Documents: U struggled to address, recover from public relations hit over COVID refunds

By Mike Kaszuba

Just eight months after becoming president of the University of Minnesota, Joan Gabel was immersed in controversy and second-guessing over the school’s COVID-19 response.

The pandemic had quickly forced the state’s largest school to effectively shut down not only its 50,000-student campus in the Twin Cities, but its other campuses across Minnesota as well. And Gabel was leading an initial effort in late March 2020 to cap a refund to students at $1,200.

Documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, now provide a detailed look at the behind-the-scenes confusion and acrimony that took place as school officials responded to a pandemic that forced them to change course multiple times within a three-week period and came as Gabel herself faced mounting public criticism.

One member of the school’s Board of Regents, in a private e-mail, called the university “pandemic profiteers” for not giving students more money as the school stood to get millions in federal pandemic aid. In another e-mail, a top school official said that Gabel told him “there was not sufficient time” to run the initial decision on the refund package by the full 12-member Board of Regents, the school’s governing body. Meanwhile, Gabel kept in close contact with a Georgia-based consultant who had been hired by the school, and who now pressed the university president to find out how many students were complaining about the refund amount, and whether it was “only a handful.”

“It’s hard to say” how many students were complaining, Gabel said in a March 24 e-mail to Brian Curtis, the head of the consulting company, Paradigm Four. Curtis was a former TV sports reporter who had written several sports-themed books, including one on University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban titled “How Good Do You Want to Be?: A Champion’s Tips on How to Lead and Succeed.”

Gabel told Curtis: “About 50 [had complained on the social media platform] Reddit. Several on [T]witter. I’ve received a few emails. But they will start a petition and many will sign it whether this affects them directly or not.”

When Gabel reversed direction and suddenly moved to increase the refund (one student told her in an e-mail that the $1,200 was a “slap in the face”) she was consoled by Matt Kramer, a onetime chief of staff to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“You are mad at yourself and not listening to your brain/heart/gut,” Kramer, who was hired as the school’s chief lobbyist and vice president for university relations, wrote in an April 1 e-mail. “Joan, I’m frustrated as well.”

Documents reveal discord in early days of pandemic

PRM obtained more than 1,400 pages of records that document the internal discussions among the school’s top administrators during the tumultuous days in March and April 2020. The records reveal the high-level talks that took place as the school reacted to the expanding pandemic – and chronicled the fast-changing decisions as the school encouraged students not to return from Spring break, announced that students would move to on-line classes, tried to bring “study abroad” students home, and essentially shut down the school’s revenue-generating athletics teams.

The records also show how school officials – in a series of private discussions – gave their reasons for initially taking a harder line to limit the size of the student refunds, and maintained “that students are not likely to understand” the school’s many ongoing costs.

One internal memo, dated March 26, said the $1,200 refund for Twin Cities’ campus students ($1,000 would go to students at all other University of Minnesota campuses) “struck the right balance.” The same memo, written by Brian Burnett, the school’s then-senior vice president for finance and operations, argued that giving students a higher pro-rated credit instead of the flat refund “would not only do substantial harm to our ongoing financial viability, but [would] not reflect fairness to the institution.”

The memo also gave some detail as to how school officials arrived at the initial $1,200 figure: The memo said that all scenarios, ranging from a full pro-rated refund to no refund, were studied. But it added that the $1,200 and $1,000 refund proposals were a compromise and represented a 60 percent credit for housing and a 75 percent credit for dining expenses. (Spring classes at the Twin Cities campus began Jan. 21, 2020 and were to end on May 13, 2020).

An internal estimate showed that a full pro-rated credit would cost the Twin Cities campus $20.5 million, while a $1,200 refund would cost $8.7 million.

Other records meanwhile showed how school officials wrestled with settling on a starting date for calculating the student refund – which became another, separate controversy. School officials initially proposed a start date of April 1, changed it to March 28 and, after more criticism, ultimately settled on March 16 for students at the Twin Cities campus. “Do we need to explain why April 1st?” Mike Berthelsen, the school’s vice president for university services, wrote in an e-mail to Gabel and others on March 30. “If not in this letter, we need to be prepared with the written rationale as we will be pushed on that.”

Controversy over student refunds

On April 3, the Board of Regents – backing a new plan hurriedly put together by Gabel and others – voted to give students a pro-rated credit for all of their unused housing, dining, parking and other fees from the date that Minnesota’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order began (March 28) through the end of the semester.

For Twin Cities’ campus students, the move roughly doubled the initial $1,200 refund.

But even that proposal was initially criticized by students, including the two lead student representatives to the Board of Regents. “Until we see that this proposal demonstrates a comparatively greater degree of support for students, we maintain our serious concern with” it, wrote students Austin Kraft and Brandon King in an April 3 letter to the Board of Regents.

Kramer, however, urged the school president to hold firm. “We win this argument. This is a ‘give us more’ argument and Joan, your proposal is huge. Let’s play this out,” Kramer said in an e-mail to Gabel the same day the students dated their letter.

Before being hired at the school in 2017 – his second stint at the University of Minnesota — Kramer had served in a number of high-profile roles in the Twin Cities, including as president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and as Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Gabel, meanwhile, was warned that increasing the refund came with a cost beyond just dollars.

A summary of the new plan, forwarded to Gabel by Burnett, cautioned that in addition to costing more money the revised plan “could [also] possibly add confusion about the rationale for a change so quickly on the heels of the first decision.” However, the March 29 summary also predicted that the new plan “will [ultimately] improve the relationship between the University and students/families.”

The political backpedaling over the refund continued – as did the effort to restore Gabel’s standing among students and the public.

In an attempt to portray the school in a more favorable light, the Board of Regents announced on April 7 that the start date that would be used to calculate the refund for Twin Cities’ campus students would be moved back – from March 28 to March 16. The move game students slightly more money.

Gabel, in an accompanying message, said that she would propose freezing tuition for the 2020-2021 school year. She then added: “I will take a 10% salary cut starting July 1 and continuing until the University’s operations return to normal. Those serving in my cabinet will do the same.”

But the weeks leading up to the April 7 meeting saw Gabel and other school officials repeatedly trying to soften their approach, according to the documents.

As school officials in late March tried to blunt criticism of the $1,200 refund proposal, Gabel debated how to reply. In a March 24 e-mail, the school president said she wanted to add her own wording to the school’s refund announcement. “Got slightly more personal – What do you think?” Gabel wrote in an e-mail to a university official and to Curtis of Paradigm Four, the consulting company.

Although the documents left unclear what wording Gabel herself had contributed, the note highlighted the school president’s own emotional investment in what was occurring. “You may know that my own children are college students so I see this disruption from every point of [view]. My heart breaks for everyone who is suffering right now,” Gabel’s proposed statement said.

The statement, however, added that, “We believe that the $1,200 is fair and equitable.”

Board of Regents acrimony over school COVID response

Even before the school made multiple changes to the refund proposal, Gabel’s actions had already wrapped her in controversy.

Gabel had recommended on March 25 that the board’s leadership – without calling a full meeting of the Board of Regents – declare an emergency due to the emerging COVID-19 crisis. The board’s top officers quickly agreed.

That same day Brian Steeves, the executive director and corporate secretary for the Board of Regents, explained what happened to Michael Hsu, a board member who was not included in the decision.

“Joan [Gabel] called me late afternoon on Monday, shortly before the refund email was going out to students,” Steeves wrote in an e-mail to Hsu. “She told me it would be a set dollar amount (not prorated, and) that a communication to students was needed that evening.

“We discussed the possibility of Board approval (special meeting or urgent approval), but she felt strongly that there was not sufficient time for those steps absent clear policy language requiring it,” Steeves said.

Hsu added: “This is a multi-million dollar decision that should have included board input.”

Six days after asking the Board of Regents to declare an emergency, Gabel and other top school officials were busy pivoting, according to documents obtained by PRM.

In an April 1 e-mail to Steve Sviggum, the Board of Regent’s vice chair, Steeves outlined what was occurring. “I think your message can be simple: Given the Governor’s stay-at-home order and new information about peer responses, Board leadership and the President believe a pivot is needed on housing/dining credits,” Steeves wrote.

“We need to refund more than $1,200/student at [the Twin Cities campus] and $1,000/student at system campuses. Joan and her team are pulling together options,” Steeves told Sviggum, a former Speaker of the House in the Minnesota Legislature. “I believe [others are] suggesting to Joan that she also make individual calls to Regents ahead of Friday.”

As school officials wrestled with the amount of the student refund, Hsu meanwhile had become even more frustrated. “We can’t find money to refund students when we kick them out. We always have money to buy things, build things and pay expensive administrators. What’s wrong with this place???” Hsu wrote in an April 3 e-mail to an unidentified person.

“Now we’re pandemic profiteers! WTF?” Hsu added.

Hsu, a University of Minnesota graduate and outspoken member of the Board of Regents, was elected to the board in 2015.

Concerns over school’s reserve fund, other issues

According to the documents, Hsu and others were likewise concerned that the school was initially low-balling students on their refunds at a time when the university had large reserves and stood to get millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money.

An estimate by the university on April 7 said the school could expect $36 million in federal pandemic relief money – and that 50 percent had to be spent on “assisting students.” Meanwhile Mike Volna, the school’s assistant chief financial officer, had initially predicted in mid-March that by June 30 the impact of COVID-19 on the school could be anywhere from $20 million to $50 million.

Hsu’s frustration also extended to the university’s financial reserves – especially, he wrote, the school’s reluctance to highlight the amount as the student refunds were being discussed. “The size of the reserves is not widely advertised,” Hsu told an unidentified person in an e-mail on April 7. “I actually didn’t know what the number was, just that it was $1B the last time I asked.”

The person, whose name was blacked out by school officials, added: “One thing that makes me more upset is to find out that nearly a billion dollar emergency fund exists. Wow…the University President and other Regents knew this and thought $1200 was a good first offer for a refund??”

The school’s changing response to the pandemic also led to other frustrations, according to the documents.

On April 3, the Board of Regents – with Gabel’s support – said student refunds would be calculated using March 28 as the start date. But at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a branch campus with nearly 11,000 students, e-mails showed that students were told to move out of their dormitories on March 22 – six days earlier.

The discrepancy led Randy Simonson, another Board of Regents member, to complain to Sviggum.

“I didn’t receive [this information] until after our board meeting,” Simonson, the chief executive of Cambridge Technologies, an animal health company, wrote in an April 4 e-mail. “If I knew this I would have brought it up [as] Joan used [March 28] as line in the sand. [I]t sure appears that line was drawn earlier. Not good for the [Board of Regents] or Admin.

“This could have been handled so much better!” Simonson added.

That same day Simonson exchanged e-mails with Hsu. “How could Gabel not know about this before our last Friday meeting?” Simonson asked.

Responded Hsu: “I don’t see how it’s possible.”

Unprecedented steps to deal with pandemic

The records obtained by PRM, meanwhile, showed how quickly school officials were forced to take unprecedented steps to adapt to the spreading pandemic.

A March 26 internal memo, for example, said that 1.65 million e-mail messages with updates on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact had been sent to faculty, staff and students at the Twin Cities campus since March 4 – a period of barely three weeks. School officials on the Twin Cities campus also discussed plans to conduct a door-to-door census “to confirm those continuing to live on campus.”

In addition, school officials had to consider myriad other issues. “Are buildings being switched to “unoccupied” ventilation mode?” the March 26 memo asked regarding the Twin Cities campus. “If so, who makes that decision and do they know if essential research is occurring in those spaces?”

The memo also stated that researchers at the Twin Cities campus had been asked to identify “priority save” rat and mouse cages in case staff are unable to come on campus. “There is no mandated euthanasia at this point,” the memo read.

As the school’s staff quickly worked to essentially shut down the Twin Cities campus, one e-mail talked of working in “a ghost town.” The same March 17 e-mail noted that “the hottest issue for us” was determining which university employees stay at their jobs. Wrote Kramer, the school’s vice president for university relations: “We are not going to do well if we are the first large employer to say something like ‘if you don’t work, you don’t get paid’.”

School officials faced similar decisions at the University of Minnesota’s branch campuses.
At the UM-Morris campus, according to the memo, student counseling had by March 26 been set up for remote delivery. At the UM-Crookston campus, students had to make appointments to return to campus to clean out their dormitory rooms. And at the UM-Duluth campus, school officials asked that employees not get any “bonuses, one-off pay changes or job classifications” while the pandemic was ongoing.

While the school “understands and appreciates that many employees are going above and beyond their job”, now was the time to instead “focus on the public health and operational challenges ahead of us,” the memo regarding the UM-Duluth stated.

At the Twin Cities campus, Gabel meanwhile was looking at what other universities across the U.S. were doing to cope with the pandemic.

On March 13 David Gray, the senior vice president for finance and business at Penn State University, described to his Big 10 colleagues what his school was facing. “[We are] chin-deep in pandemic planning and response activities,” he wrote. “We are being besieged with appeals from students and parents, many of whom want immediate prorata refunds. I’d be most interested to hear from you about your university’s stance on such refunds, knowing that many of you are operating in similar remote learning mode.”

Although the documents obtained by PRM do not explain why, school officials in Minnesota paid close attention to what was happening at the University of Georgia.

As March turned to April, University of Minnesota officials busily drafted what became the “Comprehensive Student Fee Refund Plan”, the school’s attempt to give students more than the initial refund proposal. “This is a draft,” Kramer wrote to Gabel in a March 30 e-mail. “It is based off the example letter from Georgia.”

Later the same day, Kramer wrote another e-mail to Gabel. “On the health services fee, I have left in the 10% reduction. That is the amount [that] Georgia used,” he said.

In late March, Gabel also exchanged e-mails with an official at Michigan State University.

After hearing from Gabel, Michigan State’s Rachel Croson contacted a vice president at Croson’s school and asked for details regarding Michigan State’s proposal for a $1,120 housing credit for students who had moved out of school housing. “I’m asking for a friend (Minnesota),” Croson wrote in a March 26 e-mail to Michigan State vice president Venceslaus Gore.

Gore responded to Croson, writing that “we have had minimal push back from our residents and parents. [Once] we explained (by phone) the principles, most parents understand even [though] they didn’t agree.”

Documents highlight consulting firm

The documents obtained by PRM in addition highlighted the relationship between the school – particularly, Gabel – and the consulting firm, Paradigm Four.

Records obtained by PRM show that the school entered into a $3,500-a-month contract with Paradigm Four in July 2019. The original one-year contract called for the company to provide “advice, strategies and consultations, regarding messaging, media relations, communications and management” and to be “reasonably available [by] phone, email or in-person.” A one-year contract extension was signed in June 2020, as the school battled the impacts of the pandemic.

E-mail exchanges between Gabel and Paradigm Four’s Curtis show how the school relied on the company. As Gabel prepared another memo to students and staff on March 24, she leaned on Paradigm Four for advice. “Not exact wording, but you get the idea,” Curtis wrote in an e-mail to the school president as he suggested edits to a statement from the school. “Share with [the school’s leadership team] and get their independent thoughts on pro/con of sending it.”

“I like it – suggested next steps?” Gabel replied.

Curtis, a former reporter for CBS College Sports and Fox Sports Net, had also written a book on National Football League Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, titled “Go Long!: My Journey Beyond the Game and the Fame.” He had also edited “The Legacy Letters: Messages of Life and Hope from 9/11 Family Members.”

Though Curtis declined to give details of his relationship with the University of Minnesota, he told PRM in an e-mail: “While our company does not comment on our work or clients, we serve many universities across the country assisting them in communicating messages and managing communications crises on a wide-arrange of issues in higher education.”

Trying to move beyond the controversy

By April 7 – following the school’s decision to once again address student refunds – documents indicate that school officials were eager to put the controversy behind them.

“My thought is to diminish the conversation on the refund,” Kramer said as the school prepared a press release on the latest change regarding refunds. “This will be our third trip to the well and we really can’t celebrate it. Better to just announce it in the second paragraph, students will get the benefit, and stop talking about it.

“Everytime we talk [about] refunds we encourage parents/students/employees to ask for something new,” Kramer wrote in an e-mail.

As the school moved forward, an updated biography for Gabel on the university’s website attempted to do something else: highlight the school president’s leadership during the pandemic.

“In Spring 2020, the impact and complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic became a key focus in President Gabel’s work,” the biography stated. “She led efforts to address the immediate challenges of the pandemic, including keeping the University healthy, safe, and well.

“Gabel facilitated the University’s expertise to shape the recovery for the University system, Minnesotans, and the world,” the biography added. “During this challenging time, she led efforts to cultivate institutional uniqueness and value, and reimagine opportunities for the University to advance its nearly 170-year legacy, and to work towards a bright future.”