President Michael Roth ’78 attended the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) meeting on Sunday, Nov. 22 to give an update on the November Board of Trustees Meeting and hold an open forum. This forum, where students have the opportunity to ask Roth questions, is conducted each year around the time of the November Board of Trustees meeting.
Roth began the forum with a brief description of what was covered in the November board meeting. According to Roth, the Financial Committee discussed the budgetary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, a potential tuition increase of around four percent, resolutions regarding major repairs of the Freeman natatorium, and the next phase of design for a new life sciences building to replace Shanklin Laboratories. The Campus Affairs Committee’s discussions centered on equity and inclusion, specifically the concerns raised by the Ujaama manifesto, as well as the impacts of moving classes online in terms of academics and social experience. Roth noted that gifts and donations for this year surpassed last year and detailed how the Admissions Department is adapting to COVID-19, given the inability for in-person campus visits. Around 50 students attended the meeting and spoke to trustees in breakout rooms to give feedback.
At the forum, students asked questions pertaining to issues including, but not limited to, the impact of COVID-19, budget reductions to the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL), work-study employment, sustainability, accessibility, the impact of workforce software, and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
Recent budget reductions to ORSL amid COVID-19 related department cuts have elicited strong opposition from students, faculty, and staff over the cutting of what they believe are essential services. Developments within ORSL came to light after The Argus spoke with the University’s former Muslim Chaplain Omar Bayramoglu about his involuntary departure from the University in July. Bayramoglu’s involuntary departure signaled the beginning of a new direction for religious and spiritual life proposed by the Office of Student Affairs that would entail phasing out University chaplain positions until one chaplain remained to direct students to Middletown to access religious services.
Marco Bragado ’24 questioned whether money currently directed toward new construction could be diverted to areas such as the ORSL, CAPS, and sustainability. Roth responded that this is not a possibility because of the way the budget is operated.
“These are capital expenditures, and so they are not just operating expenses,” Roth said. “They’re investments in the foundation of the institution.”
Roth also responded to Bragado’s specific mention of the ORSL budget reductions.
“I’m glad you mentioned the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life,” Roth said. “We have to review that whole thing, and it’s embarrassing to me that we are in this position. And I think we need to work with student groups and faculty groups to find a better way forward.”
Dalia Rubinstein ’21 asked about plans for how the administration intends to restore the ORSL following budgetary cuts this semester.
“I have been listening to that outcry from students and faculty and some staff and trying to sort through the different issues, but it is clear to me that for many students the option of using local resources, it’s just not a real option, and that wasn’t as clear to me,” Roth said. “I have to confess that I think I imagined, probably because it was convenient for me to do so, that it would be good for town-gown…I’m so embarrassed. It’s so obvious, but it actually wasn’t obvious to me. I had this kumbaya thing, like I can go to the Catholic church and I can go to shul and I can go to the Muslim prayer center. And in fact I can, cause I’m a white guy and the President of Wesleyan, I can go places, but not everybody feels that way.”
Roth concluded by stating his commitment to reviewing the changes made to ORSL and his hopes to collaborate with students and faculty to do so.
“I want to listen closely and, if I have to, try to raise some money to do this,” Roth said. “I think as many people said, this is the wrong place to save money. So shame on me, but we’ll fix it.”
George Fuss ’21 asked Roth about his administration’s response to student worker complaints about the University’s implementation of new workforce software.
“85 percent of the dozens of student workers who responded to USLAC’s workforce survey about the workforce software said it did not improve their experience as workers, and the remaining 15 percent said they were unsure,” Fuss said. “Zero percent said it improved their experience, clocking their hours, which was what was promised by your administration. The software which exists to steal wages from employees was implemented despite a petition against it with 1300 signatures and broken promises of increased worker input. The USLAC survey has received reports of mandatory geo-fencing, geo-fencing, which is inaccurately targeted, preventing workers from clocking in, even inside their workplace and endless notifications about time sheets, which have already been submitted. The concerns I raised to you back in the spring, which you called ‘attractive propaganda’ have clearly come to fruition. And I’m wondering if you have anything to say for your administration and the abysmal implementation of this anti-worker software.”
“I think you should just put that in the minutes, George, which is what your goal was,” Roth said. “If there are any lost wages from workers, I’m sure we would hear about it, but if you think USLAC would be more effective in finding those wages, then God bless. But, if you know of any forced geo-fencing that you would like to relay to us, we’ll certainly address that.”
Adam Hickey ’22 brought up the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted earlier this year after the murder of George Floyd and calls from many to reallocate funds from the police to other social services. He asked President Roth about the University’s own response.
“On Wesleyan’s campus, PSafe [Public Safety] gets a $2 million budget and generally responds primarily to substance abuse-related calls, while some of our social services, like CAPS, for example, don’t have as much funds as they would like,” Hickey said. “Specifically with CAPS, there’s a particular problem that there are no Black therapists…I was wondering, given that reality and the general push around the country by Black Lives Matter and associated activists, whether the University is reconsidering the budget of the University and whether you might consider redistributing funds to reflect the goals of Black Lives Matter, which the University has affirmed.”
Roth responded that PSafe officers should not be equated with armed police offers.
“It seems to me probably not best to think about Public Safety in the same way as one thinks about armed police officers,” Roth said. “I think they have very different functions. That said, I have heard recently, especially from students who think that Public Safety spends too much time on substance-abuse issues that could be handled better in other ways.”
Roth said he, along with two trustees, would work on the issue of PSafe addressing substance abuse matters and getting students necessary psychological services. He also conveyed that he would look into what percentage of PSafe calls are substance-abuse related, noting that the most frequent reason for hospitalization of University students is substance abuse. He added that the University is attempting to hire a Black therapist for CAPS.
“The necessity for having a Black therapist is a real one,” Roth said. “And we’re working, we’ve tried specifically to hire in that regard. I don’t know exactly what the law is, if you can actually advertise a job for a Black therapist, let’s say. I know we had tried hard in the past to both hire and retain a diverse core of therapists to meet the needs of our students. But I do think that you’re right, that recent student demands and other demands around the country underscore the importance of having a Black therapist available to our students”
Bryan Chong ’21 asked about admissions and why the percentage of BIPOC students admitted has not increased in recent history.
“It’s certainly one of the primary goals of [Dean of Admission and Financial Aid] Amin, and his admission team to increase the percentage of BIPOC students in the upcoming class,” Roth said. “But I think it would be possibly illegal to actually set a quota for the percentage of students who identify with a certain race in the class. But I do think an important goal for admissions to at least maintain the percentage of, if not increase the percentage of first-generation students and also increase the representation of BIPOC students in the coming year.”
Elena Brennan ’24 asked Roth about the lack of work-study employment opportunities this semester, especially for first-year and first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students.
“This semester, I, along with many of my peers in the Class of 2024, had an incredibly difficult time finding employment on campus to fill our work-study allotment,” Brennan said. “Many FGLI first-years who I’ve spoken to found the lack of employment opportunities to be incredibly troubling, as due to the pandemic we are already facing additional financial strain. Is Wesleyan’s answer to this problem that FGLI students wait for the next federal stimulus to give colleges the money to pay out the allotment, and what does the University expect low income students to do in the meantime, beyond continuing to reach out to class financial deans, which people have already been doing with little success?”
Roth responded by saying he felt the issue of work-study employment was separate from the federal relief bill, but pointed to the fact that in the spring, the University was able to give students their work-study allocations if their jobs suddenly couldn’t be completed due to the shutdown of campus. Roth said he would get in contact with Financial Aid to find out more about the problem.
Katelin Penner ’22 began by asking Roth about the recent controversy surrounding a TikTok in which a past University employee condemned the University for destroying merchandise instead of donating it.
“I know that…the event that the video was referring to technically was before your tenure at Wesleyan, but at the same point, that was still harm that has been done to the Middletown community that Wesleyan is responsible for, and I was wondering if you and your administration have any tangible commitments that you will be making to try to restore those harms, especially in terms of the homeless population in Middletown, which Wesleyan has likely played a role in helping to displace,” Penner asked.
“I do think as fellow citizens in the city of Middletown, we have a responsibility to address homelessness,” Roth said. “I think it has nothing to do with the sweatshirts. But I do think we have a responsibility to address homelessness. And what we have done mostly is work with the project against homelessness that has been spearheaded by the United Way, very successfully over the last seven or eight years. We direct a good portion of our institutional contributions to that project, because it’s true that as a wealthy institution and Middletown, regardless of the sweatshirts thing…I do think we have a responsibility to try to address homelessness, and we do that through the United Way, but in other ways, too, if there are other organizations that you would like to suggest we shine a bright light on to encourage donations, I’m happy to do that.”
Emily McEvoy ’22 asked Roth about the possibility of creating a community fund, either through or under the advisement of the Office of Advancement.
“There were some rumblings of student interest in a community fund like the one that Yale had,” McEvoy said.“Do you think that this could be something that you could put on the priority of the Office of Advancement to help students that are engaged in this work, who know how to raise money, especially using the university’s broad networks?”
Roth offered to connect McEvoy with some of the University’s fundraisers.
“I don’t think I could ask the people in advancement to do that,” Roth said. “Because of the hiring freeze, they are really short staffed, and they have aggressive goals to raise money for financial aid and other things that you also care about, but I can connect you to people who raise money, I’m one of them,” Roth said. “My goal is just to help people find the best targets for the aid they want to give in Middletown. I do think it’s important. I’m happy to have a meeting with you to talk about different ways that we can be helpful in that regard.”
Ben Garfield ’22 brought up the recent passage of a WSA resolution to encourage the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) to create a syllabus requirement for all faculty.
“EPC has been working recently on bringing to the faculty a motion to in some capacity, create a requirement for faculty to provide syllabi in classes, and I’m wondering…both from an administrative standpoint, and also as a professor at times on campus, what your thoughts are on requiring faculty to have syllabi,” Garfield said.
Roth responded by sharing his disbelief that there was controversy around the requirement to publish a syllabus and added his support to the WSA’s endorsement of the policy.
“Even in a tutorial, you can take a stab at a syllabus,” Roth said. “It’s not about litigation. It’s about giving people a shared sense of confidence [in] what the workload is going to be and how the grading is done.
Roth also attested that if the faculty refused to put a syllabus requirement in place, he would figure out the necessary next steps.
Nigel Hayes ’23 asked Roth about the University’s current plans to handle the COVID-19 pandemic beyond the spring semester.
Roth responded by sharing his hopes that the majority of students will be able to be vaccinated by the start of the Fall 2021 semester. Additionally, Roth shared tangible plans to hopefully make academics more normal on campus in future semesters based on a lack of COVID-19 outbreaks stemming from class meetings.
“We’re trying to encourage more faculty to be teaching in person starting in the spring,” Roth said. “I think that faculty and students can have more confidence that the classrooms are safe places if people wear masks and we structure the distances appropriately. I do think having more in-person educational opportunities is going to be very important going forward.”
Anthony Lulgjuraj ’24 brought up accessibility issues on campus that have been heightened by COVID-19 restrictions.
“Recently I broke my ankle while I was at Wes, and through that experience I realized that there’s a lack of accessibility on campus,” Lulgjuraj said. “I heard from other students who are physically handicapped, not just with a broken ankle, and they have also said the same things about how sometimes accessibility can be hard to come by on campus. Also, due to COVID some of the already limited amount of like handicapped entrances for certain buildings have been closed off. And so, just generally I was wondering if Wes has any plans on either examining the amount of handicap accessibility they have on campus and if they were planning on extending it.”
Roth responded by directing Lulgjuraj to Associate Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe who manages accessibility issues on campus. He also described how the new science building will be built with accessibility in mind and said that he would look into accessible entrances being closed due to COVID-19.
Hayes asked about the impact of COVID-19 on the University’s sustainability plan. Roth’s response was that the administration plans to keep the sustainability plan on its current trajectory.
“This is such an important long-term goal, it is important to make progress on a regular basis and so we did that and I think we’re going to continue to do it,” Roth said. “The science building will remove the most wasteful building from Wesleyan’s plant when we replace Hall Atwater, and we’re just going to try our best to raise the money to keep the sustainability plan on track.”
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