RIT president discusses university status, near future, on WITR

Bob Finnerty

RIT President David Munson speaks about the COVID-19 impact for RIT on WITR-FM Wednesday.

RIT President David Munson talked about the current status and near future of the university during a special broadcast, “RIT Rallies: The COVID-19 Response,” Wednesday on WITR-FM (89.7).

He said the administration, as well as faculty and staff, are examining numerous options for alternatives to the traditional commencement, and also whether face-to-face learning on campus can resume in the fall.

“Obviously we’re waiting just a little while to see how the virus situation plays out,” he said. “We’ll have to get past the peak of the virus and start gaining some confidence about what may be possible in the future. Our biggest hope is that in a few weeks from now, or in a couple of months, we can get back to normal.

The special edition of the radio show was hosted by Luke Auburn, senior communications specialist with University Communications. Auburn fielded questions that were submitted and covered a few topics of his own. In their discussion, Munson said he has been pleased by the almost seamless transition to distance learning that was made necessary by the virus.

“It rolled out pretty well,” Munson said. “So far, we’re happy with how it’s going.”

One obstacle to online learning for some students was the lack of equipment, while other students are currently living in rural areas without technological access. Munson said RIT trustees have made significant donations to purchase a couple hundred Chromebook laptops that students can request if they need one to use for their classes.

“We also have a number of wireless hotspots that can be given to students, so if any students are having difficulty in that realm, they can let us know,” he said. Students may contact a faculty member, department head, dean, provost’s office or RIT’s Coronavirus hotline at (585) 475-3500.

Munson said with online learning and the majority of faculty and staff working from home, campus is eerily quiet “and a little bit spooky right now.” He said fewer than 300 students — most who had no other housing options — are now living on campus.

A common question of students and parents has been how refunds would be provided. Munson said refunds in prorated amounts for dining and housing costs for students residing in university housing are being looked at on an individual basis, student by student. Some may be tied in with their financial aid packages.

But refunds for tuition are not being offered. “We’re continuing courses and graduating students on time,” Munson said. “We have to have sufficient resources to keep the band together, to have all our faculty intact and to be able to pay them.”

He also spoke about commencement options. He has heard from more than 100 students and continues to seek opinions from upcoming graduates.

“A couple of options we’re talking about is to have some sort of face-to-face ceremony this fall, either Labor Day weekend or during Brick City Homecoming. The other option is we may have a virtual commencement in May and still have a party in the fall. We may mail out caps and gowns so students can take pictures with their families.”

One question was asked about how the pandemic is affecting sponsored research. Munson said most of the lab operations of funded research projects being worked on by RIT students, faculty and staff have come to a halt, but work continues from home for those involving writing journal articles and conference papers.

He said lab work is allowed if it may lead to a positive impact on the Coronavirus situation. RIT is collaborating with the University of Rochester and Rochester Regional Health with creating a prototype ventilator. Others are being asked to help map and track where and how fast the virus is being spread locally.

Munson said graduates and trustees are involved in making surgical masks and face shields and are contributing to study a possible vaccine or testing of drugs.

“That’s another type of research we’ve greenlighted,” he said. “There are probably going to be a number of faculty and staff over time who are going to be taking a look back to provide better models and help us be better prepared.”

He said students who need help in areas other than academics may continue to use RIT’s online mental health services, which are listed on RIT’s Coronavirus website.

“There are some regulations that don’t allow us to provide full-service counseling for those who are outside the state of New York. We’re trying to get that changed during this period. But for the most part, students can expect to get the same services they are used to receiving.”

Munson said the crisis will have a great economic impact for RIT. “We’re looking at the financial side very carefully. If we didn’t have our business hat on at this time, we really wouldn’t be in a good position for the future. Refunds for housing and meals will add up to many millions of dollars not in our budget, but we hope to recoup some of that from the aid package passed by Congress.”

Munson said he doesn’t see this crisis as having an immediate impact on construction projects planned on campus, although work on the Global Cybersecurity Institute building has been halted until the crisis passes. He said that could delay its opening “by a little bit.”

Plans for the Innovative Making and Learning Complex and a performing arts center building are still in the design phase.

In closing, Munson thanked the entire RIT community for “rallying to the cry and assisting in every way possible. The faculty and staff worked so hard to convert practically the entire curriculum to an online format. And thank you to the student body for being so patient and understanding. Best wishes to our entire audience and to your loved ones. Stay safe. Follow the rules, and when we all get to come together again, there’s going to be one big party. Take care.”

Ask Munson — RIT Rallies: The COVID-19 Response

(download transcript)