Ahead of Western Kentucky University’s plans to begin in-person classes Monday, President Timothy Caboni warned students they could face a “severe and swift” response if they hold large, off-campus gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
During an interview with the Daily News on Tuesday, Caboni spoke about WKU’s plans for on-campus testing, instruction and a new task force that’s examining the history of WKU’s namings amid a national reckoning on race.
“One selfish night of fun and all of our work can be completely undone,” Caboni said, adding that, students will be expected to hold one another accountable.
“The governor said don’t gather in groups larger than 10, and we don’t want them to do that either. That’s a hard thing for us to enforce as a university, and so for our students, they’re going to have to do this themselves,” Caboni said.
On Tuesday, Caboni contacted campus fraternity and sorority leadership, along with other Greek organizations.
The conversation wasn’t intended to be adversarial, Caboni said, “but I was also very clear if there are organizations that intentionally violate the policy – or individuals who don’t take this seriously – the university’s reaction will be severe and swift, and they won’t want to endure what those penalties are.”
Caboni said individual students who don’t honor this could be referred to WKU’s student conduct office or face harsher consequences.
“If there is an organization that is intentionally organizing functions off-campus with more than 10 people, I am absolutely within my power as university president to suspend them for a semester or a year,” Caboni said.
“We are not playing around with this virus or with the restart. Too many people have worked too hard for a handful of selfish individuals to lose this for us,” Caboni said.
At the same time, Caboni said, WKU has “never promised a virus-free environment” on campus.
To that end, on-campus testing will be made available to faculty, students and staff free of charge through WKU’s health services clinic.
“We’ve worked really closely with our Graves Gilbert Clinic partner here on campus to make sure anyone who wants a test can get a test,” Caboni said. “If you’re symptomatic, don’t go to class. Don’t come on to campus. Stay at home. Call the clinic, and get a test. ...
“For every faculty member, for every staff member, for every student, that test is going to be free. It’s going to be free even if you’re uninsured,” Caboni said.
Those receiving tests should get results in about 24 to 48 hours, he said.
Caboni’s comments came one day after the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill reversed its plans for in-person classes after 130 students tested positive for COVID-19.
Asked what it would take for WKU to make the same decision, Caboni said the university would not abruptly close like it did this spring. Rather than an abrupt closure, which he compared to a light going dark, WKU would make adjustments more like a “dimmer switch.”
WKU will also track several metrics and factors, including case numbers, beds available for quarantines, test availability, contact tracing availability and the campus’ supply of personal protective equipment.
That will include “off-campus metrics,” like the average number of new cases per 100,000 over the previous seven days, positivity rate, decisions by state or local health officials and what other colleges in Kentucky are doing.
Asked whether a large outbreak among students could prompt a closure, Caboni said: “We’d look at all the data that we have available and see can we manage through the incidence of cases that we have on our campus. There is not a single number where we would flip a switch.”
With both local school systems planning to hold in-person classes at least two times a week beginning Monday, Caboni said faculty and staff will be given the flexibility they need to look after their children. WKU students who are forced to undergo quarantines also will not be penalized for missing class.
“Our goal is to be as flexible as we possibly can,” Caboni said.
Caboni also spoke about the work of a new task force he announced Monday that will weigh whether to rename campus buildings or academic units that bear the names of people who owned enslaved people.
The task force’s membership has not been finalized, but Caboni it will include several university voices.
“I’m going to ask them to look at several things,” Caboni said, adding that will include studying what other institutions have done and “coming up with a range of possibilities if there were namings that could be considered problematic.”
“I think that, in this conversation, we have to be careful. Judging history and things that have occurred in the past or in the far past with the standards of today is a challenge, and so this group will have to work through any issues that they happen to uncover as they go through the process,” Caboni said.
Caboni said campus names and symbols should represent what WKU aspires to be, and that there could also be “opportunities to contextualize names so that we tell a more fulsome story of their background, and sometimes the telling of that story is just as or more powerful and more important than removing a name.”
Caboni said the group will eventually arrive at some form of recommendation for campus leadership, but he declined to put an exact timeline on its work.
Asked whether he believes the Ogden College of Science and Engineering and the Potter College of Arts and Letters should be renamed – given that their namesakes were slaveholders – Caboni said he would leave that decision to campus stakeholders and experts.
“I don’t want to prejudge any outcomes or suggest that I think where they should or might wind up or what my personal opinions are,” Caboni said.