The period from April 1 to June 31, 2020 has been among the most challenging periods in Binghamton University’s history, with the campus adapting to remote teaching, and students, staff and faculty working from home in response to COVID-19. Nonetheless, the campus community has been creative in its responses to COVID and successfully completed the academic year, although the pandemic disrupted the University’s traditional end-of-semester activities and celebrations. In addition, it caused the University to temporarily revise both its tenure process for faculty and progress requirements for students. Our goal in taking these actions was to minimize the impact that the suspension of normal campus activities has on the academic and career prospects for students and faculty. Now, we are planning for reopening the campus.
COVID-19 has also reminded us of the responsibilities we have toward one another. This responsibility has been reinforced by the way the disease has had a disparate impact on minority communities and, more significantly, by recent events that highlighted racial inequalities in our community, as well as society at large. In particular, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in early June galvanized public sentiment and energized students, faculty and staff in support of Black Lives Matter. In response, we have taken several steps to ensure that our campus is a diverse and welcoming place.
Impact of COVID on the spring 2020 semester
By April 1, only about 300 students remained on campus — most were international students or from communities that were hard hit by the initial wave of COVID. Approximately 400 of the University’s 5,000+ employees remained on campus, attending to critical services while maintaining social distance and wearing face coverings to stop the spread of COVID. The remainder of the University’s workforce spent the rest of the semester working remotely, only beginning to return to campus in June.
We soon learned that the rapid shift from in-person to remote learning left some students struggling with the transition — because they lacked access to technology, were suffering financially or were finding it difficult to adapt to the change in instruction style. Initially, we were concerned that some students might “fall off the grid” during the transition so we set up an emergency outreach program of faculty and staff to reach out to students of concern. The campus also provided students with hundreds of laptop computers and “My-Fi” hotspots to access their classes with support from the State University of New York (SUNY) and the Binghamton University Foundation’s Fund for Excellence. The Foundation also stepped up to provide emergency financial aid to students struggling from COVID’s financial impact, pledging all gifts collected by the fund from April to June to support students’ critical needs. By the end of June, more than $135,000 has been raised. Of these funds, $50,000 was committed to the Student Emergency Fund administered by the Division of Student Affairs, which also received a $50,000 matching grant from SUNY, courtesy of an anonymous donor. Other donors to the Fund for Excellence include the Office of Alumni Engagement and the Computer Science Department. To date, more than $80,000 has been distributed to 160 students.
Having students suddenly return home mid-semester also raised issues of fairness in housing costs and student fees for activities and services such as meals, transportation and recreation that were no longer available once students left campus. These costs and fees were refunded to students on a pro-rated basis, such that the University returned 55% of housing and student fees, totaling $24 million. In addition, the University has received $13.6 million in allocations from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act; 50% of this is to be used for emergency financial aid grants to students for expenses such as food, housing and healthcare that are related to the disruption of campus operations. Just over 4,700 graduate and undergraduate students are eligible for these grants, with awards determined by financial criteria; by mid-June more than 3,300 students had received an emergency grant ranging from $750 to $2,500, distributed based on their FAFSAs on file with our Office of Financial Aid and Student Records.
Recognizing the impact that the pandemic and subsequent dislocations might have on students’ coursework, in early April the Provost’s Office implemented several changes to undergraduate and graduate grading and academic progress policies. Chief among these changes was the opportunity for undergraduate students to take as many as 12 credits in the spring semester on a pass/fail basis, with the deadline to make the decision set for after letter grades had been assigned. Similarly, graduate students were allowed to change their grading option to satisfactory/unsatisfactory, except where prohibited by state and professional licensing requirements. The continuous registration policy also was waived, allowing students whose progress to degree conferral was interrupted by COVID to petition for a continuous registration waiver. Finally, with regard to the career progress of our faculty, the Provost’s Office decided to suspend for one year the tenure clock for tenure-track faculty, while also offering all faculty scheduled for tenure review in academic year 2020-21 the opportunity to postpone their review for one year.
Virtually all of the semester’s remaining in-person academic, scholarly, social and cultural events were either postponed or canceled as a result of the pandemic. Similarly, all America East Conference athletic contests for the remainder of the spring semester were canceled — a real blow for our athletes, but especially so for the women’s basketball team that had made it to the America East conference semi-finals and was poised to receive a post-season tournament bid.
Most painful was the postponement of the University’s Commencement exercises that are traditionally the highlight of the academic year. Once this decision was made, graduating seniors were surveyed to identify a time in either the summer or fall when the campus would be able to host Commencement ceremonies in person. Unfortunately, optimism for an early opening of campus events has faded and Commencement will likely be pushed back to late in the fall 2020 semester.
Still, we were able to celebrate the achievements of our graduating seniors with a unique, virtual champagne toast. More than a dozen famous alumni and supporters joined our graduating seniors in a video sendoff that quickly went viral among seniors and their families. Among those offering congratulations and words of wisdom were Binghamton’s Nobel-prize winning Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science M. Stanley Whittingham, Senate Majority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer, U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, singer Ingrid Michaelson, actor Billy Baldwin, and commentator Sunny Hostin, as well as a number of graduating seniors themselves. It was a fun and well-received event given the circumstances. And regardless of when we can formally recognize members of the Class of 2020, I can confidently say that theirs is one class that will have special status among Binghamton alumni.
Even as the University was making the shift to online teaching, we were already beginning to plan for our return to campus in fall 2020. In mid-April, I appointed a Public Health Advisory Group, chaired by Johan Fiore-Conte, associate vice president for student affairs, to establish health and safety guidelines for the reopening of the campus. The group also included Mario Ortiz, dean and professor of nursing for Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences; Richard Moose, MD, medical director of Decker Student Health Services Center; Yvonne Johnson, associate professor and founding director of our Master in Public Health program; and Hiroki Sayama, professor of systems science and industrial engineering. We also appointed campus coordinators and subcommittees to kick-start campus reopening efforts by gathering information and making recommendations in core mission areas — research, undergraduate and graduate education, online learning, and campus events. Meanwhile, other senior leaders and I were reaching out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office and SUNY for guidance, we also were consulting with our peers at other institutions and higher education associations, as well as with government leaders at the local, state and national levels.
On May 11, Gov. Cuomo spoke at our School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences building in Johnson City, providing his daily press conference regarding the state’s efforts to address the coronavirus. During this conference, he discussed his recent announcement that portions of the state, including the Southern Tier, could begin to reopen, based on meeting various criteria regarding controlling the spread of COVID-19. By this time, the University had created working groups, eventually numbering 15 in all, to address issues ranging from campus cleaning to off-campus life. These working groups had to contemplate a wide range of possible scenarios and examine the workings of campus in extreme detail to determine the best ways to keep the campus safe while meeting our academic and scholarly goals this fall.
The start of our return to campus began in late May as the campus began to Return to Research — reopening the research and scholarly spaces that had been closed since the pandemic began. The Return to Research subcommittee, following standards set by New York state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and with the support from the University’s Environmental Health and Safety Department and the Public Health Advisory Group, developed a set of protocols and requirements that all campus researchers and scholars agreed to comply with before reentering their labs, studios and other “multi-user” spaces. Faculty were asked to submit an Application to Return to Research at Binghamton and to refresh their lab safety training before returning; Environmental Health and Safety was also directed to inspect each lab and work space before reopening. The Division of Research also held a series of virtual town hall meetings where affected faculty could obtain more information and ask questions specific to their research activities. By the end of June, more than 500 faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students had returned to their labs, studios and scholarly work spaces.
By mid-June, the Restarting Binghamton working groups had produced a draft plan for reopening the campus. This plan is a comprehensive overview of what the campus will look like in the fall. The plan addresses all aspects of campus life, including changes in the academic calendar to reduce student travel, the continued use of remote learning to support social distancing, and the impact on residential life and the delivery of student services. Central to the plan’s recommendations is a concern for the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. Most significantly, under the plan, the first day of classes will be Aug. 26, and traditionally observed breaks in the fall semester will be suspended in order to reduce student travel. Following the Thanksgiving break in November, all remaining classes will be taught exclusively online.
When we released the draft plan, we solicited comments and suggestions for improving our opening. More than 1,000 people submitted recommendations, significantly strengthening the document. We have reconciled the draft plan with the most recent set of governmental guidelines and have submitted it as our final plan to SUNY and to Gov. Cuomo’s office.
As we get ready for reopening, we also are keeping our eyes on the state’s fiscal situation, which will likely have an impact on SUNY and Binghamton University. With state revenues reduced by 25% due to the coronavirus, we anticipate a $10 million reduction in funding for our campus. Some of this will be offset through support from the federal CARES Act, but I have asked the deans and divisional leaders to plan for a 10% reduction in funding. We expect a challenging year financially, but believe we will be able to sustain the campus through January, when the state will likely revise its fiscal projections.
It is clear that the fall semester will look different than it has in the past, but I know that we are all eager to see students back on campus.
Black Lives Matter and changes to University police practices
As May ended, the Binghamton University community was shocked by the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minn. His death, coming on the heels of recent murders of other black men and women, often at the hands of police, has raised awareness of the broad and longstanding social inequalities faced by people of color in America. In the weeks since, millions of Americans have marched in protest of racist violence and a national movement for police reform has emerged.
In response, the New York State Legislature and Gov. Cuomo’s Office have announced plans for statewide police reform. In a June 10 letter to the campus community, I announced my support for these reforms and indicated that the University would be establishing a Campus Citizen’s Review Board, composed of students, faculty and staff, that will be charged with reviewing and improving the Binghamton University Police Department’s policies, procedures and practices. I also indicated that we will be shifting funds initially designated for the University Police to other campus offices that respond to emergencies, such as for mental health support. Our goal is to help ensure that University Police are responsive to all campus members’ needs.
We have also established the new George Floyd Scholarship for Social Change to support historically economically disadvantaged, underrepresented minorities — our future leaders who seek racial justice and endeavor to make a positive impact on the world. An endowment of $1.5 million will be used to provide financial support to deserving students. In addition, to attract and support underrepresented graduate students, we are reallocating funds to add $200,000 to the annual budget for the Clifford D. Clark Diversity Fellowship s for Graduate Students on our campus. Binghamton University has a long tradition of civic engagement and financial support to our students, and we are encouraging our alumni and friends to support these projects.
Campus recognition and administrative changes
The level of our Binghamton University’s civic engagement was made clear in May when we were cited by the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere Network for our long-term commitment to student political engagement. In particular, the Foundation cited our increasing student voting rate on its campus in naming us one of five national Leader Campuses. This was in recognition of the University increasing its student-voting rate from 8.7% in 2014 to 32% in 2018, according to the Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. The effort to increase student voting was led by the University’s Voter Engagement Team, overseen by Alison Handy Twang, associate director of our Center for Civic Engagement. The Andrew Goodman Foundation was founded to uphold the legacy of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, three Freedom Summer volunteers who were murdered in Mississippi by the KKK in 1964 while registering African Americans to vote.
Binghamton University also has been recognized for our sustainability efforts, having earned a STARS Gold rating by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, measures and encourages sustainability in all aspects of higher education — academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership.
Binghamton has previously earned Silver recognition, but the gold award indicates that we are making progress in our efforts to be a sustainable campus, as indicated by our recently adopted Sustainability Plan and our continued efforts to reduce our carbon footprint through our Green Energy Master Plan.
Another measure of our growing reputation and visibility is the professional development of our faculty and staff, as well as our ability to attract quality people to our campus. For example, Harpur Dean Elizabeth Chilton recently accepted a position as provost at Washington State University (WSU); in hiring her, WSU leaders cited her leadership experience at Binghamton and her leadership on our diversity efforts as a key attribute. During her time at Binghamton, she led efforts to develop a faculty hiring cluster in race and inequality and has developed mentoring networks to support faculty development. I wish her the best in her new role. Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Nieman has appointed Harpur Associate Dean Celia Klin as interim dean and we will conduct a search for a new dean beginning in the fall.
Aondover Tarhule, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, also accepted a position as provost of Illinois University. While at Binghamton, he helped our efforts to expand graduate enrollment and improved processes, bringing a data-driven approach to decision-making and enhancing services to our graduate students, especially professional development programs. We will miss his energy and creativity, but we wish him all the best in an exciting new position. Provost Nieman will oversee Graduate School operations until a search is conducted.
In April, we also announced the hiring of Karen A. Jones as vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, beginning July 1. Jones comes to Binghamton from SUNY Buffalo State College, where she served as chief diversity officer. She brings with her more than 30 years of experience in civil rights compliance, equity initiatives and human resources strategies in higher education, healthcare and private industry. I want to thank Nicole Sirju-Johnson for serving as interim vice president for the last several months.
Also in April, John Koch was appointed vice president for advancement. Koch had served as interim vice president for advancement since July 2018, and had previously served in a number of campus development roles. As interim vice president, Koch oversaw a significant increase in private support for the University, including more seven-figure gifts than the University had received during its entire previous history. Most recently, he stewarded the University’s largest-ever gift, a $60 million anonymous gift to support the University’s baseball team.
Finally, Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari has agreed to continue to serve as dean of the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science. Srihari had originally planned on returning to the faculty in 2018, but the search for a successor was canceled due to a hiring hold caused by fiscal uncertainties. A subsequent search this past semester also was put on hold due to the disruption caused by COVID-19. I am grateful and deeply appreciate his willingness to continue in this role during this uncertain and critical period.
The past three months have been among the most challenging I’ve faced as president of Binghamton University. We’ve closed the campus down, embraced remote learning and working, confronted racism and endeavored make our campus more inclusive, all while trying to anticipate the demands of an uncertain and fiscally challenging future. The campus is a different place without students eager to learn, faculty eager to teach and staff eager to support of both. Still, I’m proud of the work the campus has done under extremely trying circumstances — we continue to earn recognition from peers and observers, and our scholarly and research efforts are truly making a better, safer and healthier world.
I look forward to seeing everyone back on campus in the next socially-distanced, facially-masked and environmentally-sanitized semester.
Students from Binghamton University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences are on the frontlines of the current pandemic, providing essential healthcare services to the public while juggling online courses in a challenging major.
Although the vast majority of students had left the Binghamton University campus by the end of March due to COVID-19 concerns, the Alumni Association was able to bring seniors together to continue a popular graduation week tradition.
The Binghamton University Student Emergency Fund provides grants to currently enrolled Binghamton University students experiencing unusual and unforeseen financial demands that immediately threaten their academic progress and success.