Sit-down interview with NMU President Fritz Erickson


Sam Rush/NW

Justin Van't Hof

NW: What COVID-19 infrastructure was built over the summer and for what areas on-campus?

 FE: For students coming back to campus, you’re going to see quite a few differences. Starting with the classrooms, the amount of plexiglass that has been going in has been the main part of our efforts. Because what that helps us do is to be able to have appropriate social distancing in the classes. So as you walk through classrooms students will see a lot of plexiglass in place. Another thing we did is move a lot of furniture. So we used it in different locations, we tried to identify big instruction areas and we were able to set up seating in a way we can still use those large lecture halls while still supporting social distancing. The way this has been approached is we’ve taken small classes and put them into larger classrooms and we’ve been working through different models for our larger class sections and how they work out. The amount of signage that’s on campus is ready and is noticeable right as you walk into the building. The signs show propper social distancing a two-person per elevator limit and reminders to wash hands and sanitize upon entry. Another reminder is students can’t enter without a mask and we have plenty of signs reminding students to wear masks. They are also applying a product on all the surfaces that someone explained to me like RainEx for windshields, it keeps things from sticking to it like viruses. We’ve also put a large tent outdoors where we are starting to drive-in movie nights and there’s a possibility of all kinds of social distancing events. We recognize that it’s impossible to lock everyone up in their rooms and we want to offer students safe social distancing events. The main thing is to provide students activities that are safe and healthy and promote appropriate social distancing.

NW: What COVID-19 treatment options are available to students? 

 FE: We’re following the direction and guidance of our medical staff. Dr. Kirkpatrick and his medical team have done an extraordinary job. Everyone will get tested, we will not have any ambiguity about that. If you want to be on our campus you need to get a test. That’s how we begin with it, if a student comes in and is symptomatic at that test what they will do is if they’re a resident on-campus student we will move them directly to Spalding Hall. We set all of Spalding Hall in a way for a student to be able to come in and safely quarantine. Everything is set up for anyone who needs to be isolated or quarantined. If anything comes down with COVID-19 then they’ll follow the direction of our medical staff. Our medical staff may very well say ‘Spalding Hall you go’. If there’s any other kind of issues I’ve had all of the conversations with the local hospital. We’ve talked a lot with the Marquette County Health Department so we’ve got all of the protocols in place. The general sense is that we’ll be able to handle it if there are students who contract the disease. In Spalding Hall, we’ve hired another nurse who will be there managing it under the direction of the medical staff. 

NW: What will Fall Fest look like this year? 

FE:  Fall Fest is going to be spread out over a couple of days. One day will be student organizations, another day will be folks from the community. Sorry no free pizza this time, it will be set up in a way that all of the tables are spread out and accommodate social distancing. We don’t want lines at tables, we want people to be spread out social distancing. We will also be asking attendees to wear masks and take appropriate precautions. I think spreading it out over a few days is one of the main ways we can make this work. We want to do as many of the things we can as safely and correctly as we can.

NW: Is the university planning to cover COVID-19 related injuries if a student or staff-member contracts the disease? 

FE: We won’t have them live in Spalding Hall, but there is a difference in how we handle it. When people need to be quarantined or go into isolation, they’ll have the opportunity to work with our medical staff that will provide the needed guidance and advice for the processes and procedures. We’ve had people that we encourage to be placed in quarantine as precautionary measures for those folks they typically go home and they manage their quarantine that way. At this point, I don’t believe there’s anyone in the hospital. We’ll work hard to keep it that way.

NW: What COVID-19 financial relief programs will the university be implementing? (Similar to the Wildcat 2020 Relief Fund)

   FE: We really want to be able to do anything we can to provide a level of support for our students. The Wildcat Relief Fund was a big part of our response. We look for different ways to be able to fund this initiative and we’ve had a lot of donors step up and say they want to be able to help students. So we’re continuing to explore if and how we can make all of that happen. There are additional expenses that are associated with COVID-19 and we will do all we can.  

NW: What is NMU doing to ensure another McCarty’s Cove incident won’t happen again? 

 FE: The simple truth is this: our ability to remain face-to-face will depend on how each of us contributes to that. There’s just no mechanism to keep people from going out to McCarty’s Cove, and of course, there’s the question of if many of those were NMU students or not. It was very difficult to see, but regardless the point is that we all have to do this together. Even if a small group says they aren’t going to follow the best practices, ‘We’re not going to engage in social distancing,’ ‘We’re not going to wear a mask.’ This puts the rest of us at risk of contracting the disease. There should be no question about it, if I think that we are in an unsafe situation we will go back to remote learning. There should be no question that this option remains on the table. We would all like to be back face-to-face whenever we can. I’ve talked to a lot of faculty who are as excited as students at being back in the classroom. Given the relatively low numbers of COVID cases here in Marquette and the U.P., we have a good shot at in-person learning. That shot is only as good as people’s willingness to do the right thing. If we do the right thing I really believe we’re going to be great.

NW: Are you optimistic? 

 FE: I look at Northern students and have always been incredibly impressed in the sense of community that our student body has. The student body really cares about one another, cares about the environment, and cares about the community. I feel confident that we’re not going to see some of the kinds of things we’ve seen at other universities. I’m cautiously confident NMU students will be responsible. Make no mistake, the moment I think it could be a problem we will go to remote learning. I was asked the other day how I ultimately make the judgment and in my job I have a very simple rule I follow. If I wouldn’t want it for my son or my daughter I’m not going to let it happen for other people’s sons and daughters. 

NW: What has been the most challenging aspect of NMUs COVID-19 response? 

 FE: The issues we’ve run into have evolved and changed. For many of us, the hardest thing in the middle of March was shifting to work from home and shifting to online. Probably the number one concern I had expressed by students was they didn’t know how heavy the workload would be when we switched to online. There was no question about it when we switched to online. There was a lot of work for students to do. For me, the most challenging thing has been working out of my basement and doing all of the things I’d normally do at my office at home. I think the difficult point right now is just the hundred of decisions that we have to make. It’s the small things to the big things but they all have to have a lot of careful attention that goes into them. We’re really fortunate that we have such an amazing staff working on these decisions. Jeff Korpi and his resident staff have done a remarkable job making sure on-campus living is safe. 

NW: What has been the most rewarding aspect of NMU’s COVID-19 response? 

  FE: The same thing that I find rewarding every day working at Northern and living in the Upper Peninsula: the support people are giving to one another. I’ve been around higher ed my entire life. I have never been to a university and a community that cares so deeply about one another. I have often said that if you accidentally slide off into a snowbank before you can get out of your car there will already be three or four cars stopped waiting to help you. With COVID that has really been the case, people are really genuinely concerned about one another. The community really has shown that it wants everyone to be as safe and healthy as we can be. The community gives me great encouragement for the future. I feel he has the best chance of doing in-person learning: if anyone is going to do this correctly and safely it’s going to be us.