The Franklin Co-Executive Editor Taylor Wooten catches up with Franklin College President Kerry Prather about COVID developments, the Johnson Memorial athletic facility, the departure of Terri Roberts-Leonard, and the events at the Capitol.
Read on for a lightly edited transcript from their conversation.
Taylor Wooten: So, my first few questions are about the reentry testing. I was wondering how it's going, and if people are, for the most part complying, or if you're seeing a lot of late submissions.
President Prather: Actually much better spring semester than immersive, so I think we got the drill down and really the only issue for Immersive Term was not having allowed quiet enough time to get results back in some areas of the state where they were lagging behind. So I think we kind of, we did a better job of preparing the faculty for the what ifs. But honestly, you'd have to ask Dean Jones, but I think he told me it was literally just a handful of students still waiting. So this appeared to go much better.
TW: And this next stuff is very in the future, but is the college at this time requiring faculty and staff members who are eligible for the vaccine to get it?
PP: There are very few places requiring it, only because there are legal implications for that. It's not impossible that down the road it could be like school vaccination requirements. At this point, we and most other institutions are just strongly encouraging it. So we'll see how that plays out over time.
TW: You mentioned school vaccination requirements, so do you think it would be a possibility for them to be required for students?
PP: Yeah, I don't know. I think once we see whether this is a complete eradication or still partial eradication. I know that's still a topic of conversation whether this becomes like mumps and rubella and other kind of just similarly mandating those kind of vaccines, we'll just have to see.
TW: The commencement is scheduled for May 22. Are there any, like contingency plans? Are you guys gonna require tests for attendees, kind of like last time?
PP: Well that's a long way out we haven't gotten to that aspect right now. We're hoping, or planning is focused around another outdoor ceremony. So we're working on that proposition, we haven't gotten down to the actual protocols yet.
TW: Gotcha. Since there are new strains of the virus, how are you guys monitoring that and what does that work look like?
PP: Well, largely just through the CDC communications and right now it appears to be the case that the vaccines are effective against, you know, the new strains. So, unless and until that changes, I think, you know, we're gonna hope the best. I can tell largely from the media the new strains are more contagious but less lethal. So, you know, if anything, I think, is just an argument for remaining vigilant, because this thing has taken enough twists and turns and this is just the latest in those twists and turns. And since our primary constituency will be among the last to be vaccinated, we still have to stick with just the safety protocols.
TW: With Terri Roberts-Leonard recently stepping down and taking on the new role at the school corporation, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on her departure or like any parting words?
PP: Well, Terri did great work while she was here, literally building a program from scratch. And we are certainly going to miss her. We're in the process now of just commencing a national search to staff that position. And this has given us a chance to really take a look at what our expectations are for that position and for the office, and how we might want to refine those. So Dean Jones is in the process of that work with a number of other people. And I think their search committee, I believe meets this week for the first time. So our hope is that — on a typical national search timeline — by probably late March, early April, we'll have somebody on board. In the meantime, Rev. Hannah Adams Ingram has stepped into that role in addition to the rest of the student development staff.
TW: I was wondering with the “refer one, earn one” campaign to bump up enrollment, the one where if students refer a student they can be... I don't know if it's entered to win or get a $25 gift card. But I wonder if there was any success with that or if many people participated.
PP: Well you have to ask Vice President [for Strategic Enrollment Management and Marketing] Maceo that. Last I talked with him there there was response, but I honestly Taylor I've forgotten what he said in terms of actual numbers, but that's a good question and run by him.
TW: Okay. Um, do you have any early predictions of what enrollment could look like for the fall?
PP: We got so many complications right now. It's way early. For all schools, it got off to a slow start. And, as is the case with so much of what we're dealing with right now, there's really no playbook for tracking enrollment during a pandemic. So, we are in fact running ahead of last year, at the moment. So that's a good thing. But we simply don't know what all the uncontrollables are out there so our typical yield formulas may or may not have any validity in a year like this. So, it's just kind of flying without radar. And there are a lot of [unpredictables]. Not all of the unpredictables are necessarily bad. For example, of the students who decided to not start college last year, might they reenter the pipeline and actually, to some degree, increase the student pool. They don't have a good feel for that yet. You know the kids who took a gap year, rather than an online year, might they reenter the process again. So of the students who attended schools, and had an exclusively online experience might they be looking for a different experience. So all of those, I think, are up in the air right now. But for today we will quietly celebrate the fact that we're running a little bit ahead, even though it's way too early to know what quite what to make of that.
TW: Yeah. I was wondering if there was any new information on the sort of recently announced Johnson Memorial athletic facility?
PP: We’ll discuss it at the Board [of Trustees] meeting coming up on the 12th and 13th [of February], and that will be the process where the board will make some decisions about site location, timeline, architect. All of those sorts of things. So, we will, we have that positioned for them to be able to study and make some decisions. So that’ll be coming out of the board.
TW: And then, I was wondering about the last stimulus package in December. If any of that money went towards Franklin College, and what that looks like.
PP: In fact, it did. So we will ultimately get a little over a million dollars institutionally, and a little over a half million dollars, again, I think the same. I have to go back Taylor, if you don't mind, while I reduce you both. Let me see if I can pull up an email real quick.
Yeah. Um, a little over a half million dollars for direct awards to students. And just a tick over a million dollars for institutional expenses related to COVID.
TW: Okay so student aid will be kind of given like it was in the last wave?
PP: Yeah, I think our plan is to somewhat follow the same model and the same formula that seemed to be the most equitable way to to work that. There are a couple of nuances to this tranche of money to students. One is that the students can choose to have their money directly applied to their bill if they prefer to. So, when we access that money, there will be a process where a student will be able to say, either, ‘I'd like to have this money directly,’ or ‘I'd like to have it credited to my bill.’
TW: Do you know around the time that you guys will have access to that money?
PP: I don't because we're trying to — the timing of this is critical because once you access the money it's a very limited amount of time to get it out the door. So, we want to do that when we've got all of our ducks in a row, mostly on the subject of the institutional money. We know how we're going to disperse the student money but still it's a short timeline from receipt to disbursement.
TW: Gotcha. And then I just had one last question, and I wanted to revisit the events at the Capitol. What compelled you to make a statement and, like, was there any fear about unrest on campus?
PP: No, no fear of unrest on campus. I think you know everything that happens in the world beyond the campus has some objective lessons for the campus. I mean, that's why we're in the business of education. So my hope was that students would take such an unsettling opportunity, and consider the best lessons to be learned from that and actually have a conversation about that. You know, in, not only in your lifetime have you never seen anything like what happened, but in my lifetime. Nothing like that has ever happened. So, it just is a great civics lesson, I think, to consider just how fragile this form of government can be, and therefore what everybody's responsibility is to help preserve it. And for what it was worth, I hope that resonated with, especially the students.
TW: All right. Well, like I said that was my last question. So is there anything else that you think is important to discuss?
PP: Nothing, except it's great to see full parking lots, and students on campus. Even Immersive Term was kind of quieter than normal. So it's just, it's great to have everybody back. And, you know, the message I sent out today just reminded everybody that you almost get nervous when you can see light at the end of the tunnel, that it's tempting to think that we're in better shape than we actually are. And, in fact, we're kind of in the same shape as we were even though we now know it's going to come to an end. So, we've just got to really, really be careful and keep everybody healthy and I think what's been gratifying to me is that the students have demonstrated how protective they are of this experience. That's been the whole key to this working, so it'll continue to be through the spring semester.