From: Jenna Chernega
President, WSU Faculty Association
Vice president, Inter Faculty Organization
Past president, WSU Faculty Association
One of the harsh realities of coronavirus is that it forces us to re-prioritize. Maintenance workers fear wasting a drop of disinfectant with uncertain supplies in the future. Doctors and nurses perform daily triage to ensure their skill is aimed where it’s needed most. As educators working entirely in new online environments, we ask ourselves more than ever, what are the essential lessons for our students’ success?
State leaders in St. Paul are also trying to prioritize. Now that some of the most time-sensitive emergency bills have been enacted, lawmakers, like the rest of us, are thinking about the future – about recovery. We expect they are asking themselves precisely, how can they get the most out of scarce public dollars today to fuel the economic recovery of tomorrow?
We believe that higher education plays a key role in Minnesota’s economic and social recovery. No, we do not claim to be the frontline of this crisis. That honor goes to health care workers, teachers, law enforcement, grocery store workers, etc., that put themselves in the face of this virus every day. But we can proudly say that many of those heroes sat in our classrooms; our colleges and universities helped them become who they are. We owe them greatly, and at the same time, we suggest that without the universities and colleges of Minnesota, the state wouldn’t have been as ready to face the pandemic as it is. Nor would Minnesota be ready to face the coming recovery.
The Winona State University Faculty Association is committed to the university’s role in the recovery. According to consulting firm, Parker Philips, Winona State University (WSU) alone contributes $447.9-million annually to the state’s economy. That means for every dollar of state tax revenue that is allocated to WSU, more than $10 is returned to the state’s economy. WSU students, staff, and faculty contribute time and money to local charities, host an extensive list of artistic and cultural events, and of course educate and advise approximately 7,500 students per year. With the evaporation of the state’s projected surplus and the private sector economy in shambles, a recovering Minnesota will need to invest in the most prudent ways. The state would be wise to sustain its 1,000-percent annual return on investment by supporting higher education.
During the present pandemic, WSU is providing iPads, medical equipment and PPE supplies to Winona Health as well as providing housing to displaced health care workers. WSU is providing housing and food delivery to more than 100 largely international students with no other safe refuge. WSU is refunding room and board payments to more than 1,900 students. And it is volunteering its newest dormitories, Kirkland and Haake halls, to be retrofitted as emergency hospitals if the need arises. As the pandemic develops in Minnesota, we will continue to step up as needed. WSU will also have another role in the coming months and years, as the recovering economy will demand retrained workers, skills in new industries, and entrepreneurs in emerging fields and as people look to build better lives in the “new normal.”
We know that Minnesotans have recovered from terrible disasters before. In 1918, journalist and chronicler of Minnesota, Curt Brown, reminds us that there were 1,500 combat fatalities from World War I, 453 victims of northern forest fires, 2,543 deaths due to tuberculosis, and more than 10,000 deaths from influenza. That was a very, very bad year for Minnesota. But the state did not collapse. Universities and colleges helped rebuild the economy, and by the early 1920s, Minnesota was prospering at record levels. It wasn’t a time for partisan bickering or exploiting a crisis for political gain, it was a time when it was believed that the state would recover because of its investments in higher education. We believe that is still true and we’re ready to make it happen again.