During his first weekly meeting with The Franklin, Franklin College President Kerry Prather spoke with Co-Executive Editor Hope Shrum and Opinion Editor Carolina Puga Mendoza. They asked him about various topics, including commencement, the recent cluster of COVID-19 cases within the athletic department and the thought process behind the college’s mitigation protocols.
Prather sent out an email to the Franklin College community Oct. 2, saying that all in-person classes and activities, including athletics, were cancelled Oct. 5 to Oct. 9. He sent out another email Thursday announcing that in-person classes would resume Oct. 12, but certain guidelines were set for the return of athletics.
The conversation also touches on updates to the college's effort to regain its accreditation for training elementary and secondary teachers, which Prather says is on schedule.
The interview is outlined in the following transcript. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Hope Shrum: The first few questions are in regards to commencement this Sunday. So the first question I have is, do you know, how many graduates declined to come to commencement?
President Kerry Prather: Hope, I want to say it's about 30. So we had a combination of logistical travel, challenges, calendar challenges, and a few health related. I think it started at about 180, and I think we're at 150 something. I was actually...given the time gap between May and October, I was really pleased with that. That there was no more attrition than that.
HS: I know the current students that are working commencement have to be tested. Are the graduates also being tested before?
KP: No...we were we were not requiring testing of anybody before Friday. Because the whole ability to be outdoors, six-feet apart, in masks kind of obviated the need. I just was a little uneasy, until we get a good grasp on the current student dynamic. I didn't want to inject that variable into an otherwise well orchestrated environment. Just...until we get enough data that we know what we're dealing with.
HS: So, you talked about it being outside and social distancing and masks. But why else is the commencement still happening, even with this surge of cases and the fact that all in-person activities for students are temporarily suspended?
KP: Well, two things. It appears to be a very isolated surge. And at this point, modest by most definitions. And it appears to be confined. We have no uptick in faculty and staff incident rates. So it...appears to be confined to the current student body, which has no impact on this event.
HS: A former student asked if they could attend the class of 2021's commencement since they can't attend this Sunday due to health risk. What are your initial thoughts on this?
KP: I have none. We're gonna study that out. I don't. We just haven't gotten that down that far. And my reaction today was that's a non-time-sensitive question. So we'll deal with that as we get to it.
HS: Are there any updates with the education accreditation, particularly secondary education?
KP: No, everything so far is still on schedule. It's a lot of work between now and submitting the proposal. So the update is a lot of people have their heads down, doing a lot of writing, in addition to keeping the trains running on time, as far as the current semester goes, so we're right where we hope to be in terms of timeline.
HS: Are there any updates on the internal investigation of former President Minar? And has the college been working with law enforcement regarding their investigations?
KP: I don't actually do Minar questions. That's the purview of the board. So I'll let that one pass...Now, I will tell you, Hope, relative to the original, original, original original email that went out from me, the answer is that investigation to this day has revealed nothing in terms of activity on this campus or involving Franklin College students, faculty or staff.
HS: What are your thoughts on how FC handled the cluster of cases that we saw this past week?
KP: I was proud of everybody, Hope. The protocols in place in terms of contacting individuals was a lot of work into the evening by Dean Jones and his staff. But by and large, we got people where they were supposed to go expeditiously. So I rely on his assessment on the ground. And I think he was very well pleased with how all of that worked. It was obviously, even though it's not huge numbers, it was bigger numbers to deal with. And we had up to that point. So the logistics of that. Were a little more complicated for his staff, but they seem to have done wonderful work. The students were very cooperative and and the whole thing seemed to work well.
HS: If the school were to shut down again, would there be an option for students to be allowed to do the two week quarantine on campus before going home? Like if they were to risk their family members?
KP: We'll get to that. You know, when we evacuated in the spring, we made a very limited exception, for obvious reasons. For those type of situations that you just described. So let's not borrow trouble. I'm hoping that doesn't happen. But if it did, we would of course make that same exception.
Carolina Puga Mendoza: Why did we choose to come back to campus at all? A lot of schools opted to continue online courses. And knowing that a small outbreak on this campus could be a pretty big phenomenon, why choose to come back?
KP: So the schools that are adept at and experienced with distance learning tend to be the ones who mass produce education. So those tend to be bigger, research oriented. IU, Purdue, all state places like that. Those, by and large, were the types of schools that most quickly opted to just go distance learning. So I think we had two things in place. One was large volumes of students difficult to manage; you're bringing 60,000 kids back to campus. The other is, they're deep into the distance learning business. So you could make the argument, I suppose this may be unfair, but if you're going to sit in a lecture hall with 400 students in person, or you're going to have that same product delivered online, the distinction between the two may not be that great.
We go about this whole process completely different. So the essence of what we do is the personal aspect of it. So number one, it's not just delivery of a curriculum, it's an experience. The fact that you get to do what you do in this setting, as early as your freshman year here, as you work towards your profession, is completely different than if you went to study journalism at IU. And you would wait around on a long list, and then maybe when you're a senior, you would get to have some variation of that same experience. All the things that are a part of your signature lines that run about a mile long, are reflective of why students come to a school like Franklin, because you're involved in lots of things, you have leadership roles in lots of things. So all of those are hard to do at a distance.
It's an experience as opposed to absorbing an education. The education is the heart of this, obviously, that's what that's why you're here. That is the ultimate goal. But what we offer is a much more comprehensive experience than that. So there really was no question about what the goal would be. Because what we heard from our returning students, as they checked in with us was...are you going to be in person? Because that's what they want. So our goal was, how do we deliver that experience, which our customers, you, tell us emphatically they want? How do we do that safely? So that was the context for the whole approach. And that's what almost all small schools decide, for the same reasons.
CPM: Sports were postponed to the spring. So why are we continuing to have practices? Was that something students and coaches wanted? Or was anyone opposed to that continuing?
KP: Well, since since that blip, since that spike was consolidated athletically, it made sense to pump the brakes on athletic activity. So the NCAA...it's very complicated, but in their re-socialization process, the high risk sports, high risk is normally defined as the frequency of contact of physical contact. So high risk sports in the fall are football, volleyball, men's and women's soccer. They had progressed to a point where they're actually doing competitive... some degree of contact activity.
But until we can wrap our arms around what this isolated spike actually represents, it's just not safe to continue that level of activity. What we'll just have to decide once we get a broader sample of data is, is that an argument for moving backward in the re-socialization formula? One step, two steps, whatever? Is it so isolated, that it doesn't matter for some teams, but matters for other teams? So there's lots of different possibilities. What didn't make sense was continued practices as usual, until you just have a better grasp of, of what that what that actual infection rate is. I understand that practices were stopped mostly because of this spike.
CPM: But why allow them to practice since the beginning of the school year...why allow them to continue to train together?
KP: We followed all of the NCAA protocols...and actually, we probably would have competed. I was comfortable with the mitigation protocols we had built to actually compete, as were the presidents at most of the schools in our conference, until the NCAA kept, they finally got to the point where their testing demands were more than we could probably, logistically do. Probably more than we could afford. And then they threw in an insurance curveball, that kind of killed that plan.
But the idea was never that...you can't safely do sports. It is, it takes a different type and degree of mitigation protocol. So the not competing, while still practicing, is simply a reflective of the the NCAA guidelines that were just prohibitive...which is why all of division three, pretty much shut down. Again, if you're big division one school with tons of money, you can meet all those criteria and not worry...small schools just can't. That's why almost everybody in Division Three, and most of Division Two, chose to defer their competition, all of whom are still practicing.
CPM: Similar to questions about the athletic department, why continue to have choir and theater activities going on on campus?
KP: Because they figured out a way to reach our goal, which is to preserve as much of the student experience as possible, but safely. So if you go to a music practice, you'll see the extent to which they are cordoned off by Plexiglas, much like you are in the dining room only in upright form, which is the way everybody is challenged to manage this dynamic. You can delete everything that you are intended to do. Or you can figure out creative ways to make it safe. So the things we can't figure out, we won't do. The things we can figure out how to do safely, we're committed to doing. Those are two great examples.