Dr. Sidney A. McPhee
Dr. Sidney A. McPhee at the virtual stole ceremony conducted via Zoom and Facebook Live, to honor veteran and military students. Photo from MTSU Facebook Page

When Dr. Sidney McPhee began his 20th year at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), the last thing he expected was to be facing a world-wide pandemic. And yet, he feels blessed to be working with such a wonderful group of staff and employees both when things are normal, as well as during this trying time.

Speaking for the first time via Zoom to the Rotary Club of Murfreesboro, of which he is a longtime honorary member, McPhee shared the journey that the MTSU community has taken through the quarantine, and the plans he and his staff are making for the fall.

“I am in my office,” McPhee said, sitting in front of a photo of students filling the now empty quadrangle. “While 95% of our employees are working from home, we still have students on campus, so I need to be on campus. Crisis is requiring us to adapt and be innovative. We will not let the virus deter us from crucial duties.”

MTSU Faced Pandemic Issues Early

While locally there was little thought about the coronavirus in January, the university had to be much more aware of the global ramifications of the disease as they had students both studying abroad and a significant number of foreign students who would need to return home, including many from China.

“In late January, I sent out the first information about the virus when it was still in Asia,” said McPhee. “Initially, we focused on bringing home the study abroad students. Then we looked at what we needed to do for our international students. We also canceled the performance of a Chinese musical group that was coming to campus from Wuhan to perform.”

McPhee created a Crisis Management Council which met daily beginning in early February. It was that group that helped make the initial decisions about the international issues, and then they began the plans for social distancing. Spring Break was extended, and they began canceling events on campus. The pandemic forced everyone on campus to change how they deal with students.

“We canceled all new Study Abroad programs, and then our professors and teachers converted 3,000 courses from on ground study into remote access in a week and a half. It required them to change syllabi, engagement, and grading. They stepped up to become mentors and counselors.”

Since MTSU has a large number of students who are the first in their families to go to college, the university had to help many of them find computers to take home with them so they could do distance learning. Also, having quite a few students who are homeless and others who had nowhere to go for one reason or another, the residence halls have been kept open, with 500 students living in them. Work study students are still being paid, in spite of their jobs being put on hold.

“We have to keep the campus clean and the grounds maintained,” said McPhee.

All spring sports were also canceled.

Health Center Keeps Students Healthy

Under the guidance of Rick Chapman, the Director of the MTSU Student Health Center, and Dr. Eric Clark, who is the Medical Director, on-campus students and faculty have seen few cases. They shut down the virus on campus after two infections through quick action. Both students were quickly isolated, one off campus and one on campus. Contacts were informed, and, so far, there have been no other reported cases.

Because of the strong relationship MTSU has with Hunan Normal University in China, they have a number of contacts who were able to provide them with equipment for the student center to prepare them in case of COVID-19 infection on campus.

“Conflict between nations is usually between governments, not people,” said McPhee. “[This pandemic] has brought out the best at MTSU and with our Chinese partners. We all need each other in crisis and conflict. We need to know each other well and work through the issues. We have been able to get PPEs because of our partners in China…Several of our graduates … and business partners have got us through the situation.”

Spring 2020 Graduation and Beyond

The hardest thing out of all the hard decisions that McPhee has had to make was canceling graduation. More than 12,000 people come to campus most years to partake in graduation ceremonies.

“We want students to remain engaged,” said McPhee, “On May 9, we are going to put on a virtual graduation.

Also, graduates will be receiving special packets at home, and have the opportunity to walk in a future graduation ceremony.

Once students finish their finals and turn in their last paper, McPhee and his executive committee will be charting the course for the 2020-2021 academic year. Reaching out to the local and on-campus communities, a Task Force has been commissioned to plan a course of action for the near future.

“We will no longer be the university we were before the coronavirus,” said McPhee. “Yet, I have no doubt we will prove our resilience once again…no matter what the challenges are. We will come out a better, stronger institution.”

Frequently walking the now empty campus with his dog to clear his head, McPhee has taken the time to reflect on the incredible institution and its people.

While a college education is designed to be experienced on campus, he is determined to focus on the safety of the students and the faculty. The Task Force is currently developing three plans, each depends on what the future holds as far as the coronavirus.

“I want to have on-campus classes this fall if we can,” said McPhee, “but we will be ready, regardless of the situation…Because as Dr. Anthony Fauci [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] says, people will not determine the future, the virus will.”