Binghamton University has faced quite the mountain of issues this semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So much has happened that we can’t cover it all, so let’s touch on some of the highs and lows of the BU administration for fall 2020.
In terms of pandemic response, the administration was slower to face the issues that accompanied off-campus students living in the local area. While all students moving on campus were tested upon arrival, off-campus students weren’t given clear guidance on any resources available to them and weren’t tested by the school until nearly halfway through the semester. There was no concrete procedure for those living close by and leaving the monitoring of social distancing solely up to local authorities was not the answer. Meanwhile, for the first part of the semester, resident assistants were put in charge of monitoring on-campus behavior, despite being understaffed. It became clear that BU students were getting infected at a rapid pace, the University was forced to shut down due to state-mandated guidelines, which then led to a massive increase in testing. While random surveillance testing was helpful, especially ensuring students receive tests before a massive break like Thanksgiving, it may serve the University better to ensure that all students have been tested at least once before calling some students in for a third or fourth time.
There is also the issue of finances. COVID-19 has hit many families hard, and the University has been less than forgiving where money is concerned. Despite multiple advertisements and announcements on behalf of the University, many students who found themselves applying for broad-based fee waivers were left sorely disappointed. The fee waivers were only applicable to those who had been taking online-only classes from when they began their degrees. There is also the fact that, despite predictions from health experts stating that winter will see a large spike in COVID-19 deaths, BU has raised prices for out-of-state students. While it’s understandable that the pandemic has left the school in a financial hole, it appears that BU wasn’t in the strongest position to begin with. Multiple construction projects and a lack of clear and effective communication with students only put the University in a worse light, leaving many students wondering what exactly they’re paying for.
Transparency has also been something that we’ve always called for from the administration, and this semester was no different, pandemic aside. Massive purchases of local land for a library annex, hiring eight new Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science professors and a lack of information regarding the allocation of student fees, all amid a hiring freeze, large amounts of debt and cuts to library funding do not bode well for the administration.
However, it is worth noting that the administration did have a few important accomplishments this fall. The creation of the Campus Citizens Review Board, a new Title IX council, funding for both the Clifford D. Clark Diversity Fellowships for Graduate Students and the new George Floyd Memorial Scholarship as well as the announcement of the Harriet Tubman Center for the Study of Freedom and Equity’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are all just the tip of the iceberg for positive steps toward student justice made at BU. The most recent B-Line News Addition saw BU President Harvey Stenger condemn anti-Semitic remarks made by the Binghamton Review, as well as announce the creation of a Violence, Abuse and Rape Crisis Center (VARCC) on BU’s campus. This comes long after massive outcry following the hundreds of stories of sexual violence and administrative negligence made on the @shareyourstorybing Instagram account.
It has been shown that student voices cannot be ignored for long. The administration must continue to be held accountable for its actions regarding BU students, and every positive step must be encouraged. After everything this semester threw at students, they deserve an administration ready to have their backs and support them.
Student Association: B
Given the unprecedented semester, the Student Association (SA) has adjusted fairly well to the untraditional semester.
On a positive note, different SA E-Board members have taken it upon themselves to forward their respective sections. Vice President for Multicultural Affairs (VPMA) David Hatami and the rest of the VPMA office took initiative in creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee in response to the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer. Additionally, the SA as a whole proposed a mandatory sexual assault class for credit in response to the traction gained by the @shareyourstorybing Instagram account. Both initiatives demonstrate that the current SA E-Board is receptive to the concerns of the student body. The SA also released statements in response to anti-Semitism and the Black Lives Matter movement, further demonstrating that they have been listening to the concerns of the student body.
Despite the limitation of the online-only format of the fall semester, SA Programming Board (SAPB) events were still able to be held. Vice President for Programming (VPP) Sophia Cavalluzzi and the VPP office organized a Q&A with former “Drake & Josh” actor Josh Peck and a live online concert with DJ Steve Aoki. The organization of programming events was a positive in that it attempted to continue traditional events during untraditional times. The SA has also continued to hold Congress meetings through Zoom, making it accessible to those who were interested. Continuing to hold Congress meetings online shows how adaptive the SA has been in utilizing an online format.
Even though there were positives, there were a couple of negatives at the beginning and throughout the semester. For instance, at the beginning of the semester, a virtual University Fest was held over the course of a week, with different organization categories being held everyday. University Fest directed students to B-Engaged pages for the organizations that they were interested in joining. Pipe Dream staff encountered problems using the B-Engaged interface to advertise our own general interest meetings, making it difficult to recruit new contributors. Other technical difficulties were encountered during the virtual Fall Leadership Training. Executive Vice President Maggie Koekkoek did not account for the maximum capacity of attendees in a Zoom meeting, which created initial confusion for student leaders who attempted to join the call after the 300-person limit was reached.
Lastly, there were communication issues between student groups and some offices of the SA given the online format. Overall, there was less information available regarding student group finances from the Vice President for Finance Jacob Eckhaus’ office. These communication pitfalls could be the result of the constantly changing circumstances presented by COVID-19. During campus shutdowns, all SA offices were closed, potentially halting activities in the office pertinent to student groups.
The Editorial Board hopes the SA continues these efforts in representing the student body to the fullest extent in these uncertain times.
America East Conference: A-
Faced with the challenge of safely resuming athletics activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the America East (AE) Conference managed to strike a good balance between being conservative with COVID-19 restrictions and making every effort to resume play. The decision to postpone fall sports to the spring semester was a difficult but necessary call and was consistent with that of the other mid-major conferences in the Northeast.
Once it became apparent that fall sports would have to be postponed, the conference turned its efforts toward preparing for the basketball season. In October, the AE released its return to competition plan, announcing plans to play a full double round-robin conference schedule, albeit with some modifications including playing games on back-to-back days at the same sites. The Editorial Board commends the AE for finding a way to go about competition, and not simply canceling winter sports like the Ivy League decided to do.
At Binghamton, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have begun competition with nonconference games. While men’s basketball activities were suspended due to a positive test result a few weeks ago, the spread was contained to one individual and the team returned to practice shortly thereafter. Along with BU, all but three of the 10 schools in the AE have begun play with either their men’s or women’s team.
Throughout the offseason, several athletics departments and conferences around the country were forced to make difficult decisions due to budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic. Overall, the AE has emerged relatively unscathed. None of the conference’s member institutions have cut any sports in 2020, indicating that each of the 10 institutions had been operating in a fiscally responsible way. In fact, the league actually managed to expand during the offseason, adding NJIT as its 10th member in July.
While the challenges presented by COVID-19 to the AE and its 2020-21 college basketball season are far from over, the Editorial Board applauds the conference, as well as commissioner Amy Huchthausen, for their organized approach and transparency in dealing with this unprecedented situation thus far.
Residential Life: C-
With the uncertainty of last semester spilling into the fall, Residential Life had to make significant adjustments to housing to ensure its staff and residents were safe and healthy. However, these adjustments were far from ideal as resident assistants (RA) were tasked with policing dorms for COVID-19 violations, which added massive amounts of stress to already-understaffed RAs and created significant fear among residents who would socialize in small gatherings.
As witnessed last semester, Residential Life’s rule of not allowing parents and family members into dorms during move-in procedures was not adhered to. Though the move-in process was less hectic than last semester’s move-out, it still begs the question as to what safety protocols were actually enforced.
The Editorial Board does recognize the efforts made in quarantining and isolating students who tested positive for COVID-19 and those they may have come into contact with. However, sticking students into 14-day lockdowns in Old Dickinson dorms presented students with unprecedented boredom and a lack of spontaneity. While it makes sense that these students should minimize contact with others, simple actions such as safely going outside were strictly prohibited, degrading these students’ mental health. Residential Life should ensure that these students do not go stir-crazy by perhaps offering more virtual activities.
Additionally, there were reports of communication issues between Residential Life and students who came into contact with positive cases. Some were misinformed about what they had to do next while others weren’t even notified of their contact with students who tested positive until days later. Transparency is key to safety in this period of uncertainty and Residential Life needs to make that paramount.
With this policing attitude, Residential Life needs to take steps to eradicate the culture of fear as witnessed in previous semesters and present a culture of comfort as uncertainty continues to alter our reality.
Decker Health Services: B
With the COVID-19 pandemic at large, Decker Student Health Services had to work at full force this semester to ensure everyone’s safety. We were happy to see rapid surveillance testing be conducted throughout the semester, with almost every student being tested at least once and results being made available the same day. Surveillance testing capacities have also expanded as the semester continued, with the number of tests being conducted increasing exponentially by the end of the semester.
While we understand this testing was meant to be random, there have been inconsistencies with who was selected each week. Some students with no in-person classes or campus activities have reported being chosen for surveillance testing multiple times while others with commitments to campus activities, such as classes or jobs, have reported being selected once. A more organized system for surveillance testing could be put into place in the future where students with in-person classes or other campus commitments could be given priority in testing.
Decker Student Health Services has been a reliable resource for on-campus students who were able to request more accurate PCR nasal swab tests through Decker Student Health Services if they reported symptoms. Off-campus students, however, have had varying experiences trying to schedule tests themselves. Symptomatic students off campus who called Decker Student Health Services were put into contact with United Health Services (UHS) or told to go through the New York State (NYS) Department of Health to get tested instead of being allowed to get tested on campus. Students have reported varying experiences with this process, with some able to get tested at UHS and others having to find resources without the help of Decker Student Health Services.
As the semester progressed, Decker Student Health Services began to offer tests for symptomatic off-campus students as well. However, if a student is not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and wanted to get tested, they were referred to alternative testing sites in the Binghamton area. The Editorial Board understands that the University’s health care structure was put under immense pressure this semester and we applaud Decker Student Health Services Center’s efforts in adapting services as COVID-19 cases rose in the Binghamton area. However, we believe health services could be improved with better organization and more resources being made available to off-campus students, who have a greater risk of spreading COVID-19 through the Binghamton community.
SUNY System: B
Prior to the appointment of Jim Malatras as the 14th chancellor of SUNY, there was little consolidation of a cohesive plan for all 64 SUNY campuses. This left many SUNY campuses to fend for themselves and had disastrous results. For example, SUNY Oneonta was forced to cancel all in-person classes for the fall semester after the campus saw over 500 positive COVID-19 cases less than two weeks after classes began.
However, once Malatras took office, there was a massive shift in SUNY leadership. Malatras took a hands-on approach and visited Binghamton University’s campus twice this semester. First, he visited to praise BU’s approach, calling BU a model school for how it handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Malatras visited less than a month later when BU began its first pause on in-person classes in October. During this second visit, Malatras discussed SUNY’s Monitor and Manage (M&M) project, which would consist of testing and transparency while handling the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent situations on all SUNY campuses.
On Sept. 25, just prior to his second visit to BU, Malatras sent an “emergency directive” to all 64 SUNY campuses that called for uniform penalties on students who break COVID-19 regulations. The following actions were sanctionable offenses this semester, which could result in the potential expulsion of a student: intentional violations of students with COVID-19, failure to self-isolate, failure to quarantine, either hosting or attending prohibited on-campus or off-campus gatherings, violations of face mask and social distancing requirements, contact tracing and failure to comply with campus health protocols. While it is imperative that everyone abide by COVID-19 regulations, it seems excessive to expel a SUNY student for failing to wear a face mask. Malatras continued this pattern of valuing the health of SUNY campuses by extending contracts with Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and United University Professions, both labor unions that represent employees within the SUNY system. This contract permits the continuation of free, mandatory COVID-19 testing for faculty and staff. Additionally, Malatras mandated that no SUNY school could begin classes before Feb. 1 in efforts to flatten the curve of COVID-19.
In addition to his COVID-19 initiatives, Malatras prioritized SUNY students. First, Malatras sent a letter to the Trump administration strongly opposing the administration’s proposal to limit international students’ visas to four years. Second, Malatras established the formation of a SUNY Student Voices Action Committee, a 27-member group of students from diverse backgrounds who will engage in virtual discussions with and influence decisions made by SUNY officials. Third, Malatras announced the Reach Out Mental Health Services Program, which would give all SUNY students access to a network of over 6,000 licensed mental health professionals and providers through the Thriving Campus mobile app.
There is no question that Malatras and SUNY as a whole have had a busy semester, one filled with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to Malatras’ other initiatives. However, SUNY should have acted earlier to protect their students. Had these universal, SUNY-wide reforms been implemented prior to the start of the semester, perhaps SUNY Oneonta would not have had to shut down. Additionally, consequences of breaking COVID-19 regulations and guidelines are way too harsh. This constant threat of expulsion looming over students’ heads could serve as a distraction from their studies as well as a fear of administration. Finally, following the announcement of the SUNY-wide mental health initiative, there has been no follow-up. There was no B-Line announcement about this nor a universal memo sent to students. SUNY must increase communication with its students in order to ensure that they are aware of the resources available to them.