The Board of Trustees of the University of South Alabama held its annual meeting today, approving a $50 million line of credit to help adjust to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but otherwise making only minor adjustments to student fees and rates.
However, the board also adopted an on-campus housing requirement for all freshmen, but provided exemptions for those commuting from the permanent residence of a parent, grandparent, or legal guardian; military veterans; married persons and/or have a dependent child or children in their residence, or those who are granted an exception through the exemption process.
The policy, which takes effect in the fall of 2021, is expected to affect roughly 10 percent of non-local freshmen who typically choose to live in apartments near campus, according to Executive Vice President Dr. John Smith. Smith said many other universities have a similar requirement, and he cited research suggesting freshmen who live on campus become more engaged with campus activities, progress with higher rates of academic achievement and graduate more often than those who don’t.
Trustee Lenus M. Perkins expressed concerns the policy could deter freshmen who may not be able to afford the university’s room and board rates, but Smith said the university has more favorable lease terms, and an appeals committee would be established to consider exemptions for extenuating financial circumstances.
In response to new health standards required by the COVID-19 pandemic, the board increased all meal plans by $50. Smith said the university’s cafeteria would no longer be self-serve, and the increase was to pay for increased staffing from the food service vendor, disposable utensils and a decrease in allowable capacity within the cafeteria at any one time.
In the same meeting, the Board adopted a “reduced tuition model” for its StartSouth dual enrollment program, in which high school students can take college courses prior to graduation. Tuition for the program has been reduced from $329 per credit hour to $166 per credit hour, bringing the total for new students to about $500 per course taken.
“We’re extremely excited to build a deeper connection with high schools in our region,” Dr. Andi Kent, USA’s Dean of Education and Professional Studies, later said in a statement. “The Start South program not only provides an opportunity for students to receive exemplary academic instruction, but also to make connections with our University community.”
Eligibility requirements are high school sophomores, juniors and seniors with 3.0 GPA and letter from their school’s guidance counselor or principal. Start South students can earn up to a maximum of 30 credit hours toward their degree.
The $50 million line of credit from Hancock Whitney bank will be used on an “as needed basis,” according to Vice President for Finance and Administration Scott Weldon, who said the full financial effects of the pandemic should be more clear in eight to nine months. There is also an option for an additional $50 million, but Trustee Jimmy Shumock said it is far less than the $300 million being sought by similarly sized universities.
“We can survive a lot of things, but we can’t survive if we don’t have cash to continue to operate both our hospital and our university,” Shumock said.
Weldon said state law requires any money borrowed for operational purposes to be repaid within the same fiscal year. Meanwhile, the health system is performing “better than anticipated” now that elective procedures and other revenue streams have returned. Roughly 57 percent of USA’s budget is generated from patient services revenues, while only 16 percent comes from tuition and fees. The state of Alabama kicks in roughly 12 percent of its budget.
The Board also discussed the political and cultural ramifications of the George Floyd protests, with Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Mitchell reporting his Diversity and Inclusion Committee recently hosted a virtual “courageous conversation” about race relations last week, drawing as many as 475 attendees. Separately, board members discussed South’s own police department’s use-of-force protocols and its mutual assistance agreement with the Mobile Police Department, although not in specific terms.
In 2013, a university police officer shot a naked, unarmed 18-year-old freshman who was acting erratically and charged the officer in an aggressive manner. The officer, Trevis Austin, was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury, and a civil lawsuit filed against the university by the family of the victim, Gil Collar, was later dismissed.
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