Refunds, Commencement and More: What We Learned From Augsburg’s Town Hall

Kelton Holsen, Editor-In-Chief

Augsburg University president Paul Pribbenow, along with other faculty and staff, held a town hall meeting over Zoom on Wednesday, March 25th to respond to student concerns about how Augsburg will address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

At this meeting, students were able to submit questions to the administrators present as well as to “upvote” other students’ questions if they felt that they were relevant. Questions were fielded by Augsburg vice-president and chief strategy officer Leif Anderson, who directed them to the appropriate staff or faculty member.

Besides Pribbenow and Anderson, present at the meeting were Provost Karen Kaivola, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Rebecca John, Dean of Students Sarah Griesse, Chief Student Success Officer Catherine Bishop, education professor Joaquin Munoz and PA program director Alicia Quella (who has a doctorate in epidemiology). Many of these staff members are involved with Augsburg’s COVID-19 Task Force, with Anderson, Kaivola and John directing the group.

In his opening remarks, Pribbenow assured students that Augsburg has their back during this difficult time. 

“I think about all of the support that you need from us and all the different offices here on campus that provide that support in so many ways,” said Pribbenow. “We’re doing everything in our power to ensure that those services are going to continue to be present for you, even if it’s in a different mode.”

Pribbenow also announced that Augsburg has started a COVID-19 helpline for questions during the emergency. The helpline, 612-474-3100, will be open this Sunday 12-4 PM and all of next week 12-6 PM.

During the question-and-answer portion, which took up most of the hour-long meeting, we learned several pertinent pieces of information for students and the broader community.

Augsburg is planning to offer a partial refund to those who have moved out of residence halls as a result of the pandemic. This refund will be prorated, meaning that it will be based on taking the price of the housing for the semester and dividing it by the percentage of the semester that the student is no longer occupying that housing. Plans are in the works to enact similar refunds for meal plans, and possibly for other services as well. 

Griesse said in the town hall that, in the event of measures such as a “shutdown” of the state, Augsburg will be encouraging students to move out of residence halls. After Minnesota governor Tim Walz announced that Minnesota would be under a “stay at home” order, students received an email later that night asking residents to “pursue off campus options and move out of their residence hall or remain off campus to ensure safety”. Griesse said that in the case of a “Level 3”, in which there are multiple confirmed cases on campus, “we would not be asking at that point”, and Augsburg would work with students still on campus to find “alternative housing”.

Griesse noted that four kinds of students will have exceptions to any request or order by the school to leave residence halls: international students, students in insecure housing situations, students for whom a return home is not safe and students with pre-existing health conditions. She also noted that students will not be required to move all possessions out of residence halls at this time even if they are moving out.

At the meeting, many students also offered concerns about the cancellation of Augsburg’s commencement ceremony, which was scheduled to occur on May 4th at the U.S. Bank Stadium. However, according to Pribbenow, the senior class will still graduate on May 4th. 

“The key message I would have there is that we in fact do intend for you to graduate,” said Pribbenow.  “It’s just that right now we are not in a position to have a ceremony. That’s a decision driven by our care for you, your loved ones, for our community as a whole.”

Although plans for commencement are still up in the air, the administrators noted in the meeting the possibility of having a commencement ceremony online and/or postponing the commencement ceremony until circumstances allow for large gatherings to once again occur.

The administrators also discussed Augsburg’s COVID-19 emergency fund, which currently contains about $20,000. Kaivola said that as of the time of the town hall, 70 students had applied for aid through the emergency fund, and that she and Griesse are currently working on how best to distribute funds. Kaivola said that emergency funds will be distributed in the form of VISA gift cards, which can be picked up at the DPS office (which will remain open 24/7 due to being considered a “critical service”) and that specific funding amounts will be determined on a student-by-student basis.

Some other information that was revealed during the town hall:

  • Due to the stock market crash, Augsburg’s finances will likely be negatively affected by the pandemic. However, according to Pribbenow, the actual impact will likely not be felt for some time, and will be hard to predict. “I can’t guarantee you that this won’t have an impact on our overall financial well-being,” said Pribbenow. 
  • Summer housing will still be available, although since Augsburg is currently focusing on how to get through the rest of the semester, there aren’t real concrete plans in place. Griesse reiterated that students in the aforementioned four categories who don’t have access to other housing will be allowed to live on campus this summer.
  • Orientation programs will be taking place online this summer, with extra attention being paid towards “”connect[ing] incoming students with current students so that they would be able to ask some questions and have some interaction”, according to Griesse.
  • Rental textbooks from Augsburg’s bookstore will be able to be returned by mail with free shipping labels available online.

The meeting ended with Dr. Quella reiterating common health advice for students in the midst of the epidemic. She urged students to wash their hands for a full 20 seconds and to let hand sanitizer dry before wiping. She also stressed the need for self-care during this time, including getting exercise, keeping a consistent sleep schedule and avoiding alcohol and drugs.

“One thing I want to stress is that we’re here for you, and we’re really watching out for you and trying to keep our community safe,” said Quella.

A full transcript of the town hall (as recorded by closed captions) can be found here.