Board of Trustees acknowledges student concerns, declining enrollment

The Board of Trustees discussed COVID-19 plans, inclusivity initiatives, declining enrollment, and the University’s financial standing during its Nov. 18 meeting.

COVID-19 plans for upcoming breaks and next semester

Trustees outlined FSU’s plans for Thanksgiving, Winter, and Spring breaks; academic calendar changes; and Information Technology Services’ (ITS) plans for the spring 2021 semester.

President F. Javier Cevallos said he received new regulations earlier in the day from Gov. Charlie Baker requiring all resident students to be tested for COVID-19 before leaving on break. FSU will test all resident students before they leave for break and after they return.

He said the University encourages resident students to stay on campus during the Thanksgiving break, and will provide them with free meals. “We’re trying to make the best decision based on the data that we have.”

Cevallos said he received an email from SGA before the meeting about Thanksgiving break. 

Student Trustee McKenzie Ward informed the Board of a resolution passed by SGA during its Nov. 17 meeting urging professors not to hold face-to-face classes after Thanksgiving break.

She added a resident assistant told her only 100 students plan to stay on campus over Thanksgiving break of the approximately 700 students living on campus.

Cevallos said the University moved the start of the spring 2021 semester forward one week to allow for extra testing as students return to campus. As a result, Spring break was replaced with a three-day weekend. 

“I expected a deluge of complaints and emails about, ‘How can you take Spring break away?’ and I really didn’t get any. I just got a few emails from students saying, ‘Thank you for taking care of our health,’” he said.

Trustee Nancy Budwig said the Academic Affairs Committee discussed some other changes being made to the spring 2021 academic calendar, including the final day for students to change a course to pass/fail and the impact of the pandemic on promotion and tenure decisions. 

She added the University has produced “really clear” materials outlining different course modalities offered for the spring semester. “I think it will be a big help to students.”

Patrick Laughran, chief information officer, said ITS is transitioning out of responding to FSU’s technological needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and shifting its focus back to programs and initiatives. Demand for ITS peaked in August, and has since returned to a normal level.

He said ITS equipped 35 classrooms with lecture-capture technology and provided well-attended training sessions and instructional documentation for faculty. Participation numbers were “beyond anything that we had ever seen before.” 

Laughran said ITS is anticipating ways to keep up with demand during the spring 2021 semester. This includes working with the Student Affairs Office to provide WiFi and laptop access for students learning remotely. He said ITS is placing a larger focus on outreach this semester, specifically to lab science instructors to find ways to conduct labs remotely.

“To our knowledge, there isn’t an unmet or anticipated need that we can’t address. We’ve been working very closely with Lorretta [Holloway] and her staff to ensure that wherever people are expressing the need, or wherever we can do any outreach in order to elicit where that need might exist, that we’ve got the capacity to meet that,” he said.

ITS usually works on larger projects and upgrades during the Spring and Summer breaks in order to avoid disruption to operation of the University. Laughran said he hopes to begin planning in December and January how projects will be executed by ITS during the upcoming semester.

Student Trustee raises concerns about off-campus parties

Student Trustee Ward read a letter she received from an anonymous student who was concerned about the FSU administration’s response to off-campus parties and a spike in COVID-19 cases after Halloween weekend.

Ward read to the Board, “We have reported and brought up concerns of resident students partying to the administration, and the administration has continued to brush them under the rug.”

The student said in their letter that they are a resident assistant, and student workers from Residence Life have been left to “pick up the slack.

“By actively choosing to not hold resident students accountable for going to off-campus parties, it puts myself, other student workers, students, faculty, and staff members’ lives in danger. You must realize that off-campus parties and the students who are attending them will bring FSU to a forced closure,” the student stated in the letter.

The student’s letter concludes, “If campus closes, you [administrators] still have a roof over your head and food to eat. If campus closes, where am I supposed to go?”

Ward said it was “heartbreaking” to her that the student worker did not feel safe on campus.

In response to the student’s letter, Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego said, “I hope that particular staff member who was concerned about how this was handled would speak to the administration as they are part of our leadership team.”

Nowak Borrego said Jay Hurtubise, director of community standards, spoke with FSU students who were identified from photos from a Halloween weekend party. She said no more than six to eight people were visible in each photo, so it was “hard to tell” how many people attended the party.

She also said the six COVID-19 cases reported the week after Halloween “did not all stem from a University party.”

Ward said she received the letter only a few hours before the meeting, and will reach out to the student to put them in contact with administrators. 

Inclusivity and equity initiatives

Trustees discussed changes to the University seal – which currently includes Native American imagery – recognition as a veteran-friendly institution, as well as racism, equity, and gender-identity training.

Constanza Cabello, vice president of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement, said she spoke with local Indigenous people about changes to the University seal. 

Earlier in the day, Cabello said she attended a Zoom meeting with members of the Nipmuc community from Natick. Cevallos, SGA President Olivia Beverlie, and Director of Communications Dan Magazu were also in attendance.

“It’s really important that we use this opportunity as we look at our University seal to engage in some restorative justice with local Indigenous communities, and have this really be a relationship that we foster and cultivate – and not do apart from the [Nipmuc] community,” Cabello said.

Trustee Anthony Hubbard said the Board’s Governance Committee, which met in October, discussed changes to the University’s bylaws describing the seal. 

Hubbard said the current provision in the bylaws “is rather detailed in describing the seal.” The committee suggested establishing some minimum parameters for the design, while omitting other details, which would allow the University to more quickly adopt a new design. 

He said the minimum parameters suggested include the name and founding date of the University, along with the University motto, “Live to the Truth.”

Ward said she presented a resolution to SGA to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “We’re trying to make this campus an anti-racist campus, and one of the things we need to be doing is changing our wording and how we recognize our holidays.

“Like Dr. Cabello was saying, we are on Indigenous land, and we need to recognize the privilege we have to be able to be educated on this land that was stolen from other people,” Ward added.

Cevallos said FSU was recently recognized as a veteran-friendly school. “Considering that last week was Veterans Day, we would want to thank all the veterans for their service. And, we’re happy that our institution has been recognized for what we’re doing for our veterans.”

Evan Prasky, a U.S. Army veteran, was featured as the “student in the spotlight.” He said the support he received from the FSU Veteran Services Center was “absolutely amazing.

“If you are like me, and come in and you have no idea what you want to do, they can kind of give you a little push and figure out where you want to go,” Prasky said. “If you want to be involved, they have a community of people who reach out.

“I can walk down the halls of FSU and I know 10 to 15 people before my first day of classes start, which was awesome,” he added.

Cabello said her office continues to offer anti-racism training for employees and students. She said two guides were published for employees about applying anti-racism to their work and understanding systemic racism.

She said the Institutional Excellence Committee is focusing on searching for policies which “disproportionately impact Black and Latinx students, and unintentionally favor white students,” by examining data.

Cabello said Patricia Birch, director of inclusive excellence initiatives, has been running the Center for Inclusive Excellence on her own after a search for a part-time program coordinator failed. 

She said Birch has created programming for Latinx Heritage Month, LGBTQ+ History Month, and is currently working on programming for Transgender Awareness Week as well as Native American Heritage Month.

Ward said a concern brought up during the recent Administrators’ Forum was students being misgendered by professors, which is “detrimental to their identity because it invalidates who they are.” She said students requested FSU look into mandatory gender identity training for professors.

Hubbard said the Governance Committee considered establishing a new committee to oversee diversity, inclusion, and anti-racist practices. 

He said the Committee advised against creating a new committee because of the limited number of trustees available to serve. Additionally, diversity issues are already being discussed in other forums at the University. Therefore, a special group would be redundant.

Hubbard said the Committee instead suggested each committee of the Board should address diversity issues independently and report to the Executive Board “to signal that these are important issues to be handled at the highest levels of the Board of Trustees.” 

Admissions and community outreach

Trustee Brian Herr said FSU’s admissions numbers are down more than other Massachusetts state universities’. “That is a concern, I think, to all of us.

“I don’t think there’s any clear answer yet as to why Framingham State is lagging behind some of the other schools in the system – something that we all need to be aware of, and certainly work to correct,” Herr said.

Lorretta Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development, shared enrollment data for the Fall 2020 semester.

Holloway’s data indicates 4,876 students are enrolled at FSU this semester. This number decreased from 5,456 in Fall 2019, and 5,565 in Fall 2018. Overall enrollment decreased by approximately 8.6% since last fall.

Holloway highlighted the week-to-week chart showing full-time equivalent enrollment by class level. She said there was a drop in the number of senior undergraduates, and that number is not always dependent on the number of returning junior undergraduates from the previous year.

She said the Enrollment Data Team discussed this data and asked, “Why are people leaving?” 

Holloway added the number of students enrolled at the University varies as the academic year progresses, and the team produces monthly reports on enrollment in order to analyze retention.

“Enrollment isn’t just about bringing them [students] in, in the beginning. It’s also about ways in which we’re keeping them throughout,” she said.

Holloway said recruitment relies on three primary methods of outreach: items sent via mail, high school visits, and college fairs – the latter two of which are no longer possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holloway said instead of hosting a couple of open houses in the spring as usual, virtual open houses will be hosted for prospective students and families every other Wednesday throughout the spring 2021 semester.

She added targeted mailing and personalized videos are being sent to prospective students living in key areas, and virtual tours are available online.

Herr said Geography Professor David Merwin prepared maps displaying where returning and non-returning students live. “That might help us correct some of the challenges we face right now.”

Holloway said FSU is losing students from the MetroWest area – the towns surrounding Framingham – because well-educated parents earning a high income live there. She said those parents may encourage their children to attend a “perceived higher-ranked” institution.

“We are not just competing against our sister institutions for that, but also clearly competing against private institutions,” she said. 

Even among other state colleges, Holloway said proximity is an important factor. She said FSU is losing potential students who live in Boston because they can easily commute to Bridgewater State University on the subway.

She said college and FAFSA applications are down nationwide. The admissions cycle has been delayed due to the pandemic, especially since many high school students did not start their years until early October. 

Holloway added FSU hosts a variety of events at which high school students can engage with admissions staff. 

Additionally, she said she suggested to Dan Magazu that the Alumni magazine should include a “family spread” in an effort to reach out to the children of alumni who are eligible to apply to FSU. 

Trustee Richard Logan was concerned that waiting until the spring edition of the magazine to publish a family photo spread might be too late, and admissions would miss out on a large group of potential students.

Eric Gustafson, vice president of development and alumni relations, said figuring out what kinds of events alumni will attend virtually has been a challenge.

However, he reported attendance at the annual Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival was very similar to last year’s attendance, which was entirely in person.

Gustafson also said attendance at Homecoming events was “great,” including the Alumni of Color Networking Panel and Alumni Achievement Award Presentation.

Herr said use of the Counseling Center, Rams Resource Center, and other student support services has declined during the fall 2020 semester. 

He shared data comparing how many students used the Counseling Center between May 18 and Oct. 28 for 2019 and 2020. During that time period in 2019, 299 students visited the center, and 1,030 sessions were held. However, during that same period in 2020, 186 students sought counseling, and 974 sessions were held.

Herr said, “There’s some concern there that students may not be reaching out, or be as aware of – being remote more often than not – about some of the services available to them.”

Finance and business items

Gustafson said three new endowed funds have been set up. Those funds include a scholarship supporting students coming from Boston Public Schools, another scholarship for first-generation students, and a fund to support preservation of the Danforth Art Museum’s collection.

He added the Danforth has received many new donations, and is also selling off pieces of the collection which no longer “fit the mission” of the museum. 

Additionally, the museum lost revenue over the summer after all in-person community art classes were canceled. Gustafson said, “They’re getting good attendance for their virtual art programs, but they just don’t bring in near the revenue that in-person classes do.

“The hope is that we can offer a few more programs in person, which will help boost revenue, and they’re really trying to figure out a plan for next summer,” he added.

Gustafson said fundraising for the year-to-date is over $1.1 million. 

He added most of that fundraising came from current donors to the University. Reaching out to new donors has been difficult because of the pandemic.

“We’re really looking forward to being able to get back out, see people in person, and start to build those relationships we need to keep fundraising moving along,” Gustafson said.

Trustee Michael Grilli said budgets released by the state government all show “level funding” for higher education institutions. 

He said the Administration, Finance, and Information Technology Committee expects the University’s operational budget will be balanced going forward, without any major windfalls or surpluses. 

“We’re going to finish within our revenues, with a little something left over that doesn’t really touch on the trust funds,” Grilli said.

He added, “The residence hall and the food service trust funds will still be bleeding as well as the Warren Conference Center.”

Grilli asked the Board to pass a resolution approving “Investment Class Allocation Target Ranges.” These ranges break down where the University keeps its capital.

The ranges included 35% to 65% in equities, 20% to 35% in fixed income, 10% to 35% in cash portfolio, and 0% to 5% in alternatives. The resolution was approved.

Ann McDonald, chief of staff and general counsel and secretary to the board of trustees, informed the Board of mandatory training sessions which all trustees are now required to attend by law.

She said current trustees must complete eight training sessions before next November, and any new trustees must do so within the first six months of their appointment.

McDonald said the sessions are held live between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m., which is an inconvenient time. 

Kevin Foley, chair of the board, said the training session schedule is “intrusive” and “not very well thought out.”

McDonald said she hopes the sessions can be recorded so trustees can access them in a more convenient format.

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