Dear Students, Faculty, Staff and Families: Late yesterday afternoon, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified Onondaga County as a region of substantial transmission due to an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases. In response, a short time…
Chancellor Syverud Addresses University Senate’s Sept. 23 Meeting
In his remarks to the University Senate meeting, held virtually, Chancellor Kent Syverud addressed the University’s COVID response, plans for the Spring Semester and progress on equity, diversity and inclusion. He also provided updates on enrollment, the University budget and fundraising progress.
Thank you, Marcelle. Thanks for getting this meeting set up in this new environment. Thank you for your remarks John Burdick and thanks to Deborah Pellow as well, for her tribute at the Arts and Sciences meeting. I want to associate myself with those remarks. I experienced John Burdick as a good and decent person in a time when we need more of them. So I am going to miss him terribly as well. Thank you for what you said and for remembering him.
Usually at this meeting I do a quick report on some key parameters and how the University is doing in areas like budget and fundraising and enrollment. I’m going to do that at the end. Interim Provost Liu is going to report on academic affairs, and we’ll both take questions as usual. But before I do those usual things in this unusual year, I did want to report on the University’s COVID response, what we have learned from it, and on equity and inclusion efforts.
Since the last formal University Senate meeting in April, I believe that every single member of our broader Syracuse community, every faculty member, every staff member, every student, every alumnus, every member of the Syracuse family here and around the world—every single one of us has been stressed and stretched in new ways. It would have been very hard for us to imagine this at the beginning of the year. I’ve talked to a lot of people, particularly on campus the last two months as I run into them. And each person’s story is unique. There are struggles with health care, with child care, with travel, with immigration, with polarized politics, with racial injustice. We’re not all equally affected, and we all have different experiences, but we all have been really stressed. We’ve helped people dealing with travel bans and quarantines and isolation and immigration problems and terrific uncertainties in our own lives and in the University.
So I first want to acknowledge that. Thank you to all of you who have done your best to continue under these challenging circumstances. I know you’ve made sacrifices, including for our university and for our students, and I’m just grateful. I don’t take that for granted. I know that most of the new news in the world is very grim right now. I am also pretty amazed, though, at how much you have achieved at Syracuse through all this, how much education has continued, how much research and creative work is continuing here, how much support in service to our community is continuing here. And I’m grateful for that too. I think Syracuse University has done pretty well so far relative to our peers. I think in part, this is because we have been lucky in all of your leadership and in the leadership we have at the local and state government levels.
I think in part, this is also is due to an extraordinary team of people at the University who have worked 24/7 on our COVID response starting last January—this includes faculty, staff, administrators, students and community members. I think in part this is due to a tradition at Syracuse of people speaking up and expecting to be heard. I’ve experienced shared governance in higher education in the United States as already in trouble before COVID-19 hit. And now I think at many institutions, shared governance is on life support at some schools. The crisis has been viewed as an opportunity not to be wasted, to make very rapid changes. Some schools have implemented widespread layoffs, including of staff and untenured. In some cases, tenured faculty; many schools have abolished or reduced retirement contributions. Colleges are canceling sports teams and imposing reopening plans or closing plans without much consultation or notice or input. These are things that really are happening in our peer institutions in many cases and not just in isolated pockets of higher education.
If we are in a better position than that right now, and I believe Syracuse University is, I think it is part due to the reality that we still do have governance here where people expect to be heard, informed and listened to. It is not perfect governance. It needs constant reinforcement even though it takes work when so many other demands are pressing. But for just a moment, please reflect on this: this University’s COVID-19 response has so far been significantly improved because the Board of Trustees, the University Senate, the faculty, the AAUP, the students, the parents, the deans and the staff insisted on asking many questions, on being briefed repeatedly, and because they spoke up when they did not like the answers.
I can give many examples of this over the last four months. Just this week, they include (1) the need to improve our COVID dashboard to make it easier to read and more frequently revised; and (2) the need to make wholesale improvements in the daily experience of students in isolation or quarantine. Both those things are happening right now because people spoke up and were heard.
What I have learned throughout this past year is something good and special at Syracuse that goes so much against the direction of our national political culture. I have learned that at Syracuse that we can assume the good faith of questions, comments and concerns that are directed our way. We need to assume the person asking us a question or sharing a complaint cares just as deeply about this University as we do. When we do that, when we all assume good faith, we actually listen to each other, hear each other, and we will make better decisions. Both those things are happening right now because people spoke up and were heard.
So what I’ve learned throughout this past year, and particularly in the last couple months is that there is something good and special at Syracuse. It goes so much against the direction of national political culture. In some of the higher education. I’ve learned that at Syracuse, we can assume the good faith of questions, comments and concerns that are directed our way, and that we need to assume the person asking us a question or sharing a complaint cares just as deeply about this university. It is sometimes it’s hard because of how hard we’re working or the stress we’re under.
But what I’ve learned is that when we do that, when we all assume good faith, we actually listen to each other. We hear each other and we make better decisions, not perfect ones in this world of unknown mine fields, but better ones. We have a long way to go yet before we can say our university has successfully navigated COVID-19. It is true that we have resumed in-person instruction and many activities, and we are five weeks into the fall semester. It’s true that so far, we are able to manage the positive cases we have identified while continuing to proceed. It’s true that we have a level and quality of testing that rivals almost all our peers. It’s true that almost all of our students have behaved admirably under very tough conditions. And it’s true that we have plans in place, tentative plans, but plans for the many scenarios that they still develop, because there’s still so much more that we don’t know about what’s going to happen in the future.
But our biggest enemies right now are complacency and hubris. Just because we have fared relatively well these past two months, it could all be blown in a single day by us relaxing our vigilance, by us getting tired of restrictions and deciding to take chances—with parties, with travelling, with large gatherings, with coming to campus despite feeling ill, with failing to be tested. We need to all continue to be as careful as we have been so far every day going forward until a vaccine is widely available. And at Syracuse University, I am not counting on that being the case until late in the spring of 2021.
So you will not find me, and I hope not to find you, doing a victory dance during the first quarter of this struggle.
Because of the reality that this situation is going to continue for months more, I ask two things of our community now.
First, can we please all show compassion to those who are exposed or contract this virus? People are going to be in this situation, and it’s rarely their fault. It serves no purpose to shame or attack these individuals, who already have plenty to deal with. I’ve seen this shaming in some reporting and on social media. I assure you the University will continue to publicly share lessons learned from those cases (like about travel) but as a community of compassion, let’s not shame or attack individuals. Let us also remember every day, that this university resides in a broader community of residents and workers, many of whom have greater risks from the virus because of disabilities, poverty, unequal access to testing and health care, and the inability to socially distance in their work or lives. We have obligations to that broader community that we need to try to honor each day.
Second, we all need to get flu shots in the next month, unless you have a compelling religious or medical exemption. The combination of flu and coronavirus is particularly deadly, both for individuals and for our community. For individuals, you can get both viruses simultaneously, and each may seriously exacerbate the other. For our community, our medical and public health resources are already stretched and need to be focused as much as possible on fighting COVID-19. Flu symptoms resemble COVID-19 and failure to get a flu vaccine risks our limited resources being diverted to flu cases when they are so needed for COVID-19. So we are requiring flu vaccinations everywhere we can. We are providing them free to students, faculty and staff. And we are begging you this year to get a flu shot early. Beginning Oct. 1, the flu clinics will be set up at two locations, the Stadium and Skybarn on South Campus. We know there may be medical exemptions or religious exemptions. We will be sharing more information later this week, including how to submit exemption requests; how to sign up for a vaccination; and how to submit proof of vaccination if you have already received one from another provider. I just walked into Kinney Drug, and there was no one there, and got mine and it was easy.
Our Spring 2021 semester, like our Fall 2020 semester, is likely to require many adjustments in order to respond successfully to COVID-19.
The first adjustment will be to the calendar. One of the things we have learned is that a schedule that minimizes travel and additional quarantining works well. The spring semester schedule provides 14 weeks of instruction with no weekend classes required. It also eliminates spring break. Classes will begin on Monday, Jan. 25, and conclude on Friday, April 30. Reading days will be May 1 and 2, with final exams from May 3-6.
Many of our peer institutions are adopting similar schedules. Eliminating travel periods will safeguard the health of our community and position us to preserve our ability to offer in-person instruction throughout the spring semester. The Syracuse University Public Health Team is working to finalize spring semester quarantine and COVID-19 testing procedures; more information will be communicated in the coming weeks.
May 7-8 will be reserved for college and school convocations and May 9 for University Commencement. We can’t predict at this time whether we will be permitted to have in-person celebrations, but this schedule does preserve some flexibility for rescheduling Commencement for the Class of 2020, if public health guidelines allow.
We have also learned some important ways that we need to keep our focus on the student experience and quality of instruction. That means ensuring that students know what to expect from their in-person experience in the classroom. We need to continue and grow our social, recreational and co-curricular activities that can be done safely while observing public health guidelines. It’s critical for both enrollment and retention that we demonstrate to our students that—while it might be different—the residential experience is worthwhile.
There are fewer uncertainties and unknowns now that we have experienced part of the fall semester. We can’t predict what the virus will do. But we can be as prepared as we reasonably can be to maintain our in-person learning experience. What I am asking of all of you now—in all of your areas—is to consider what we can do better in the spring based on the experience we have gained.
And this latter thing is particularly more important in cold weather that it’s even been so far. It’s really critical for both our enrollment and retention of students that we demonstrate to our students that the coming semester is going to be better than this semester, just as this semester, in some ways is significantly better than the experience from March to May. There are fewer uncertainties now about the spring, then we experienced going into the fall, but there still are a lot remaining. We can’t predict what’s going to happen. So we have to be nimble and expect changes. I’d just say, personally, what I’ve learned is there hasn’t been a day this summer and then this fall where I didn’t spend at least half a day on an issue that I didn’t know about or expect coming into work in the morning because of the virus and all the issues going on in the world.
We also need to consider where we can do better in the area of equity and inclusion. Last week, I sent a message and there was a story in SU News regarding the Phase I recommendations from the Disability External Review Committee. I want to thank Dean Joanna Masingila and Professor Michael Schwartz, as well as all of the committee members for their work. This was a complex project that took time and great care to complete. We will immediately implement all of the Phase I recommendations. Despite COVID-19 and, particularly because of it, we must be intensely focused on creating a welcoming, equitable and accessible community where people with disabilities can thrive. We need to consider how students, faculty and staff with disabilities experience Syracuse University every day. I truly believe that this is an area where we can be a national leader.
Yesterday, you received an email from Damon Williams, a member of the Independent Advisory Panel, asking our community to complete a campus climate pulse survey. This is part of his work with the Board of Trustees Special Committee on University Climate, Diversity and Inclusion. I can’t emphasize enough that we need robust participation in this survey to ensure that we understand the full range of experiences on the part of students, faculty and staff. The survey is completely anonymous. Your responses will provide valuable guidance as we formulate our five-year strategy for equity, diversity, inclusion and access.
We’re in the midst of a review of the Department of Public Safety by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her team. So far this semester, her team has already engaged with over a dozen students. The review is moving in the right direction, and we anticipate a final report at the end of this year or early next year. Last week Lynch’s team provided us with an initial recommendation on creating a Public Safety Citizen Review Board. The Review Board will hear, review and recommend actions regarding complaints made by members of our University community. This initial recommendation sets the stage for listening sessions that will include students, faculty and staff. Lynch’s team will hold these sessions in the coming weeks; they will inform the final recommendation in creating the Public Safety Community Review Board.
They’re going to have engagement sessions with the community in the coming week or two. I know there’s urgency here. I think it’s important that that board be set up based on more input from the community than we’ve had so far.
Let me cover our key barometer updates. Our total enrollment for the fall semester, it looks like it’s going to be based on this census 21,322 students. It’s 93.3 percent of last year’s fall enrollment, which was by far our most record high enrollment. Our total enrollment this fall is 21,322. That’s 93.3 percent of last year’s record high enrollment of 22,850. We welcomed 3,488 first-year students, 154 fewer than last year. Our transfer enrollment of 233 is 40 fewer than last year. The mean SAT score decreased by 23 points to 1260, which is still high based on recent history. While enrollment is down, I believe we will later this academic year recover much of the missing enrollments as students who deferred come back in the spring and summer, and as immigration and travel circumstances ease.
Our enrollment of students of color remains strong, making up 31 percent of the first-year class with increases in African American and Latino enrollment. These are overall good results under very challenging conditions, and are only possible thanks to a great deal of work by people in this room and across campus, so thank you.
These are overall good results in challenging conditions, I think they’re going to result in our overall revenue from tuition being only slightly below budget for fiscal year 21, if we can keep this up. I think everybody on this call are helped with this in serving our students and recruiting and retaining them on the budget.
Like our peers, the pandemic has presented significant financial challenges. Unlike many of our peers, we were in solid financial footing going into this, and will emerge stronger when it is over.
In the spring, we quickly enacted a 5 percent budget reduction, a reduction in leadership salaries and a hiring freeze, which has given us the room we needed to adjust for COVID-related expenses and losses. We ended FY 20 in July with a $5 million deficit, about three-tenths of 1 percent of our operating budget.
We are anticipating additional challenges ahead for the FY21 budget. We will face them while maintaining a focus on our strategic priorities, fiscal sustainability and providing the best experience possible for our students. And as we have done so far, being humane to our staff and students remains a high priority to me personally in how we adapt.
With regard to staff, I want to report that so far in response to the pandemic, of our thousands of staff, we have laid off less than three dozen. Some other employees have left for performance issues and other reasons. Of course, we have staff layoffs and departures almost every year as the University changes programs and services. But I am happy to report that this year, the combined layoffs and performance issues are lower than in a typical year. We have also had some furloughs, especially in programs outside the U.S. and Syracuse, where facilities are completely closed. Syracuse Abroad has been most affected by this.
Laid off employees have received extended health and benefits protection. I have asked that our leaders use best efforts to rehire when conditions improve. The success of this humane approach is facilitated by our ability to continue the residential experience safely this semester. In helping that happen, we are helping our staff.
In fundraising, as of June 30, 2020, we raised more than $163 million. We also raised the most cash in a single year in Syracuse University history.
For FY21, we have set a goal of $140 million in new business, which we think is a prudent number based on the impact of the pandemic. As of the second week of September, the total for the Forever Orange Campaign is over $902.5 million and we anticipate crossing the $1 billion mark—that’s two-thirds of our way to our goal—in the spring. This is truly a wonderful accomplishment.
There was a pivot in the middle of the year to shifting the fundraising to Syracuse Responds, raising immediate cash that we could spend on our students, faculty and staff in particular, maybe because of COVID and what’s going on in the world.
While the pandemic has taken much of our collective attention, we need to continue to work toward the key strategic goals before us.
These goals were approved by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees earlier this month. They will help guide our work throughout the academic year. The goals are informed by the individual unit priorities and then reviewed by the Chancellor’s Council before being shared with the Trustees.
I won’t go through the entire list, but I will highlight four, some of which will require the work of many of you. They are:
- Complete a successful return to campus in fall 2020 and provide a high-quality educational and residential experience (in-person delivery and extracurricular) for all students
- Implement an Equity, Diversity, Accessibility and Inclusion five-year strategic and engagement plan that is informed by the Special Committee on University Climate, Diversity and Inclusion’s recommendations
- Continue to advance faculty hiring and retention to ensure extraordinary faculty who can inspire the next generation of student-focused research professors
- Expand quality Syracuse University Global post-traditional student programs and enrollment pursuant to a focused strategy
These goals reflect many of the consequential and emerging issues that we continue to work to address. In the coming weeks, we will designate leads for each goal and some of you will be called upon to help us map timelines for the successful completion of these priorities.
Thank you for your time and attention today. I will take questions after the interim provost’s remarks.