He expects MTSU’s Fall 2020 enrollment will be even or slightly above last year’s totals, thanks to gains in the College of Graduate Studies and efforts by student advisers in Academic Affairs that have improved retention.
- And the university is also prepared to quickly return to an all-online environment if virus transmission rates and public health guidance dictates.
“Our students chose MTSU because they believe in the quality of our programs and our commitment to each student,” McPhee told the faculty. “More importantly, they believe in you — and I believe in you. That belief is something you must not take lightly and we must remain dedicated to providing the best possible education, regardless of circumstances.”
McPhee’s full remarks are available at http://ow.ly/R3u530r5mNl and video excerpts of his remarks can be watched above.
Provost Mark Byrnes joined McPhee to preside over the ceremony, which included online recognition of newly tenured and promoted faculty, new faculty emeriti and this year’s faculty recipients of the MTSU Foundation Awards, including the Career Achievement Award, presented this year to biology professor Mary Farone. See the awards recognition portion of the program below:
Campus shifts to address COVID-19
Like many other universities, Middle Tennessee State University shifted to online delivery of courses in spring as the pandemic spread across the country. The university remained in an online environment throughout the summer while announcing its intent and preparations to return to some level of in-person classes for fall.
Using federal coronavirus relief funds as well as university funds, MTSU, through its Information Technology Division, invested millions of dollars in technology and training to allow faculty to deliver classes remotely. Also, MTSU loaned out hundreds of laptops and hotspots to students in need.
The university is offering five types of classes for fall ranging from full in-person to fully online, with various levels of hybrid courses in between. McPhee called the adjustments, along with student recruitment and retention efforts to stabilize enrollment, “remarkable.”
Yet McPhee also noted the pandemic’s negative effect on state revenues, resulting in all new higher education funding requests, including salary increases, being cut from the state budget and leading to slight trims in the overall university budget. The university will continue to monitor the budget and make adjustments accordingly during the coming year, he said.
McPhee acknowledged the public health challenges of returning to in-person classes and having students in on-campus housing, pointing to the work throughout the spring and summer by the university’s COVID-19 Task Force, led by Byrnes, to develop a comprehensive plan to bring students, faculty and staff back to campus as safely as possible.
The university has established a series of keys indicators such as number of positive cases, available local hospital beds and on-campus quarantine capacity that could trigger a return to online delivery. The university’s COVID-19 plan, updates and indicators are available online at https://www.mtsu.edu/coronavirus/.
“It is imperative that every member of the MTSU community adhere to our policies and practices to assure that we provide the safest possible environment for our faculty, staff, students and guests, while maintaining our recognized level of academic excellence. My expectation is that everyone on campus will commit to and follow all guidelines established by the university,” he said.
Among precautions, MTSU has mandated masks and face coverings inside all buildings, modified classroom space to allow for social distancing and reduced on-campus student housing to single-occupancy rooms to mitigate the spread of the virus. Housing space has been set aside for student quarantines if necessary, and public health signage is posted throughout the campus about social distancing, room occupancy limits, hand washing and other public safety measures. Sanitization of buildings has increased and food services have been modified to limit virus exposure.
“While totally eliminating the risk from the virus is currently impossible, I feel the steps we have and will take will enable us to effectively manage our campus health and safety,” he said. “We will experience infections among our employees and students and we will be prepared to respond. …We are prepared for all possible scenarios.”
Faculty applauded for perseverance
During the faculty awards, Farone, a 24-year veteran of the university and faculty member in the molecular biosciences doctoral program, was lauded for her research work, including the discovery of two novel bacteria by her, MTSU colleagues and students, and colleagues at Tennessee Tech University. Farone had the privilege of naming the new bacteria.
“I didn’t get to this point in my career alone,” said Farone, who also thanked her husband, Tony, also a longtime biology professor the College of Basic and Applied Sciences and fellow researcher. “It’s the students who motivate me to be a better teacher, a better mentor and to keep pursuing my research questions. And so, I’m grateful to my colleagues in the Biology Department, first for having faith in me and second, for supporting me.”
In applauding the latest Princeton Review accolade, McPhee noted that only two public institutions in Tennessee achieved the honor and “it’s something we should all take great pride in.”
“Combined with the fact that a number of our individual academic programs are nationally ranked by educational peers and industry leaders, I think it’s safe to say that our programs consistently meet and often exceed the needs and expectations of our many constituent groups,” he said.
The university continues upgrading campus facilities: a ribbon-cutting was held Tuesday on the new $39.6 million Academic Classroom Building for the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences; design and planning is in the works for a new School of Concrete and Construction Management building with an estimated fall 2022 completion date; and a new Parking Services Facility is set for completion in January and will house vehicle registration, bus maintenance and personnel offices.
MTSU will host a Virtual Convocation Ceremony beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 22, featuring Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who wrote “What the Eyes Don’t See” about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. The first day of classes is Monday, Aug. 24.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)