Chairs filled the Dodge room of the Flynn B. Campus Union. Masses of students trickled in through the doors, finding their friends and their seats. A nervous energy permeated the air.
This is what the students of Springfield College have been asking for, what they have been begging the faculty, staff, and administration to do for them.
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, President Mary-Beth Cooper’s leadership team and other administrators came together to both formally and informally address the student body after recent campus events. The first four topics of the discussion were a compilation of questions previously collected from the student body and shared with the leadership team prior to the event, and the last section was open to the floor.
Facing the students was another row of chairs, where Cooper sat with her team. Interim Vice President for Institutional Advancement Kathleen Martin, Title IX Director Mary Simeoli, Vice President for Inclusion and Community Engagement Calvin Hill, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Martha Potvin, Executive Director of Athletics Craig Poisson, Vice President for Finance and Administration John Mailhot, Vice President for Enrollment Management Stuart Jones, Vice President for Communications and External Affairs Stephen Roulier, and Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Patrick Love were all present. Also present were representatives of Public Safety, Cheney Dining Hall, Information Technology, and the Counseling Center.
The team members introduced themselves one by one and gave background information on why they were present. Following the introductions, Annie Warchol, the Director of Student Activities and Campus Union, took over the microphone and explained how the hour and a half long event would work.
Felicia Lundquist, the Director of Multicultural Affairs, also spoke to tell everyone at the event to follow Springfield College’s community guidelines and be respectful of everyone, no matter what one’s personal opinions may be.
A variety of topics concerning mental health, campus safety, diversity, sexual assault and Title IX, and student life were covered and within those topics, specific questions from the student body were answered by the leadership team and Cooper. There were also 15 minutes reserved at the end of the discussion for the floor to be open for students to ask questions or address topics that hadn’t been answered already.
The event started with a discussion on mental health. The first point brought up was that there is currently an extremely long wait-list in the Counseling Center for students who wish to speak to a counselor. Love told the crowd that the number of students who actually utilize the Counseling Center has grown exponentially over the past four years, from 347 students in one full school year, to 301 students from just the past two and a half months. However, Love reassured the crowd that there will be another counselor hired as soon as they can find one to help shorten the wait-list.
“Mental health is a vitally important aspect of our work here,” Love said. “In fact, when I got here, I worked with my staff to begin to address beyond those students who need direct counseling, other ways we can support students in their growth and development related to stress, anxiety, depression, and the challenges that [you all] face.”
The second point brought up was whether or not athletes are encouraged to visit with athletic counselors. Poisson said that there was no “blanket policy” across the Athletics program. He said that visits to the athletic counselors are encouraged, because the counselors provided for Springfield College are enriching for students to take advantage of, concerning academics, time and stress management, study halls, and workshops. However, Poisson said that it is a highly tentative sports-related decision for a student-athlete that may change over time, whether or not he or she wishes to visit with the counselors. He also wanted to make it clear that though the athletic counselors are good resources for athletes and coaches, the counselors are generally graduate students who are studying for their degree in that field and are not trained mental health professionals.
The third point brought up regarding mental health was what actions students should take in the event of a tragedy on campus. Love said in the specific case of the recent loss of Connor Neshe, the administration knew students would be utilizing the Counseling Center to grieve. So, they prioritized having extra hands over in the Center to help, and said that it is still encouraged to visit with the Counseling Center, despite the current wait-list.
Lastly came the topic of suicide. Love explained how in the past 20 years at Springfield College, there have been two instances of students dying by suicide. He also said given the size of Springfield’s student population and the national rates of college students dying by suicide, Springfield College was doing “very well.” There are a multitude of different organizations set up for suicide prevention, such as Students of Concern, CARE team, and the assisting team that helps with academic issues. Love said RAs and staff are trained to aid students in crisis, and by attending events like Fresh Check Day and the Out of the Darkness Walk, students on campus can become more aware of how to help those who may be in need.
The first question asked was, “What are the policies for ways of handling racism and discrimination towards marginalized groups on campus?” Calvin Hill took the microphone and explained there are formal and informal rules and procedures set in place for Springfield College. Hill said students regularly come to his office to inform him of incidents of racism or discrimination on campus, and he guides them using the Student Code of Conduct. Sue Nowlan then said one of the most important steps to fight against racism and discrimination was for students to speak up about what they have witnessed or experienced so the proper authoritative figures can handle the situation. Nowlan also said there are investigative protocols in the Student Handbook and the Student Code of Conduct, which are taken very seriously.
Diversity among the faculty on campus became the next topic. Hill explained how part of his job is to create a welcoming environment on campus for students of all backgrounds. He added that since 2017, Springfield College has had multiple workshops and guest visitors from universities large and small, such as Cornell and Quinnipiac, to help train and inform those involved on the importance of diversifying the hiring process.
“As part of our diversity strategic plan… we’re working on a toolkit, that I hope will be out this spring, and as part of that toolkit, we’re going to have some questions, we’re going to have some processes that we’re hoping Human Resources, as well of some of our search committees, will utilize to bring about an increase in diversity,” he said.
The next topics included the issues of campus publications depicting students of color in a way that seems forced and overused, as well as the retention rate of students of color. Roulier explained how that’s one of the most difficult parts of his job was: making sure Springfield College is transparent in the statistical sense of how many students of color are put on the pamphlets, but simultaneously display the College as an inclusive community.
“If you think about it, we are trying to promote inclusion, so we try to do that, in our publications,” Roulier said. “It is marketing, so we are trying to market to new students, so we must keep that in mind while we’re doing that.”
Hill added that for students, “having someone that looks like you is critical,” during the college selection process.
Hill said there has been an 11 percent decrease since 2014 for the retention rate of students of color at Springfield College. However, the reason for this was not solely because students of color were leaving the campus due to not liking the atmosphere. Springfield College had actually partnered with a program, back in 2014, in Hartford, Conn. that advocated for students of color to attend Springfield College with a financial incentive. This created a sudden increase due to the incentive. However, once on campus, some of the students involved in the program decided that the College was not the right fit due to a number of different factors, therefore resulting in a drop in retention rate.
Title IX and Sexual Violence
The forum the turned to Title IX and sexual violence. The first question was, “What is the ‘affirmative yes policy’?” Simeoli explained the “affirmative yes policy” is actually the “affirmative consent policy,” and how there is no definition for consent in Massachusetts. She then explained though there is no true definition of consent in Massachusetts, the two states that do have an “affirmative consent” law are New York and California. Simeoli said Springfield College’s Gender-Based Misconduct policy abides by the same rules as the two laws in New York and California do. When a case comes to the Title IX team at Springfield College, the team looks for “an outward demonstration of a yes.” This means the consent does not have to be verbal and even if a person is giving a verbal “yes,” if the body language is not a “yes,” he or she is not giving full consent. Coercion and incapacitation are just two of the reasons why consent must be a complete “yes.”
The process of a Title IX investigation was also covered. Nowlan explained she’d be the first person to talk to for anyone who has experienced any type of gender or sexual misconduct. From there, the student would discuss a safety plan, support resources on and off campus, and if he or she wishes to file a formal complaint, which would lead to an investigation. Nowlan also reminded the crowd there is no timeline for issuing an investigation — a formal complaint investigation can be launched days, months, weeks, or even years after an incident has occurred.
The topic then moved to safety, specifically regarding about the duties of campus police. John Mailhot reminded the students about the RAVE and Guardian apps, and told them there are 24-hour safety escorts available too. Multiple shuttles are also accessible seven days a week on campus, and general safety tips are located on the Department of Public Safety’s website. Mailhot stated there are over 20 Public Safety officers in the department, at least three of whom are on shift at any given time.
Next came safety within the resident halls on campus. Robert Yanez, the Director of Housing and Residence Life, reminded students there is nowhere they can be completely safe without the help of others. He then said there are staff members who patrol the halls of every dorm, along with RAs. Desk guard coverage is also always there at night, and the student desk guards are supported with cameras in every lobby, as well as cameras throughout the dorm hallways. The card access, Yanez said, is also an important part of safety in the residence halls, because it hinders outsiders from entering the dorms. Finally, Yanez said locking dorm rooms reduces the student-on-student crime rate drastically.
The last themed category pertained to general questions about life on campus. The first question about Cheney asked what has changed in the dining hall, regarding both food and personnel. Mailhot said there is a new management system, as well as the three new concept restaurants in the Union. Two new chefs for Cheney and a registered dietitian have also been hired. A few other changes to Cheney and the Union include but are not limited to: an enhanced gluten-free station, the True Balance program which eliminates the seven-most common allergens, the Top 20 product kiosk that holds the top 20 selling items from the POD, a gluten-free section in the POD, a food advisory committee that meets every semester, and a brand-new allergen committee.
The second question concerned the housing process and what it would entail for LGBTQ+ students. Yanez said the school expects to have all suite-style housing to be completely gender-inclusive by the fall of 2020, and the rest of the on-campus housing on is already gender-inclusive.
“We established a gender-inclusive housing work group, which is actually working on our staff training and development currently, as well as providing continued student support for the spring semester,” stated Yanez. “In terms of our housing plans, the planned roll-out communication is by December 9th of this semester, to give our students information on the new student housing selection changes.”
There will also be a social media campaign launched in the spring of 2020 to help students understand what gender-inclusive housing means.
Next, was a question about the ability to serve LGBTQ+ students on the Springfield College campus through the Counseling Center, along with the specific types of training the staff at the Center have received. Brian Krylowicz, the Director of the Counseling Center, stated that the staff attempts to attend every workshop and training session that is available.
“Part of the uniqueness of the Counseling Center, probably the Health Center too, is we are licensed by the state of Massachusetts and we’re required to go through a certain amount of continued education credits each year,” Krylowicz said. “I know each of my staff is dedicated to attending, not just specifically LGBTQ+, but multicultural training as well, and we are highly connected to the campus. We try to be as representative and informative as we can.”
The question of plans for WiFi improvements surfaced amid finger-snaps and applause from the student body. Tony Mutti, the new Head of ITS said, “I agree with you. I’m literally sitting in the newest renovated building, using the newest equipment, and it gets slow in the afternoon.”
Mutti attributed the slow WiFi to two main causes, the first being old equipment along with outdated foundational pieces that cannot keep up with demands. To solve that problem, Mutti stated they “have a plan” that has not yet been funded. In the meantime, he tasked himself and his staff with finding specific spots on campus where the WiFi reach is particularly slow. Mutti called those places “bottlenecks” and said as of Nov. 14, the campus should see an overall uptick in WiFi availability. Other types of patching, including replacing old large pieces with new and migrating information from those older pieces onto the new ones, will be helpful until the team can complete its long-term goal of integrating the capacity for thousands of devices on a single network onto the new equipment.
Next came handicap accessibility, and Mailhot said every new building that Springfield College constructs is designed to meet or exceed handicap accessibility regulations. As for existing campus buildings, renovations to include a handicap button on every main-campus building’s door have already been made, and either a wheel-chair accessible entrance or a ramp system designed by licensed architects are features of each building as well.
“Last spring, we brought in an expert on accessibility,” Mailhot said. “That expert walked around with the Director of Facilities Management, went through every single building on campus and identified accessibility issues that we need to take a hard look at.”
He also stated that $20,000 annually has been allocated for sidewalk repairs, as well as an additional $25,000 in the annual operating budget to “address accessibility improvements.” Mailhot invited anyone with specific issues to visit his office or the Facilities Management Building to talk to the Interim Director of Facilities Management, Kevin Roy.
The last question in the topic was about improved snow removal for the winter. Roy said there are three changes coming for the snow removal process this year. His team switched to a new product for the sidewalks that “melts better” and is “environmentally friendly.” The second change is new snow removal machinery that will help out with snow removal on the sidewalks, and the third is the hiring of an outside contractor for some of the parking lots. Roy also reminded the student body if students are snowed in for hours, it’s easiest to put in a work order, and the team will shovel them out.
The first open-floor question began with the topic of racism: who to go to if one experienced it, and what the step-by-step process is to pursue the situation. Hill said if any student were to experience racism, he or she should find Dr. Hill or any other administrative staff member. As for the specific process, Hill said they would follow the Student Code of Conduct if it were a student-based issue. However, if it were not a student-based issue, the process would be slightly different, contacting either the office of Title IX or Human Resources.
Next was a question of neglected maintenance in dorms on campus. A student brought up how many clothing dryers do not work properly, nor do multiple vending machines. Yanez said there is an outside vendor that provides the washers and dryers, and often, there are work-orders that seem to pile up or take too long. Yanez stated the best way to ensure a machine is fixed is to contact Residence Life directly through an RA or RD.
Then, a student asked, “Is there a central location that we can send someone to ask [their] problems, in case they feel that it does not fit a box?” This was in reference to the fact that each administrator who had answered questions so far had directed students to different offices, which can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing. Love stated there are two blanket situations that could be applied in this instance. If there were to be any type of danger, crisis, or emergency, the student should call Public Safety. For any other type of issue, Love said to come to the Office of Student Affairs, so they can either answer the problem or tell provide where to go for an answer.
The next question came with an air of tension, regarding the recent automobile accident involving Cooper’s house. The student asked, “What is Springfield College’s definition of safety?”
Karen Leary, the Chief of Public Safety, said in accordance to the night of that accident, they sent out a RAVE alert which ultimately failed due to technological malfunctions. Leary stated they have a “strong partnership with the City of Springfield Police Department” and during the incident, the two forces worked together as quickly as possible to ensure the crisis was taken care of safely.
Cooper also said the situation was managed as quickly as possible, and she made the calls she felt were most important to ensure her own safety, along with communicating information to the student body as it became available. Cooper said, “Safety, from my definition, is everything we have talked about tonight.”
The topic of undercooked food from Cheney came up, and a Cheney representative stated he remembered the particular student who asked the question coming to him last year to relay her concerns. He stated her voice was, “The voice of many.” The Cheney representative said when he arrived in January, the kitchen had lacked leadership for many years and there was much retraining that had to be done. The representative essentially said if a student were to receive undercooked food at Cheney, the best way to handle the situation is to bring it to the cook’s attention, or Cheney’s management system’s attention immediately.
The Learning Commons study hours was the next topic brought up, and the student asked if it were possible for not just the first floor to stay open late, but also the second, third, and fourth floors too. The student explained she knew of others sneaking up onto the higher floors to study at night, only to be kicked out by campus security. Cooper, amid raucous applause, had just a few powerful words to answer the student’s question: “That’s the first time I’ve heard about it, and I’ll look into it.”
Cooper has already made good on her promise and sent out a formal email alongside the Student Government Association stating that the Learning Commons has undergone a furniture rearrangement, making more seating available for students, and that the first and second floors will be operating on extended schedule hours for finals week. She also said they will be working to make the second floor open 24 hours a day.
The next topic addressed the attempted suicides on campus, and how those who live on the floors of these instances this year felt they were not properly supported. The student also said she felt unsupported during the tragic passing of Connor Neshe.
Love stated, “I’m not exactly sure how to respond… we don’t advertise, obviously, when some form of tragedy or someone has a mental health concern. We take it very seriously, and we train our staff, we talk about how we can support students in the community.”
“Certainly, in the aftermath of the death that occurred on campus, that was uppermost in all of our minds,” he added. “Every unit in Student Affairs were trying to find ways which we could gather small groups of people together to provide support. We immediately, that evening, had offered a gathering together in Marsh Memorial Chapel…
“I can’t say that there aren’t more things that we could have done, but, certainly, my staff and the student leaders that we worked with worked as much as we could to support.”
Cooper stated if staff and other students were not feeling supported, it was a large concern to her. She added how she knew many felt the response from her and the College on the day Connor Neshe passed away was delayed, and that the reason was because the administration prioritized contacting the Neshe family, whom they were unable to get ahold of for several hours.
“There are some sensitivities with some of these crises that I wish we could have been better and quicker,” Cooper said. “I think for this campus, and I’ve been here six years, it was the saddest week that I can ever remember being here.”
During the last stretch of the forum, a student asked how it could be possible to identify whether the reason why one goes to the Counseling Center was more important than another student’s issue, because everybody’s issues are of different priority to each individual. Krylowicz said at the Counseling Center, one out of every three people who comes there for help is talking about suicide to one extent or the other. He said this year, they were caught in a bad spot with the recent tragedies and were unprepared for the influx of students who would be utilizing the Center.
“Obviously, people who don’t say they’re suicidal, we’re trying to get to them as quickly as we can. We clearly need to do better,” Krylowicz said. “I can’t tell you how much our staff [is] constantly thinking about having people wait; I know it might not be suicidal, but it’s such a priority for them, and we are just in a sport where we have to make harder choices, which hopefully in the future we do not have to do.”
The final question of the evening was how hard the Counseling Center was actually trying to find new counselors for the students. Krylowicz stated how in the beginning of the semester, they had a new therapist who planned on coming to Springfield College to aid in the inundation of student needs. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, that person was unable to come. Krylowicz then said he has since spoken with over 10 potential new counselors, and was unable to hire any of them, despite trying.
“We were going to everybody that we knew… We were going to prior directors of the counseling here, we went to prior counsellor directors in other places, we tried to find those who retired and would be able to come in…” Krylowicz said. “One person was supposed to call me back today and they realized they didn’t, and so I’m trying to find them at this point in time.”
Krylowicz also apologized deeply to the community and told the crowd they are doing absolutely everything in their power at the Counseling Center to do better.
After the last open-floor question, students were invited to submit any remaining questions to a basket placed at the back of the room, which would be reviewed by Cooper and her leadership team. The team and its representatives also announced this first forum would not be the last, and that Springfield College will now be holding a forum once a semester to engage the students and make their voices heard.
Photo Courtesy Danny Priest