As they likely are for you, these are challenging times for higher education and for Mississippi’s public institutions of higher learning, including the University of Southern Mississippi. Social unrest, a public health crisis, and economic considerations shape USM’s daily decisions in an unprecedented manner, as we continue our important work educating students and conducting research that helps to improve the lives of Mississippians – all the while doing what we can to ensure that everyone in our community remains as healthy as possible.
USM is proud of the many roles it plays in the Pine Belt and on the Gulf Coast – as an educator, as an employer, and as a driver of innovation and the economy. This innovation has been prominent throughout the COVID-19 crisis, as our students, faculty and staff have created new ways to serve, and our research partnerships with local medical leaders have greatly contributed to our community’s response to the pandemic through testing partnerships, mask creation, and more.
USM is also proud of its host cities and counties. While USM shares many similarities with its sister institutions across the state, one thing is clear – there are no other Mississippi communities like those that host the University of Southern Mississippi. Hattiesburg is truly Mississippi’s premier college city, a result of its diverse economy, its culture, and its people, while the Gulf Coast offers USM as vibrant and beautiful a home as any university in the country.
While this year has been particularly challenging for all of us, as the university prepares for the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, I want to share a snapshot of our plans for the coming months. Based on current trends, we are cautiously optimistic that our enrollment numbers will not decrease as much as national models have predicted for impacts to higher education due to COVID-19. As we prepare for our students to return to our campuses this fall, we are implementing robust plans to ensure the most responsible transition possible as we restart in-person delivery for select course disciplines and activities.
As president of the university, I want to reassure you that we will do all that we can to limit the spread of COVID-19, while encouraging the academic and personal success of our students and enhancing the lives of those who reside and work in our communities. We have made significant modifications to our academic calendar and course delivery methods, and we are implementing numerous additional institutional health protocols, while emphasizing the importance of the personal responsibility that must be embraced by all those who are connected to our university.
During the first week of August, many faculty and staff who have been working remotely will begin returning to their offices, while USM students will begin moving back to the Hattiesburg campus with significant modifications to the move-in process. While many are familiar with “Move-in Day” and may have helped welcome our newest Golden Eagles as part of that event in the past, this year our students will be making appointments to move in over the course of several days, to ensure appropriate distancing and staff support.
Once on our campuses, our students, faculty and staff will be expected to observe all CDC, state, local and institutional guidelines. Many events will unfortunately be postponed, while others will be significantly modified or held virtually. Pending additional guidance from NCAA and Conference USA officials, we are continuing preparations for our Southern Miss athletics teams to compete this year, with limits on the number of fans who can attend.
In the classroom, approximately three-quarters of our courses will be offered remotely, with in-person courses limited to those with learning outcomes difficult to replicate through online delivery, and those designed to help new students adjust to life at a university. Students will be expected to wear face coverings in class and throughout our campuses. In-person courses have been moved to larger rooms in which students can maintain physical distance and will fill only approximately 25 percent of each room’s capacity.
We have recently implemented another change in course delivery for the first three weeks of the semester to allow a phased transition period before larger in-person course activities take place. Although all classes will still begin as scheduled on Aug. 17, traditional lecture course work will be delivered remotely for the first three weeks, with in-person meetings for face-to-face or hybrid classes beginning on Sept. 8.
This change only affects the delivery of course content; all essential programs and services will still be available on our campuses during this period, and students who plan to live on campus should move in as scheduled. We will be utilizing this three-week period to implement special programming focused on health protocols, particularly for students who will live on campus. While students are encouraged to bring their own face coverings, they will also have the opportunity to pick up face coverings the university will provide.
Additional Fall 2020 information is available at usm.edu/flight-path.
Thank you for your ongoing support of the success of the University of Southern Mississippi. USM recognizes that its relationship with our larger community is mutually beneficial – socially, culturally and economically. Our histories are one, as are our futures. Just as our region’s history is rich with stories of individuals who have embraced challenge, persevered, and succeeded, the USM story is filled with ordinary students, faculty, and staff, who have achieved extraordinary results.
We know that this fall will be different for all of us. But if the history of the University of Southern Mississippi and south Mississippi is any indication, we will once again rise above the significant obstacles facing us – together.
Rodney D. Bennett is president of the University of Southern Mississippi.