BROCKPORT, N.Y. (WROC) — One of the issues making headlines before COVID-19 arrived in Western New York was race relations on SUNY Brockport’s campus.
The firing of Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Cephas Archie angered many students who then took their frustration outside in the form of protests.
Those demonstrations then drew attention to a climate report issued last fall that criticized the school for its diversity and inclusivity record.
SUNY Brockport President Heidi Macpherson talked with Adam Chodak about efforts to improve race relations on campus along with the college’s ongoing struggle to keep COVID-19 at bay.
Adam Chodak: How are things going on campus given the circumstances?
Heidi Macpherson: Are you talking COVID or different cultures? Lots of things are happening on our campus.
AC: That is so true. Let’s start with COVID.
HM: We are very fortunate that we have a very low incidents of COVID on our campus. We’re doing pool testing so we can look at asymptomatic students, faculty and staff and so far we have 5 active cases that are going right now.
AC: We’ve seen at some SUNY schools some of the off-campus activities have been the most problematic. What has that been like here?
HM: We have been very fortunate that we have a great relationship with the Village of Brockport so the police are working very closely with us so if there are any concerns over noise they’re very actively going to those places and saying hey, what’s going on. We’ve had a couple incidents, but actually our students are doing a really good job of what we call protecting the nest, that is keeping Brockport where we are.
AC: Where do you see this going as winter does settle in?
HM: We are working towards a deadline of making sure our students are with us until Thanksgiving and then we’re going fully remote, that’s our plan. It’s our hope that we get to that point, but then of course if we have a surge of cases as other campuses have had, we’ll need to go on a pause for 2 weeks. I don’t see that happening unless things change radically. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for sure.
AC: Does that impact the spring semester?
HM: Spring semester is actively under conversations right now. First things first, we are not going to have spring break. That’s a real sad thing for most of us because spring break is that right of passage and people like to have a break from what they’re doing, but it doesn’t make sense for us to do that right now. We’re also looking at how we start that semester. Will we start remotely, will be start face-to-face? All those conversations are continuing right now.
AC: Let’s say a vaccine does come and next summer we’re past this, how does this pandemic change the way this school operates?
HM: There are some things that we’ll go back to whatever normal is supposed to be, students back on campus full-time, we wouldn’t have the kind of social distancing that we’re required to have right now, but some of what we’re learning is that we have a great opportunity to support students’ learning virtually as well as face to face and we’re going to keep some of that because our students want it and we want to do it well.
AC: That other big issue on campus, race relations, where does that stand on campus right now?
HM: So we’re working really hard to make our campus more inclusive and welcoming of every student, faculty and member of staff on our campus. We have work to do in that area, I won’t deny it. It’s really important that we address head on the fact that we have to have very difficult conversations in difficult times about how we can be as open and welcoming as we can be and we’re making great progress to that end.
AC: When you were reading the climate report last fall. What were your thoughts when you were reading that?
HM: My thoughts were we have some very important work to do to make sure that everyone was able to feel a part of our community, that everyone felt like they had an opportunity to contribute to the values and goals of our campus and they knew how to make sure their career could be successful here. One of the goals of our strategic plan is for this to be a great place for this to work and I want that to be true for everyone and same goes for this being a great place to learn, I want everyone to feel this is a place they can learn and learn successfully.
AC: Were you surprised by anything you read in the report?
HM: I was saddened by the things I read in the report. It was clear to me that we had to do more communication. We needed to do more outreach. And we needed to have further conversations about how to do those thins that we weren’t doing as well as we needed to.
AC: Do you see any structural issues that need to be addressed?
HM: Absolutely. One of the things that’s been important is how we recruit and we promote individuals and how we ensure that students faculty and staff know about those processes so that it’s clear and transparent for everyone. So we’ve investing in a recruiter who’s been looking at advancement of a recruitment plan and how to do things differently. We want to ensure that search committees have better training so they are ready and able to welcome a wider range of individuals to our campus and we’re looking at how we can promote people through a process that is fair and unbiased.
AC: Last fall, you did release the findings of the climate report. One of the criticisms I read about was that the full report wasn’t released until the start of this year after the whole Cephas Archie issue. What’s your response to that observation?
HM: We thought the most important thing to release at that point were the recommendations and we started to act on them immediately. The report itself was a very short report and wasn’t sure how much more helpful it would be to have the full report. We heard the people wanted it so we released it.
AC: What’s your position now when it comes to talking about the Dr. Archie departure. Are you in a position to get into any details?
HM: Personnel mattes are always private and we always deal with them confidentially. What I can say is we’re actively searching for a new chief diversity officer and I’m excited about the process there.
AC: You had the students rally early this year in support Dr. Archie. Do you feel like if they knew what had happened behind the scenes, they would think differently?
HM: What I think I heard from the students is that they need people to support them and hear their voices. That’s what I heard most of all. I heard hurts and anger in their hearts and minds and what they said and that’s what I really want to address. How can we ensure that our students feel safe and feel a sense of belonging here?