With NMU approaching the end of the first full year in the age of COVID-19, President Fritz Erickson sat down with the North Wind to reflect on the school year as a whole. With new conversations sparking over carbon neutrality, AAUP negotiations and what the future holds for NMU in the coming fall, Erickson gave his thoughts on the topics and ended with advice for graduating seniors and what he looks forward to in the fall.
One topic touched in the conversation is funding from both the Cares Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. The Cares Act is a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill signed into law by the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, as a response to the economic fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. NMU received $15 million with roughly $5 million going directly to students. The American Rescue Plan Act is another economic stimulus bill, signed into law by 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden. The ARPA is $1.9 trillion and was created to speed the United States’ recovery from the economic and health effects that came with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing recession. NMU has yet to receive an amount from the ARPA.
NW: What has been the hardest aspect of this semester?
FE: I think it’s the fact that every day is different. Dealing with all the issues, COVID and trying to do everything we can to keep people as safe as possible. But also, at the same time doing all the stuff that we normally do to keep the university running and operating, and then our students learning. Someone explained it pretty well, to me the other day, he said, ‘it’s like having two jobs right now you get your COVID work and then you’ve got your other job’. So it’s really just been an incredibly busy time dealing with both aspects, both COVID and non-COVID parts of the university.
NW: What has been your favorite aspect of this semester?
FE: Without question, how well the students had done. And amongst the most difficult circumstances, this year has not been a year for the faint of heart and I know how hard it has been for our students. Yet, how incredibly dedicated and committed our students have been to continuing their education and contributing to help make Northern and the broader community as safe as we possibly can make it. So every day I just marvel at the terrific work of our students, and our faculty and our staff and our community.
NW: How are the summer contract negotiations between AAUP and NMU progressing?
FE: You know it’s always a process that we go through in terms of negotiations. We, the AAUP, our Board of Trustees, the University in general, really all share the same goal and that is to provide fair compensation to do as best we can to create quality work conditions and we’re big supporters of work home life balance. So it’s a matter of working through a process of dialogue. I really appreciate the work on both sides of the table, if you will, although I kind of tend to think of these things as a round table. We are all trying to figure out a way to deal with some of the financial issues and the unknown that’s coming out of the state while still addressing them, making sure we can do the best we can for our faculty. One of the things we remind ourselves, I just saw this in the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday so many universities and most, if not all in Michigan, went through a process of laying off and releasing large numbers of faculty, some places that [had] pay cuts and so forth. For our faculty, we kept everybody that wanted to be employed, we kept everybody that wanted health insurance on health insurance. Now, these are important things for the long term viability in life of the university. So I’m really confident as we have done in the past, that we will continue to work through this and we’ll come up with a contract; it’s gonna be a matter of compromise. And we’ll continue to move the university forward.
NW: When do you expect the university will reach a deal with them?
FE: Yeah, I think we would all like to do it sooner than later. But the contract goes through June 30. And the most typical thing that happens, as we go through the end, and on or about June 30, we settled the contract. That’s what happened, the last two contracts that I’ve been involved with, just because these things take time to really work through and consider. But if we can find a way to be able to come to an agreement sooner I think the entire university community would welcome that.
NW: Why did NMU’s administration decide to halt contract negotiations on April 6 until after the BOT meeting at the end of the month?
FE: Well, we didn’t pause contract negotiations, they negotiated yesterday. The way you break this down is typically categorized in two areas. You have non-financials and there is most of the contract has very little to do with the financials, how much salary someone gets and so forth. But they are really working conditions and how we work together, and all of those things. And so I know that yesterday’s negotiation was about non-financials. On the financial side, we needed to get back to our board so that we have the collective authority from the board to be able to negotiate the financials and given what the requests was from the faculty, we thought it was important to go back to the board to make sure that the board is on the same page in terms of where we can go to reach an agreement. So there’s plenty of work to do with the non-financial, it’s not quite accurate to say that we pause negotiations, we’re continuing with the good work of negotiations, we just need a little bit of time for us to come back with another financial proposal based on the financial proposal that the AAUP provided.
NW: How much money did the university receive from the CARES Act?
FE: So what happens is there are different phases of CARES Act that have come through, right. And so you’ll probably notice, or at least, I hope you noticed that off of the last round the CARES Act funding, we provided dollars directly back to students. There’s somewhat of a range that we provide back to students and that’s all driven by the federal regulations around those dollars. What’s happened is in this next round coming up, we’re still waiting on some of the details around how we can use that money, we’re not allowed to just use it on anything that strikes our fancy, that’s very prescriptive in terms of what we can use it for and so forth. But there’s also been, and we expect this to continue again a significant portion of that money to go directly back to students, which I think is a great thing. So all that money we can provide back to the students’ world, we’ll provide it back to students, that’ll happen come early fall. I suspect we’ll have the regulations in place and then all the mechanisms to do it probably the first couple of weeks by the end of the first couple of weeks of the fall semester. That’s our hope now, but we still don’t know what all the regulations are.
NW: Where have these funds been utilized so far?
FE: About half of the funds went directly to students, then we had the ability to recover losses of the residential halls and auxiliary services to cover those kinds of things. So a big chunk of that has been simply income replacement because of loss revenue associated with COVID-19.
NW: What is the university’s plan for the roughly $5.5 million from the CARES Act funds that are allocated for direct student aid?
FE: We’re trying to work through what that will look like and who’s eligible. What happens is we’ll get [our financial number] and this has to go back to the students. Then there come all kinds of regulations about what and how and who and so forth. In fact, one of the reasons it took so long to get get the last round out into the hands of students that we saw, we were all set on how we wanted to get that out at the beginning of the semester, but there was some changes in what was allowable and what was not allowable to go to students. We had to make sure that we followed those guidelines as well. So it’s not it’s never as simple as here’s a check for $5 million, give it to your students however you want. I will give you the $5 million, but these are all the rules about how you have to use it.
NW: How much do you anticipate NMU will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act fund?
FE: You know I hate to give a number at this point because I just really not clear yet on what that will actually be. I know the folks are working through that right now and again, it is about how much we get, but it’s also even more important about what we can use that money for. It’s not, for example, it’s not slated for salary increases. I can’t use it and give everybody a big raise or those kinds of things. Again, very precise on how it gets used, with so much being directly related to COVID responses. There are things like all the testing that we’ve done that we’re hoping that dollars will be able to be used for to offset some of those expenses. So, again, sort of a long way of saying we just don’t know quite yet.
NW: How would ARPA funds be used for direct student aid?
FE: My hope is that we can just supply directly to students and then students make up their own minds about how that’s used. That’s our goal. Whether or not the regulations fully allow that, again we just have to wait and see what the regulations are.
NW: When does NMU anticipate the vaccination clinic will open?
FE: Fortunately, we have a great partnership with the Marquette County Health Department and they were able to accommodate students that wanted to get the two vaccine sequences. I think it was Moderna at that time. Where I’m looking at now is given the availability of vaccines on the part of the health department, that we think there shouldn’t be any reason for a student that wants to get a vaccine to be able to get a vaccine. The only sort of hold up right now is just timing because for so many students, they can turn up and get the first shot, but like this Moderna you have to wait four weeks, and a lot of those students won’t be here in Marquette for the exact time that they needed that second vaccine. We know a lot of students are opting to get, when they go home, to get vaccinated at home because that’s where they can get the second shot. Of course, all this may change, depending on what happens with Johnson & Johnson.
NW: When do you anticipate NMU will receive an additional amount of vaccinations?
FE: Yeah, we just we just don’t know. There’s a growing understanding and all I know, is what I read in the newspaper. The supply of vaccines is growing at a rapid pace to the point where anybody that wants a vaccine, and we expect that will continue to request that we get a supply of vaccines, I would particularly like supplies, suitable to accommodate needs for the fall semester. So, my hope is that those who return that haven’t been vaccinated, we want to make a vaccine available for them when they return. But again, this is such a fluid situation right now, we just don’t know the answer to that question.
NW: Will NMU require mandatory vaccinations to return in the fall?
FE: At this point in time, we do not have any plans on requiring vaccines, but as I said before, that can all change. That the one real lesson with COVID is that everything’s fluid and things can change, depending on, as they say, the situation on the ground. Given that we have been, of course, following what other universities are doing. We are only aware of three [nationally public universities] that are requiring vaccines in one form or another. I believe right now at Rutgers, which we read about, Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, small school and on the High Plains there, and then Oakland University. Although Oakland University in my understanding is only requiring the on-campus residents to be vaccinated, not their entire student population. By my understanding they don’t require students to live in their residence hall, so that limits the requirement. I just read this morning that Wayne State is going to pay $10 bucks to anybody that demonstrates that they’ve been vaccinated. There are lots of different ways, and we’ve got a little bit of time to be able to decide what we’re going to do, but again at this moment in time, we have no plans on requiring vaccines. One caveat, though, if we don’t require them, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get them. I’m a huge proponent of everyone getting vaccinated and if for no other reason, is to get vaccinated, because if you come in contact, per CDC guidelines, if you come in contact and are exposed to someone with COVID and you’ve been vaccinated, you do not have to go into quarantine. You can save yourself two weeks of quarantine risk by simply being vaccinated. I’m just a huge proponent of folks getting vaccinated. It’s good for us as individuals, it’s good for our university, it’s good for our broader community. So even if we don’t require it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get vaccinated.
NW: What is NMU’s testing and vaccination plan for fall semester?
FE: Yeah, so we’re by the ultimate goal for us is to be able to simply provide vaccinations for anybody that’s not been vaccinated. We do not at this moment in time, have a plan to fully test everybody. We did an initial survey of faculty, staff and students, we had nearly 80% indicate that they were vaccinated, were in the process of being vaccinated or plan on being vaccinated. So if I were to guess at this point, I think what we’ll be doing is testing people who are symptomatic, moved to that, but that’s a decision, really, that we’ll have to make in close consultation with Dr. Kirkpatrick and the health care team. So we’ll make that decision when we need to make that decision.
NW: What steps is NMU taking to become carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050?
FE: So you may have seen the draft set of strategic initiatives that we are taking to our Board of Trustees here next week. That strategic plan, investing in innovation, and we went through and updated it and put in a series of priorities, that and initiatives, that we think are really important. One of those strategic initiatives is really around developing the plan for collaborative sustainability and the goal is to really be able to come out with a statement that we will be carbon neutral somewhere between 2030 and 2050. 2050 as the long-term plan. What I’ll be doing, assuming the Board of Trustees supports this, which I believe they will, as appointed, asked for us to develop an implementation plan around the idea of carbon neutrality by 2050. Yesterday students in Dr. Mittlefehldt’s class presented a plan for collaborative sustainability which I think is going to provide an excellent foundation with several suggestions and ideas. I look forward to this task force that I will point to really, to really make sure that when we make the statement about the goals, the university being carbon neutral, that we actually have a deliverable plan to do it. I always worry about just making broad statements that we will be carbon neutral by a certain day without the plan to actually put it in place and begin moving in that direction.
NW: What are your opinions on ASNMU and other campus groups’ plans for reaching campus net zero emissions?
FE: Oh, I think the carbon-neutral planning will require the active engagement of the entire campus community. It will require dialogue, discussions, what are we willing to do? We are at the beginning points in the process, and ASNMU will be an important partner, as well, every other group on campus. I envision seeing that each group and effort on campus will have a role in helping us move towards carbon neutrality.
NW: Why is it so important for NMU to reach carbon neutrality?
FE: I think first, there really are a couple of key reasons for that. First of all, from the broader public good, we have an obligation to be good citizens and part of being a good citizen is contributing to a positive environment. I know President Biden is coming out today, Earth Day, with some statements on carbon neutrality and we have an obligation to be active participants in that. Secondly, the environment is one of our core values. We need to live our core values and so doing this, and moving in this direction, is very much about who we are as a campus and who we are as a community.
NW: What year do you believe NMU will be able to approach carbon neutrality? 2030 or 2050?
FE: I really want to leave that recommendation up to the task force because you need to look at what’s really doable. A plan with no action is just the plan. I want the action to be there, how we will implement it. You let’s say one of the implementation issues is to move all of the university vehicles. I forget how many vehicles we have on campus, but would we have an opportunity to move those over time for two electric vehicles or hybrid vehicles? We’re going to purchase our first hybrid police car this year, as an indication we’ll start with this. So I really am looking forward to the task force, fundamentally answering that question.
NW: What advice do you have for graduating seniors?
FE: You know, I’m notorious for giving this advice and that is to go to graduate school. I’m such a big fan of graduates. While it is clearly not for everybody, the opportunities that you can get in graduate school just expand your horizons. And I guess the other thing I would say is, when you leave Northern, take Northern values with you; take with you the idea of community of supporting one another, of being kind and helpful. These are really important. And I don’t, I can’t recall a time in my lifetime where those values are any more important than they are today. So on the practical side, think about graduate school. I’m biased, I loved graduate school, but even more important than that, go live the values of Northern Michigan University.
NW: What are you looking forward to for the fall semester?
FE: I’m looking forward to being back to normal. That’s what I’m looking forward to, or as normal, whatever that means, as normal as we can be. I miss just seeing people and being engaged with people and so I’m really looking forward to walking down the halls and seeing the halls with people in them and engaged and so forth.