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An empty campus is not what Eric Turner, president of Southwest Baptist University, hoped to see this spring.
A normally busy time on the university’s campus — filled with spring sports, bustling libraries, late-night study sessions, community events and graduation plans — has been replaced with vacant classrooms and dormitories thanks to the ongoing threat of the new coronavirus.
SBU announced last week students will not return to campus for the remainder of the semester.
“University campuses thrive with students,” Turner said in a phone interview Thursday, March 26. “Summer time is a time when the campus is quiet, and we can hardly wait for August.”
However, the current reality is a little harder to handle.
“This is pretty lonely,” he said. “A quiet campus is not what we’re about.”
Despite sadness about the absence of students on campus, the university is using the opportunity to help the community should worse come to worst.
Turner said over the past few weeks, he’s spoken with state and local leaders, including Gov. Mike Parson, to “offer the use of the gymnasium as a field hospital should the need arise.”
He said the university also recently finalized a memorandum of understanding with Citizens Memorial Hospital.
The agreement outlines the use of the Meyer Wellness and Sports Center and a residence hall during emergencies — like the COVID-19 pandemic — as overflow medical facilities if the hospital reaches its capacity.
“We didn’t hesitate in offering our buildings,” Turner said. “But we hope we’re not needed.”
Gary Fulbright, CMH’s chief executive officer, said the hospital wants to thank “Southwest Baptist University, the Polk County Health Center and the entire community for their support and assistance during the last few weeks preparing for this pandemic.”
A collaboration between the hospital and university is nothing new, Fulbright said.
“CMH and SBU have a wonderful long-standing relationship in the Bolivar community,” he said. “We have collaborated on several programs, and we appreciate their support especially during this response to coronavirus.”
Making the call
While the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic is quickly developing, bringing changes every day, Turner said his team started looking at the issue a month ago and monitoring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information.
Thanks to SBU’s Center for Global Connections, SBU regularly sends students on short-term international trips.
“We always monitor state department directives, CDC directives,” Turner said. “We look to state and local resources, as well. We were going on alert.”
Turner said SBU was one of the first institutions of its type to announce closures. The university first extended its spring break and announced a week of online course work on Wednesday, March 11.
Eight days later, Turner announced the university would move exclusively to online learning and close campuses for the remainder of the semester.
As of Monday, 21 students were still residing on campus, he said.
“We’re working on helping those students,” Turner said.
He said some have been able to leave campus, and the university is making alternative living arrangements for others.
“No one’s left behind,” he said.
While closing campuses and moving to online course work were tough decisions to make, they were the right ones, Turner said.
“I think it comes back to one thing — we care for our students and our faculty,” he said. “Part of that means, we pay attention to these things. Transitioning to an online presence rather than face-to-face is part of caring for students and faculty.”
He likened guiding the university through a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic to moving a fleet of aircraft carriers out at sea.
Turner said he applauds SBU’s faculty for its quick transition from seated, face-to-face instruction to online learning.
“They pivoted within days,” he said. “Again, that’s a testament to our caring faculty and staff.”
He said the move has had its share of challenges.
“Has it been seamless? No,” Turner said. “But nothing is.”
He said the university’s IT department and online learning department have played important roles in the transition to a virtual learning environment.
“It’s exciting to see the spirit of unity that is going on,” he said. “That fleet of aircraft carriers have pivoted on a dime.”
Despite pushing ahead with new plans, Turner said he shares in students’ disappointment.
He said the change is particularly hard for seniors, who are missing out on the moments essential to the last few months in college.
“Those things are lost,” he said. “Those are the things that sadden me for our students.”
Turner noted the heartache a senior athlete, who won’t have the chance to finish an important final season, shared with him two weeks ago.
“This affects real lives,” Turner said.
Closing the campus could have a significant financial impact, as well, Turner said.
He said the university issued prorated credits to students for meal plans and housing.
“It will have a budgetary impact on the university, but it was the right thing to do,” Turner said.
Also, as one of Bolivar’s top employers, he knows employees missing paychecks would be a hard hit to the local economy.
However, while some essential employees remain on campus, Turner said most faculty and staff are working from home.
“We’re making sure people have work to do,” he said.
Turner said this isn’t the first time he’s had to close a college campus in his career.
In May 2017, as Black River Technical College’s president, he had to evacuate the college’s campus in Pocahontas, Arkansas, due to a 500-year flood.
“That was a significant disruption,” he said.
He said this situation is much the same.
“We want to make sure everybody’s safe and operations are continuous,” he said. “Flooding goes away, and we’ll be back on our feet, too.”