President's Quarterly Report

Spring 2020

This quarterly report sees the campus responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo declaring a state of emergency for New York state on March 7. This is clearly an extraordinary event that has forced our campus to fundamentally change its operations and educational activities. Events have been moving with lightning speed over the past three weeks as the nation, state and campus have responded to the growing threat posed by COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that first appeared in November 2019. We began monitoring the situation in mid-January, consulting with public health professionals and taking steps to protect the campus. Unfortunately, March 23 saw the first instance of a member of the Binghamton University community diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus; this individual lived off campus and the Broome County Health Department (BCHD) identified and notified people with whom this individual had been in contact. Binghamton University is respecting the individual’s privacy and asks that anyone else with knowledge of this case do the same.

On March 11, Gov. Cuomo indicated that all SUNY and CUNY campuses would switch to on-line education and on March 17, all non-critical employees began to work from home. Of our approximately 3,000 staff, about 400 “critical” employees remain on campus to ensure that all vital services continue. We anticipated this move and spent much of early March working to bring staff up to speed on ways to connect to campus from remote locations. In particular, once local schools were closed, we planned for at-home work for faculty and staff with children in affected schools, as well as employees who are part of the “at-risk” cohorts. I want to thank the University-affiliated unions — UUP, CSEA and PEF — for working with us to implement these changes quickly and efficiently.

Students were given the option to return home and the campus remains open so that students without a place to travel to or who lack the technology to take classes online can continue their education. Students who have left the residence halls will receive prorated refunds or credits for the unused portion of the semester. Students were asked to notify residential life by Tuesday, March 24 of their intentions so that we could better plan for the remainder of the semester. A number of residential staff were on hand following Gov. Cuomo’s announcement to assist students in moving out; many of these staff members then began to work from home as well. Currently, slightly over 350 students remain on campus. These students have been moved to single rooms with access to a private bathroom in the Dickenson Community, though a few remain in their originally assigned campus apartments. This has allowed us to optimize campus services in light of reduced staff, while enabling each student to follow safety guidelines and properly practice social distancing.

Faculty have transitioned to online courses as well as can be expected under the circumstances, with professors and instructors — and students — having to quickly learn the ins-and-outs of educational software such as Zoom, myCourses and Panopto. These events have led to faculty reimagining instruction and learning in ways that are pretty creative. Some faculty are recording their lectures, and others are holding them live on Zoom. Many have found the features in Zoom have benefits not available in a regular lecture class, such as running polls, allowing chat questions to be answered by a TA and even taking attendance.

A revised pass/fail grading option will be instituted for this semester and will allow students to take up to 12 credit hours of courses this semester with a pass/fail grade. Students will be given the choice to switch from a letter grade to pass/fail after they learn of their final grade.

With regard to academic evaluations, we’ve asked faculty to be flexible and, in particular, not reschedule exams in ways that are detrimental to students. So far, most academic internships are continuing as usual; the exception is for our Decker College nursing students. Dean Mario Ortiz, after consultation with local hospitals and healthcare providers, determined that it was best if we canceled clinical experiences for all Decker students. Decker faculty are using creative and innovative ways to assist students in completing their semesters, such as through podcasts and through online simulations developed at Decker’s Innovative Simulation and Practice Center. Again, these decisions have been made in the best interests of the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff; this remains our primary goal throughout this crisis and we continue to frequently remind everyone to follow the common-sense, good-health practices of social distancing, cleanliness and personal sanitation.

Especially impressive has been the way that faculty and students are pitching in to support their communities. Faculty in the Watson School are already making a difference. With hospitals in the region declaring shortages in vital personal protective equipment (PPE), the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) donated thousands of gloves, several hundred surgical masks, a number of highly-sought-after N95 masks and disposable gowns. And our Decker School of Nursing Innovative Simulation and Practice Center provided N95 masks and central line dressing kits that included face masks to two local nursing homes that were running low on supplies. Researchers are applying their knowledge to help meet the need for specialized equipment as well. BME faculty are working to develop electrostatically charged N95-like masks to capture viruses, while other faculty are working to produce medical shields for use by health professionals in direct contact with patients. And with hospitals facing a critical deficit of ventilators, faculty in the Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering (SSIE) are developing adapters that allow multiple patients to utilize a single ventilator, thus reducing the number of ventilators required to meet patient demand.

Meanwhile, all campus public events have been canceled — sporting events, concerts and plays; conferences and lectures; recognition ceremonies; and many, many student organization events. I recognize that this is really disappointing for all of our students and faculty who have worked hard to prepare for these performances and gatherings, and I appreciate the sacrifices that they are making for the overall benefit of the campus. For performances and presentations that had an academic component, faculty are being encouraged to develop reasonable alternative evaluation measures.

But most devastating is the news that, following consultation with students, faculty and staff, we have determined that May’s Commencement ceremonies will be postponed until a future date. Commencement is by far my favorite academic ritual at Binghamton, so this decision has been a very difficult one that saddens everyone who was hoping to celebrate the successes of our students. Nonetheless, this action is necessary for the health and safety of our students and other members of the campus community. Students who are eligible to graduate will be surveyed in the near future and are encouraged to respond to help the University select a date or dates in the summer and/or fall when the campus, family and friends will be able to join with them in a special ceremony.

Information and all updates regarding the campus response to the coronavirus are available at the University’s COVID webpage and frequently asked questions page. We have tried to be as transparent as possible about this crisis, with frequent communications to all members of the campus community. Since mid-January we’ve sent more than a dozen communications to students, faculty and staff regarding the changing status of campus preparedness. Yet events have moved so quickly that sometimes things are outdated just moments after our messages have been posted, so we urge people to bookmark the COVID page and check it frequently for the latest information.

I’ve also charged a Crisis Management Team to lead the campus efforts in dealing with the impact of the virus on campus.

With a view to the future, we also are very concerned about the impact that the virus will have on state revenues and the budget for SUNY, with the New York State Legislature due to complete the 2020-21 budget by April 1. New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has suggested that the virus and related closings of businesses could significantly affect state revenues — on the order of multiple billions of dollars. So we are all holding on to our hats and hoping for the best. This really is uncharted territory for the campus — and for the state and nation — but I think that our faculty, staff and students at Binghamton are very smart and very resilient, and we will find a way to make this work.

We really don’t know how long current “social distancing” and closure measures will be in place — estimates are all over the place, from two or three weeks to several months or more. Currently, we are considering that these measures will remain in effect through the end of the semester.

Construction update

In fact, the University continues to plan for the future when things return to normal. But, unfortunately, construction has been halted by New York state order for all campus projects such as 48 Corliss Ave., which will be the new home for our Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

Design work continues for the top two floors of 48 Corliss that will house the new Decker programs in rehabilitation and applied health sciences. We also have purchased several properties adjacent to the campus; some of these will be used as space for future University/industry partnerships, while others will be removed to add greenspace.

We are currently strengthening the Decker College administration in anticipation of these programs coming on board — the college hired a director for physical therapy last year, and its occupational therapy director started last month. Our speech and language therapy director will join us this summer. In addition, we have an overall administrator who will oversee these programs and our Master in Public Health program who joined us this past December, so I think we will be able to hit the ground running once these programs open up for admissions.

We are now planning for student recruitment into these new programs. Also, assuming that things return to normal over the next few months, the college will move into its new home in phases in the fall, with winter classes for Baccalaureate Accelerated Track (BAT) students followed by all classes for all students starting in spring 2021 in the new building.

We also have decided to redesign our proposed research and development space at the Health Sciences Campus in Johnson City, after bid proposals for the planned three-story facility came in higher than expected. Our thinking now is that the facility will be a single-story building with laboratory space for our pharmacy faculty and students; the planned industry partnership space will be accommodated by other buildings around the campus.

University’s largest gift

The University is also putting out to bid a contract for an expansion and addition to the University’s baseball stadium and training facilities, as the result of the largest gift ever given to the University. In February, the University announced that we received a $60 million gift to support the expansion of the University’s baseball stadium and the construction of a new, world-class training facility. SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson was on campus to help announce the gift, noting that it is one of the largest gifts ever received by a SUNY institution. The gift comes from a family that is passionate about Binghamton University and Binghamton baseball, and these new facilities will not only strengthen our already impressive baseball team, but will also put Binghamton in contention to host regional NCAA championship games. Unfortunately, this year’s baseball season was cut short, along with all other America East Conference and NCAA contests across the nation.

Still, this is a win for our team, our campus and the community, and I believe that this gift will also inspire others to step forward to support the University’s efforts in areas that they are passionate about.

Construction was initially set to begin in spring 2020, but the initial bid came in higher than expected, due largely to a very aggressive construction schedule; the project has gone out to rebid at a slightly more relaxed construction schedule and we expect to begin work as soon as the construction ban is lifted.

Alumni events

Our alumni team is also looking ahead, with new programs they’ve developed to catalyze alumni engagement, including new travel programs, book clubs and faculty webinar programs, so keep your eyes and ears tuned. One especially successful program has been our Mentor Match program that uses an algorithm to connect experienced alumni with students eager to enter various career paths. As our Executive Director of Alumni Engagement Kim Faber puts it, “think Match.Com meets LinkedIn.”

I’m greatly impressed with the response this new program has generated, with over 700 alumni signing up in just over a month. And while we needed to identify alumni mentors first, we can see that this should be a popular program with students as well, with over 60 students already matched to an alumni mentor. What is unique about this program is that it is organized by career clusters that capture the reality that majors don’t necessarily dictate career paths. For example, we have very accomplished alumni who graduated with degrees in history but became successful in the field of finance, or SOM graduates who found their passion in theater performance. We are looking forward to seeing the outcomes that result from this program — both for the students who will get a leg up in their careers and for the alumni who have a new way to engage with the campus.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has also hit our development and alumni outreach programs as well.

Campus alumni outreach events have been canceled, as have all of our alumni affinity and regional chapter events. Sadly, our May 7 Alumni Awards Event in New York has been canceled as well.

Again, this is all uncharted territory for the campus — and for everyone else, I suppose.

Nonetheless, I think our campus is well-positioned to whether the storm.

Watson name change

At the last meeting of the Faculty Senate in March, faculty agreed to a request to change the name of the Thomas J. Watson School of Applied Science to the Thomas J. Watson College of Applied Science in recognition of the school’s recent growth and the opportunity for future increases in enrollment, faculty and research output., This change will enable Watson to leverage the connotations of academic rigor and research vitality conveyed by the term “college.” This new college will also be able to better market itself and compete with the schools and colleges that are its current and aspirational peers. I want to congratulate the Watson community, and in particular, Dean Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari, for all of the school’s recent successes that have put it on this path, and to wish them the best as our newest college.

Rankings and visibility

Finally, as the quarter closed, we received some much-needed good news that will impact the University’s reputation and visibility. The online publication Buffalo Business First has ranked Binghamton University 16th in the nation, and first in New York state, among 485 public colleges, based on our academic excellence, affordability, diversity and economic strength. Their ranking places Binghamton in the company of such well-regarded campuses as the College of William and Mary, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California-San Diego, and above Ohio State University, the University of Georgia and North Carolina State University.

This is an extraordinary time for the campus, with an unprecedented break in classes and scholarly work. I am immensely proud of the way in which the campus has responded to this crisis — not only in terms of supporting each other, but also in the way that many of use are giving back to our communities. It is striking to see the campus so quiet, when it is normally such a hub of energy and discovery. I miss the excitement of our students and the collegiality of our faculty and staff, and I regret that the semester will end this way. At the same time, walking through the nearly deserted Peace Quad and along the Spine reminds me that this is only temporary. And while we don’t know how long this situation will last, I can say with confidence that we will be back better than ever, with a stronger sense of accomplishment and a larger commitment to our campus and community. I can’t wait to welcome all of you back to campus.

Sincerely,

Harvey Stenger

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