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University leadership looks ahead during winter town hall

Winter 2021 Leadership Town Hall
April 7 update: Faculty and staff can now view a recording of the virtual town hall.

​​More than 750 faculty and staff joined the winter 2021 virtual Leadership Town Hall on March 18 to hear from DePaul President A. Gabriel Esteban about university operations and planning for the academic year ahead. Following the presentation, members of the president's cabinet and senior leadership joined a question and answer session.

A recording of the event will be shared in Newsline when it becomes available. The following summary captures key topics addressed throughout the event.

Mission and gratitude

To begin the morning's event, the Rev. Guillermo Campuzano, C.M., vice president of Mission and Ministry, asked attendees to join him in a moment of prayer and remembrance for those killed in an act of violence in Georgia earlier this week, and for all those suffering around the world.

“We are called to embrace those in our community and beyond," he said. “May we work together toward a just world, where all can live free of bigotry, oppression and violence."

Following a video detailing the university's mission statement review process, Fr. Memo shared news about the updated statement. The Board of Trustees unanimously approved the new statement earlier this month and it will be available on the DePaul website soon.

Dr. Esteban began his presentation by recognizing this month marks the unwanted milestone of one year of remote learning and work for DePaul. He thanked faculty and staff for their commitment to keeping the campus community safe by adapting courses, providing flexibility and support to students, as well as keeping the university operating safely and effectively.

Student engagement and support

Despite many challenges, Dr. Esteban reported students remained engaged over the last year. From journalism students meeting with Illinois Governor JB Pritzker to nursing faculty and students administering COVID-19 vaccines across the city, Blue Demons are finding ways to remain active members of the university and Chicago communities.

To help students and families facing unprecedented financial hardships, the university established a number of new scholarships and received substantial gifts. These include the Emmett Till Scholarship, the John Horan Endowed Scholarship and the George L. and Tanya S. Ruff Endowed Scholarship. The Office of Advancement's Now We Must campaign has raised close to $84 million. Last month's Blue Demon Challenge raised more than $3.4 million, the most in the campaign's history.

Beyond gifts to the university, DePaul also benefited from the latest round of federal stimulus funding.

“On Wednesday night, we received a second tranche of CARES funds, totaling $22.6 million," said Sherri Sidler, interim executive vice president. “Students will receive $7.1 million of the funds, and the remaining $15.5 million will replace lost revenues."

Budget outlook and enrollment projections

DePaul, however, continues to face a widening gap between revenue and expenses. Even with a record enrollment of freshmen in fall 2020, the university faces a decrease in continuing and undergraduate enrollment. As of March 15, enrollment for the spring quarter stood at 85.7% of the budgeted goal. Leadership predicts a net tuition and fee revenue to be approximately $22 million less than budget by the end of this fiscal year.

The pandemic also affected auxiliary revenues, including room and board, athletics gate receipts, and retail leasing, with a projected $50 million less than budget. Leadership expects a portion of the negative variances to be offset by approximately $30 million in expense savings from hiring freezes, reduced travel and declined remodeling.

DePaul is not alone in dealing with enrollment challenges – institutions across the country face these issues, exacerbated by the pandemic, Dr. Esteban explained. Evidence indicates a decline in the number of U.S. high school graduates beginning around 2025.

Dr. Esteban noted current admissions rates for freshman in fall 2021 are up, with applications up 16.8%. Enrollment deposits for fall 2021 also are up 5.5%. Continuing enrollment, however, is declining.

“While the freshman class is always highlighted internally and externally, that is not our only focus," said Soumitra Ghosh, vice president of Enrollment Management. “Graduate and transfer students are still important in maintaining overall enrollment. We face a few challenges, such as international immobility and hesitation of students to transfer from other four-year universities amid remote learning. However, as society recovers from the pandemic, we expect these enrollment numbers to recover as well."

The future of remote learning and work

As shared with the university community in January, DePaul expects to offer a full complement of in-person courses in fall 2021.

“Discussions are happening within individual units about which courses and programs should be in-person or can be offered in an online or tri-modal setting," said Salma Ghanem, interim provost. “We need to base these decisions on what is best for the students."  

Staff also learned the university will adopt a hybrid workforce model this fall.

“Based on what we've been through in the last year, we have learned what is possible," said Stephanie Smith, vice president of Human Resources. “We are planning for a more dynamic workplace. We have developed a framework and guidance for managers to work through scenarios on how units can adjust to this hybrid model. Some will be fully remote because it's clear it works. Some will be on campus because it is not feasible to work elsewhere. We anticipate most will be somewhere in between."

COVID-19 and the year ahead

As the university plans to increase the number of on-campus classes in the fall, attendees posed questions about health and safety measures.

“We are asking students if they have received the vaccine so we can get a sense of how many are vaccinated. We encourage all members of the DePaul community to get vaccinated when it is their turn," explained Gene Zdziarski, vice president of Student Affairs.

Since last spring, DePaul has taken various steps to ensure the safety of faculty, staff and students who need to visit and work regularly campus. There are staff in departments across the university who come to campus every day, and many others who come to campus several times a week, Zdziarski noted.

“In addition to ongoing cleaning of high touch surfaces, we have signage on social distancing and mask requirements throughout both campuses, as well as hand sanitization stations," said Bob Janis, vice president of Facility Operations. “Classrooms and commons spaces have been adjusted to meet occupancy criteria. All elevators now have UV filtration, which purifies elevator cab air. More stairwells are available for those not comfortable with elevators. We also worked with licensed professional engineers on adjustments to the operation of our ventilation systems in the buildings, increasing air flow, introducing a higher volume of fresh air into the systems and installing a higher grade of filters."

Looking ahead, Dr. Esteban noted his optimism for the future.

“I wish there was more certainty, but we live in unusual times," he said. “As soon as it's your turn, get vaccinated. That is one thing we can do as a community to protect one another. Through this last year, we've shown we can come together as a community, which gives me hope. Thank you for everything you do."