It was nearly 1 p.m. on a Wednesday in September and UF President Kent Fuchs, jacket-less and donning a white KN95 mask, was running late.
He was tied up with the daylong Florida Board of Governors meeting, he said as he entered his cream-walled, wood-floored office. UF being named No. 6 in U.S. News and World Report’s 2021 college ranking left Fuchs, 65, in a heightened state, even by 2020 standards.
Some at UF, however, have hit a new low.
Faced with a pandemic that has killed about 200,000 in the U.S., plus nationwide protests against racial injustice, 2020 has forced Fuchs to figure out a way to move the university forward in a time where restrictions — and tensions — are high.
“I felt sorry for myself,” Fuchs said. “Why didn’t this happen to some previous president or some future president? Why’d it have to happen now because things were going so well?”
Regardless of the answer, it’s a problem UF will have to solve as it fights COVID-19 on campus and in the community throughout the Fall semester — and maybe longer.
Since May 6, more than 2,300 members of the UF community have tested positive for COVID-19, with quarantined students facing issues such as a lack of transportation and food. In an effort to combat the pandemic, UF indefinitely delayed in-person graduations and canceled Spring Break, prompting outcries from students and faculty.
Yet Fuchs sees UF capable enough to handle COVID-19 and doesn’t see it shutting down again — not even for a death.
“We may very well have deaths,” Fuchs said. “But if the other things are not there, which would be the lack of quarantine space and the lack of hospital space — if those are not present, then a death would not be the trigger.”
One method he’s considering is mandatory testing. While students were not required to be tested before returning to UF, Fuchs noted those in high-risk situations — including labs and some Greek houses — must be.
But a COVID-19 vaccine, should one become available, is a different case.
“We’re not mandating it. When you mandate it, it comes with just a lot of challenges for those that don’t want to be vaccinated,” Fuchs said. “If we can get the vast majority to be vaccinated, we believe that’ll be sufficient.”
Even without a vaccine, Fuchs believes UF can power through its plan for the Fall, one that includes football — and doesn’t include graduations.
As to why commencements can’t be hosted, Fuchs cited the need for hundreds of guiding marshals and staff along with the 12 ceremonies necessary to honor everyone in contrast to only fewer attendees at football games.
However, despite student frustration with the lack of clarity for future ceremonies, Fuchs said the only way an in-person ceremony can be possible is with a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Our tradition is that every student be personally recognized, and it's likely we won't do that ever in person during 2020,” Fuchs said. “We promise that, when COVID is gone, we're going to have in-person ceremonies and we're going to welcome them all back.”
Spring Break has been another point of contention between the administration and community.
UF’s Faculty Senate voted Sept. 17 to cancel the March Spring Break and add an extra week to Winter Break, with the administration expected to announce a final decision soon. Students and faculty have expressed their issues with it, indicating it could lead to burnout.
Fuchs understands and even agrees with those concerns, but believes the university must prioritize public health and academics over the need for a break.
“We believe the most important thing is that we be able to finish the semester from beginning to end; that students complete their courses; get an education that's as best as possible in the midst of COVID; and in that we be as safe as possible,” Fuchs said.
The added challenge, in a true 2020 twist, is managing the issues of physical safety while trying to address systemic racism.
“There’s just not a vaccine for racism,” Fuchs said, “but I do believe we can take steps.”
Fuchs views the public reaction to the decision to end it, which he admits was symbolic, as misunderstood. He placed the blame on the racist history of the phrase.
“People that read that felt I was accusing them of a racist cheer, which is not the case at all,” he said. “I just can't have the symbolism of that, which is actually in our library, associated with what we're saying in our athletic events.”
Another step is a committee to review UF’s honorary namings for buildings, indicating which names may have ties to racism. That project is expected to be completed by the end of the Spring semester, with names Fuchs has in place.
The goal, Fuchs stressed, is to initiate the discussion on whether those buildings should be renamed, which would then have to be approved by the Board of Trustees.
“As president, I can't put a name on anything and I can't take away a name. Nobody at this university can,” Fuchs said. “So we're creating the context that people would then base those decisions on.”
How well-equipped Fuchs and UF are to deal with these issues is another question.
In a 2018 survey conducted by the University of Southern California, UF received an F ranking on racial representation. Just this year, the Levin College of Law temporarily dropped two classes on race, leading to student protests and an eventual reinstatement of the courses.
Regardless of those ever-present physical and emotional issues, Fuchs sees UF on the rise. Though where he sees the end of his presidency is still to be determined.
Before his five-year contract expired in June, Fuchs amended his agreement to serve at the will of the BOT. He plans to see the university through the end of its $3 billion “Go Greater” fundraising campaign, which is expected to be completed in the Spring, though he hasn’t set a date for his retirement.
His hope this year, though, is that UF stays determined.
“Make this as one of the best years, even though that’s an unfair request,” Fuchs said. “Sometimes, tough years can be the best years.”