OU

People walk across OU campus, Thursday, June 25, 2020. (Kyle Phillips / The Transcript)

The University of Oklahoma’s overall budget has not been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic this fall as classes returned in-person, and OU has ruled out any university-wide furloughs this semester, President Joe Harroz said Friday. 

While OU planned for multiple scenarios this fall — including a situation in which the university lost $150-175 million if it transitioned entirely online, or an in-person learning situation where the university lost up to 4% of its student enrollment — actual enrollment numbers are better than projected, Harroz said after a Friday OU Board of Regents meeting. 

Final enrollment numbers from the university show just a 1.1% decrease in total Norman campus enrollment in fall 2020 over fall 2019, a number that comes out to just over 300 students. Had OU started the semester completely online, administrators were anticipating an enrollment drop of 15-20%, Harroz said. 

While Harroz publicly discussed the possibility of furloughs in spring 2020, the president said Friday that OU has “no plan right now for a campus-wide furlough program” during the fall semester. Though academic departments have taken cuts of roughly 2%, Harroz said he has no knowledge of any department where those cuts have prompted furloughs. 

“You know that if we needed to make cuts, I’d make them, because we’re going to be honest about everything,” Harroz said. “I’ve been very cautious to say ‘no campus-wide furloughs’ until I knew we were in that position — we are right now.” 

Harroz said, though, he can’t fully predict what the spring will look like, spring semesters generally follow the fall in terms of student enrollment. In terms of the overall university budget, OU is currently even, if not slightly better than its projected budget, Harroz said. 

Harroz estimated a $30-35 million hit to OU athletics this year, should OU be able to play the rest of its football schedule this fall. If OU can continue playing, the current projected loss from athletics shouldn’t impact the rest of the university’s financial situation, Harroz said, because athletics has about $50 million in reserves to draw from. 

“We’re in good shape on the non-athletic side,” Harroz said. “Net of everything, non-athletics, the budget we submitted, we’re slightly better than that right now from everything we can tell. Athletics is, without a doubt, taking a hit.” 

Benefits plan

Harroz’ remarks on OU’s financial status came after a relatively short regents meeting during which the board approved benefit plan changes for OU employees.  

The updates to the benefits plan at the Norman campus will change deductibles, copays and out-of-pocket maximums for Norman employees. According to OU, the changes will save about $2.8 million over projected costs for the university in 2021. 

The updates will also collapse OU’s tiered coverage model. The Norman campus currently operates on a six-tiered contribution model, meaning employees contribute different amounts based on their pay levels.   

The changes approved Friday will collapse that system into three tiers in 2021, aligning the Norman campus with the Health Sciences Center campus, which went to three tiers in 2018. OU originally planned to further collapse the three tiers into one tier in 2022, meaning all employees will be paying the same amount for their health insurance no matter their pay level, but the approach to this move has not yet been set.

According to Harroz and board Chair Gary Pierson, the one-tier system would put OU on par with many other universities. The move means OU is “matching industry standards, because we’re way above industry standards right now, and that’s imprudent at any given time, and especially now,” Pierson said.

University faculty and staff have expressed concerns with the collapse of the tier system, noting that eventually transitioning to a single tier would disproportionately affect the university’s lowest-paid employees, who would be paying the same insurance expenses as the university’s highest paid employees.

“The reality is...the biggest impact is on those two lowest categories on Norman campus, which is those that make $42,000 or less,” Harroz said.

Harroz said that instead of just moving from six to three to one tier, the university will move from six to three next year, then create a pool of money for the most impacted employees and begin reviewing their salaries to ensure they’re competitive and the impacts of the tier system collapse are somewhat mitigated.

The health care changes will also see a change in carriers. OU will use Blue Cross Blue Shield for dental, MetLife for vision and United Healthcare for its Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug plan. According to OU, vision and dental rates will generally decrease for employees next year.

Full details of the changes are available under Item 12 of this month’s regents agenda. The enrollment period for the health care benefits plan is Oct. 19 to Nov. 6.

Among other things, the regents approved search committees for multiple university positions, including a committee to search for a new senior vice president and provost. 

Former senior vice president and provost Kyle Harper stepped down from the position for a faculty role effective July 1; Jill Irvine has filled the position in the interim. Irvine is able to become a candidate for the permanent position. 

The search committee for Harper’s permanent replacement will be co-chaired by Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Affairs David Surratt and College of Arts and Sciences Dean David Wrobel, and will have six faculty, one staff, one student and one alumna. 

The regents also approved a search committee for the dean of the College of Law and dean of the Honors College. 

Emma Keith covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma for The Transcript. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.

This story has been updated to clarify that OU has not officially decided to eventually move to a one-tier system by 2022. 

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