Pitt in better shape than many peers, but budget will still be tight, Gallagher says


Chancellor Patrick Gallagher gave a massive update to the Senate Council on the status of the University’s budget and how Pitt will adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his report to Senate Council on June 12, Gallagher said Pitt is building a plan that will let the University modify operations as the threat evolves.

A health care advisory group has been assembled, chaired by Anantha Shekhar, the senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and School of Medicine dean. The group is made up of infectious disease experts, epidemiologists and occupational health and safety experts.

So far, they’ve been developing standards for transportation, PPE equipment, density in shared spaces and virus monitoring, tracking and isolation programs, Gallagher said. UPMC will work with the group as well.

Gallagher said he can empathize with the anxiety and frustration that has come with the pandemic and how information is shared.

“We sort of have two choices to make,” Gallagher said. “I could simply wait until all the information is available and then we could release it. I think if we did that, you would correctly feel that the information came too late to be very helpful to you. We’ve taken the view that we’re going to kind of reveal our thinking even before it’s done and share information as soon as it’s available.”

Gallagher said he and his team are still putting the University budget presentation together to go before the Board of Trustees for their approval.

He couldn’t give specifics about the budget at the moment because he didn’t want to get ahead of the Board. The University is planning this budget in an environment with unprecedented levels of uncertainty, but things are starting to come together, he said.

“What I can tell you now is that the ‘sky is falling down’ kind of story about total uncertainty is starting to get more clear,” Gallagher said. “And while there is still some uncertainty, what I can tell you is that (the budget is) going to be tight, maybe even, in some cases a little uncomfortably tight.

“We are still going to be managing a fair amount of unknowns as we go through the year. And so it won’t have the sort of back to normal feel that most of us are longing for, but it’s also relatively speaking, particularly as I look across the higher ed landscape is a much more favorable picture than I think many other universities will be able to say.”

He attributed the more favorable outlook to Pitt’s enrollment numbers, which are “by and large looking very good.” However, it’s not clear yet how the regional campuses are faring, he said, adding that he’ll keep a close eye on the numbers.

Additionally, because Pitt operates separately from its partner hospital, UPMC, it hasn’t had to bear the brunt of the costs of disrupted health care systems caused by the pandemic, unlike Pitt’s peer institutions.

“It’s the losses from those hospital systems that are driving a lot of that economic pain for those universities,” Gallagher said. “We are very fortunate UPMC is a separate nonprofit from the University of Pittsburgh, there is some separation there, and they are also both a hospital system and an insurance company. And so, there’s also been fewer insurance claims because people aren’t going into the hospital, so they’ve been somewhat hedged.”

Gallagher reiterated that he will not ask the Board to increase tuition even though Pitt will continue to increase financial aid support under the Pitt Success Program. Room and board will also remain stable.

As for state funding, Gallagher said the budget currently maintains the same funding as last year and he’s cautiously optimistic about the state budget allocation remaining the same.

“I do want to warn you that state receipts are way below where they’re expected to be, and the governor can and has in the past withheld distributing those funds if the state is in trouble, so that’s not the same thing as saying the money’s in hand,” he says.

Pitt also has restarted some of its capital and building projects. But planners will be re-evaluating how space will be used during the pandemic and beyond and how telework will impact the spaces.

“We simply may not be using space the same way,” Gallagher said. “Residence halls, which we’ve been focused on creating enormous density — maybe in the long run that makes less sense, and this is a good time before we started to build out some of that capital strategy to pause and also take a look there.”

For on-campus housing, Gallagher said, planning is still underway for how dense residence halls will be. But it will vary from building to building, he said. Additionally, planners are trying to figure out when to announce the changes to best accommodate students.

“The real issue is that once we know how much space we have, once we reconfigure it, and then see how much space we need to accommodate the demand, can we find enough additional surge capacity?” Gallagher said.

There will be some cost reductions to these capital and building projects, he said without giving a specific figure.

Additionally, during the pandemic, Pitt’s goal is to avoid reductions in benefits or employment. However, they do hope to achieve savings through attrition and retirement incentive programs, which are expected to be announced soon.

For employees and students with compromised immune systems who are especially susceptible to COVID-19, Gallagher said, the University will provide additional guidelines and requirements to mitigate the rates of infection on campus.

Employees with underlying health problems will be able to request accommodations, and Pitt will make sure supervisors have the training and tools to handle those requests.

“And what that means is that above and beyond those general requirements, any employee in any role needs to be given the opportunity to modify how they would carry out that role to have the health risk be at an acceptable level for them,” Gallagher said.

Pitt’s adoption of the HyFlex system will give students and professors more room to figure out which accommodations they need.

Following Gallagher’s report, some Senate Council members asked if Pitt will provide additional compensation to faculty as they adjust to the HyFlex system, which gives professors and students the ability to teach and learn in person or remotely.

Gallagher said there aren’t any plans for supplemental income because the additional duties faculty will have are not clear yet, and this is the first time HyFlex has been used on campus.

“One of the advantages of this HyFlex is that if it works as advertised — and we don’t have experience with it yet — it’s simultaneously an in-classroom and an online presentation happening concurrently. It’s almost like going to a meeting with video conferencing capability,” Gallagher said.

It’s also unclear how much the upgrades to classrooms and additional training for the system will cost and if all the upgrades will be installed by Aug. 19 when the fall semester is scheduled to begin.

Provost Ann Cudd said more information about available class spaces will be revealed in the coming weeks. For in-person classes, limits are ultimately decided by the commonwealth’s pandemic color-coding system, Gallagher added.

Gallagher said concrete timelines on when decisions will be made and revealed are still being worked out, but he assured listeners that planning is well underway.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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