Forward Texas Digital Series: Texas Higher Education Leaders Discuss Impacts of COVID-19

From the rapid transition from lecture halls to online classrooms to pressing health and safety concerns for students, faculty and staff, the COVID-19 pandemic has created many new obstacles for higher education in Texas and across the country.

To discuss these challenges, TAMEST convened top academic leaders on Wednesday, August 26 from across multiple university systems to discuss how Texas research universities are navigating the ongoing pandemic and what lasting impacts they expect to see in the higher education system as a result of COVID-19.

David E. Daniel, Ph.D. (NAE), TAMEST Board Vice President and President Emeritus of The University of Texas at Dallas, hosted the session. 

Don’t miss the key questions and answers from the session below:

Q: If universities shift to mostly online learning, will tuition be reduced? 

A: James B. Milliken, J.D., Chancellor, The University of Texas System: The question is whether it is cheaper to create online learning and it is not. Typically, high-quality online education is not a cost-saver. The reason is that in universities, the principal cost is personnel, and in regard to the academic enterprise, the principal cost is faculty. I think if you asked faculty members whether they devoted more or less time to an online course than they would an in-person class they would tell you the former.

A: Renu Khator, Ph.D., Chancellor, University of Houston System; President, University of Houston: [Keeping the same] tuition is important not because the mode is online but because we still have the same faculty giving the same quality content. We just have to do more innovation so that we can bind the two together. 

A: Lawrence E. Schovanec, Ph.D., President, Texas Tech University: We’re not going to reduce tuition, but we have reduced fees. During the summer, we removed all campus fees, even though we had some face-to-face instruction, and we also eliminated the online learning distance fee, which we typically attach to certain courses. This Fall, we eliminated the online learning distance fee for courses that normally would have been given in a face-to-face [modality]. That decision cost us over 11 million dollars, [which] is the thing that the public doesn’t understand when we deal with these financial issues.

A: Reginald DesRoches, Ph.D. (NAE), Provost, Rice University: Several people have already mentioned the fixed cost and that teaching online is more complicated and more difficult, as is teaching in dual modes for our faculty. One of the misconceptions out there is that teaching a class online means you hit a button and let it go, but there is a lot more to it and we actually expect our faculty to engage with our students outside of the online presence, whether it is a small group activity, meeting [one-on-one] or even in small groups outside, to get the “in-person” feel despite the fact the class may be online.

Q: The students least likely to graduate are also the least likely to have access to the technology they need for online learning. What do we do about the digital divide?

A: James B. Milliken, J.D., Chancellor, The University of Texas System: It breaks down to people being able to pay the [internet] subscription service and having the hardware necessary. When you factor that in, it is a huge amount — maybe a third of Texas — who don’t have that available. However, because there are a number of factors there are a number of solutions. The Governor has a task force on this now and I think that’s going to be really important. The key point is that COVID has exposed to us, in a new way, how important connectivity is.

A: Renu Khator, Ph.D., Chancellor, University of Houston System; President, University of Houston: We are constantly thinking about how we can make things more accessible. On the digital divide, this is the one time I would say very loudly that what is coming out of public schools is what we should be thinking about … it’s not about just not having a laptop; we have to work with internet providers to see if we can find a good deal. UH opened their parking lots so people can actually come and park in our parking lots. We have computer labs opens and the library is open [to ensure students have access to the internet they need].

A: Lawrence E. Schovanec, Ph.D., President, Texas Tech University: One thing we had to do last spring was to distribute hotspots and laptops — hundreds of them. I don’t diminish the challenges that students face in urban areas, but there are some unique challenges you find in the sparsely populated areas of West Texas, that relate to access to technology and issues students have. Typically, those that are the most challenged are in lower social-economic classes, so it is a real issue and something we have addressed.

A: Mark A. Barteau, Ph.D. (NAE), Vice President for Research, Texas A&M University: This is something we as a society have been punting on for several years. Bridging the digital divide will require it to be seen as a public good. We’ve been through an extended period where frankly higher education was not seen as a public good, it was seen as a private good. I don’t know if we can change the taxpayer’s minds in this country about [the internet being a public good] or not, but it’s not a problem that can be solved by the free market and private enterprise. It’s going to take a concerted effort at the federal level.

A: Reginald DesRoches, Ph.D. (NAE), Provost, Rice University: The question is how we expand our access as we put many things online. Regarding the digital divide, it was obviously an issue for us this Spring for some of our low-income students. We sent them mobile hotspots, we sent them computers in some cases, but I think the bigger problem is how you overcome the family issues that many of these students deal with. They may be taking care of younger siblings, or just really don’t have the type of environment that lends themselves to adequately focus on studies. This is why we really put a big focus on trying to get those students to be able to remain on campus as long as possible.

Q: Please address the impact COVID-19 will have on international students coming to Texas institutions.

A: Mark A. Barteau, Ph.D. (NAE), Vice President for Research, Texas A&M University: I think we are kind of holding our breath [to see how much we will be impacted long-term regarding] international students, though we clearly see impacts on the numbers for this year. We’ve taken steps to ameliorate some of the tuition impacts, but I think this is longer-term going to impact the talent supply and the Ph.D. supply programs. Even if nationally if we reverse course on some of these things, I think the reputational damage and the comfort level international students have coming to the United States is going to take a long time to restore. I don’t have a magic solution; I think we’re going to have to work our way through it. We’d certainly love to see a steady supply of domestic graduate students.

A: Reginald DesRoches, Ph.D. (NAE), Provost, Rice University: We saw a significant “melt,” students who have been accepted to come to Rice but didn’t make it here on the first day of class, this year. In some cases, some of our master’s programs had more than an 80% melt, particularly if they were from China. So, this is a challenge that we are faced with right now, particularly on the master’s level. We were able to see the numbers we wanted to on the Ph.D. level, but a lot of the master’s foreign students were just not able to make it here.

Q: What are the one or two things that you see happening on your campuses that give you encouragement that we are doing everything we can to keep our students, faculty and staff safe? 

A: James B. Milliken, J.D., Chancellor, The University of Texas System: I’ve read all our plans and they are comprehensive. We’ve spent an enormous amount of time and energy on this with great advice. I’ve visited our campuses. I’ve seen our students and our faculty wearing masks and socially distancing. I’ve seen our lab spaces where our floors are taped, but mainly I think this is a cultural issue. I have seen a spirit and a reflection of a culture that we have to respect each other, we have to take responsibility for this, and if we can do that, we’ll stay safe.

A: Renu Khator, Ph.D., Chancellor, University of Houston System; President, University of Houston: I did go to campus and walked around. Out of all the students that I saw walking around, I only saw one student who was sitting in a completely remote area without a mask on. Absolutely everyone else had one, so that gives me encouragement. I also know that … our athletes are safer here with the discipline we have. We continue to have students tested and I wait with great anticipation … three hundred student-athletes get tested and we get zero positive tests. That gives me a whole lot of encouragement.

A: Lawrence E. Schovanec, Ph.D., President, Texas Tech University: I have walked around campus more than I usually do to see how people are complying with our standards and I’ve been extraordinarily impressed and am very proud of our students. I can’t say that I’ve just seen one not wearing a mask, but yet I believe there is a great sense of peer-pressure and a sense of responsibility students, faculty and staff have displayed to one another. It’s very encouraging and I think we have to be very careful. We’re sitting on a powder keg and we don’t know what could happen. Last night when I was riding my bike around campus, I noticed how many students were meeting in groups outside. We have lots of tents set up and the typical student extracurricular activities are happening in socially distanced spaces and I think it is encouraging that they have bought into our need to be respectful and careful so we can stay open.

A: Mark A. Barteau, Ph.D. (NAE), Vice President for Research, Texas A&M University: Coming from the perspective of the research community, when we ramped down research in March and April, there was a fair amount of grumbling about if it was really necessary. As we have reemerged and restarted activities, we’ve seen relatively no pushback about the measures we’ve implemented. People have been understanding and responsive … I think it is a really good sign that people have really bought into what we are trying to do to operate safely.

A: Reginald DesRoches, Ph.D. (NAE), Provost, Rice University: I think we have a great set of measures in place on campus at Rice. We have aggressive testing where the results come back in 24 hours and I’m really pleased with all of the measures we have in place. Most importantly, I am encouraged by our students. There is a lot of conversation out there and a lot of things in the media about students not doing the right thing, but I really believe that our students want to be on campus more than anything else. So, when I am on campus, I see students socially distanced, I see them wearing a mask … They are really being responsible; they know their ability to stay on campus depends on their behavior and the behavior of our entire community.

For the full video of our session click here. Visit to learn more about our next session in our Forward Texas Digital Series.


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