Around the perimeter of the Baldwin Gym, decorated tables displayed the range of services available at SUNY Broome during the Faculty Staff Assembly Information Fair.
Some dazzled with decoration, while others were sparse. Starfish, a student success initiative, featured glittering star-shaped lights in a fisherman’s net. The Collaborative Online International Learning Initiative shared space with Breaking Ground, the college’s literary magazine.
Services addressed every need: the Crime Victims Assistance Center, the Applied Learning and Career Center, Broome County HEARS (Higher Education Access, Retention and Success), the Binghamton Advantage Program, Shared Governance, Counseling, the Literacy Legacy Project through civic engagement.
All reflected SUNY Broome’s present while, on the other side of the room, a timeline of the college’s 70-year history bore witness to its past: The five name changes, the construction of its various facilities, the start of academic programs. An empty mascot costume – from an earlier, cherubic-faced version of Stinger, looked on.
What will that timeline include when it continues off the right side of the paper, into an unknown future?
A Faculty Staff Assembly kicks off the start of every semester and establishes a theme, an area of needed focus. The theme for this semester is Reflection and Projection – looking at what SUNY Broome has achieved, and where it needs to go in order to thrive in challenging times.
“We can create the future that we need to have,” said Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Francis Battisti, as he kicked off the event.
‘No more tinkering’
Higher education as whole faces significant challenges. SUNY Broome President Kevin E. Drumm recently received an email alerting him that yet another college is shutting its doors in this country. It’s becoming a familiar if sad development, affecting largely small, Liberal Arts-based private colleges. Some top-notch private schools have also been looking at mergers, and are struggling if they lack large endowments, he said.
While SUNY Broome doesn’t face that sort of scenario right now, that doesn’t mean that community colleges are immune to the winds of change. “We’re facing some really major headwinds already,” he said.
The region’s high school population continues to shrink, with graduating classes expected to contract by 25 percent in just over a decade. The Excelsior scholarship program, while a boon for students, has also increased competition, enticing students to start their education at four-year schools. In terms of fees and other costs, SUNY Broome remains the fiscally prudent choice – but the natural tendency is only to consider the “free tuition” aspect of Excelsior.
Finally, a “hot economy” with a low unemployment rate is affecting college enrollment rates nationwide, as prospective students opt to enter the workforce directly.
“The total number of college-goers shrank during the past two years for the first time in history,” Dr. Drumm said.
It’s a situation the President calls “Paradise Lost.” To regain the future, SUNY Broome must consider what the college’s distinct advantages are, as opposed to peer institutions. The college should draw strength from areas it helped pioneer – such as distance learning – and look to foster processes that will help shape the years to come.
The college has a think tank and the “What’s Next SUNY Broome?” discussion group exploring these deep issues.
“No more tinkering around the edges. The world is changing too much for that,” President Drumm said.
Retention continues to be an area of focus. While retention rates have declined since 2012, they have rebounded by 2 percent points in the last year, although the college remains in the middle of the pack when compared to its SUNY community college peers.
There are many factors behind retention, and more than one solution will be warranted, Dr. Battisti said. “One thing we have to work on is helping people connect with this college at an early point,” he said.
While a software solution, Starfish does just that, allowing professors to flag struggling students early in the process to connect them with the help they need. Course pass rates continue to rise for students receiving such flags, he said.
On the student affairs side, the focus is to ensure students stay enrolled and persist, noted Dr. Carol Ross, Vice President for Student Development and Chief Diversity Officer. Connection and engagement are crucial in this area as well, helping students feel welcome and giving them the opportunity to forge lifelong friendships.
To help meet these goals, the former Digital Lounge and Commons in Old Science 106 will be transformed this semester into a Multicultural Resource Center, with its own adjacent classroom. The Digital Lounge will become a Gamers Lounge two doors down in 108.
“Our goal is to increase student comfort, increase persistence, increase academic performance and increase positive engagement with their peers,” she said.
The transformation of the DLC isn’t the only facilities improvement expected this semester. In the Campus Services Building, the Copy Center will move further back into the building, noted interim Director of Facilities Dave Ligeikis. Its current space will be turned into much-needed rehearsal rooms for the music program, with work anticipated to begin in the next few weeks.
Personal care rooms are operational in the Calice Center and the Natural Science Center, and will be added to the Culinary & Event Center, now undergoing renovations in downtown Binghamton. To comply with the new state law, baby changing stations will be provided in both men and women’s restrooms.
The Culinary & Event Center is approximately 40 percent complete. Foundation work has been completed and structural steel will be placed starting next week, he said. Bids for approximately $2 million in kitchen equipment are out now. A temporary certificate of occupancy is anticipated in October, with the final in November; the building is anticipated to open for the Spring 2020 semester.
Stand By Me
The Stinging Singers a cappella group gave a lovely performance of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” While a cappella groups are common at four-year schools, they are rare at community colleges, noted Music Coordinator Brenda Dawe. Started by student Anastasia Alexopoulos, the group is performing in the larger community at charity events and other venues.
It was perhaps an appropriate tune for this Faculty Staff Assembly, the last for Dr. Battisti. He is retiring at the end of the semester after a 48-year career at SUNY Broome – or a full half-century, if you count the two years he spent as a student.
“He has had a really extraordinary run here at the college, starting as a student and a student leader, and then getting advanced degrees and coming here to teach,” President Drumm said.
Dr. Battisti wasn’t always the best student in his youth, he admitted, and started to run into trouble in eighth grade. To keep him focused, his school asked him to become part of its science fair. His project: dissecting a cow eye.
He was selected to go to Broome Technical College to present at the regional fair and ended up standing on the floor of the Baldwin Gym. “I thought I was going to Harvard,” he said of his first impression of the college.
He ended up a Hornet himself, and returned a few years later as a counselor – the last hired, after his psychology professor passed away. A deeply rewarding career followed, including the last seven spent in the Administration.
“The main thing was that classroom. That’s sacred ground,” he said of his time as a professor. “That’s an important place.”