On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the Saint Peter’s Student Government Association (SGA) hosted the Presidential Open Forum — the first since returning to in-person classes.
The forum’s panel was composed of the President of the University, Dr. Eugene Cornacchia; Provost & Vice-President for Academic Affairs Dr. Fred Bonato, Vice-President of Student Life & Development Erin McCann and other administrators.
Students had the opportunity to direct questions to the panel, and they raised concerns about multiple issues surrounding the availability of COVID testing on campus, the need for a more diverse faculty, enforcement of the University’s mask policy and much more.
When asked about on-campus testing, McCann was able to confirm that the university is in the process of making tests directly available to students as soon as the end of this month.
“We are going to be hiring a part-time [medical professional]. And we're looking into doing testing here on campus once a week,” she said. “This is already in progress.”
Sulma Cordova-Moz, elementary education major and senator for the Class of 2022, expressed concern over the seeming lack of enforcement regarding the university’s mask policy which requires masks to be worn at all times in all indoor settings and large outdoor events.
“I've [had] many students from the student body come up to me and say, ‘I don't feel safe when I'm in the classroom, and the professors are being very lax about the rules,’” she said. “They’re worried about getting sick.”
Bonato stated that he would “communicate directly with the faculty” to reinforce the mask policy but was unclear on what the reinforcement would entail or if repeat offenders would see consequences. He advises that students can and should consult him if they see gaps in how the policy is enforced.
After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in 2020, several student activists from the Students for Peace & Justice (SPJ) and the Black Action Committee at Saint Peter’s presented a list of demands to the university which specified various key fronts of racial reform to address inequality on campus.
Fatima Camara, senator of the Class of 2022 and vice-president of SPJ, raised the issue to the all white panel of the lack of diversity in the university’s faculty, administration and curriculum, stating that the school has not done enough to address last year’s list of demands.
Cornacchia stated that the university has taken steps to address underlying inequality on campus citing an anti-racism workshop the Board of Trustees engaged in over the summer as well as the administration’s collaboration with Dr. Devin Heyward, Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, “to really understand more fully what's going on at the very bottom level of the institution [and] the very top level of the institution and what steps we can take.”
However, Cornacchia admitted that those are just words and that more action needs to be taken. He announced that an “outside expert team” would be surveying students, faculty and staff to analyze university policies and hiring practices to devise a plan to address inequality directly.
“It’s a slow process, I admit, but it’s just the reality,” said Cornacchia.
Bonato later acknowledged the need for a more diverse curriculum but offered little in the way of any detail or plan to address it.
“I'll make a note to talk to Dr. Heyward about it, about how to go about doing that,” he said. “Changing curriculum is not a quick and easy thing. It is a slow process at times.”
However, Cornacchia announced that the university would be taking steps to implement a more diverse pre-requisite course catalog to address Eurocentrism in the curriculum.
“We will make this promise to you that this year, we will bring forward … an appropriate course or set of courses, perhaps, that address this very issue,” he said.
Catherine Rodriguez, a senator of the Class of 2024, asked how the recently awarded $4.8 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education would be implemented.
The grant, according to Bonato and a memo released early in the semester, aims to strengthen the university’s STEM programs. Specifically, the money will be used to establish the Institute for STEM Experiential Learning, upgrade facilities in Gannon Hall, offer significant faculty development opportunities and more.
The potential mold problem in Veteran’s Memorial Court, as reported by the Tribune, was also addressed by McCann. Although she stated prior to the forum that there was no mold, at the forum, she did not confirm or deny that mold was present in the affected apartments, stating only that the issue was related to plumbing.
McCann stated that the origin of the issue “will be communicated to students that are affected once I get that report from facilities,” she said, referring to the cleaning company assigned to restore the apartments.
In addition to these topics, McCann discussed the new residence hall being constructed on Montgomery Street and confirmed that the 282-bed dorm will be reserved for upperclassmen only.
There is unfortunate news for those hopeful for a returning football program: Cornacchia has confirmed that no such program will be coming to the university citing health concerns and a less-than-stellar performance history.
Stimulus payments from the CARES Act will be distributed once more in the coming weeks; however, the exact date remains uncertain.
The panel advised students who might be walking to and from their cars at night that Campus Safety offers a “walk-with” security service. One student responded to the reminder that she had been ignored when she called to request this service one night.
The minutes of the meeting, provided by SGA, can be viewed below.