Binghamton University is a different place during summer. With few students around and most summer courses taught online, June is always one of the quietest months on campus. This is especially true given the changes caused by COVID-19, which saw many of our faculty and staff shift to remote work. Fortunately, we are slowly seeing the campus return to its pre-pandemic rhythms and practices. And just last week, the New York State Department of Health announced that state employees who are fully vaccinated will no longer be required to wear masks or socially distance while at work. This is very good news as we prepare to welcome the newest cohort of first-year students to campus.
Success versus COVID and gradually returning to normal
Because of the pandemic, this past year has been one of the most challenging the Binghamton University community has ever faced. Virtually every member of the campus community has had their educational and work life upended by the virus — with classes shifted online, jobs gone remote and everyone much more conscious of the health and safety protocols necessary to keep the University running during a pandemic. But overall, I think the University can be proud of what we’ve accomplished — we’ve weathered the pandemic and are slowly moving toward normalcy.
A key part of gaining control of the pandemic has been the rigorous testing procedures we put in place, particularly since the start of the 2020-21 academic year. Since that time, the University administered more than 158,000 tests to students, faculty and staff, not including the tests we required during the fall move-in period. And, significantly, the University has had zero positive cases for our 14-day rolling average for some time.
The past three months are also noticeable for seeing the majority of the Binghamton University community step forward to be vaccinated, a crucial part of returning to normal. A self-reported survey of students in mid-May showed that over 85% of them had received at least one shot of a vaccine, with 68% having been fully vaccinated. A small number of students indicated that they would not be receiving the vaccine or were undecided; these numbers are not large enough to affect the overall immunity of the campus community. As a result, we were able to lift the campus-wide mask mandate for outdoor activities, and, as mentioned above, in late June we were able to end all restrictions for vaccinated persons.
The University’s testing process, as well as following up with isolation and quarantine for positives cases and their contacts, required a tremendous effort by the campus, involving hundreds of staff as well as student and faculty volunteers. I’m immensely proud of the commitment shown by the campus.
We are now in the process of transitioning staff who have been working remotely back to campus, with the goal of having the entire campus fully staffed by Aug. 1, with weekly COVID testing required for all faculty and staff who are not fully vaccinated. We also have opened the campus to external visitors, just in time for the summer campus visit season. Looking ahead, we foresee a fall semester with all classes taught in person and residence halls and other spaces running at full capacity. It will be great to be back to normal.
In another sign that things are returning to normal, in May the University was able to celebrate Commencement for the more than 3,300 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree recipients that make up the Class of 2021. Because we were still under COVID restrictions, we held a number of smaller, socially distanced ceremonies — 27 in all — over four days. We pre-recorded an overarching conferral ceremony, and combined it with these in-person “Grad Walks” that allowed students to cross the Events Center stage, receive their degrees and pose for pictures. The number of parents and family members was limited, and everyone had to show proof that they were either vaccinated or tested negative for the virus. We even had a rapid testing site set up to assist guests who needed to be tested. The logistics for these ceremonies were especially complicated given the need for testing, transportation and cleaning between ceremonies. Still, the events went smoothly with very few hiccups, and I want to thank all of the volunteers who made it happen.
Perhaps the highlight of Commencement week was the graduation of the inaugural class of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Because of the small number of graduates, we were able to hold a more intimate, though socially-distanced, event with SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras in attendance. Leigh Briscoe-Dwyer, system director of pharmacy for the UHS Health System in Johnson City, gave the keynote address and Oluwafemi “Femi” Poopola represented his fellow graduates as student speaker. With 29 ceremonies, it was a very long extended weekend, and I am looking forward to a return to our traditional Commencement ceremonies next year. But before we reach that point, we will be celebrating the Class of 2020 during Homecoming in October. Last year’s Commencement was postponed because of COVID and we are eager to give our 2020 graduates the recognition they deserve.
Preparing for the Class of 2025
This is also the time of year when the campus is preparing to welcome our newest Bearcats. The Class of 2025 is one of the most competitive classes in Binghamton’s history, as more than 39,500 high school seniors applied for admission (a new record.) Selecting students for admission was more challenging than in previous years, as many SAT and ACT tests were postponed due to COVID so we temporarily suspended our testing requirement. Both international and out-of-state applications have increased, with deposits from out-of-state students increasing by 90% since 2017 — a measure of Binghamton’s growing national reputation. Demand for our graduate programs is also very strong; graduate applications and deposits are up 15% and 30% respectively. Our current challenge is to enroll students, especially from out-of-state, who have paid deposits at multiple colleges, effectively extending the “shopping” period. Our admissions office is tracking and conducting follow-up engagement with admitted students to help increase our yield. As for transfer students, deposits remain consistent with last year, despite a significant decline in community college enrollments in 2020.
While international applications as a whole are up, we are concerned about challenges in attracting students from India and China, which have traditionally been the home for many of our international students. India, in particular, has suffered from a severe outbreak of COVID that has interrupted students’ plans for education abroad, while prospective students from China are having difficulties obtaining visas. Both of these factors may have an impact on our international enrollment this fall.
School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences earns accreditation
We received exceptional news the final week of June, when the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) notified the campus that the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences was awarded accreditation. The school, which enrolled its inaugural class in 2017, had been operating under what is known as Candidate status since 2018, and was not eligible for accreditation until its first class had graduated. As you read elsewhere in this report, that class graduated this spring.
To earn the accreditation, the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences has demonstrated to the satisfaction of ACPE that the program complies with accreditation standards, including the appropriateness of the program’s mission and goals, the adequacy of resources and organization to meet the mission and goals, outcomes that indicate that the mission and goals are being met, and the reasonable assurance of the continued compliance with standards.
Congratulations to Founding Dean Gloria Meredith and her faculty and staff for this achievement!
One of the reasons the University is seeing increasing demand is the growing reputation of our faculty and their innovative research and scholarship. Over the past three months, several of the University’s faculty have received recognition from both SUNY and their peers in the disciplines.
This year, SUNY named four Binghamton faculty as distinguished professors, a rank that recognizes extraordinary contributions to research, scholarship or artistic performance. Another faculty member was promoted to distinguished service professor, which recognizes contributions to the campus University system and community at the local, national and international levels. Binghamton’s newest distinguished professors are:
Jaimee Wriston Colbert, distinguished professor of English and creative writing, for pioneering work in the field of eco-fiction;
School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Founding Dean Gloria Meredith, distinguished professor of pharmaceutical sciences, for her research and work as founding dean of two schools of pharmacy, including Binghamton’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences;
Pedro Ontaneda, distinguished professor of mathematical sciences, for his work in topology and the discovery of “manifolds” of negative curvature
Mark Poliks, director of the Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing and distinguished professor of systems science and industrial engineering, for innovative research in the field of electronics packaging and flexible and hybrid electronics; and
Daryl Santos, vice provost for diversity and inclusiveness, and distinguished service professor of systems science and industrial engineering, for his service to the campus, particularly with regard to enhancing diversity.
In addition, seven Watson and Harpur faculty received CAREER awards from the National Science Foundation. These extremely competitive awards recognize promising faculty for their early career 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. The seven CAREER awards winners are a record for Binghamton University and are indicative of the growing strength of our research programs.
Our more senior faculty are also being recognized for their contributions to their disciplines. In May, we learned that Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science M. Stanley Whittingham, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has been named a Fellow of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. Its list of members is long and illustrious, including such luminaries as Michael Faraday, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, Lise Meitner, and Stephen Hawking — and now, M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations
Binghamton’s reputation for excellence in research and scholarship underscores that the University and its faculty remain relevant and at the forefront of their disciplines. In a similar way, the University strives to address contemporary concerns about equity and justice. This is particularly true with regard to the quality of the educational and work experiences of the Black, Indigenous and people of color in our community. Binghamton prides itself as a place that is welcoming and diverse, but it is clear that the opportunities offered by the University have not been shared equally by all, and that our structural and institutional practices can adversely impact the BIPOC community on our campus.
For this reason, I supported the establishment of the Binghamton University Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year, in order to better understand the University’s history and culture with regard to our BIPOC community and to take steps to create a climate of restorative justice. During the course of six listening sessions conducted last spring, the commission heard about the challenges our community of color faces in learning, living and working at Binghamton University. In June, the commission released its recommendations; these focus on:
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.
The reconsideration of 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.
I thank the members of the commission for their work, especially the commission’s co-chairs, Anne Bailey, director of the Harriet Tubman Center and professor of history, and Sharon Bryant, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Decker College and associate professor or public health and nursing, and most of all, the students, faculty, staff and alumni who shared their stories. I’m confident that these recommendations will help make the University a better place.
The spring quarter is also the time of year when we learn what the New York state budget has in store for our campus. This year’s budget is neither particularly good nor bad, which can be considered a win, given the impact of COVID on the state’s finances.
On the positive side, we are pleased that there are no budget cuts in store for SUNY; funding will be held at 2019-20 levels and spending restrictions imposed by the state have been mostly lifted. For faculty and staff, there is good news. Previously negotiated salary increases that had been postponed last year because of the pandemic have been reinstated. There is good news for students as well, as there will be no tuition increases and funding for both the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) has been increased, as have SUNY’s Diversity Scholarship and Fellowship programs.
At the same time, the University must also balance this year’s COVID-related costs, which have been substantial. COVID-related expenses include:
$25 million in refunds given to students in spring 2020 for residence halls and certain fees
$8 million in tuition revenue shortfalls from the decline in international students in 2020-21
$12 million in lost revenue as a result of reduced occupancy in residential halls for academic year 2020-21:
$15 million for COVID testing and campus modifications
All told, addressing COVID at Binghamton this past year cost the campus around $50 million; these costs will be offset by substantial federal support, including:
$13.6 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, half of which has been distributed to over 6,500 students.
$20.2 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) funding, of which $6.8 million was distributed to over 4,800 students
$35.9 million in American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) support that has not yet been received by the campus; half of this will be distributed to students in the coming months.
This support has boosted total institutional discretionary funds by approximately $38 million and the campus has saved a further $25 million by restructuring dormitory financing debt. All told, campus COVID-related expenses total around $60 million, but are offset by $63 million in combined federal support and debt refinancing. Fiscally, the campus has survived COVID about as well as could be expected.
Nonetheless, the coming year holds a number of fiscal challenges. As mentioned previously, we expect continuing difficulties in maintaining international enrollment that will impact our revenues. In addition, the state’s commitment to holding tuition steady for the next three years will impose additional constraints. For this reason, we will be holding back 5% of allocations to our units, though these allocations may be restored mid-year if enrollment targets and other factors warrant. Troubling, too, is the state’s continuing reliance on unfunded salary increases that may have campus-wide fiscal impacts. In sum, the University’s fiscal position is strong, but there are headwinds that we must weather.
Progress on the Health Sciences Campus and other University construction
Meanwhile, the University is playing a key role in transforming Johnson City into a regional healthcare hub. Work on the Health Sciences Building is progressing rapidly, with finishing work underway for floors 5 and 6. These spaces will house the Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences programs in occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech and language pathology, along with joint space for an Upstate Medical University clinical campus. Currently, we are expecting work to be completed by August, with move in during the fall semester.
Working in conjunction with Lourdes Hospital, design work for the Ford Family Wellness Center for Seniors is being finalized and lease arrangements are under discussion. This facility is on schedule to open next summer.
The University, with support from the Binghamton University Foundation, purchased several properties adjacent to the campus that connect the University buildings with the Johnson City Main Street district. These buildings have been demolished and will be replaced by green space and walkways that will enhance the campus’s walkability and safety. Our goal for the campus is to not only be a nexus for advanced healthcare, but also to help spur investments that add to the quality of life for residents and students in the community. Indeed, we are already beginning to see private investment in the area around campus. Most recently, we learned that the large, white Victory Building — long an abandoned eyesore in in the community — will be developed utilizing $35 million in private funding, historic tax credits and brownfields funding to establish 156 apartments with commercial space and covered parking. I believe that we can have the same impact in Johnson City that the University has had in the city of Binghamton, which has been transformed by University engagement. In fact, we recently learned that the city of Binghamton ranked #37 among “50 Best College Towns in the U.S.” by Parade Magazine, which highlighted the city’s large student population and vibrant music and cultural scene.
The start of the summer also brings the peak of construction work on campus. The multi-year renovations of the Science 2 tower and Science 4 continue, with framing and structural work completed and new electrical, plumbing and heating systems completed for both buildings. Energy-efficient cladding has been installed on the tower and is being fitted for Science 4. Work is nearly complete, too, on the 25,000 square-foot addition and renovation of Hinman Dining Hall, with exterior panel, lighting and landscaping work underway. The dining hall is very close to completion and will be ready for students in the fall.
Currently, the most visible construction on campus is the new Baseball Stadium Complex near the Bunn Hill Road entrance to campus. Steel framing, concrete work and utility work is well underway, and the facility’s lights loom over the field. When exterior work is nearly completed, work on the interior will begin, including a new clubhouse, indoor training facility, locker rooms, offices, study areas and athletic training room. The facility will also boast new batting cages and significantly expanded seating. We are looking forward to opening our baseball season in the new stadium next spring.
Finally, the state is also moving forward with a new 2.5-mile pedestrian and bicycle path connecting the University to downtown Binghamton. While this greenway project is not technically part of the University’s construction and infrastructure plans, it will have an immediate impact on safety and “walkability” for the campus and community — and serve as a nice focal point for people entering the campus.
All in all, the spring quarter for 2021 has been exceptionally positive for Binghamton University. We are seeing all the signs of a return to normal following COVID. These three months have been highlighted by the lifting of health and safety restrictions, the usual celebrations for student achievement and recognition for outstanding faculty. We’ve seen continued advances in our efforts to be a more equitable and just campus, and in perhaps the clearest sign that we are returning to normal— we have a financially strong campus with undercurrents of fiscal pressures. It’s great to be back!
Nearly 60 members of six Road Map Re-aiming Strategic Priority Committees came together over Zoom at the end of June to review their goals and present updated metrics that will help guide Binghamton University over the next five years.