President Szymanski speaks on COVID-19 challenges, remote instruction, and graduation

Erik Feliciano and Courtney Green

Since the world-wide outbreak of COVID-19 shuttered the University and sent students scrambling to adjust to remote instruction, President Szymanski and his administration have worked tirelessly to keep the University of North Florida operational and continuing instruction.

Spinnaker interviewed President Szymanski to not only get a sense of what being a university president means in this unprecedented time, but also to answer some buzzing questions about the switch to remote instruction, the future of graduation ceremonies, the financial side of running a university currently, and the most burning question of all: Is he still wearing a suit and tie while in isolation?

How is Szymanski doing?

President Szymanski, just like many of us, has been going through the same social distancing steps to keep himself healthy and so far he’s been doing fine.

“It’s a new day in terms of how we work and how we do things, follow the orders, stay in remote social distancing, trying to stay out of the grocery store now and out of pharmacies, and is all a part of what we hope is part of a solution to a big problem.”  

Personal experience that prepared the pandemic

Over time you develop skillsets and mindsets that prepare you for life’s hardships, and while these preparations are specific to every situation, they do act as a way to guide through these hardships. 

“No one is ever prepared for every specific situation that arises, but I think there’s mindsets and skillsets and approaches that you begin to develop over your career and over your lifetime that I think prepares” Szymanski then said, “I’m a former college athlete, and the whole idea of having to step up and having to develop a different mindset to solve a problem and to address the situation and a critical situation under time pressure and so on is something that’s pretty natural I think for most athletes.” 

He believes these are qualities that will help win against the virus.

Szymanski also brought up the corporate boards that he has worked under and how this experience benefited his preparation for this unprecedented event.

“There’s a lot of critical situations that you come across about survival, that are about continuity and are about success, and so I’ve had the opportunity to go through a lot of different situations there too, but have also had the opportunity to learn from some people and work alongside people who are some of the leaders really in terms of US business and really thought leaders of the business world.” 

Szymanski believes that “as an institution, we are doing really well in terms of the best we could possibly be doing at this point in time.”

Challenges faced 

When asked about how the Coronavirus posed new challenges, President Szymanski said that there are two fronts to the challenges faced. “The continuity of the institution and how do we continue academic programs, how do we make sure that there are no disruptions.”

The second front is the well-being part. “How do we make sure that people are not only coping and surviving and maintaining an academic standing, but how can we make sure people are also relieved of a lot of stress and anxiety.” 

Since the day Szymanski started at the University, he has constantly been stressing student well being. This goes beyond financial stability and delves into who they are as individuals and how they are doing from the students and staff.

“This dual thought process is germane to the situation today, it’s part of what leadership is today.”

Sense of change

Many safety measures have already been implemented into the University, as a precautionary measure for any possible situation.

When asked at what point he sensed life at UNF would change in response to COVID-19, Szymanski answered:

“The last week of February, where we started to hear a lot about the things that were happening in Europe, what students do we have, where are they, what do we need to do.”  

He also said, “One of the first things I told our staff was to create an emergency staff team among all key players within the organization so people were meeting at a regular basis. We also have our executive team and our vice president meeting every day on a regular basis.”

Szymanski’s one directive to them was, “We have to really work towards the day that we’re going to have to go 100% remote at the institution.” He also mentioned, “That wasn’t really on people’s radar screen, but I figured if we prepared for the worst-case scenario of the extreme situation, we’d be better prepared for anything that comes in between that.”   

Preparation for remote work

Szymanski, along with the Board of Governors realized that the Coronavirus was going to be a large health concern.

“We were in a position where we could do it after spring break, in terms of going remote. Which meant we didn’t have to have students come back, and then send them all away at some point in time.” 

Another consideration was “What can we do to make sure that our students are safe.” Safety was always the focal point of how things move forward.

“When putting the health and safety of our students, our faculty, and our staff at the forefront it became a really clear decision.”  

There was no pushback when it came to working remotely and the safety of the students, faculty, and staff.

“People stepped up, they understood the situation.” He also went on to say, “There was a lot of faculty that never taught online, we’re not a predominantly online institution, and so it was really a testament to the character of our faculty to really step up and say we’re going to make this change, and there really wasn’t any pushback.”

The professors that predominantly teach online also offered lessons and classes for the others that were not as savvy on how to run an online class.

“The online group, in terms of the staff, also stepped up and had lessons for them and stayed open even during the spring break and into the next week making sure that the faculty understood how to do it.”

“The faculty really truly stepped up, and I can’t say enough how admirable of a quality that was.”    

Day to day life

Day to day life for many of the students and staff consists of self-quarantining as well as remote work and school work. This is no different for President Szymanski, who is constantly working to make sure UNF runs as smoothly as possible. To make one thing clear, all of his work is being done from home, to keep in line with the quarantine.

“Several weeks ago, in anticipation before everyone’s mayors and governors made their proclamations, I said no more face to face meetings.”

This was a big change for Szymanski, as he is typically in the office anywhere from five to seven days a week. 

He went on to say, “I was there right up until the Sunday before we went remote.”

“I really haven’t seen a change in pace, it’s just spend more and more time talking on the phone, doing Zoom meetings. It’s a jam-packed day from early morning to mid to late evening.”

President Szymanski also mentioned how the University is helping to supply hospitals, and communicate with the mayor and the Board of Governors. 

Everything is continuing to run as normal, aside from shaking hands, which President Szymanski jokingly said.

Best job market to a frozen job market

There were two parts to the students’ future after UNF. First, President Szymanski mentions “canceling graduation in terms of the in-person ceremony”; the second is the job portion, which he’s said is still up in the air.

President Szymanski mentioned that some job markets are going to be hit harder than others, but it’s important to stay optimistic. 

“Some of the healthcare sectors are going to need more people than ever. You see the kinds of people we train, our nursing program along with other health programs are phenomenal, they are working hard at these hospitals, a lot of these staff members and nursing staff, those are our people, those are Ospreys.”

President Szymanski mentioned that UNF is in the process of creating something that would help students post-graduation: a new position at the University. 

“The Vice president of jobs. We’re going to have an individual who is going to be committed to finding internship opportunities for students, permanent job opportunities for our students, coordinate this internally on campus in terms of career services, internship people and so on.”

More is to come on this development in the near future. 


When asked if Szymanski believed in an eventual graduation ceremony for Spring graduates, he admitted to being uncertain what a graduation ceremony would look like in our “new normal.”

“The answer is: eventually,” he said. “If we can do it sooner than later, I’m all for it, but it may be later than sooner. It goes back to the safety issue.”

He noted that many students invite their grandparents, who are considered most at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“What’s a graduation going to look like for anybody moving forward? SHaking hands, walking across a stage, sitting next to each other, 4000-7000 packed in the Arena — I don’t know. I would love for the world to go back to normal, but I don’t know what the new normal is going to be,” Szymanski said.

He did promise, however, that UNF would not forget its graduates and that as soon as they could, they would organize something that would be a safe environment, in-person if possible. 

“It’s top of mind for us too,” he said. “I want to make sure people have that special experience, and I also want to make sure it is a safe experience for everyone who is there.”

An uncertain financial future for the university

Though President Szymanski has made it clear in his letter to students, faculty, and staff that health and well-being is the administration’s top priority, a university president must also consider the economic impact. For UNF, that impact remains uncertain.

“We don’t really know at this point,” Szymanski said. “We’re in the middle of ‘what could be the economic impact and what does involvement look like?’”

Szymanski suggested that the administration was preparing for multiple different scenarios based on the available data. One piece of data he referenced was of high school seniors who were reassessing their college plans to stay closer to home, rather than travel abroad for university. 

“We’re in Jacksonville and a lot of our students are from Jacksonville. We’ve got some unbelievable high schools. It could be a benefit for us moving forward,” he said.

When asked about a possible decline in student enrollment, Szymanski answered that the University is remaining optimistic.

“We’re not projecting any tremendous decline in enrollment today,” he said, “but that could change tomorrow.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article stating that many college presidents were anticipating a 10% decline in enrollment numbers; President Szymanski was slightly skeptical of the survey.

“I don’t know who they surveyed, but you have to realize they’re probably surveying people from private institutions. One of the advantages that we have when you try to generalize to UNF and Florida is we’re the second cheapest, least expensive state system in the country. We’re extremely affordable,” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to be attractive to people during a financial crisis in particular because it is so affordable.”

“I wouldn’t look too hard at the Chronicle for guidance in terms of what it may be like at UNF at this point in time.”

The same article from the Chronicle of Higher Education also discussed some university presidents expecting to furlough or layoff employees because of the financial hit. President Szymanski made it clear furloughs and layoffs were not in the cards for UNF in the immediate future.

“It’s hard to predict anything, but our faculty is important to us,” he said. “When you’re looking at that, some of the first ones to talk about pay cuts and furloughs and faculty being let go are small, private institutions.”

“There’s a reason why we haven’t been making those announcements at this point in time,” he said. “That’s not where we’re going as an institution.”

On the topic of international student enrollment, Szymanski shared what he viewed as more good news for UNF: the University does not rely on foreign students to buffer demographics in the same way West Coast schools do. 

“It is not a major portion of our student body,” Szymanski said. “Our students are mostly Florida residents and from our northeast Florida region.”

Despite what seems to be difficult economic times for everyone, some donors are still monetarily gifting to UNF.

“Interestingly enough, we’ve had several really significant gifts in the last week or two,” he said. “Nationally, you would expect to see as people’s 401K and some corporations begin to struggle, that it hits philanthropy. You have to expect that to some degree, but people have really stepped up. We created the emergency fund to help out students and they raised quite a bit of money in a very short period of time.”

A return to normalcy

At the top of mind for most students is the question of return: when and what will it look like?

“I wish I knew,” President Szymanski said. “We’re going to return whenever it’s safe.”

He shared that safety and wellness are the major factors in decision-making, and that avoiding problems with the spread of COVID-19 is a major concern.

And Szymanksi’s new normal?

With his children in different cities around the U.S., President Szymanski is fortunate that everyone in his family is healthy. UNF’s president spends what little of the free time he has with his wife — though he has admittedly spent nearly all of his time working.

A parting thought

“What I would tell students is to reach out to other students,” Szymanski said. “Stay connected with people. Help out others. Sometimes you don’t know that your call made a difference, or that your Facetime made a difference, or that your post made a difference. It’s a different time but people still need to see and hear people.”

That burning question…

The running joke on social media is the newfound freedom self-quarantine brings when it comes to covering one’s lower half. In good fun, Spinnaker asked President Szymanski if he continued to wear pants in his various Zoom meetings.

“I am wearing pants,” he confirmed.

He then launched into a description of his mode of dress for the afternoon while laughing. 

“No one has ever seen me on campus without a suit and tie — I don’t have a suit or tie on. But I have my UNF polo shirt on that says ‘UNF’, so it’s still keeping the spirit and it’s still kind of business casual. I tried to be a little bit on the professional side. I have shorts on, they’re khaki and they go with the blue.”

President Szymanski encouraged Spinnaker and everyone to think about ways to help students feel better.

“We want to help people get through this,” he said. “Everyone is creative at this point in time.”

“If there’s something we could do or should do, let us know,” he encouraged. “If everybody has to wear pants, I’ll make that the 12:30 meeting today. I’ll make sure everybody has their pants on.”


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