The California State University System and the Impact of COVID-19

06/25/2020 2:07 PM | Cinnamon Thompson (Administrator)

Like so many other business sectors, higher education has had to make massive adjustments to remain sustainable during the pandemic. For many of us going virtual and working remotely is relatively seamless. In the higher education field, going remote is nothing new. Online education has been offered for at least twenty years. However, it was rarely offered as the sole method of learning. The conundrum for higher education going completely online is that there are so many facets of college life that must take place in the real world, not a virtual one. This is especially true for the many facilities that comprise a university campus in order to create synergy among students, faculty, athletes, alumni and more. For the month of June, we spoke with designers and construction planners from three California universities, as well as a member of the California State University Chancellor’s Office, for some inside information regarding the adjustment of our university system to the new normal.

New Normal, New Budgets

Paul Gannoe, chief of facilities planning and design at the CSU Chancellor’s Office, opened the conversation with a reminder that many of these decisions are often, or perhaps always, a direct result of a budget.

“The CSU was slated to get a little less than what we had asked for, but it was manageable,” he said. “Then when COVID-19 came, we had to make revisions to accommodate for the changes.”

Gannoe also mentioned the difference is that if the CSU takes the budget cuts up front, then the cuts can be restored at a later time when federal funding potentially arrives in October. In regards to budgets and financing, the CSU has also sold about $600 million worth of debt and is working on allocating that funding toward projects already in the pipeline at several universities. The Chancellor’s Office is also working with the Department of Finance on approvals for those projects, while also seeking up to $650 million worth of new construction. From a capital funding standpoint, the CSU is currently in good standing due to favorable interest rates, and a forecasted softening in construction market pricing.

Project Delays

Mark Zakhour, CASp, director of design and construction at Cal State Long Beach, pivoted from the stable funding of projects, to point out that many of these projects will be delayed.

“Fortunately, we were able to keep our active projects moving forward,” he said. “We didn’t have to stop anything due to COVID-19, which was a primary concern.”

While none of the active projects at Cal State Long Beach were delayed, Zakhour did say that many of the projects in a planning or design phase are taking a pause. Among these projects is a new student union, which took a pause in the middle of a fee referendum. The university was looking into ways to navigate additional fees for students, in order to help pay for the project. Then all the students went away. Some of those projects have to take a pause, especially the student housing projects.

“We know that our revenue is tied to enrollment, and I know that's going to be something else that will cause us to expect less revenue,” said Zakhour. “Housing reserves have taken a huge hit because housing and dining plans are basically stopped. Some housing may be assessed for renovations, depending on what next year looks like.”

Most panelists agreed that probably around October, is when their campuses will begin to initiate new developments again.

New Designs for a New Normal

Catherine Kniazewycz, campus architect and director of design and construction at CSU Northridge added that on top of the proposed budget cuts to campus facilities, there may also be new design standards moving forward.

“In addition to the likelihood of new design standards which comply with social distancing, there is also an additional need for cleaning inspections, sanitizing, and other precautionary measures,” she said.

Jill Anthes, executive director of planning and design at San Francisco State University alluded to a different approach to the possibility of new designs. At SFSU, they have an architecture team working in conjunction with their campus, as well as with Cal State East Bay and Cal State Chico. However, she did add that the architecture team informed her not every campus is modifying their design. Some campuses are using a different schedule or longer cost estimates or more insurance to accommodate social distancing. Once there has been more collective experience with distance learning, the CSU will be able to take a more wholistic approach. All panelists agreed that future planning is a bit premature at this stage, as it is really too soon for anyone to make any serious long-term decisions.

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