Mantella: Community partnerships crucial as GVSU focuses on sustaining learning experiences for students

Grand Valley leaders at virtual town hall for community members.
Grand Valley leaders at virtual town hall for community members.
Image Credit: Elizabeth Lienau

Grand Valley State University will continue to rely on its historically supportive community partners to help provide meaningful learning experiences for students that will, in turn, ultimately help the region and state, President Philomena V. Mantella told virtual town hall participants.

"We need to keep people focused on controlling what they can control, and that is keeping our learning journey moving forward," Mantella said. "The individual, the state and the community need that continued journey."

Community members were invited May 12 to hear Grand Valley leaders discuss the school's response to the COVID-19 crisis and its plans for a safe and robust fall semester. About 400 people joined the virtual town hall.

Administrators said they are encouraged by an enrollment for the spring semester that is up slightly over last year as well as the fact that for several years Grand Valley has countered enrollment headwinds in the state.

"The university is in a strong financial position to be able to buck the enrollment trend in Michigan, and we’re hopeful for a great outcome in the fall," said Greg Sanial, vice president for Finance and Administration.

Mantella said the longtime community support for Grand Valley and the prudent fiscal management of her predecessors have helped provide needed space to allow for officials to fully consider the university's financial picture amid the pressures of the COVID-19 crisis.

The immediate loss through housing, dining and parking refunds and extra costs for switching to remote learning is about $13 million, Sanial said. Contingencies built into the budget, along with reserves, allowed for Grand Valley to absorb that impact while "we got cash back in students' hands very quickly."

Mantella said administrators also are mindful that the economic hardships of the pandemic are affecting students differently. So far, Grand Valley has responded to more than 5,800 hardship requests.

"We came to you to support the students and, as usual, the community answered the call," Mantella said. "We don't want to disrupt the learning experience."

Plans continue to offer in-person instruction, fully online learning and a hybrid model in the fall. These plans allow Grand Valley to build on the best of digital learning while reinforcing the benefits of face-to-face instruction.

The result is that students can expect a personalized learning experience that works within individual circumstances, particularly those disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.

"Faculty members have been preparing programs so students have options," said Chris Plouff, senior associate vice president for Academic Affairs. "Not every course can be offered in an online format, but we're working hard to ensure students have the appropriate schedule to keep them on track for graduation."

Leaders are confident about the ability to provide proper social distancing in both the learning and living environments. The average class size is 26 students and less than 1 percent of Grand Valley's 4,400 class sections have more than 100 students.

In addition, about 85 percent of housing is an apartment or suite style, and officials will have a solid plan to safely occupy the remaining units, Mantella said.

Facilities workers are installing safeguards such as Plexiglass dividers on campus and enhancing cleaning efforts both in frequency and specially targeted areas, Sanial said. Relatively modern temperature systems allow for optimized air flow.

As they consider the best educational options going forward, administrators said it is clear the community partnerships that helped provide experiential learning for students remain crucial for a robust education. University representatives have been reaching out to companies to gauge their needs and explore a wide range of options, including virtual.

Even with all of the changes and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, Mantella said the mission to help all learners earn a degree, continue their education and provide options for digital learning is more important than ever.  

"I am totally undeterred in my commitment to move down those paths," Mantella said. "I feel there are more supports for those paths, more urgency and the stakes are higher."

In a virtual town hall with alumni later in the day, Mantella thanked participants for their support. She also reminded them of the Laker Lifetime Learning (L3) account, which sets aside $1,000 for every graduate to use for certificate or degree programs. Learn more about L3 online at gvsu.edu/l3.