Mary E. Graham, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Sport Management, has been named Falk College associate dean of faculty affairs effective Jan. 2, 2024. This newly created leadership position reports to Falk College Dean Jeremy Jordan and is dedicated…
Chancellor Syverud Updates University Senate on Student Housing, Benefits
Chancellor Kent Syverud addressed University Senate at its meeting today. His remarks were as follows:
Thank you, Professor Reed. I need to update the Senate on two pieces of University business before turning to current issues for our community regarding the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. I know our provost will address these latter issues in greater detail, including issues of student safety, free speech, and academic freedom.
The first update is about housing. As announced last week, the University plans to convert the Sheraton Hotel on Waverly into a 400-bed residence hall. Work will begin in May of 2024 following spring Commencement. We have met with all Sheraton employees and assured them they will be offered positions with the University. Many of those positions will be union roles. The new residence hall is expected to open in Fall 2024.
The changes at the Sheraton are the first phase of executing against the University’s new housing strategy. For the last three years, our finance, facilities, and student experience teams have conducted thorough research, an assessment of our existing facilities, and thoughtful exploration of our options. The result is a housing strategy that earned approval from the full Board of Trustees earlier this month.
I wanted to provide a little context for this work today. Basically, the University’s housing portfolio remains largely the same as in the 1970s, with two notable exceptions. Those include the addition of Ernie Davis Hall in 2009 and the addition last year of the building formerly known as The Marshall.
The University has made updates to many residence halls over the years, particularly to bathrooms.
As of last summer, Syracuse University’s housing was ranked in the 50th percentile, in comparison to our peers. But I fear we are falling further behind as our current housing stock cannot keep pace with students’ evolving wants and needs for living spaces that are welcoming, accessible, inclusive, and air conditioned. Merely adequate housing is not where Syracuse University wants to be, especially given the significant investments made over the last four years to enhance the student experience in our classrooms.
The housing strategy will be executed in phases and will take time to implement. We expect full implementation to take around a decade. Off ramps have been built into the plan to allow the University to think ahead and shift the approach, if necessary, because of changes in enrollment, finances, or student needs. Much like we’ve done with the Campus Framework, we can adjust and course correct based on emerging needs and new lessons we’ve learned. We’re going to be making public additional phases of the housing strategy as the plans are finalized in the coming months.
The other University update is on benefits. On Sept. 26, I delivered a proposal to University Senate members outlining a new process for incorporating faculty and staff feedback on proposed changes to our benefits. That process was informed by recommendations made over the summer by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Benefits Engagement, which was chaired by University Senator and Professor Eric Kingson and Chief Human Resource Officer Andy Gordon. We are now ready to proceed on the creation of the Employee Benefits Assessment Council that was recommended. My role under that is to select the chair and, using your feedback, to charge the committee for this year.
I have asked Tom Dennison, professor of practice emeritus in Maxwell’s Department of Public Administration, to serve as chair of the Employee Benefits Assessment Council, and he has agreed. He has deep personal and professional expertise in benefits-related issues and made a lot of contributions to the Ad Hoc Working Group that worked all summer. He holds a doctorate in health planning and administration from Penn State University, and a master’s in hospital administration from George Washington University.
The next step is for the University Senate to elect four faculty members to serve on the council and for Andy Gordon to coordinate with Senate Committee Chair Kira Reed on that process.
We also need four staff members to serve on the council. Tomorrow an email will be sent to all staff seeking nominations. The nomination form will be open through Monday, Nov. 27.
Chair Dennison will select the remaining three members of the council. I have strongly recommended to him that Professor Eric Kingson either be selected as a faculty representative by the University Senate or be included as one of the chair’s selections. That’s because Professor Kingson has a long history of fearlessly advocating for humane Syracuse faculty and staff benefits. I have come to greatly respect his expertise, as I suspect many of you have. I believe his extensive knowledge of our benefits processes will aid the committee. I have talked to Professor Kingson, and he is willing to serve if asked.
My charge to the committee will formally specify the specific engagement with Senate shared governance through one of the standing Senate committees. Those committees are in somewhat of a state of flux right now, as you know, but that will be part of the process and the charge. I look forward to how this experiment works and assessing it at the end of the year. Those are the updates.
Turning to the Israel/Hamas war, the first thing I will say about this is to acknowledge that whatever I say won’t be enough. In the last five-and-a-half weeks, I have painfully learned that words will never be adequate for the horror of the terrorist attacks and the holding of hostages. Words will never be adequate for the anguish of innocent Palestinian civilians who have been and are being killed, have lost and are losing loved ones, and are suffering through a real humanitarian crisis.
The consequences of this conflict are continuing to accelerate and continuing to wash across our campus. With a community as diverse as ours, there is daily incoming anxiety and fear from all directions. Some of that anxiety is about what the University is doing, and what the University’s position is on the war and what’s going on in Gaza.
Some of that anxiety and fear is about the support for or sharp criticism of people who publicly take positions on all this. Some of it is frightened and angry students and parents. And just to be clear, students are frightened and angry. They are frightened about antisemitic acts. They’re frightened about hostility to anyone who speaks up for Palestinians in Gaza. They’re frightened about perceptions that law enforcement and the University are taking unfair sides and taking unfair steps.
On top of all of that, faculty and staff are concerned that, in the heat of this moment, basic values of free speech or academic freedom or civil discourse about important world issues, of which this is certainly one, will be lost or will be compromised in some way that is hard to recover from for this University.
I’ve seen all over campus people carefully and thoughtfully trying to figure out what’s right to do for everybody, and then doing it. And I’m proud of that. Our first priority has to be to all our students. That’s not just the students we agree with or disagree with, but to all our students. And for me, that responsibility to our students comes first, including over academic freedom and free speech. If our students are threatened and their safety is threatened, that’s a priority over academic freedom and free speech in my view.
But, and it’s a big but, I think we have to be very careful not to invoke student safety too easily and compromise academic freedom and free speech too quickly. Safety can be very broadly defined. I’m not talking about being safe from views you don’t like or to be safe from uncomfortable truths. I’m talking about actual threats that are reasonably perceived as resulting in physical violence or the real risk of physical violence, which we have seen on other campuses. When the safety of our students is significantly threatened, we have to act. It has been an incredibly difficult line to draw these past few weeks, and I know there are very strong opinions as to whether we are getting it right.
When it comes to academic freedom and freedom of speech, I have stood up for our faculty before. I will continue to do so. I believe these are values integral to a great academic institution. This has not always been popular. I have taken heat from people within and outside of our campus. And I will take that pressure. But I will always prioritize the safety of our students above all else. I will do that without reservation.
But in these moments where I have defended our faculty, they have publicly owned their perspectives. What I think about the substance of their ideas is not the point. I will defend their right to put it out there. The provost is going to speak more about this shortly.
In this tough time, I am so grateful to say I think our community has, by and large, been incredibly responsible to a degree not seen on many other campuses. Which brings me to an aspect of what students, faculty, and staff are experiencing around this country, and how we are dealing with it here. People are being subjected to anonymous statements that are at times profoundly disturbing. People are hiding their identities so that they can say or do things they do not want to be held responsible for out of fear. They are doing it online, some not out of fear but because they do not want to be held accountable. They are doing it especially in connection with professors and students they disagree with. And they are doing it on campuses and in various forms of communication.
I have, for the last 10 years, insisted that this University and its people stand firmly in support of students and faculty when they are threatened, whether anonymously or not, for acting within their academic freedom. That has come at a personal cost that I gladly bear. What I have not done and will not do, is support or respond to anonymous messages or anonymous groups. This is an academic community in which we each have to take responsibility for what we say and do.
If you want to be anonymous, you are avoiding that responsibility, and I do not respond to or engage with people who do not want to be responsible for the consequences of their actions. That said, what I will do is my utmost to protect the confidentiality of those who need to communicate, but fear retaliation in any form.
Finally, I want to remind all of you of what I said at the first Senate meeting of this year. In September, I said I expected it to be a stressful year on this campus because of events and challenges coming at us from Washington and the world. And I urged us to listen to each other, and to listen believing in the good faith and concern for the whole University of those who speak. That is how I intend to continue to listen to all in this community. I am grateful that you have done so as well. Thank you.