Barron discusses flexible learning options, return to campus for trustees

July 17, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With fall semester approaching, Penn State President Eric J. Barron outlined Friday the ongoing actions the University is taking to provide students with options and flexibility for learning this semester given the ongoing impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. He also highlighted institutional efforts to address racism, bias and community safety and to support international students across Penn State’s campuses in response to the pandemic and nationwide events. 

In a presentation to the Board of Trustees at its virtual meeting on July 17, Barron shared that the University is continuing to closely monitor COVID-19 disease data at the state and national levels and taking a flexible approach to all planning efforts to prepare for a return to campus, in line with the latest public health requirements and recommendations.

“As we prepare to welcome our community back to campuses, our top priority remains the health and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and community members,” Barron said. “We are here to support our students. The University is committed to meeting students where they are, building on the student experience, and providing a variety of options so students can succeed academically and meet their goals regardless of the method of delivery.”

Barron said there are a variety of reasons why students are choosing to return to campus or learn at home this semester — ranging from participating in on-campus research opportunities to being restricted by visa or travel restrictions — and that the University is providing flexibility to allow them to have a full learning experience.

He noted that while higher education institutions continue to face enrollment pressures given the ongoing negative impacts of the pandemic, that students from around the world and country are continuing to seek a Penn State education. For example, for the upcoming academic year, first-year baccalaureate applications for all campuses are up 0.1% and paid accepts are up 0.1% from 2019, and African American and Hispanic/Latinx paid accepts are up 19% from 2018. 

Return to campus 

To help students meet their educational outcomes this fall, students can choose to start at home, continue at home, or enroll at a Penn State campus, and there are a variety of course delivery options available, including in-person, hybrid or COVID-mixed mode, remote synchronous and remote asynchronous. These options are designed to be responsive to course needs to fulfill learning objectives, students’ individual housing preferences, and a possible need to transition to a fully remote semester

While available classroom space has been limited to allow for social distancing, the University anticipates that half of its classes across all campuses will have an in-person component this fall. To maximize in-person instruction and prioritize courses that require in-person elements, such as health and nursing programs, the University is re-thinking classroom spaces and adding areas not typically used for instruction.

For students arriving on campus, Welcome Week — featuring a staggered move-in timeline — will focus on connecting students and providing a smooth transition to Penn State through individual meetings with resident advisers and in-person and virtual programming such as campus tours, networking and performances. With physical distancing as a priority, the President’s New Student Convocation, Dean’s Meetings, and “Be A Part From The Start” will be adapted to avoid large group gatherings.

During the weeklong series of activities, students also will participate in required programming on topics including alcohol and drug use/abuse; sexual assault prevention and response; diversity, equity and inclusion; in-person and remote learning; and navigating a physically distanced campus; among others. 

The University also has created new programs for those learning at home this semester. For example, to support new international students remaining in China and South Korea this fall, the University has created two full-time residential programs, Penn State First: Shanghai and Penn State First: Seoul. Along with co-curricular activities and interaction with local alumni networks, the programs will enable students to take general education courses taught by local faculty and through asynchronous remote delivery by Penn State faculty.

Addressing racism, bias and intolerance

As part of a commitment to make changes across the University, Barron outlined recent actions to address racism, bias and community safety. 

“In response to acts of hatred and increased polarization of our nation, Penn State is taking steps to fight ignorance and intolerance, model inclusivity and embrace diversity at our University,” Barron said. “To support lasting change, our focus is on addressing challenges through a multi-faceted approach driven by input from the community that touches every level of the institution — from the Board of Trustees to our academic and business operations. Thousands of students, faculty and staff have united behind this effort and are invested in the next steps.”

In a June message to the University community, Barron shared seven change initiatives that will be guided by students, faculty and staff, including the creation of a task force to initiate a full review of the Student Code of Conduct, mandatory bias training for all employees, required racism and bias coursework for all students, and improved policies and procedures to increase hiring and retention of faculty who are members of underrepresented groups, among other efforts. 

During a virtual town hall event in June — with more than 3,400 views — Barron, University leaders and committee co-chairs discussed these initiatives, along with the newly established Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety; Board oversight committee chaired by Trustee Brandon Short; and the new Action Together: Advancing Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Penn State website for the community to share ideas and input and receive updates on the progress of ongoing and future initiatives.

Supporting international students

As a top higher education destination for international students in the United States, Penn State has more than 7,000 international students — nearly two-thirds are undergraduates — from more than 115 countries attending 13 campuses. 

“Our international students are vital members of the Penn State community and bring diversity and new perspectives to our classrooms and campuses,” Barron said.

As COVID-19, travel restrictions, and changing federal regulations continue to create uncertainty for students, the University has continued to offer support and resources for international students. This week, following opposition from colleges and universities, including Penn State, the federal government rescinded visa restrictions that threatened students’ ability to continue to make academic progress.  

Among ongoing support offerings, the Global Programs International Student Emergency Fund provides one-time emergency grants to assist international students facing serious financial hardship; weekly remote sessions are offered in Mandarin to answer student questions about COVID-19, immigration issues, remote learning options, and tuition; and Global Programs recently contacted more than 1,380 new first-year students who registered for virtual orientation to provide one-to-one contact.

During the University's international student orientation, students and families are invited to participate in virtual pre-departure programming, virtual orientations for parents with language support, small group acclimatization and one-on-one meetings, immigrations seminars, career success sessions, virtual hangouts to discuss racial equity and more.

“Our community is the foundation of our University,” Barron said. “From the global coronavirus pandemic to our work to tackle racism and intolerance on our campuses, this fall, I am confident that as Penn Staters we will be able to face these challenges and opportunities together.”

To view Barron’s full presentation, visit https://www.psu.edu/ur/newsdocuments/PresidentsReport071620.pdf.

Last Updated July 17, 2020