The past three months have been very busy at Binghamton University. Much of the summer was spent preparing for the fall semester and welcoming our students back to campus. This class is a special one in the University’s history, as we are marking the University’s 75th anniversary this year.
When Binghamton University first opened its doors in 1946, it counted just 876 students in its inaugural class. This year, we welcomed about 3,100 first-year students as well as around 980 transfer students. On top of that, we also added around 1,395 new graduate students. And while it is still early in the semester and our numbers have not been finalized, this year’s total enrollment is about 18,091; this includes 14,338 undergraduates and 3,753 graduates.
Almost 85% of our undergraduate students reside in New York state, with around 1,300 coming from other states. This year, we have nearly 1,500 students enrolling from countries across the globe, though India and China remain the most common places of residence for our international students. I’m proud that the University is a net importer of talent into our community, and I’m always pleased by the warm welcome the community gives our students.
This year’s first-year students are again excellent, having been drawn from more than 39,500 applications. (The University received more than 48,000 applications in all, including from transfer and graduate students.) Still, it was a challenging year for our admissions office, as many of the traditional measures of student excellence have been disrupted by COVID. For example, SAT and ACT tests were canceled and the usual measures of student achievement — extracurricular work, grade point averages and rigorous class schedules — all felt the impact of COVID-enforced restrictions. Still, for students who did submit SAT scores, the entering class is an excellent 1395
Overall, enrollment among undergraduates was up slightly from last year, while graduate enrollment is down about 145 students compared to last year — these are the sorts of uncertainties that occur during a pandemic. Missing our graduate enrollment target will have a modest impact on our finances; we expect that we will have to draw from our reserves to make up the difference in tuition revenues.
COVID precautions and student support
When COVID-19 first appeared in early 2020, it was clear that it would have long-term implications for how the University met the health and safety needs and maintained educational continuity for our students. Now, a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, we continue to work to support our students during the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. Whereas last year we were forced to implement two pauses in in-person classes, this year, we are much closer to normal thanks in large part to the widespread use of the COVID vaccine among students. As of Oct. 4, 99% of our students are vaccinated and we’ve accepted around 280 medical or religious exemptions (1.5% of our student population). And, because we want to ensure public health, students with exemptions are required to be tested weekly.
Nonetheless, we are still taking significant precautions to prevent outbreaks of COVID on campus, including mandatory masking indoors and an ongoing cleaning regimen for campus facilities. We also are conducting around 2,000 random surveillance tests each week to track any possible outbreaks. And recently, we’ve increased the number of tests available to members of the campus community who are asymptomatic; many students, faculty and staff have indicated that they want tests to be available to ensure that they have not been exposed to COVID. We expect that we will be conducting up to 5,000 tests per week as these efforts ramp up. We also are redoubling our efforts to ensure that any students in either quarantine or isolation have continuity of education, with our Center for Learning and Teaching providing support for faculty and helping to arrange technology such as Zoom meetings for students who are unable to attend classes.
The expansion of COVID testing, as well as an increased number of positive results early in the semester placed a strain on the existing volunteer network that had been so effective in testing and supporting our students. This year, compared to last, our positivity rates seem to be more variable with a significant rapid and unpredictable ebb and flow. With the number of volunteers needed to provide support to students when our positive cases surge, we have been concerned that we would be unable to meet our obligations to test and support our students. In addition, a regional labor shortage limits our ability to hire temporary labor that would give us the flexibility to hire quickly to help address this challenge. Luckily, as of the end of September, our positivity rate has dropped to much lower than that of the surrounding communities, and we now have a cadre of more than 400 employee volunteers should we need them if we see another surge. Our Decker Student Health Services is seeing about 50 to 60 students a day, but anywhere from none to four of those students test positive COVID cases each day. Most of the students Decker is seeing are presenting with illnesses from other viruses in a pattern similar to a non-pandemic year. For that reason, we have been holding student flu clinics and encouraging students to be vaccinated for the flu.
When I talk with our new students, I often ask them what attracted them to the University, and almost always the answer is “academic quality.” Indeed, Binghamton’s reputation for academic excellence is spreading. As a result, we are seeing an increase in the University’s rankings among national colleges and universities; most recently, Binghamton was named the top SUNY school in the prestigious U.S. News & World Report rankings that were released Sept. 13.
The University moved up five places and is tied at #83 overall in the national universities category, which includes nearly 400 institutions. The University also moved up eight places from #41 to #33 in the best public in the nation category, tied with the Colorado School of Mines, Michigan State University, the University of California-Riverside and the University of Iowa. The University also ranked highly in other categories, including value (#57, 35 places ahead of any other SUNY campus); best value (#57); best undergraduate teaching (#42); best for veterans (#46); and social mobility (#90). These rankings speak volumes about the quality of our students and faculty, our commitment to teaching, and our growing reputation for innovative research and scholarship.
Faculty research and scholarship
Not only are national publications recognizing our faculty’s work, but so too are the federal research agencies. In fact, by the end of the summer we had learned that a record seven faculty members had won prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER awards. The grants are the agency’s most prestigious awards for early-career faculty members, supporting five years of work and encouraging the integration of education and research.
Three of the grant winners — Jeremy Blackburn, Aravind Prakash and Mo Sha — are assistant professors in the Computer Science Department. The others are Emrah Akyol, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Jessica Hua, associate professor of biological sciences; Nicholas Gaspelin, assistant professor of psychology; and John Swierk, assistant professor of chemistry.
Two members of our psychology department also have been awarded large grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Assistant Professor Anushree Karkhanis has received a five-year, $2.59 million grant to examine how neural substrates are impacted by alcohol, while Associate Professor Marvin Diaz received a five-year, $1.74 million grant to examine the impact of prenatal alcohol and anxiety. And Assistant Professor Yuan Wan in our Department of Biomedical Engineering received a $2.4 million grant from the NIH for a five-year project to develop a faster diagnostic tool for solitary pulmonary nodules in the lungs, a medical issue that affects about 1.5 million people in the U.S. each year.
Faculty in the humanities and social sciences are also gaining recognition in their disciplines. For example, Binghamton University anthropologists Robert DiNapoli and Carl Lipo recently published the results of their research in Nature Communications, calling into question the long held assumption that Easter Island (Rapa Nui in the native language) suffered a demographic collapse. Instead, their research shows that the island experienced population growth up to the first European contact.
Similarly, Olga Shvetsova, a political scientist at the University, and fellow researchers were cited in the press for their work examining how policy strategies regarding COVID varied by a nation’s political structure. Their research found that nations with federated institutional structures (e.g., the United States, Canada, Nigeria and Russia) responded at least as well, and probably better, than nations with a unitary governmental structure. In addition, several publications also have highlighted Binghamton University Professor of Education Adam Laats’ work regarding the way local school boards often serve as battlegrounds over cultural flashpoints.
Clearly, Binghamton’s research and scholarship is on an excellent trajectory and we can expect to see years of innovation and impact on our campus and beyond.
Binghamton also received formal accreditation for the work of our School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, receiving high marks for the program’s mission and goals, commitment of resources and planning, and prospects for the future.
Social justice and gender equity
In mid-September, the University held the formal opening of our new Violence, Abuse and Rape Crisis Center (VARCC) located on the third floor of Old Johnson Hall. The opening of the VARCC is part of the commitment I made to student groups in response to concerns about sexual violence and the campus climate that appeared in social media in the summer of 2020, and I am proud that our students were able to work with us to push for and design the VARCC.
This center centralizes the University’s offices that address sexual violence, providing services in response to sexual harassment, dating and domestic violence, and sexual assault in a supportive environment for those seeking services and closely liaisons with other offices such as the University Police and Decker Student Health Services. It is also working closely with the Binghamton Crime Victims Assistance Center (CVAC) as well as with Binghamton University Interfaith Council representatives and other service providers.
Our goal is to provide a safe and welcoming space for victims and survivors of all genders, and I believe the VARCC serves that goal by providing a place for victims of sexual assault or harassment to report the incident and receive counseling and services, including legal and administrative advocacy and trauma counseling.
The University also opened the new Harriet Tubman Center for Freedom and Equity that explores issues of equity in our educational, economic and healthcare institutions. Acclaimed Binghamton University Professor of History Anne C. Bailey serves as director. Also leading the effort is Sharon Bryant, associate professor of public health and nursing and director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Decker College. In addition, Dean of the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari and Systems Science and Industrial Engineering Professor and Associate Director of the Watson Institute for Systems Excellence (WISE) Mohammad Khasawneh are also working with the center, focusing on equity in healthcare systems. Currently, there are only a handful of universities with research centers focused on institutional equity; Binghamton’s new center is perhaps the first to be established at a public institution.
The center has already played a key role in helping the University address its own historical inequities by leading the campus’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that invited students, faculty, staff and alumni to testify to their experiences on campus last spring. The commission recently released its recommendations; these will do much to enhance diversity on our campus and make the University a place that is truly welcoming and just. The recommendations, while broadly addressing the experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) on campus, focus on three key areas:
increasing hiring and advancement opportunities for BIPOC faculty, police, staff and administrators, and finding ways to better demonstrate that the campus values their work;
developing clearer policies to address racial incidents on campus and strengthening academic and social support systems for students; and
reconsidering our pedagogy and curriculum to better reflect the role of BIPOC in history and society, as well as to highlight their importance to our campus and community.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission marks an historic step in the University’s efforts to recognize the way its structural and institutional practices can adversely impact the BIPOC community on our campus. I want to thank the members of the commission for their work, especially its co-chairs, Anne Bailey, director of the Tubman Center and professor of history, and Sharon Bryant, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Decker College and associate professor of public health and nursing, as well as the members of the campus community whose testimony helped shape the recommendations.
One of the commission’s recommendations specifically addresses diversity within the University Police Department and is part of a larger conversation regarding police accountability, trust and communication among the Binghamton University campus community. Toward this end, the University also created a Campus Citizen Review Board (CCRB) during the summer of 2020. The CCRB has recently issued its initial recommendations and I have convened an implementation group of key administrators to discuss the recommendations and determine how best to address them. I anticipate their review will be issued soon and they will then begin their implementation work.
I want them to focus on:
increasing the visibility of UPD’s Community Policing Program;
Increasing the gender and racial diversity of our police officers and maintaining New York state standards on police use of force;
enhancing the ability for campus members to provide performance of our police and increasing police reporting software, including equipping officers with body cameras and developing appropriate policies for their use;
increasing de-escalation and bias training and fostering collaboration on mental health response services, especially during evening and weekend hours; and
finding ways to publicize the work of the CCRB, its report and actions that will be taken in response to the report.
While there is still much work to do in terms of creating a diverse, inviting and equitable campus, we are making progress and others are taking notice. As the month of September ended, we received news that the campus has received the 2021 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine. This award is given to campuses that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. The University will be featured, along with 100 other recipients, in the November 2021 issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.
Construction and Johnson City
There have been some changes to campus since the last time everyone was here.
The Hinman Dining Hall has been expanded and renovated, Science 4 is getting a facelift and many of the residential halls have been refurbished. Both Bartle Library and the Science Library are being refurbished, with work ongoing throughout the coming year. In addition, the Innovation Lab is open, co-located with the Zurack Family High-Technology Collaboration Center in the Glenn G. Bartle Library. The lab provides a home for the Innovation Scholars program where students can collaborate and study. And on the west side of campus, a gleaming new baseball stadium is taking shape.
The Health Sciences Campus in Johnson City is also moving toward completion. The first four floors of the Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences facility are complete, and the top two floors are being transformed into classrooms, labs and offices for our new physical, occupational, and speech and language therapy programs, as well as space for our partnership with Upstate Medical University. Also in design is the Ford Family Wellness Center for Seniors. This facility, located nearby at 27 Jenison Ave., will house a collaborative program with Ascension Lourdes Hospital to provide primary healthcare and holistic health and wellness services for older persons. We expect construction to be completed in December 2021. Also in design is our new $15 million Research and Development facility that will be located adjacent to the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. It is slated to be completed by December 2022. And, because the new campus must be both safe and beautiful, the area around the Health Sciences Campus is also being reinvigorated, with new greenspace, lighting and pathways tying the campus to the local community.
Deans and provost stepping down
This will be a very busy year for the administration in terms of conducting searches to replace key campus leaders.
In August, Gloria Meredith, founding dean of our School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, announced that she would be stepping down as dean. Dean Meredith came to Binghamton in 2015 to help us develop our newest school, and her work has been essential to its rapid growth and success. Also, School of Management Dean Upinder Dhillon has announced that he, too, will be stepping down as dean to return to the classroom. Dhillon came to Binghamton in 1987 and was named Koffman Scholar of Finance in 1997. He was appointed dean of the School of Management by President Lois DeFleur in 2001, and the school’s reputation for excellence has continued to rise in the years since. We will begin national searches for these positions this fall and plan to have new deans for these schools by next summer.
And finally, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Donald Nieman also will be stepping down at the end of the academic year. A professor of U.S. history, Nieman was named dean of Harpur College in 2008 and was my choice to be provost when I arrived in 2012. Over the past decade I’ve valued his advice and wisdom. His work has been central, not only to the development of our new School of Pharmacy, but also to the creation of our Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence that have reinvigorated the way research and scholarship are conducted on our campus. He also was essential to the increase in faculty hiring over the last decade and the corresponding growth of our graduate programs. We will be conducting a national search for his successor beginning this fall.
As you can see, the fall 2021 semester has gotten off to a good start. Our new class has settled in and we are modernizing with new facilities and critical maintenance. Meanwhile, the University’s reputation for outstanding academics, thought-provoking research and scholarship continues to grow. And perhaps most importantly, we continue to make strides in becoming a campus that fully values diversity, inclusion and equity.
Clearly, this will be a challenging semester. So far, we have successfully navigated the on-going challenges of COVID thanks to a concerted and committed effort on the part of the campus community and I am grateful for everyone’s help. I am optimistic that we will be able to hold our course for the next few months. In the meantime, I hope that everyone will enjoy the beautiful fall days that make ours a truly special campus.
It was announced today that Binghamton University has received the 2021 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education.