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Chancellor Syverud Addresses COVID, Leadership Searches at University Senate
Good afternoon. Today I am mostly going to give you an update on the University’s COVID response, share some information on key leadership searches and discuss the Campus Framework Refresh that was announced in late January. Before I do that, I need to address a serious developing issue. Part of my job as Chancellor is to keep us focused in part on long-term opportunities and threats to the University that we need to prepare for even if our bandwidth is already taxed by the challenges of the semester. Some of you will remember that in January and early February of 2020 I urged that we needed to plan and prepare for the challenges and ethical issues the coronavirus would likely pose to our university. We did plan and prepare back then, and we did consult and listen, and I think that effort has served our university well.
Today, in February 2022, I fear we may be facing a very different but significant moment with some great challenges. I refer to the fact the sovereign state of Russia has apparently commenced an invasion of the sovereign state of Ukraine. Syracuse University has students, faculty, staff and alumni from Ukraine as well as from Russia, and they have families. An unusually high percentage of our students, faculty and staff are active-duty military or in the Guard or Reserves and may see their lives and schedules changed dramatically on short notice due to the response to this conflict. The economic sanctions and measures being implemented and contemplated between nations could have significant effect on our university and our people in an environment where supply chains and international travel are already quite strained. And a widening conflict in Europe is likely to make it quite a bit more challenging for us as a global university to realize our vision of being a place that is welcoming to all.
I am asking University leadership and academic experts to help us prepare for these potential challenges, to learn from history—for those of you who know it better than I do, and to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses in how we responded to the recent change in government in Afghanistan. For now, all I am specifically requesting of the University community is that we each be mindful of the additional stress that some of us are now bearing. In particular, I ask that we be understanding and supportive of student, faculty and staff who are directly affected by events in Europe. We will be reporting further in the coming days and weeks about the University’s proactive planning for this changing situation.
The first month of the spring semester is behind us, and I think things are going well—better than many expected. We were challenged with the omicron variant in January. I think our decision to delay the start of the semester has proven to be the right call. I also credit the University’s vaccine requirements and testing protocols in our successful start to the spring semester.
COVID cases have, in fact, significantly declined from the beginning of the semester. As of today, we have 66 active cases in the campus community.
On Monday, the University moved to the blue level of our masking framework based on the recommendations of our public health team. This followed the expiration of New York State’s mask mandate. Just as a reminder for those of you not aware, the blue level means masks will continue to be required during academic instruction, regardless of vaccination status. This includes classrooms, laboratories, libraries and lecture venues. For anyone who is not vaccinated, masks are still required everywhere indoors and outdoors when in groups, and the unvaccinated must continue to participate in weekly testing. Although the situation could change, I currently am not predicting any change from the blue level up to and through spring break.
At last week’s Senate forum, there was discussion about students whose access to campus IT resources was disconnected. That occurred with students who were not compliant with providing proof of meeting the University’s vaccination requirement. I just want to assure you that didn’t happen without a lot of notice. Students received more than 30 messages regarding the requirement since we announced it on Dec. 6. Since the start of the semester, noncompliant students received more than a dozen text and email messages that specifically referenced that they would lose access. I know this was challenging for students, but talking with our peers, including in the ACC, we have not found other methods that actually work in ensuring our students, faculty and staff are kept safe from the risks posed by exposure to large numbers of unvaccinated people. As evidence of that, we are now happily at 98% compliance among students, 100% compliance rate among faculty, and 99% compliance with staff. The remaining 1% of staff includes mostly newly hired employees in the process of getting vaccinated or those who are newly eligible for the booster.
I want to thank the staff at the Barnes Center at The Arch and in HR for managing all this in the last couple weeks. It has been a huge lift with all hands on deck to ensure that we are obtaining and tracking vaccination status where we need it to be for the safety of our community.
I know that has been challenging for all our students, all our staff and all our faculty. I know it has taken a lot of dedication to get this done.
In speaking with some of our ACC peers over the last few weeks, I just want to emphasize what I learned. As hard as all this has been for each of us in our community, thanks to all of you, we are doing exceptionally well compared to our peers. They are envious of what our community has been able to achieve in our commitment to safety.
I’ll turn now to searches for a few key leadership positions.
The search for the next associate vice president and chief of Campus Safety and Emergency Management Services is nearly complete. Over the last two weeks, the three finalists interviewed with the search committee and key stakeholders. I’ve met with the finalists. You can expect an announcement soon. I am grateful to Brice Nordquist and Andrew Saluti for serving on this search committee as well as Raj Dewan, our dean representative; David Bruen, the student association representative; and Yousr Dhaoudi, the graduate student organization representative.
On the search for a new chief financial officer, the search committee has been selected. We will be working with search firm Korn Ferry to identify qualified and dynamic candidates for this role. I am grateful to Emily Stokes-Rees for serving on this search committee. And I am grateful to Gwenn Judge, who has been very ably serving as interim CFO and will do so until we get the new CFO in place.
The search for the next vice president for diversity and inclusion is progressing well. The search committee, chaired by Brian Konkol and Cerri Banks, interviewed six candidates in recent weeks. The committee has narrowed the field to three finalists, who will be on campus for interviews over the next two weeks. Thanks to Raj Dewan for serving as the dean representative and to Gladys McCormick and Suzette Melendez for serving on this committee. Thanks as well to Brittnee Johnson from the Graduate Student Organization and Malique Lewis, who is the Undergraduate Student Representative. I think we will have our new vice president for diversity and inclusion on board before the end of the semester.
We look forward to this new leader driving the effort to finalize and implement the diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility strategic plan. We have been analyzing feedback received from just under 1,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni and groups. We have the quantitative analysis, and I am expecting the report on the qualitative feedback next week. All to help our new leader understand our community’s concerns before we finalize the plan.
I would like to address the comments that were made regarding both health and retirement benefits during last week’s Senate forum, which I have not yet fully processed. The proposed change to the retirement benefit for new employees has been deferred and will continue to be deferred until I have time to process the feedback I’ve received, including last week. Any further changes to health benefits will not occur until a careful process leading to late fall 2022 open enrollment. The University will engage with the appropriate groups in the spirit of shared governance later during the spring semester and into the summer. That includes among others, the Benefits Advisory Council and Senate Services Committee. I appreciate the feedback I have received from many of you and look forward to the findings that result from this work.
On the Campus Framework Refresh, we announced that we are going to refresh the Campus Framework last month. Our Campus Framework is our plan for the design of our campus to serve all our communities. It has served us very well for the last five years, but it is now time to review and refresh the plan. I’ve created a working group led by Pete Sala to assess our current needs and priorities particularly as they have changed over the last five years, in academics, housing, student experience and athletics.
So far we’ve followed the framework pretty carefully. It has directed nearly $300 million in capital investments that have transformed our campus and helped align our physical campus with our aspirations. This progress can be seen on the Einhorn Family Walk, at the Schine Student Center, the NVRC, the Barnes Center at The Arch and the stadium, and improvements to many teaching spaces and living spaces on campus. But the world has changed a lot in five years. We do not want a static plan that will not evolve with us. As we look to the future, I have asked the working group to address three areas:
- What major lessons can be learned from the first five years of implementation of the Campus Framework report?
- What revisions should be made based on those experiences?
- What changes are necessary to reflect our current needs and strategies in academics, student experience, housing and athletics?
I’ve asked the committee to report back to me in April on their findings. Those recommendations will be presented to various stakeholders, including the full Board of Trustees in May.
Notwithstanding the caution I gave you at the start of these remarks, I am optimistic for our university as we head into the remainder of the semester—especially given all that we’ve been able to do under great stress this last month. With pandemic conditions improving dramatically, we can refocus on our long-term goals and priorities to advance academic excellence in a university welcoming to all. I do expect challenges, including some we do not foresee today, but I think you and our university are doing well, and we are equipped to address it. I am grateful to all of you.