Town hall meeting addresses construction projects, faculty hiringTweet
Though the audience was small, students covered a wide range of topics as they questioned administrators during the second Town Hall meeting of the academic year, held Tuesday, April 12. With Student Association President Jared Kirschenbaum moderating, students questioned President C. Peter Magrath; vice presidents Jean-Pierre (Peter) Mileur (provost), Brian Rose (student affairs), Bahgat Sammakia (research); James Van Voorst (administration); and Interim Director of Athletics James Norris.
Questions ranged from the presidential search to campus construction projects to academic issues to student cultural and political issues.
Magrath said he anticipated the presidential search will be renewed in the immediate future and is very optimistic that a good outcome will result. In response to a question, Magrath said that the campus is not back to square one. “It’s best to think of it as a renewed search and it will be a good, professional search.”
An Arabic major questioned a lack of faculty in his department, noting that language classes in his department have 30 students, when other language departments have fewer students. Mileur responded, explaining that the primary reason is history. “When I was dean about 10 years ago, we expected a sharp upturn in Arabic and for long while that didn’t happen,” he said. “Then it did but we’re now dealing with a declining budget − so it’s part history and part timing. We’re making a hire this year and it’s likely the only one in language. We’re not ignoring you and we are hiring, but frankly the budget is just terrible and we have 50 academic specialties here that all could use additional resources.”
A student member of SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) asked about a project he is working on to convert used oil from Sodexo operations to heat buildings. Van Voorst recalled that Watson students last year worked on a project to convert oil into diesel fuel, but the student said that didn’t pan out and the focus is now on conversion to heating fuel. “I’m interested in seeing how we can take that next step,” said Van Voorst. “There’s a handling issue as well as a temperature process, but it’s a really interesting project and we’ll come over to see how you’re coming along.”
Administrators also addressed questions about campus improvement plans. An open facilities master plan meeting was held April 13. “The plan will project facilities needs for the next many years and also identifies new construction projects,” said Rose. “It’s our roadmap.”
Mileur added that the master plan includes renovation of just about everything in the central campus area. “The library will take probably 10 years to completely renovate,” he said. “There are also a number of new academic buildings. It’s truly a comprehensive plan.” In addition to what is currently underway on campus, Van Voorst said the central quad area between the Fine Arts and Science 1 buildings will see a substantial effort beginning this summer.
A member of the Black Student Union brought up concerns that certain organizations on campus have made biased statements about others, referring specifically to a copy of minutes from a Student Association Financial Council meeting that disparaged some groups. Rose noted that Binghamton University has a diverse student body with long-standing cultural groups. “We’re proud of that and our students and it’s a benefit to students here,” he said. “That being said, this relates to student government. Take these issues to your student government.
“Students need to challenge themselves to be professional and take the opportunity to talk about it,” Rose continued. “Ultimately, this is your issue as students and we’ll help you, but I want students themselves to own it. It won’t hold much if it’s a top-down solution. It will be a much more long-lasting solution if students handle it themselves. We are standing on the side of all students in this matter already and we want this to be something we make progress on as an institution.”
Kirschenbaum added that the SA is committed to making sure students feel confident in its budget process and in the SA. “It’s unfortunate when events like these cloud it, but there is a solution for everything and we need to try to find it even if it’s not easy,” he said. “We need to come together and hold students accountable. Situations like these don’t fly in the real world. It’s unfortunate this happens, but we have an opportunity for everyone to learn together.”
Is there a possibility of cultural training and has the administration made suggestions to the SA? Rose said suggestions have been made, but added that the issues aren’t always cultural and are sometimes political. “The real issue is they all tend to surface around funding,” he said. “And we all have an interest in making this a better process.” Kirschenbaum noted that Binghamton is different than other SUNY schools with so many successful cultural groups. “We pride ourselves on it,” he said. “This is a learning process and we’re working to resolve it to make things more efficient. In the past year we reformed a lot and we’re looking to the future.”
Questions arose about how individuals were selected for the presidential search committee, and Mileur explained that, legally, the Binghamton University Council is responsible for making recommendations and controlling the search. “There are a certain number of slots set aside for each of the organizations involved, but it’s all set up by regulation and law,” he said.
Turning to a question about the faculty hiring process and how is it possible to hire more faculty of color, Mileur said faculty hiring is a very involved process that begins at the department level. “It’s unusual for hiring a faculty member to take less than nine months of continuous work,” he said. “We also hire under system-wide diversity programs.”
Van Voorst next responded to a question about a recent settlement Sodexo made and whether students or the University will benefit from it, noting that it resulted from action by the New York State Attorney General. “Twenty million came to the state and we pitched to the Attorney General that some of that $20 million belonged to us to get it back to the students, but the AG said we had no case and the money remains in the state’s general fund,” he said. “As a vendor, Sodexo has a pretty good track record. One of things we watch for is vendor responsibility. We’ve another four years on our contract with them and fully expect to bid the contract out when the time comes at the end of our 10-year contract, which was approved by the AG. We will follow our regular bid process.”
After Norris provided a preview of next year’s basketball teams – coaching staff is intact, men’s basketball loses five seniors to graduation but has signed one recruit and expects two more within days, and women’s basketball returns all but one player − Sammakia told the audience about initiatives in the new Engineering and Science Building. “Key areas are in healthcare and life sciences,” he said. “Over the next five to 10 years, we hope to see this become an internationally recognized center of excellence.”
With a ruling by the SA judicial board in March that NYPIRG had to vacate, why hasn’t that happened, one student asked. “First, their status is a moving target,” Rose said. “But the short answer is the space in the University Union is not leased to the SA and then subleased to student groups; it’s University space. There is concern about the legitimacy of the decision and we’re speaking with NYPIRG and the SA about it. Until we can figure out whether the actions relating to NYPIRG are consistent with University policy, and the dispute seems to be evolving, so we are not rushing in to make a decision. Again, this is ultimately an issue between a student organization and student government and we would rather they decide.”
The meeting ended with information on major construction projects, as well as renovation and maintenance efforts. Three new residence halls for Newing College and a collegiate center will open up on schedule in the fall and no difficulties are anticipated. Phase 4 of the project is also on track to focus on Dickinson. Van Voorst also explained that the University has a facilities master plan that includes critical maintenance projects. “The campus receives almost $30 million a year in critical maintenance funding,” he said. “We use these funds for ongoing refurbishment and structural projects. The Union is a perfect example. It was a cavern and is now more welcoming with rooms for classes and programming. That was completed using mostly critical maintenance funding.”
Mileur added that there are hundreds of funding sources for the University, and only some can be interchanged. “We give a great deal of thought about how we use various streams of funding to optimize our resources,” he said.