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MSU President Talks Future Return To In-Person Learning, Vaccines And Funding

Submitted by Daisy Slucher

Murray State University is halfway through the spring semester, and MSU President Bob Jackson told WKMS News a semblance of normalcy is on the horizon. As COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out at regional sites, including Murray State’s CFSB Center, Jackson said the university is planning an in-person commencement ceremony and more ‘normal’ semesters ahead in 2021. 

“Once we get most of this country, most of the state and most of Murray State vaccinated, it provides a level of protection that we haven't had in the past,” Jackson explained. “We'll be planning more in-person classes this summer, and as well as into the fall trying to get ourselves back to maybe more like 2019 versus 2020.”


Jackson noted on-campus COVID-19 vaccine clinics for university faculty, staff and graduate assistants are taking place this week, and more received the vaccine even ahead of those clinics. By the end of this week, he said, he believes most of the faculty and staff who wanted a vaccine will have received it. In light of that, he said the university is holding off on looking into policies regarding vaccine requirements for faculty, staff and students. 

“We're waiting for more state guidance and CDC guidance in regard to what requirements we should look at, and those types of things,” he explained. “I think the next several weeks and few months will determine how aggressive we should be in those areas, or not.”


The university is also closely monitoring Kentucky House Bill 8’s progression through the legislature. During a recent Board of Regents meeting, MSU Government and Institutional Relations Director Jordan Smith explained the bill proposed a change in Kentucky Employee Retirement System (KERS) employer contribution rates for non hazardous employees, from total percentage of payroll to a set level dollar amount (level dollar funding). For MSU, the change in the calculation would increase rates from the current 49.47% to 98.8%, which is about a $4 million increase per fiscal year.


Jackson explained the change set level dollar amount funding looks into the future by 30 years and the increased financial responsibility for the university would take place incrementally, if the measure passes through the final phases. He said the measure has passed the House and the Senate, and is in the final stages before heading to the governor’s desk. 


Jackson also explained that if House Bill 8 passes as-is, the universities will have to continue lobbying with legislators each state budget session regarding the incremental appropriations from the state’s general fund to cover portions of the university’s responsibility. 


“We're talking to legislators daily in regard to House Bill 8, as well as many other pieces of legislation. Our legislative delegation from this region has done a very good job in regard to helping us advance this issue. I mean, the KERS system probably has a bigger impact on Murray State University in far western Kentucky than any other agency in government,” he said. “So what this will do is, we'll know what the future payments will be. And there will be a funding mechanism put forward to cover most, or all, initially, and into the future, approximately half. So it's kind of a phase-in approach to what our new [pension payment] exposure will be.”


Also during the recent Board of Regents meeting, Vice President of Finance and Administrative Services Jackie Dudley noted the university's calculated loss since the pandemic began is around $16 million. That number includes anticipated losses through the end of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. She also noted the university is only guaranteed $12 million in coronavirus relief funds at this point, leaving a potential $4 million deficit.


During the interview with WKMS News, Jackson said another round of pandemic relief funding is “very critical” for the university. Jackson referenced the relief package known as the, ‘American Rescue Plan,’ and said he hopes it will be sent to President Biden for signature soon.


“That bill will get us near whole, I hope that’s the plan,” Jackson said.


In the meantime, Jackson added, “We're still working on the December stimulus [funding] and getting the guidelines in regard to the December stimulus package for colleges and universities to see what that amount will be and what guidelines exist in order to determine how we can use those funds.”


Jackson said the university is looking for ways to make up the lost revenue as the fiscal year approaches closure, and trying to calculate the impact COVID-19 will have on the upcoming summer and fall semesters. 


In January, Jackson was asked to represent Kentucky’s public university presidents as part of the Commonwealth Education Continuum initiative. Gov. Andy Beshear announced the initiative in Dec. 2020, which is a partnership between the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, Kentucky Department of Education, and the Education Workforce and Development Cabinet.


Jackson said the goal of the cooperative is ensuring educational institutions from pre-K through higher education are doing their part to prepare Kentuckians for success through each level of education they progress. He said his goal as part of the initiative is opening the doors of education to more families.


“An area that's really important to me is making sure that students of this region have access to public higher education and also making sure it's affordable for our families and students,” he said. “We have a tremendous responsibility in that particular area.”

Rachel’s interest in journalism began early in life, reading newspapers while sitting in the laps of her grandparents. Those interactions ignited a thirst for language and stories, and she recalls getting caught more than once as a young girl hiding under the bed covers with a flashlight and book because she just couldn’t stop reading.
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