It is indeed a pleasure to welcome you to the 2020-2021 academic year at Illinois State University. I trust you will agree we start the University’s 163rd year unlike any ever before.

Today, we continue navigating a path that started more than five months ago. Before then, words like “coronavirus” and “COVID” had little meaning. Today, they are part of our lexicon, and managing the pandemic consumes most of our professional and personal lives.

I hope that you and your families have enjoyed healthy and fulfilling summer months. Moving through Illinois’ phases, from stay-at-home protocols to cautious reopening guidelines, have piled stress on our already busy lives and deepened a concern that is always the product of rapid change.

Something that has not changed is the steadfast commitment of hundreds of faculty and staff members who, since March, have worked well beyond the scope of their job descriptions and thousands more collective hours than their time reports would suggest in response to the worst world health crisis in our lifetimes. Their efforts deserve our respect and recognition.

Meanwhile, the efforts of Enrollment Management, Admissions, Financial Aid, Housing, University College, Academic Advising, and Registrar staffs have resulted in a robust fall 2020 undergraduate and graduate enrollment, despite the negative recruitment impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Although official data waits until the 10th day of classes, we expect a total enrollment of more than 20,000 students from diverse and academically motivated backgrounds.

For the fall semester, most of those students will receive instruction in an online modality, along with smaller percentages of hybrid and in-person modalities. How instruction will be delivered for the spring 2021 semester will be the result of our review of changing data, evolving science, and updated federal, state, and local guidelines.

Residence halls have been de-densified, and although numbers are not available for private housing, we expect fewer students will live in the greater community due to the increase in online instruction.

Illinois State is aggressively marketing its health communication plan, which includes extensive information on testing, face coverings, physical distancing, cleaning, and many other protocols. That marketing effort extends beyond campus into the greater community and has been shared with Town of Normal leadership.

Last Wednesday, the Board of Trustees authorized the financial approval for a company called Reditus to operate two on-campus asymptomatic surveillance testing sites, conducting about 1,500 tests per week. In addition to surveillance testing, students experiencing symptoms can be tested at Student Health Services. Faculty and staff members, as well as students, can still obtain free testing at Bloomington’s Interstate Center.

Budgetarily, Illinois State begins a fresh academic year in solid condition, despite significant financial impacts from COVID-19. Along with strong fall enrollment predictions, the State of Illinois has approved a full fiscal year 2021 operating appropriation of $69.6 million for the University. We will have reduced funding in some of our self-funded departments and increased expenses due to the pandemic. However, the overall financial picture remains stable.

In keeping the campus safe during the pandemic, the University has spent to date almost $500,000 on cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. Coupling that with investments in facility adaptations and technology for remote operations and teaching, the total investment inflates to over $5 million. In all, the total estimated costs resulting from the pandemic for fiscal year 2020 was approximately $28 million, including refunds to students for housing and dining contracts and mandatory fees, new academic instructional IT equipment, materials, and lost revenue from cancelled campus events and activities.

Fiscal year 2021 will experience changes similar to fiscal year 2020; however, the strength of Illinois State’s academic reputation across the state and Midwest, provides me with confidence that the University will weather the major challenges brought on by this pandemic and ultimately come out even stronger in the long term.

As you know, I am fond of extolling the core values of Illinois State’s strategic plan, Educate • Connect • Elevate. As we begin this most challenging semester, two of those values stand out in my mind—individualized attention and respect.

I look forward to a time when I can greet our students, faculty, and staff members with handshakes instead of elbow bumps and virtual high-fives. I await the day when I can walk across the Quad and greet smiling faces instead of face coverings (although I think the spirited face coverings are outstanding)!

Until then, please remember the importance of individualized attention, especially with our students. Although I believe online and hybrid education can be delivered with the same high quality as in-person instruction, individualized attention can be even more beneficial when face-to-face interaction is at a minimum.

Finally, there is an old adage that says we can disagree without being disagreeable. Although our ideas and opinions of the best way to respond to this daunting challenge may differ, I hope we will continue to behave toward each other in a spirit of collegiality. Compassion and respect are also contagious, and your actions can help them spread throughout the ISU community.

As the days, weeks, and months roll past, I ask that you take good care of yourselves and look out after others—especially those who are most vulnerable. I am proud and grateful that you have chosen Illinois State as your University home, and I hope your fall semester is filled with excitement, engagement, and most of all—good health.

Thank you—and GO YOU REDBIRDS!