On Monday, Nov. 16, the Campus Times attended the second lunch conversation held by Jeffrey Runner, Dean of the College in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering for undergraduates. According to the email invitation, the meetings are designed to “bring a group of  students together to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns with Dean Runner and each other. It also offers a chance for you to get to know your Dean and his priorities.”
The topics discussed at this particular meeting have been separated below by category:
- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Africa
- Douglass Leadership House
- Spring break
- Professors testing too hard
- Fall S/F policy
- Mental health and general academic issues
Runner spent the first 10 minutes discussing logistics for moving out or staying put for the upcoming winter break, the details for which can be found on ResLife’s website, or summarized by the Campus Times here. He also emphasized the testing process for students returning for the spring, pointing out that “the rapid test has a higher propensity for a false positive, [so] if a student gets a positive from a rapid test, we will immediately do a PCR test to double check.”
Sophomore Eli Sun said that rapid tests have a false negative rate “of like, 20 percent […] aren’t you afraid that hundreds of people would slip through the cracks?”
Runner responded that Vice Provost and Director of University Health Services Dr. Ralph Manchester “and the folks at the [UR] Med Center [are] guiding us in all our thinking on this,” and the specific statistics surrounding false results in either direction are unknown, but “that is something to be potentially concerned about.”
Much later during the lunch, Runner asked students what they wanted to see differently next semester. One student brought up the difficulties of remaining socially distant, and suggested creating more spaces for students to congregate or putting groups of students into designated “pods” to allow students to visit each other’s dorms and spend time together mask-less.
“I love the idea of pod[s],” Runner said, but explained that it was shut down after an increase in cases both on campus and in Monroe County. He did not rule it out for the spring semester.
Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Africa
After discussing COVID-19 logistics for a few more minutes, junior Dennis Boateng shifted the subject overseas.
“I just have a few concerns about the recent events that happened in the continent of Africa and Armenia,” he said. “Why didn’t the University send a mass email?”
“So that’s a really good question,” Runner started.
He then explained that University Communications advised against individual deans speaking out, as this would create the impression that certain deans care about a given issue, while other deans do not, because they failed to send or sign a message.
“It’s an optics issue,” Runner said. If a mass email were to come out, it “should be from a University level.”
He then said that Dean for Diversity in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering Beth Olivares led a small group of deans to draft a University-wide email about both issues Boateng mentioned, that the other deans could sign. But these plans were halted when President Sarah Mangelsdorf sent out “a broader statement.”
The statement, which can be read here, discusses the pandemic and political polarization, and contains one line regarding the aforementioned issues: “Around the globe, violence and unrest roils places that some of our students and scholars call home.”
Runner acknowledged the statement “didn’t do what students like yourself are asking for, which is explicitly calling out particular conflicts,” and saddled University Communications with the blame, saying that they argue remark-worthy tragedies happen every day.
“The argument from central communications is that […] the president [and other University leaders] can’t actually remark on every single thing that happens in the world.”
After explaining again why one dean wasn’t supposed to send a message out solo, Runner forwarded attendees an email from Dean Olivares, who did exactly that in her weekly newsletter from the Kearns Center, which can be read here.
“So I don’t know if that helps — I wanted to try to explain the complications of trying to do a communications plan that doesn’t inadvertently prioritize one group of students over another.”
Douglass Leadership House
Sophomore Dominique Moody asked why Douglass Leadership House (DLH) is not permanent on campus, to which Runner responded by saying there are “two ongoing efforts to look at DLH.”
One angle of attack related to the facilities of the space, marking physical issues that need improvement, “ways of making the house really nice so if we have visitors […] that DLH will be a really great place to host them.”
The second is a biweekly meeting with current residents, alumni, and a few administrators from Frederick Douglass Institute who are working on the paperwork end of things.
“Making the house permanent is my goal as well, and part of it is just trying to figuring out how that actually looks, what would it mean, what kind of agreements have to be made, and things like that,” he said.
“How many more years will that take? […] It seems like it’s not really a pressing issue to the deans who work in the Dean’s Office […] it’s been about eight years since the house was established,” Moody responded.
“Well it definitely is a pressing issue, otherwise we wouldn’t have a biweekly meeting to discuss how to support DLH […] it’s going to be by the end of this school year,” Runner said. “Spring of ’21 is our goal.”
Junior Niharika Thakur asked what the University will do to compensate for the lack of spring break. “Are there any plans for the University to give individual days [off]?”
Runner said that two individual days will be designated before the start of the semester, and they are currently finalizing when those days will be.
“Is it going to just be two days […] considering spring break was much longer?” Thakur asked.
Runner said that due to New York State and accreditation regulations, the University is limited to retroactively adding two days off, and calling those days a study break.
“I’m a linguist, so I know that’s ambiguous,” Runner admitted, saying it is up to student discretion whether they would like to use the time to study or take the day off.
Several students mentioned in the chat that they would like to see an S/F policy with an extended deadline that allows students to pass/fail courses they normally can’t (core courses, cluster courses, etc.).
Runner said that the policy is still being decided, and certain committees are still reviewing the proposals. Because things aren’t yet finalized, nothing is certain, but they’re looking at expanding the S/F deadline to allow students to apply S/F retroactively to fall semester grades once the semester is already completely over.
Additionally, they are considering expanding the policy to cover cluster courses, as “there’s a concern about having S’s count towards majors and minors.”
Senior Vatsal Agarwal brought up that some students take advantage of the policy to skate by in required courses, and floated the idea of a case-by-case appeal process, where S/F is not used for students in a “normal situation,” but other students are allowed to S/F core classes with a good enough reason.
Mental Health and General Academic Issues
“I realize — of course — that having two days off is great, but it’s not gonna solve the problem,” Runner said, asking the group what they would like to see happen differently in the spring.
For senior Karina Vasquez, exams need an overhaul. “I’ve had a couple examinations where, for example, you can’t go back to the previous question, you need to respond and then move on,” she said, adding that some exams have a strict time window.
“It’s really difficult to know that you will get a grade [and] maybe you would have had a different one, if it would have been in person.”
Runner responded with the difficulties of testing and assigning any work online, and said that instructors “did a lot of training over the summer to prepare for the fall,” and that “big exams [like midterms] are really hard to do [online].”
He then said he will work next semester to help faculty get their courses and testing “more aligned with the online modality than they are now.”
After Thakur suggested take-home exams or handwritten exams would be easier than Blackboard, Runner turned back to Vasquez, and suggested she tell her professor she’s struggling with the testing format.
“They might understand [if you frame it appropriately] and even change how they do it — if not now, maybe next semester at least,” Runner said.
Students also discussed difficulties in department-specific classes, such as access to remote software for courses like AME, or struggling to practice sign language through Zoom. They also pointed to professors compensating for both the online format and the threat of students cheating by simply giving more work, and making it harder.
At the very end of the discussion, sophomore Logan Hood brought up the concern that resources like the CARE network are not getting enough administrative focus. She told a story about a friend who self-reported, only to never get a follow-up from CARE. “No one reached out to him. I understand that things have to be hard on their end […] but if we worked to get those things a little more focused so no students slipped through the cracks…”
Runner said that the CARE team is down one person, and offered to personally find out what happened to Hood’s friend.
Earlier in the discussion, SA senator and senior Sekelile Mkhabela said that many of the issues students have discussed for this semester have been around long before the fall semester.
“I think if anything this pandemic has highlighted a lot of the things that were maybe wrong with the school before, but were working, because it was just normal,” Mkhabela said. “Like mental health, like that we don’t always have money for all of these different things that we’re supposed to be doing […] It’s caused a lot of frustration especially in the circles that I’m in, and it’s hard going back to people, especially in my role [with] SA, saying, ‘Oh, people are trying’ when it doesn’t really feel like that, and you’re not getting that feedback that says, ‘Yes we’re listening to you, yes we’re here for you.”
Runner encouraged attendees to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions that did not get answered. He also said these meetings will continue next semester.