April 16, 2020

Putting people first: the latest on re-opening campus, confronting budget challenges and more

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The COVID–19 pandemic has provoked a global crisis that is unprecedented in the history of UAB and the lifetimes of nearly all of the institution’s 25,000-plus employees. But the way that UAB faculty and staff have already responded is helping to save lives and lead the way to a better future for all of Alabama and beyond. That was the message during a virtual town hall meeting for faculty and staff held April 16. The university’s leaders spoke “to address concerns and your questions so we all understand where we are presently and address the uncertainties about the epidemic,” President Ray Watts noted in his opening remarks. “These are uncharted territories, but we will navigate them successfully together.”

Watts and senior leaders — including Provost Pam Benoit, School of Medicine Dean Selwyn Vickers and the leaders of UAB’s finance, human resources and research units, along with the chairs of the Staff Council and Faculty Senate — shared the latest information on UAB’s efforts to adapt to a situation that “has clearly disrupted our lives in ways we could not have imagined before,” Watts said. “But it has not changed our commitment and our resolve to serve those in need in our community and across our state,” he added. “One of the great joys of being a part of UAB is to see how we come together to face challenges…. I have been so impressed, like others, by the willingness of all parts of UAB to pull together and to work hard, go beyond the call of duty and to face the challenges that we have faced in these recent weeks.”

Here are some highlights of the hour-long discussion — you can watch the complete meeting here — including the answers to questions faculty and staff submitted in advance and live during the event.

(Jump to answers to specific categories of questions below, or read on for the full summary.) 

How are decisions being made?

Returning to campus

Re-opening UAB’s health enterprise

Financial implications for UAB

Academic questions

Clinical questions

Human resources questions

Research questions


The values guiding the decisions

Watts noted that “our actions as a leadership team in these recent weeks have been focused on protecting the lives and safety of our people and our families,” in keeping with UAB’s shared values.

UAB’s proactive response — including travel restrictions, the move to distance learning, information sharing and heightened cleaning and safety measures — set an example befitting its standing as the largest employer in the state, Watts said. (See the complete record of UAB's response at uab.edu/coronavirus.)

UAB President Ray Watts

“One of the great joys of being a part of UAB is to see how we come together to face challenges…. I have been so impressed, like others, by the willingness of all parts of UAB to pull together and to work hard, go beyond the call of duty and to face the challenges that we have faced in these recent weeks.”

— UAB President Ray Watts

Jump to President Watts's comments in the town hall video.

One commenter noted that they were really proud of the way that UAB has treated employees. “We have kept that first and foremost from our initial decisions,” Watts said in response. “One of the reasons we were so proactive — really the first employer to go to a limited business model, with remote working and just a minimum number of employees on campus — was, number one, to keep us as safe as possible and number two, to be responsible in blunting the impact of this infection in Birmingham and in Alabama. We have done that by being so aggressive about social distancing. And of course we knew everyone had a lot of uncertainty about are they going to be able to continue to pay their mortgage, take care of their children, meet their financial needs. So we put that first and foremost and have strived to maintain that, and we’ll do so as long as we can. We are making decisions to reduce all other expenses in order to continue to support our employees and their families.”

Vickers echoed those sentiments in his comments. “The leadership at UAB — our hospital and our university leadership — have really led the state and I think given us the best chance to come out on the other side of this with limited damage,” Vickers said. Protocols developed at UAB have set standards now being used not only in hospitals across Alabama “but are models for the country,” Vickers said. “I walked through the ICUs this morning and for the first time I saw empty beds, not because people had died but because people had actually been extubated, transferred to the floor and were being discharged.”



Returning to campus

“We have a task force of the University of Alabama System that’s been created to look at this,” Benoit said. “It includes Dr. Vickers, and it’s developing plans for all three campuses to be the safest campuses in America when on-campus instruction resumes. It’s considering issues like testing measures, enhanced cleaning classroom procedures, housing policy, security and wellness program, the provision of PPE… [the task force is] developing a very comprehensive plan for students faculty and staff…. We also have a task force on campus looking at these same kinds of issues and their ramifications for our particular campus so we’re giving a lot of thought to planning for what that return looks like and how it needs to be done.”

Provost Pam Benoit

"How do we know when it will be safe to return to campus? We have a task force of the University of Alabama System that's been created to look at this.... considering issues like testing measures, enhanced cleaning classroom procedures, housing policy, security and wellness programs, the provision of PPE.... We're giving a lot of thought to planning for what that return looks like and how it needs to be done."

— Pam Benoit, Ph.D., senior vice president of Academic Affairs and Provost

Jump to Provost Benoit's comments in the town hall video.



“We do expect limited business operations to continue through May and into some or all of the summer,” Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Bolton said in his remarks. “We cannot be more specific than that at this time but we will be planning around that with the help of the UA System and with our own task force on campus to contemplate what coming back to campus will look like when we’re able to do so.”



Re-opening UAB’s health enterprise

“We have seen the numbers [of confirmed or suspected cases of COVID–19 admitted at UAB] flatten out,” Vickers said. “UAB Hospital has been at about 40 to 55 patients admitted for the last 10 days, and we’re hoping for the peak to be at the end of this month. That gives us some hope to begin the process of planning how do we reopen. That accounts for the hospital and the clinics, and it’s certainly a process that accounts for research as well.”

Financial implications for UAB

“I want to start by saying that UAB is a financially sound and stable institution,” Bolton said. "That is not my opinion only — it is reaffirmed by very high credit ratings that we have received over the past four years from both Moody’s and Standard and Poors.

“What that means is that we are in a very good position on the front end of this pandemic to weather the financial implications that might result from it,” Bolton said. “There will be some financial implications.”

The current preliminary estimated impact, Bolton explained, “is a negative variance of between $52 million and $77 million on a total expense budget of $868 million.”

Those figures are based on a number of factors, Bolton said, including predicted decreases in enrollment, state appropriations, auxiliary and clinical revenue, and investment income and philanthropy. (See Bolton’s comments on each factor at this point in the town hall.)

Allen Bolton

"By focusing our energies and investments, that means that campus leaders need to lead by example and keep pace with a dynamic and unpredictable set of circumstances. That’s the reason.... the leadership has been first to adopt everything the campus community has been asked to do. We were the first to sign our telecommuting agreements, we implemented our own hiring suspensions and led the way with dramatic reductions in our operating expenses as we asked the campus to do the same. I will say that any other actions that need to be taken to navigate this pandemic, the campus leadership will participate at the highest levels."

— Allen Bolton, senior vice president for Finance and Administration

Jump to Allen Bolton's comments in the town hall video.



Finances: where are we focused?

“In the context of the revenue impacts, our energies and investments will remain focused on adapting our infrastructure to support all of our missions across the campus while taking all appropriate precautions to keep those that we serve and our staff as safe as possible,” Bolton said.

Finances: Will there be layoffs?

“We have been focused on full employment for as long as it’s financially responsible to do so,” Bolton said. “We’re going to be focused on wringing out expenses from other sources first.”

Finances: Leading by example

“By focusing our energies and investments, that means that campus leaders need to lead by example and keep pace with a dynamic and unpredictable set of circumstances,” Bolton said. "That’s the reason the campus and health system leaders have been meeting daily for the past 35 days. It’s the reason the leadership has been first to adopt every thing the campus community has been asked to do. We were the first to sign our telecommuting agreements, we implemented our own hiring suspensions and led the way with dramatic reductions in our operating expenses as we asked the campus to do the same.

“I will say that any other actions that need to be taken to navigate this pandemic, the campus leadership will participate at the highest levels.”

Faculty Senate chair Ria Hearld

"The Faculty Senate executive committee and our university administration have worked collaboratively on a lot of key issues impacting both academics and campus operations and are having continued and almost daily conversations about what is the best path for our university as we face this ever changing and evolving situation."

— Ria Hearld, Ph.D., chair, Faculty Senate and associate professor, Department of Health Services Administration

Jump to Ria Hearld's comments in the town hall video.



Finances: Everyone has a role

“We need all persons and all units across campus to be aware of the financial challenges we have outlined and please consider your role in financial stewardship in these times,” Bolton said. "I know you do anyhow but it’s heightened at these times.

“In that regard, a few questions have been asked about employee parking fees. This has been a topic of several leadership discussions and we also have examined how some of our peer urban institutions are addressing the same issue,” Bolton said.

“Parking is a core part of our urban campus infrastructure and most of our costs to operate that service are fixed: things like land, decks, lighting and security costs. Those infrastructure costs do not go away during a time of limited business operations. For that reason, and because we prioritize paying employees for as long as financially responsible to do so, we do not have plans at this time to issue refunds to employees who are enrolled in our parking system.”

Finances: Next steps

“We are meeting with various leadership and advisory groups this week and next to discuss the impact of existing expense-management activities and to discuss possible next steps,” Bolton said.

Academics: What does fall enrollment look like?

“I’m hopeful that our enrollments will stay steady but it’s very hard to predict at this point,” Benoit said. “There have been a number of projections; the American Council of Education is predicting a 15% decline in fall enrollments across higher education.”

Two elements that work in UAB’s favor, Benoit noted, are that students are predicted to want to stay closer to home, and many of UAB’s students are from Alabama and the surrounding region. Also, “students are very attracted to institutions that have an academic medical center and we have one of the best,” she said.

Other questions Benoit answered:

  • What library services are available online? (A large number — see her answer here.)
  • Why is there a chain link fence around Sterne Library? (It is related to utilities work in the Education Building — see her answer here.)


Staff Council chair Jennifer Breland

"It's been really amazing to see how the many parts that make up the UAB community have come together to encourage and support each other as we navigate the many complex issues that are presented and work together to ensure that uab is able to continue achieving its mission."

— Jennifer Breland, Ph.D., chair, Staff Council and assistant vice president, Alumni Affairs

Jump to Jennifer Breland's comments in the town hall video.



Academics: How are we serving international students at this time?

“We are as always concerned about the health and safety of our international students, faculty and staff,” Senior Vice Provost & Senior International Officer Suzanne Austin said. "We understand that many of you face the added strain of worry for family and friends in countries far from the United States. To those of you who work with our international community, thank you for all of your hard work on their behalf. Please know that International Student and Scholar Services and INTO UAB are actively reaching out to members of our international community and that both offices are fully operational.

"If you are a faculty member with international students in your classes this semester, the team at INTO UAB is ready to assist you. This includes assistance with virtual tutoring for your students and referrals to health services and counseling. If you are an international faculty or staff member and you have questions, please contact Catherine Crowe in International Student Scholar Services.

“We continue to think of new ways to engage our international students,” Austin concluded. “Today we are relaunching the ever-popular International Coffee Hour as a virtual event.”

Austin also answered a question about ongoing recruitment efforts for international students.

Clinical: How has the limited business model affected operations at UAB Hospital?

“Although we have canceled a lot of cases in order to be in this limited business model, many of our surgeons are still busy,” Vickers said. “We are still seeing those patients who have limited time for care for their cancer. For significant symptoms related to their cardiac disease. All of those patients are being seen. But the numbers are still drastically down. When we went to the limited business model we went from nearly 100 [surgical] cases a day down to less than 30.”

School of Medicine Dean Selwyn Vickers

“The leadership at UAB — our hospital and our university leadership — have really led the state and I think given us the best chance to come out on the other side of this with limited damage.... I walked through the ICUs this morning and for the first time I saw empty beds, not because people had died but because people had actually been extubated, transferred to the floor and were being discharged.”

— Selwyn Vickers, M.D., senior vice president and dean of the School of Medicine

Jump to Dean Vickers's comments in the town hall video.



Clinical: Hospital testing for COVID–19

In addition to its infectious diseases specialists, who are being consulted by colleagues and the media on a national level, another “aspect of our faculty that has really set UAB apart is our pathology department — under Dr. [George] Netto’s leadership — to really create a model of testing that has allowed us to manage” COVID–19 care at scale, Vickers said.

“Many states around us still struggle with getting tests back on five- to seven-day intervals, and obviously that’s disturbing and painful to anybody,” Vickers said. Within a very short time period “Dr. Netto’s lab has ramped up… [allowing] us to test all of our admissions to our hospital and all of those patients who happen to be needing surgery. That testing is also providing services across the state. It has been proving to be highly accurate and sensitive. It will play a role as we go forward in the future both for the testing of patients who are positive as well for those patients who may have had encounters with COVID–19.”

Clinical: COVID–19 research at UAB

“Our research efforts also are continuing to grow,” Vickers noted. "We have raised from our donors close to a million dollars to support COVID research, and we have had over 50 projects submitted and a number of those are going to be funded.

“On the clinical side, Dr. Marrazzo — she and her colleagues have become national as well as local spokespersons for this disease and particularly on a national level have been active in clinical trial participation, particularly the remdesivir trial, which is a drug developed at UAB with Gilead by Rich Whitley and his team. They have enrolled 13 patients.”

Clinical: COVID–19 testing and PPE for hospital employees

“We are testing clearly all of our employees who have any symptoms, who have exposure that may not have been protected. But most recently we have had more than adequate PPE protection, and our faculty and our workers have had the ability to be protected.”

Human resources: What policies have changed?

“There have been new HR-related policies created at the federal level related to COVID–19,” Chief Human Resources Officer Alesia Jones said. “Some have come out of the CARES Act as related to different leave policies, impact on withdrawals and loans, on retirement plans.”

All of this information, and answers to common questions, are on the Human Resources COVID–19 resources for UAB employees site.

It is important to note that “most of our HR policies remain and exist the way that they did before limited business operations and this health crisis,” Jones said. Vacation accrual, vacation requests, the process of making changes to benefits if you have a qualifying event — “all of those processes remain the same,” she said.

Alesia Jones

"While there have been some members of our campus community that have found remote working a bit challenging, there are others who have been seeing the benefits of that... so we are going to talk about what telecommuting and remote work looks like as we transition back into our normal business operations."

— Alesia Jones, Chief Human Resources Officer

Jump to Alesia Jones's comments in the town hall video.



Research update

“Our goal in the Office of Research is entirely to support UAB’s significant research enterprise,” Brown said. “One of the things that we’ve taken on during the COVID–19 crisis is to establish guidelines for doing this while keeping our faculty, staff, students and participants as safe as possible.”

The UAB Research website — uab.edu/research — is kept up to date with the latest information and policies, Vice President for Research Chris Brown said.

“All units within the office of research are functioning,” Brown said. In fact, in March proposal submissions were up 8% compared with last year at this time, “so we’re still working hard in submitting proposals and getting them processed,” he said. “Our IRB has been working diligently for the last 35-plus days on new submissions and revisions that allow us to work more on COVID–19,” with an average approval time of just 1.2 days, Brown said.

In fact, “our year-to-date awards for this time relative to last year are up 13%, or $30 million… that’s a testament to our hard-working faculty.”

Research: Take advantage of the opportunities

“We are continuing to push out opportunities for funding whether it’s specific for COVID or others,” Brown said. “In fact, there are a lot of supplements that are coming out right now that you can attach to current grants that allow you to do things related to COVID, and we’ve developed a small tutorial with a Youtube video on how to apply for these if you’ve never done that before.”

Research VP Christopher Brown

“Our year-to-date awards for this time relative to last year are up 13%, or $30 million… that’s a testament to our hard-working faculty.”

— Christopher Brown, Ph.D., vice president for Research

Jump to Chris Brown's comments in the town hall video.



Research: What is essential on-campus research?

The full details are online, Brown said, "but in a few points here:

  • Any research that’s related to COVID-19 with the potential to mitigate the pandemic is allowable and encouraged;
  • In-person human subject research that is conducted for the health and well-being of the participant is allowed;
  • Lab operations and procedures that require on-campus attention like essential care for plants, animals or cell culture or maintaining expensive equipment; and
  • Studies that are required for a thesis or dissertation defense in the spring or summer of 2020 those are also required."

Brown added: “I need to emphasize that no trainee should be compelled to come to campus if they are uncomfortable in doing so are unable and departments, department chairs and mentors need to be flexible around this. Faculty and staff should maintain plans and develop social distance and hygiene plans for those students, trainees, faculty or staff that need to come into campus.”

Research: What should researchers do off-campus?

“Research activities that are encouraged are things like data analysis, [virtual] lab meetings, proposal writing, proposal reviews and publications,” Brown said. "As a former researcher myself, this can be counted as a gift. You can do that reading and thinking that you never had time to do because you are so busy in the lab, so take advantage of this this time right now….

[And] make sure you look for those funding opportunities, new COVID opportunities, non-COVID opportunities and the supplements."

In addition, “keep track of the cost that you are incurring,” Brown advised. “There could be possible reimbursement [opportunities in the future]… we’re keeping close tabs on this with the federal government.”


‘Stronger and better’

Watts closed by thanking “all of our faculty and staff for being so flexible and willing to roll up your sleeves and do whatever it takes for us to be as effective as possible in continuing to pursue our mission,” he said. “I have no doubt we will get through this crisis and that we will be stronger and better on the other side.”