President's Quarterly Report

Winter 2020

The fall 2020 semester has been very challenging. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University was twice forced to pause in-person classes, and the health and safety requirements have impacted the way we both teach and conduct research. We appreciate the commitment and dedication of our faculty, staff and students during what has undoubtedly been a challenging time for the entire University.

Throughout the pandemic, our faculty and staff have worked to ensure that our students continue to learn from some of the best teachers in any American university, while continuing to enhance the University’s reputation for innovative research and thought-provoking scholarship. I thank the entire University community for its commitment and flexibility during these past few months.

Pause and re-pause

I know the decision to pause and re-pause in-person classes imposed challenges on everyone at the University. Let me explain how we reached the decision to suspend classroom interactions.

During the fall semester, the campus experienced two COVID-19 spikes, the first leading to a two-week pause to in-person classes starting Oct. 8 when our surveillance testing during the Sept. 26-Oct. 9 period was nearing the 100-positive-test threshold established by New York state, and which we were certain we would surpass — and did a day later.

The University has been conducting surveillance testing since the start of the fall semester at Old Union Hall in the University Union, and by mid-November the campus was testing more than 800 students per day. Faculty and staff were also being tested as per agreements with several of the bargaining units representing them. In addition, symptomatic students were being tested at Decker Student Health Services Center; by early October the campus positivity rate stood at 1.61%, compared to the Broome County rate of 3.9%, suggesting that even though we were forced to pause, we had been effective in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 on our campus. I know that many students, faculty and staff have been summoned for testing at the surveillance facility. This is very important work and has been essential to keeping the campus healthy and safe, so I thank everyone for helping us track the coronavirus across our campus.

During the pause, the campus remained open, but non-essential student services were curtailed as were intramurals, club sports and athletics. This enabled us to successfully reduce the number of positive tests and resume in-person classes Oct. 22. However, by mid-November we were seeing a second spike, forcing us to again pause in-person classes. This caused most faculty and staff to revise the end-of-semester process for classes — changes that were crucial to allowing us to successfully complete the semester, and I want everyone to know how much we appreciate their efforts.

Looking forward, COVID-19 has also altered the spring academic calendar, with student move-in and mandatory testing scheduled for Feb. 4-10. Classes will resume Feb. 8 (online) for nursing and pharmacy graduate students, while classes for everyone else will begin Feb. 11. Classes will run through May 18, followed by three days of in-person and online finals from May 19-21 and online-only finals taking place May 24-26. In addition, after consultation and discussion with the Student Association and Student Congress, and in response to concerns about student and faculty burnout as a result of the loss of calendar breaks because of COVID, we’ve added three Rejuvenation Days to the spring semester academic calendar. No classes will be held Wednesday, March 17; Thursday, April 8; or Tuesday, April 20.

With news that the first vaccinations against the coronavirus are now underway, we are optimistic that the spring 2021 semester will see the campus gradually returning to its normal rhythms and rituals.

Campus cybersecurity concerns

The campus faced a viral concern of a different sort in early November when a security breach targeted University servers. Campus Information Technology Services personnel responded quickly to this intrusion, but unfortunately, a number of faculty and staff whose computers were connected to those servers were also compromised, and this has impacted some faculty’s ability to conduct research and analyze data. Further, in an effort to minimize the impact on our campus, University servers were taken offline for several days, restricting access by faculty and staff.

There is no indication that any private information for any faculty, students or staff was ever accessed or compromised. Fortunately, most of the compromised materials have been restored from backups, and users of University data storage have been encouraged to update and install computer security software and increase security measures. We regret any disruption this may have caused to anyone’s work.

The University is now working with federal and state law enforcement officials to identify the source of the intrusion, and we have hired a cybersecurity consultant to help us better address our cybersecurity needs. We have also reconvening a campus Information Technologies Task Force to address our security concerns and also take a close look at both current and future campus IT needs.

Middle States reaccreditation

In November, the University completed a very successful review of the campus as part of our reaccreditation process. Reviewers for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) conducted a virtual campus visit between Nov. 15-18, meeting with faculty, staff and students. This has been a multi-year process spearheaded by the Provost’s Office and Accreditation Steering Committee. Reaccreditation required the University to successfully meet seven key standards:

  • Standard I: Mission and goals
  • Standard II: Ethics and Integrity
  • Standard III: Design and Delivery of the Student Experience
  • Standard IV: Support for the Student Experience
  • Standard V: Educational Effectiveness Assessment
  • Standard VI: Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement
  • And Standard VII: Governance, Leadership and Administration

In its verbal report to the campus, the accreditation team was especially impressed by the University’s response to COVID-19 and concerns for students’ health and safety, as well as students’ responses that stressed that they value the learning and living experience on campus. They also informed us that faculty believed that our administration is transparent and collaborative — and that we have a strong strategic planning process with a clear mission and goals. And given the current stresses we are facing, they were very satisfied with our fiscal management.

Fiscal concerns and admissions prospects

Clearly, next year will be challenging in terms of the University’s finances.

As we entered the fall semester, we anticipated that we might face significant reductions in both the number of returning students and new students joining our campus as a result of the pandemic. Fortunately, we were partially successful in terms of enrolling the numbers we needed to sustain our revenues. Still, the enrollment mix was not what we wanted, particularly with regard to international and out-of-state students.

Recruiting international students to our campus is one of our highest priorities. The past several years have been especially challenging in this regard, as changes in the political environment have made study in the United States less attractive to students from other nations. These difficulties were further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has decimated international travel for all purposes, including higher education.

Madhusudan Govindaraju, Binghamton University’s vice provost for international education and global affairs, is working to develop ways to attract more students to Binghamton and, hopefully, changes in the political environment, coupled with a vaccine for the coronavirus, will once again make Binghamton a premier destination for international graduate students and undergraduates alike.

In addition to the challenges posed by enrollment and recruiting, the University continues to address increased costs caused by COVID, particularly with regard to testing and cleaning, as well as its impact on revenues in terms of residential and athletics fees. Looking at the broader funding context, the situation becomes even more problematic, as state appropriation support will most likely be decreased 25% this year ($11 million) plus $6 million retroactive from last year. On top of this, New York state currently faces a budget deficit estimated at between $14 and $17 billion dollars, which will require continued constraints on state agencies, including SUNY. On the positive side, there is an increasing likelihood that the federal government will provide additional support for pandemic spending — up to $33 billion for New York, from which SUNY (and Binghamton) should see some relief. (The bill has been passed and we are analyzing the amount that may come to Binghamton.)

Still it will be a challenging year ahead of us; I know that our faculty and staff are working very hard right now and that the pause in hiring is impacting many departments. I thank everyone for their efforts during this period.

Good news

Despite these challenges, the University continues to receive good news.

We continue to move forward on the development of the Health Sciences Campus, with Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences achieving a major milestone by moving into its new home at 48 Corliss Ave. in Johnson City. At Vestal, renovations are progressing, with interior wall framing and exterior work underway for Science 4, and asbestos abatement taking place in the Science 2 tower. The 25,000-square-foot Hinman Dining Hall expansion is nearly enclosed, and interior walls, masonry and steel work is being installed. And as this quarter began, work started on the new Binghamton University Bearcats Baseball Stadium Complex; most of the older stadium and some of the adjacent tennis courts have been removed.

Binghamton also continues to make progress on important institutional goals, including our commitment to sustainability. For example, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) recently named Binghamton a “top-performer” in sustainability research, for the second year in a row. In part, this is recognition of the work of our Sustainable Communities Transdisciplinary Area of Excellence (TAE), which has really boosted our research in this field. In fact, we estimate that approximately 25% of the University’s researchers are engaged in sustainability research in one form or another.

We also received good news in the form of a new $2.6 million U.S. Department of Energy solar power grant, awarded to Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Ziang “John” Zhang. This grant supports work to make solar electricity more affordable, while increasing the reliability and stability of the electrical grid.

This work is something that both the state and SUNY are deeply interested in — and in fact, SUNY is itself moving forward on plans to develop renewable energy for New York, with Binghamton playing an important role. SUNY is in the process of finalizing plans to bring together 20 New York state public and private Universities as the NY Higher Education Large Scale Renewable Energy Consortium (NY HE LSRE).

This first-of-its-kind project will develop renewable energy production at utility scale with costs, profits and energy divided among consortium members. The consortium will play a significant role in supporting both state and national energy goals by providing capital funding to develop a renewable energy infrastructure and will work with established renewable energy firms to develop a physical network for generation and transmission of electricity from renewable resources — chiefly solar and wind. Given current prices for electricity, we expect the project to be cash-positive for the next two decades. And, from an educational perspective, it will provide students and faculty with unique educational and research opportunities — in areas such as batteries, solar and wind energy, as well as offer student internships in the growing alternative energy sector.

Social justice actions

You will recall that over the course of last summer, issues surrounding social justice absorbed the nation, and our campus announced several policy changes to make our campus more equitable and welcoming to people of color. A central part of this effort was the creation of a new Campus Citizen Review Board to monitor policies and procedures governing the University Police Department. Membership for this committee has been identified, with 11 members of the University community participating. These include three members drawn from faculty, three from staff and three from students, with Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Karen Jones and Associate Professor of Human Development Myra Sabir serving as co-chairs. In addition, a former University Police deputy chief will serve as an ex officio member. The committee will be receiving its charge in the coming weeks.

During the summer, students also expressed anger and disappointment about the campus climate regarding sexual assault and harassment, with the hashtag #BingShareYourStory briefly trending online. In response, the University outlined a multi-pronged plan to address these concerns. Over the past three months, the University has put into action a number of the proposed changes, beginning with the hiring of Husch Blackwell, a law firm specialized in higher education, to conduct an independent review of our Title IX policies and procedures. We also are hiring two investigators to increase our ability to respond to complaints.

In addition to devoting more resources to preventing and investigating sexual assaults, we also will be increasing our support for victims by establishing a crime victims center. Currently, a working group is being assembled to determine the most appropriate space on campus for the center and the kinds of services it will provide. We also are working to identify what staff will be located there. The University expects prevention educators, counselors, social workers, members of the CARE (Consultation, Advocacy, Referral and Education) Team and others across campus who provide supportive services to staff the center. Further, we anticipate offering space to the community-based Crime Victims Assistance Center (CVAC) to provide services. Our collective goal is to provide an easily accessible space where someone in need of help and support can seek assistance without visiting several campus offices. We expect this center to be in place and operational in the spring.

Reasons for optimism

Now, as we wrap up the fall 2020 semester, it is clear that there will be some challenges ahead — financial, viral and whatever residuals the year of 2020 has left to throw at us. Still, Binghamton University has many reasons to be optimistic about the future.

We are a premier public university, recognized for academic excellence and impactful research. We are well on our way to being reaccredited for another 10 years, and we really are making a difference in New York and beyond. But, most of all, our students, faculty and staff can be proud of helping to ensure that we made it through fall 2020 semester. In fact, because of the commitment of our faculty and staff, retention of first-year students actually increased from 2019 to 2020, from 90% to 92% — this despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The University’s enrollment is strong, with our admissions office telling us that although next year will be challenging, we are attracting more applications than many other SUNY schools and our reputation for excellence is widely recognized across the nation. University finances, while stressed, are stable and we are in a good position to move forward in the coming years, especially if we receive anticipated federal support in pandemic relief funding.

And, now that it appears we are making progress on a national vaccination program for COVID-19, we can anticipate strong demand, once things begin to return to normal.

Commencement for Class of 2020

Finally, we have reasons to be optimistic because of the achievements of our students, and in particular, the Class of 2020. This class was unique in the University’s history — it finished its graduating year during a pandemic, which caused us to place on hold on Commencement.

Initially, our goal was to hold in-person Commencement ceremonies during the fall 2020 semester, but obviously, the pandemic had other plans. But it is important that we recognize the accomplishments of these graduates and bring finality to their time at Binghamton.

So, as the fall semester ended, we held a series of virtual commencements — complete with student speakers and faculty in full academic regalia — so that the Class of 2020 could have a proper sendoff. These virtual ceremonies aired on social media between Sunday, Dec. 13 and Friday, Dec. 18. I thank all of the faculty who participated, and congratulate the students who are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Again, I thank the entire University community for its efforts over the past several months — this has been a challenging semester, but we’ve made it through. I hope all of you had a happy, healthy and safe holiday season and that you will return rested and reenergized for our spring semester.

Harvey Stenger

Academics

Is there a way to teach all students and still teach every student?  That’s the question posed in the description for the Inclusive Pedagogy workshop for faculty developed by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

Advancement

“The years have not changed your ability to provoke us to think about the world in a way that challenges us to keep asking better questions,” Owen Pell ’80 said to his longtime friend and former instructor Edward Weisband.

Foundation

The Binghamton University Foundation board of directors has approved the allocation of $3 million to support faculty hiring in nursing and health sciences, international student recruitment and infrastructure improvements in Johnson City.

Research

Christof Grewer had already established himself as an expert in membrane proteins. During his post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University in the mid-’90s, he studied glutamate receptors.

Student Affairs

In addition to strategies of primary prevention including social distancing, face coverings and frequent hand washing, the University mounted major testing efforts to monitor disease trends, identify cases early and diagnose symptomatic students.