STATESBORO — Mask-clad and socially distant, Georgia Southern President Kyle Marrero spoke exclusively with The George-Anne six days before the start of the fall semester amidst a worldwide pandemic.
“I’m always going to be optimistic,” said Marrero. “I’m also very grounded in the reality of where we are and what we’re dealing with… that is, you know, something we must take seriously.”
The instructional environment
One of the biggest questions of the summer has been, ‘What has to happen for GS officials to toggle to a partial or fully online learning environment?’
While Marrero and other GS officials are looking at key data points from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and adhering to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, it’s simply not a ‘if X happens, then Y’ scenario.
“When someone asks me, ‘What’s the threshold?’ There’s 10,000 variations of moves before we get to, ‘Okay, we’re toggling completely over and everybody’s gotta go home,’” said Marrero.
In the meantime, Marrero will be meeting three times a week with GS’ COVID-19 situation representative group, comprised of 20 university staff and public health professionals, to monitor those moves.
That group is, and will continue to, dive deep into data and other operational metrics to determine what the best move for the campus community is.
The CARES team will be working in tandem with the DPH to contact trace and provide other key data points, according to Marrero.
“[Instruction as it stands today] will be successful if the individual responsibility, particularly of our students, continues with all the direction, communication and what we have provided them,” said Marrero. “Outside of our property lines, is what are students are going to do. And it’s in their hands.”
As for faculty, Marrero says accommodations have been made to make them feel as comfortable as possible in the unique environment.
“The level of accommodation is immense,” said Marrero. “The level of interaction and engagement with our faculty — I can boldly say: it’s been more than any other administration with the faculty in the university system.”
“There’s probably at least a couple hundred faculty… that would attest to that,” Marrero added.
Over the summer, GS incoming and current students and staff have come under fire for racially charged incidents.
Numerous GS students and faculty members submitted questions for Marrero about these incidents, citing a perceived inaction and the, as one student put it, “‘First Amendment’ excuse.”
“I can emphathize and sympathize what that student feels… because they feel like they aren’t seeing action,” said Marrero. “As president of the university, I have to also understand that I have to, as a state institution… uphold the First Amendment… unless there is a direct threat.”
Marrero pointed to the hiring of TaJuan Wilson, GS’ first chief diversity officer, Wilson’s soon-to-be-released inclusive excellence action plan, and the president’s diversity student advisory committee (who meets with him bi-weekly) as some actions his administration is taking against these incidents.
“We have to believe that education and training and working together towards our shared values invites everybody in,” said Marrero. “I’ll say this bravely: in the last year and a half, we have done [more for diversity and inclusion] than this institution’s done in its 20 previous years.” Marrero added later, “And we must continue to do more and improve.”
While a lot of the college experience remains up in the air, Marrero points to key metrics that point to a successful future.
As of Monday, GS is 2.66% above in fall enrollment compared to August 13, 2019. That is subject to change when the enrollment census takes place in October.
GS is also 2% up in credit hours. Marrero pointed out that an increase in credit hours equals an increase in university revenue.
In May, GS celebrated its highest four-year graduation percentage in the institution’s history — 30.6%.
Also, all signs point to this fall’s freshmen class being the biggest GS has ever seen. Again, this is subject to change when the October enrollment census takes place.
“This fall is going to look and feel different,” said Marrero. “Our goal of the last four months is to ensure students can be successful in this environment.”
This article was updated on August 11, 2020 at 9:45 p.m. EDT to correct the number of members on the COVID-19 situation representative group based on updated information from GS officials.
This article was updated on August 12, 2020 at 9:45 a.m. EDT to add an additional quote about his efforts to improve diversity on campus, provided after the interview by Marrero.