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Students walk along East St. Mary Boulevard on campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the Fall of 2019.

University of Louisiana at Lafayette President E. Joseph Savoie on Thursday looked back on the springtime of our widespread fear and forward to our autumn of uncertainty — the former with pride, the latter with hope.

Speaking by Zoom to the Lafayette Rotary Club, Savoie said the campus took valuable lessons from its own history in meeting the current pandemic, specifically from its first president, Edwin L. Stephens, who led what was then the Southwest Louisiana Industrial Institute through the Spanish Flu in 1918-19. Among those lessons: Close the campus when necessary, heed expert advice and reopen only when it was absolutely safe.

That, he said, was what UL Lafayette did starting in January, when it first suspended travel to China. It’s what the campus is doing now, limiting face-to-face classes and moving most courses to online. He took particular pride in faculty members “reimagining” their classes after March 13, when face-to-face classes were ended. He said they returned with remote learning five days later, a day less than the Lord used to “create the heavens and earth.” Nor did the faculty rest after that — they resumed teaching the next day from their homes.

“We never closed,” he said, recounting how faculty and staff never lost their optimism as the semester rolled on, though in different form. The payoff came in May, when UL Lafayette graduated a large and its most diverse class despite the “unprecedented nature of the semester.”

The new graduates, he said, are “prepared to define the future.”

But the challenges for UL Lafayette have not diminished, as it moves through summer and into an uncertain autumn. He said there’s a threefold plan for dealing with the threat of a second wave of the coronavirus that threatens our health. The first plan is for face-to-face courses if the second wave doesn’t arrive; the second, distance courses should a health threat arise during the semester and perhaps a later return; and the third, remote learning if students must leave campus for the semester.

He said the campus will use social distancing measures during face-to-face classes and in residential halls, which he said may only fill up to about three-quarters capacity in order to keep residents safely apart. Typically, he said, halls fill up to about 95 percent.

Fall enrollment may drop — the hope is for a “standstill” in numbers — which would hurt the campus finances with fewer collections in tuition, housing, meals, parking fees and more. The sunniest outlook calls for a $12 million hit, he said in answer to an audience question; worst case is for a $32 million drop in funds. He said he hopes the federal government can help.

In answer to another question, he said the campus is planning on a regular football season, with the team already on campus.

He also said the campus remained home to about 900 resident students after on-campus classes ended for a variety of reasons. Some international students had nowhere to go; other students opted to stay on campus rather than impose health risks at home. Through it all, Savoie said, the campus continued to feed students even without food plans with food pantries and other, on-campus “grab-and-go” meals. Much of the cost, he said, was assumed by donations.

There is hope, he said, for “some sense of normalcy in the fall,” which is what a routine resumption of classes would bring. But he said the focus will be on safety as defined by expert advice, not a foolhardy symbolism that might risk lives. He’s taking sage advice from a campus committee, he said, and from the public health officer.

And, of course, his predecessor, Edwin L. Stephens.


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.