Board of Trustees holds first hybrid meeting of academic year: Members discuss enrollment, COVID-19 and anti-racism initiatives

Courtesy of Lorretta Holloway

Framingham State’s Board of Trustees held its first meeting in a hybrid format with only seven members in person and the remaining on Zoom Sept. 23. 

The trustees discussed how the University holds community members accountable when they fail to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, as well as new anti-racism strategies and workshops, and updates on enrollment and alumni relations. 

During her in-person report, Student Trustee McKenzie Ward discussed student concerns with on- and off-campus gatherings, community members not adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines, and the University’s response to these incidents. 

Ward said, “A lot of students feel the school is putting too much pressure on students to hold others accountable.” 

She said a student reported to her they were told by a staff member to approach large student gatherings and take the names of the students, “which they felt was not OK because that’s putting them into a dangerous position.” 

“We do understand this is new territory for the administrators, and we understand the struggles they are going through with planning, but we also are scared about safety on campus, of students getting sick, and possibly passing away,” Ward added. 

On Zoom, Meg Nowak Borrego, dean of students, said, “We do ask students to hold each other accountable.” 

Nowak Borrego said if a student is able to identify others who are not following the COVID-19 safety guidelines, and are not comfortable confronting the students themselves, then the student should report it. 

“We absolutely do follow up if we receive information from anybody,” she added. 

She discussed how students who did not adhere to the testing policies in place for residents were asked to leave the residence halls until they were ready to comply and received a negative COVID-19 test result. 

The University is working with the Framingham City Police Department when it comes to off-campus housing that the University Police cannot see to, Nowak Borrego said. 

She said there had been a report of loud music at a residence off campus, but after further investigation, it was found the gathering was of eight students, though only two were guests. 

“There was another kind of larger reported party that wasn’t a party – that we could tell – at the Sheraton,” Nowak Borrego added. “Students were all talking about a big party at the Sheraton.” 

She said the University reached out to the management of the Sheraton Hotel in Framingham, and they said some people were in the parking lot and were told to “disperse,” and they did. 

Had students been having a party there, the Sheraton hotel “would have contacted us immediately because we do have a relationship with them, as we do with most of the hotels in the area, because we reached out to most of the hotels in the area about potentially housing students this fall if necessary,” Nowak Borrego said. 

“So, I assure everybody that we are taking it seriously, and will hold students accountable, as well as faculty and staff accordingly,” she added. 

Framingham State University implemented new strategies in an effort to be an anti-racist institution. 

On Zoom, Constanza Cabello, vice president for diversity, inclusion and community engagement, discussed the creation of the Institutional Inclusive Excellence Committee. 

Cabello said the group will focus on bigger-picture issues that will have a positive impact on the student experience. 

Lorretta Holloway, vice president of enrollment and student development, also on Zoom, highlighted the workshops and educational modules on dealing with racial trauma that the Counseling Center has been developing for years. 

On Zoom, Trustee Nancy Budwig discussed anti-racism training from an academic perspective as well as other updates from the Academic Affairs Committee. 

Budwig said within the different groups of academic administration, three central themes are prominent within their many strategic initiatives. 

The first theme is professional development through workshops and trainings pertaining to both anti-racism and COVID-19, according to Budwig. 

The second theme is the realignment and restructuring of programs to ensure they can “thrive and survive” during this time of financial strain, she said. “It’s not a matter of just chopping this or chopping that.” 

The final theme is the reorganization of leadership positions to ensure there are “point people,” Budwig said. As an example, she presented how the administration is restructuring the position of associate vice president for academic affairs. 

There is now a person “who deals with strategy and implementation,” Budwig added. “We have a director who wakes up in the morning and thinks about these kinds of strategy issues and making sure that operations and finance and institutional effectiveness are working from academic affairs, and linking up with some of the other units because otherwise, there just would be not enough time.” 

Holloway provided statistics and charts to the trustees illustrating Fall 2020 semester enrollment compared to Fall 2019 as well as residence hall occupancy. 

Holloway said the total number of freshmen represented in the charts is the combination of first-year students and students who are still technically freshmen based on credits. This combination results in 927 freshmen students enrolled in Fall 2019 and 1,141 enrolled in Fall 2020. 

The statistics for first-time freshmen show a decrease in enrollment from 778 students in the Fall 2019 semester to 614 students in the Fall 2020 semester.

There was also a decline in transfer students with 380 students in Fall 2019 and only 276 in Fall 2020, according to Holloway. 

The enrollment of Post-Baccalaureate Teacher Licensure (PBTL) and graduate students did increase by 10 and 37 students, respectively, according to Holloway. 

According to the Holloway, the total enrollment decreased from 3,516 students in Fall 2019 to 3,200 students in Fall 2020. Of the 3,200 students enrolled for the Fall 2020 semester, only 727 are living on campus, with the dorms at 36.87% occupancy. 

Holloway said they had planned for the residence halls to be at 66% capacity, but “once students started seeing how many classes were not in person, and with the cancellation of fall sports, and when people started seeing that their friends weren’t going to be on campus,” they decided to live off campus. 

Holloway also said parents’ concerns about the City of Framingham being a COVID-19 hotspot played a role in the decline in enrollment. 

During his report, Trustee Michael Grilli, chair of the Board’s Finance Committee, motioned for the approval of the financial statements to the Finance Committee and the Audit Committee. The statements were approved unanimously. 

Grilli said the University is facing budget deficit concerns due to a decrease in state appropriations and the lowering of dorm occupancy rates in order to conform with social distancing guidelines. However, the budget is being managed through the University’s cash and capital reserves. 

In person, Framingham State President F. Javier Cevallos presented potential designs for an interim FSU logo and seal. The designs are variations of the seal depicting May Hall as opposed to the current seal illustrating a Native American. 

According to Cevallos, the current design is based on the Massachusetts seal and flag. Steps have been taken on the state level to change the flag and seal, but it will be a while before that happens. 

Cevallos said there is no mandate for the University to preserve this connection, although administrators would like to because FSU is the first public normal school in the country. 

Dale Hamel, executive vice president, also in person, explained the interim seal would have connections to the City of Framingham’s seal, which depicts May Hall. 

Grilli, motioning to the current seal, asked, “And is that disrespectful? Or is it that we just want to make sure we don’t acknowledge the Native American in any way because any representation will be offensive?” 

Cevallos explained it is an “appropriation of the image without the permission of the people that have been represented.” 

Cevallos said the Governance Committee will take a look at the designs and make a recommendation for the new seal. 

Over Zoom, Eric Gustafson, vice president of development and alumni relations, updated the Board on fundraising, virtual alumni events, and the Danforth Art Museum. 

Gustafson said they have faced the most challenging fundraising environment they have ever seen, emphasizing the difficulty of not being able to hold in-person events. 

“We did have a slow spring and into the fiscal year, but because we had a very good pace leading up to March, when everything shut down, we did finish the year strong with just over $3.5 million in total funds raised,” he said. “So, we’re very happy with that number.” 

According to Gustafson, the University finished the third year of a seven-year fundraising campaign with an initial goal of $25 million. They are currently ahead of their campaign timeline at $17.9 million. 

“This might be about the time we’d normally go public, but it’s obviously not a good time to do that given you can’t bring people together for an event of any type,” he added. “So, we’re going to continue our fundraising progress,” and will assess the fundraising methods as the year progresses. 

Gustafson said they have been able to conduct virtual “major gift conversations” this summer. They received a few major gifts – one being an endowed scholarship fund for food and nutrition majors, and another new endowed scholarship fund for hospitality and tourism management majors. 

The Danforth Art Museum opened in August, according to Gustafson. Visitors are required to purchase tickets online in advance to ensure social distancing, masks are required, and they are following sanitation guidelines. 

“It’s really exciting because last week, the museum opened three new exhibits, so we have ‘Passage,’ with the works of Katherine Gulla, ‘Midnight Blooms,’ which features the work of Rebecca Hutchinson, and ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities,’ which features the work of Catherine Smith,” Gustafson added. 

At the end of his report, Cevallos gave the floor to Psychology Professor Anna Flanagan, who introduced the Board’s Student-in-the-Spotlight, Zach Dumay, on Zoom. 

Dumay, who graduated in 2020, double-majored in criminology and psychology. 

Dumay highlighted the different professors within his majors at FSU who encouraged and mentored him. He emphasized the value of being taught to work both independently as well as in a group setting. 

He said he developed important skills of critical and independent thinking that have already helped him do well in his job he started in May at the Learning Center for the Deaf as a Therapeutic Mentor/Therapeutic Training Support. 

Dumay added, “My experience at Framingham State – I don’t think would have been what it was if it weren’t for the faculty here who have always supported me and pushed me to sort of be the very best student that I could.”

[Editor’s note: McKenzie Ward is the Opinions Editor for The Gatepost.]