Hofstra leadership confronted at Town Hall
President Stuart Rabinowitz listens to student concerns during Wednesday’s Town Hall meeting. Leo Brine/ Hofstra Chronicle
Hofstra University President Stuart Rabinowitz, alongside much of the senior administrative staff, offered concerned students an opportunity to voice their concerns and receive answers from Hofstra’s administration at the Town Hall hosted by the Student Government Association (SGA). Issues raised included mental health care, campus safety, religious discrimination in the classroom, club funding and more.
The event was held in the Multipurpose Room of the David S. Mack Student Center on Wednesday, April 25. It was organized and moderated by SGA Senator Carissa Ramirez, a junior public policy and political science major. She was optimistic about the turnout, as she felt that a lot of important issues had been raised during this academic year. Ramirez wanted to ensure that students got answers to their questions instead of having “the university [talk] in circles or [give] a general answer that has already been given.”
The first question asked during the Town Hall was in regard to the recent protests over the Thomas Jefferson statue. JaLoni Owens, a junior public policy major who started the “Jefferson Has Gotta Go” campaign, asked, “What do we have to do, or what do we have to say for students of color to finally be as valuable as our white counterparts?” Rabinowitz began by saying, “You do matter, and every single student on this campus matters to me. I understand that it helps you in some way to say that we don’t think you’re as important as others ... but you are, as everybody is.” Rabinowitz said a dialogue will continue in regard to the statue.
After Rabinowitz finished speaking, students stood up, turned around and held signs in the air that read, “Black Lives Matter! Does Hofstra agree?” Rabinowitz said to the protestors, “I know I shouldn’t say this but I have to … I mean, Black Lives Matter was a reaction to the senseless killing of a number of young black people by police officers. That’s where Black Lives Matter comes from. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say Black Lives Matter applies to the Jefferson statue. Secondly, of course black lives matter, and thirdly, this doesn’t add to the conversation. I am certainly dumbfounded as to what you really want to accomplish. If you really want to accomplish something, why don’t you talk to us and not turn your back on us and hold up a sign and remain mute? Free speech is free speech, but on a pragmatic matter … It’s not gonna get the statue removed.”
Dean of Students Sofia Pertuz acknowledged progress made by the university including the addition of the Intercultural Engagement and Inclusion Office as well as other programs launched to encourage inclusion at Hofstra. “Obviously we have a lot of work to do. We have done a lot of work. I’ve done a lot of that work myself, and many of my colleagues here have also been a part of that. So to hear it, it obviously is upsetting, to hear that people feel not wanted or not heard, but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying,” Pertuz said.
Students asked what was being done to improve the mental health services at Hofstra following recent protests and in light of upcoming demonstrations. Executive Director of the Student Health and Counseling Center Dr. John Guthman said that he has listened to the students on campus and heard from many groups. “What we learned is that many students did not know that consultation services are available to them at no cost. The most important message that we’ve learned that needs to be communicated to students is that at no time will they be responsible for a fee upon walking in. We always want them to know that they can engage in a consultation. It’s an ongoing conversation.”
Abby Normandin, former vice president and current president-elect of SGA, inquired about the possibility of unlimited access to counseling at no cost. This includes long-term service past 10 sessions, abolishing fees or copays for all counseling sessions and implementing a more streamlined way to talk with an on-call counselor without having to go through Public Safety. “The university can’t afford to give me or you full-time therapy anytime we want,” Rabinowitz said. “We just can’t do that. If we did that, how would we pay for it? We would have to hire a gazillion people. They would have to be on board all the time. We are not equipped to do that. It’s just too expensive for us.” Rabinowitz explained that he would be willing to consider an increase in funding, but he would much rather focus on emergency services.
Senior psychology and fine arts double major Nicole Chevalier commented on Hofstra’s emergency services. “I called the crisis line [for] a friend in crisis. It took 30 minutes for them to meet her. If you’re going to put all of your efforts into the crisis line, it needs to be a viable asset,” she said. Karen O’Callaghan, director of Public Safety, addressed the complaint, saying that if a student is in a crisis they need to call the emergency number for Public Safety. “We immediately dispatch a Public Safety officer to those calls.”
Religious discrimination from professors was another issue that came to light during the Town Hall. One student said that his professor almost failed him for an online class because he was observing Rosh Hashanah. When the administration prompted the student to report any discriminatory activity, he said that students do not report out of fear of retaliation. “If we can’t report it without some sort of safety net, there’s nothing for us to do.”
In response, Provost Gail Simmons cited the grade appeal policy which allows students to challenge what they consider an unfair grade. According to George Giuliani, associate professor of Specialized Programs in Education and chair of the Senate Executive Committee, this issue is being introduced to the full faculty next week. “We need a policy in writing to protect students, to protect faculty in a sense of what is a student’s responsibility when there is a religious observance and what is a faculty’s responsibility,” Giuliani said.
Rabinowitz said, “I will not stand for anybody from any religion at all suffering educationally or otherwise.”
Campus safety was one of the last issues brought up.As for as how the school is being trained to handle emergency situations such as an active shooter, Rabinowitz said, “We are having classes for faculty and administrators and speaking about what to do. We try to do our best.”
O’Callaghan also said that Hofstra has a very safe campus even though it is in an “urban area.” She added “what we [do] is work very, very, very closely with our partners in law enforcement. We do things almost every day. We enhance lighting in pathways that students take ... the university put up enhanced lighting on California Avenue. We’re constantly looking for ways we can enhance safety. We have been increasing the amount of training we are doing, and we will increase that a lot with students in the fall semester.”
Pertuz noted that open communication is important when it comes to issues like this. “We think the best way to keep the campus safe is communication and prevention,” Pertuz said. “Sometimes there are members of our community who do things which we would prefer they not, so we have to handle those very quickly. I just want you to know we are constantly communicating about this and working with Public Safety to learn what could we be doing. We’re listening and we’re hearing you.”