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Interview with UA President Robbins: COVID-19's impact on financial state of the university

A few members of the Daily Wildcat executive board interviewed University of Arizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins on April 3 about the UA's response to COVID-19 and plans for the future as this pandemic persists.


The following is a clip from the Zoom interview specifically covering UA finances.

Included below is a transcript of the conversation.

Daily Wildcat: Regarding finances, 'cause I'm sure that's something you've been getting a lot of questions about, a good chunk of students' tuition and fees go to things like the libraries, the Rec Center; since these facilities are closed and students don't have access to them any longer, should students expect any sort of partial refunds for these costs?

President Robbins: Well, I think the answer to that would be no. The Rec Center and the health care is all bundled together, so one of the things we've had increased expenses with, student health and things like that. I think the libraries, you're still able to access digitally, but obviously, it's not a place where they're allowing people to congregate and study. But the fact is that most students aren't really on campus anymore.


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A few members of the Daily Wildcat executive board interviewed University of Arizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins on April 3 about the UA's response to COVID-19 and plans for the future as this pandemic persists.


The following is a clip from the Zoom interview specifically covering UA finances.


So, I think the idea that we still have to keep the digital format going has caused some increase in costs. There's no question — this whole thing is going to result in us losing money at the university.

         RELATED: Interview with UA President Robbins: 'Optimistic' but unsure on return to in-person classes in fall 

DW: With many departments and majors involved in Arizona Arts, how do you expect areas like this to continue functioning in a situation like this, remotely, when you're dealing with artists and artwork and one-on-one stuff and all that?

President Robbins: Yeah, that's a big problem. And, you know, I brought up early on: How do you do organic chemistry labs? How do you do clinical rotations for nurses or pharmacists or whatever? I don't have a good answer about [it], except I think that for artists not having the appropriate studios or supplies or whatever to do their art. A photographer may be a little bit different, I can imagine a photographer being able to take digital pictures and share them with a professor, and I can see how that could work. But think about …

DW: Music classes and architecture, and all those sort of things.

President Robbins: Yeah. It's a big problem.

DW: Are there any people looking into solutions for that right now, or...?

President Robbins: Oh yeah, of course. My best guess is probably, I don't know, 16 hours a day, everybody is grinding, looking for solutions. I mean, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. this morning, got on the phone with east coast people. The good news is I'm going to bed a little bit earlier, cause I used to stay up until midnight or something. But by about 10 p.m., I'm beaten down. I'm getting up early, just because I need to make calls to the East Coast and talk to people. But people are grinding, trying to come up with solutions.

The good news is we've got our [Association of American Universities] partners, and I'm close to a lot of presidents and the provost is close to provosts, and so it's not just affecting us, it's everyone. So, we're trying to use better practices to figure these difficult questions out. But that is a big one for sure.

DW: Awesome, thank you.

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President Robbins: And just think about dance performances, theater performances. I mean, those people are just not getting to do it. Athletics, you know, they play as a team. You can work out or whatever, but it's not the same as being with your dance instructor or your theater director or your coach.

DW: Yeah, that actually gets me to a real great transition, talking about sports. It's a huge entity on campus, and I know you're visible at events, sitting front row. First off, what is it like to see all these seasons cut short for you personally and not being able to attend, and for the university as a whole? Like, sports is such a big part of our community.

President Robbins: Yeah, I think so, but for me personally, it's a big part of society. I was watching — I think it was CNN ⁠— and there was a famous sort of iconic sports commentator in the U.K. He had no sports to comment on. I think they showed darts for a while, or marbles or something. So he started taking film clips of people crossing in crosswalks, and he's doing play-by-play of that: "The woman in the leggings has got the lead! The guy [with] the backpack is coming up! Uh! He looked over his shoulder! The woman in the leggings …"

So, it is a big part of everyday activity, but at the end of the day, for those, whatever it is, 500 or so Division I student athletes plus all of our club teams. I mean, we've got some very good club teams, and people derive immense benefit through leadership, teamwork, communication, time management — all those things.

But at the end of the day, sports are nice to have. What we're really focused on is how do we get the classes that ⁠— even those athletes, obviously, they're students first ⁠— so we've got to focus on the core mission of the university, which is teaching and education, research and service. So, it's disappointing, I think, for a lot of people, including me at a certain level, but I haven't been sitting around thinking, "Wow! Would've been nice to have seen March Madness." I actually do think it would've been kind of cool to have that, even without fans, because it would've been something to focus on, but I can tell you, I haven't had a minute to think about sports.

DW: So then, besides the sports community, I don't know if you can answer, because there's a huge financial component with athletics as well. I know Arizona Athletics has long said to be financially self-sufficient and had several big plans for stadium renovations and other projects. [What] do you think this has done to that, or do you suspect that this was slowed down now, and how does this impact the future of athletics?

President Robbins: Hundred percent, it's going to slow down because they are self-sufficient. And the TV revenues are going to be down. The gate revenues are going to be down. Really, the football television contracts and the basketball gates and football gates really subsidize every other sport. All the others are money losers. They just can't make enough money to support the travel and all the things to support [themselves]. That's why, certainly, any big things are going to be on hold.

But I would say that's true for the entire university. I mean, we're going to have to go into … We are struggling. This is a Category 5+ hurricane that's hitting the middle of the campus. Financially, this is going to be devastating to us. So, it's going to be hard for us for a while until we recover to be able to go forward with all of our aspirational plans, to implement the big ideas that we had for the Strategic Plan. I think it's going to be a very rough time, and it's not just going to be a v-shaped curve. Where this ends, oh, we get right back to it. It's going to have a lasting effect for years and may even affect permanently how we do education.

        RELATED: Q&A: COVID-19 edition

I've been thinking more and more about our online offerings and our digital platforms, and I think that someone told me, I can't confirm this, but over 50% of high school seniors graduating today prefer taking their classes online. They don't want to be bothered with having to go to a class and sit there and all this stuff. "I'd rather just do it online." And I've talked to a lot of students who had never taken an online class before, and [to them] it was angst-producing, there was fear. I know it was very, very hard, but many people say they kind of like it. 

I actually took a 50-minute CHEM 162 last week and I didn't do the pre-reading, and I want to do another guest student class, but I'm going to do the pre-reading before because, even though I was a chemistry major, we were talking about acid-base things … It was going so fast and the students were just schooling me with it 'cause I went into the breakout rooms and it's like, "Yeah, I have no idea what the answer to that question is." Toward the end, I kind of got my confidence a little bit and I knew a few things, but I was really impressed with how people participated, volunteered for questions, and how even though I didn't do the pre-reading, I could understand the concepts. But it move[d] very fast, very quickly, and so there's gonna be a tempo and adaptation. But I think you're going to see more of it, and you're going to see more and more of it and you're going to see more and more of this type of interaction with individuals, not just in higher education, but in business and everything.

There was someone that, when I got up at 3:30 a.m., had texted me about, you know, "I've lost 20 pounds in the last two months, I was scheduled for an endoscopy and it got canceled because the governor's order closed all outpatient things," and she told me that she was getting a virtual consult with a G.I. doctor today, just like we're doing.

So, I think you're going to see more and more telemedicine, and it's going to impact the entire world.

DW moderator: So, you mentioned in that last question a little bit about the overall financial impact on the university. I think Eric has a question on that. Eric, do you want to go ahead and ask that one?

DW: Yeah, so on financial impacts, you mentioned you have a task force on March 30 in your correspondence, headed by Lisa Rulney. What are the plans for the task force and what are their goals for handling all this stuff?

President Robbins: Well, I've been quoted as saying "we're hemorrhaging," or people would say "we're hemorrhaging," and I keep saying, "Well, we've got to stop the hemorrhaging," because all bleeding eventually stops one way or the other, right? And so they are looking at a deep dive into every aspect of the university. The good news is, I have on the hour every hour Zooms all day and I have become completely meshed into all aspects of the university. You know, at a high level, I got it, but I was always wanting to get down into the nitty-gritty and understand it multiple layers below.

So, I'm at ground zero and this task force is looking at every aspect of the university, you know, trying to do modeling. As you all probably know, we make most net tuition revenue off of out-of-state and international students. So, we're trying to model, "How many of those are going to come?" I got a text at 5 a.m. this morning, saying the embassies probably are not going to open until November for students to get visas to come here. And so they're modeling out exactly how much that means in terms of revenue.

And I'm just telling you, it's going to be down, but we're looking at capital projects that you mentioned earlier, investment in the Strategic Plan, financial aid, the cost of the bookstore, facilities, energy requirements, work force, every aspect of the university. We're trying to have the university survive. 

I thought where you were going earlier with one of your first questions, Samantha [moderator], is "What's the worst case scenario? We can't come back on campus?" No, the worst case scenario is we are in such a financial bind that the life of the university is going to be altered in ways that we wouldn't recognize. And I'm really worried. I mean, we're a land grant, state university, but you think about, for instance, the little small liberal arts college that I went to in Mississippi. I think you're going to see a lot of colleges close because they're just not going to be able to make it. People are probably going to stay closer to home, they're going to look for lower-cost options because the economy's going to be wrecked.

So, I think this task force is looking at everything across the university and trying to get recommendations about which direction we should go strategically.

                   RELATED: Interview with UA President Robbins: 'Optimistic' but unsure on return to in-person classes in fall 

DW: How many people are on this task force and do you know specifically. Are they from all different departments across campus, or how were they selected? How was that like?

President Robbins: Yeah, so I charged Lisa Rulney, the chief financial and business officer of the university of putting the task force together. I think there's...

Chris [Sigurdson], isn't there an email that's going out that details. I think there's six different working groups of the task force.

Vice President of Communications Chris Sigurdson: Yeah, seven.

President Robbins: They're small numbers because, look, at a time of crisis, we can't have hundreds of people debating this over months and months. We're talking about a serious financial crisis here. And I think that we've got representation from business people, administrators, faculty, students, and it covers all aspects of the university. So, we're doing the best we can, but these people are meeting at least eight to 10 hours a day and there's an hour meeting every day at 4 p.m. that I join to hear the updates.


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UA COVID-19 Test Tracker

Daily (5/18)
378 3 0.8%
Total (8/4)
270,694 4,359 1.6%
Includes tests since August 4, 2020
Data from https://covid19.arizona.edu/updates
Updated May 18, 2021