By Shawn Ness | November 6, 2023
President Rodríguez at the podium.
Photo Credit: Shawn Ness / ASP
The University at Albany’s Student Association Senate met last Wednesday, Nov. 1, joined by UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez to address the Student Association’s concerns over the merger of the Latin American and Caribbean (LACS) and Africana Studies (AFS) departments, the university’s response to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the notion that the body is “resistant to change.”
SA showed a bill on the floor, sponsored by Senator Dylan Klein calling for the resignation of Provost Carol Kim. The bill was amended over concerns of how this would affect Kim’s livelihood, to now just call for the Provost to attend at least one SA meeting to address the Senator’s concerns. In addition, the bill made a formal statement saying the Provost had lost the confidence of the students.
“We have never shied away from coming to SA meetings and addressing your issues and concerns, and we have done that on a regular basis. That is our role,” President Rodríguez said during his first visit to the Senate this semester. “This is a forum where we can have conversations, where you can press the administration as hard as you want, to address your issues and concerns. To have a polite debate. Why is the Provost not here (this called back to a statement during public comment about the Provost not attending the meeting despite other administrators being there)? Well, the Provost is not here, not because she’s afraid, but because she is attending a retreat of the SUNY Provosts. Carol Kim has been here on numerous occasions to address your issues and concerns.”
A letter was sent out by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Brandeis Center to over 200 Presidents of colleges across the country, calling for universities to investigate Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a national organization with individual chapters at universities across the country, for potential ties to Hamas.
“SJP is a network of student groups across the U.S., which disseminate anti-Israel propaganda often laced with inflammatory and combative rhetoric,” the letter reads. “Many of the organization’s campus chapters have explicitly endorsed the actions of Hamas and their armed attacks on Israeli civilians.”
The letter went on to say that some SJP chapters have issued pro-Hamas messages or spread anti-Israel messages. A member of the student body asked if President Rodríguez was one of the 200 to receive the letter, Rodríguez said that he had not received any email from the ADL to see if “any organizations, regardless of background, culture, or country, are providing funding to Hamas.”
In President Rodríguez’s explanation of the letter, he said that his office had not gotten any emails asking “to see if our students or our Muslim organizations are using their funds to fund Hamas.”
“You mentioned the letter of organizations having potential ties to Hamas and you used the phrase ‘Muslim students or organizations,’ Those were not the people being targeted by the letters, and to say so, quite frankly is racist in my opinion,” Senator Selwa Khan, a Muslim student, said. The statement received many table knocks, which is SA’s form of a clap. “... Is this just a bias you have? Is this from a lack of representation? I know you work in an administration that is pushing out rhetoric that is dangerous to the Muslim and Arab communities. So I just want to know why those were the words that you chose?”
From left to right: SA Vice Chair Sarah Jamil, SA Chair Erin McGrath, SA Vice President Amelia Crawford, SA President Jalen Rose
Photo Credit: Shawn Ness / ASP
“Respectfully, I completely and totally disagree,” President Rodríguez said in response. “... I was answering the comment about the email from the ADL, and the bottom line is we have not received any email from them. That is our answer. We have been very clear as an institution and I’ve been very clear as the President, that this university stands against acts of terror and acts of war, not being associated with any particular group… if someone chooses to affiliate my words with a particular group, that's on you not on me.”
LACS and AFS Merger
President Rodríguez responded to claims from the public and from Senator Klein about the university’s alleged hiring of the RPK Group to help assist in the merger of the LACS and AFS departments. RPK is a group that works with institutions of higher learning to develop sustainable business models, according to its website.
“Take it from the highest ranking person at this university, we have no relationship [with RPK]. We have no affiliation, we have no connections, we have no contacts. No one at this university has hired RPK,” President Rodríguez said.
Many Senators responded by saying that there was an RPK document of a sustainability case study the group did on UAlbany in 2019. The report was not commissioned by UAlbany itself, but rather by the SUNY Open Education Resources (OER) system as a whole.
Todd Foreman, the Vice President of Finance and Administration, said he was not aware of any contracts between UAlbany and RPK, and that the OER study referenced by Senators is outdated.
“You said that Provost Kim had been speaking with students and the departments of LACS and AFS and such. But the question is, what is being considered from those talks,” Senator Jeremy Zheng asked President Rodríguez. “Faculty and students do not support this merger, the United University Professors union does not support this merger. So I am asking you, where does the support for the merger come from and is our voice even being considered?”
“The answer is yes. There have been a lot of conversations about the merger of LACS and AFS. At the end of the day, it is our responsibility as an institution to make decisions that we see will benefit the institution moving forward,” President Rodríguez responded. “That is why we asked to merge the departments. We asked the departments to develop a proposal to strengthen and enhance the programs… We think we have addressed all of your concerns satisfactorily because you will still be able to get a degree in those programs. We will keep the faculty in both programs. We are trying to enhance, strengthen and build the programs, and that is now incumbent on the faculty that will be a part of these programs. And so my response to you is how do we focus on and strengthen these programs.”
Senator Zheng pushed back further on President Rodríguez’s points, emphasizing that the faculty of those departments are still not in support of the merger. “So what’s the plan? If the faculty and staff don’t support the merger, what are we doing here?”
President Rodríguez did not respond to the question, saying he already answered it.
“I'm disappointed in the President's response to my questions, but it seemed like my questions were purposefully left unanswered and that rather than focusing on answering all of my questions, the President chose to give a non-answer. I would've respected a straightforward answer,” Senator Zheng said after the meeting.
“You want the merged departments’ staff to come up with a plan, but the problem is that they don’t support the merger. I would think if the administration had made the decision to merge the two departments without the support of the faculty and students, they would at least have a plan and vision for that merged department” said Zheng.
There were also concerns raised that the university is abandoning the principles of diversity that make the school so sought after; and that the LACS and AFS merger is an example of it.
President Rodríguez said many times that he did not say that students and SA were resistant to change in regard to the LACS and AFS merger. Senator Gina Smith read out the transcript from President Rodríguez’s Fall Address, in which he said “... caused some members of the Student Association Senate to ask questions and raise concerns… There is always strong resistance to change in higher education, but we must move forward for the betterment of our institution.”
President Rodríguez said that the quote was exactly right but that they were mischaracterized. He explained that it was in reference to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (the article was presented on slides behind President Rodríguez during the Fall Address) that discussed how institutions of higher education are resistant to change. “What was said here, in the context of this group was that the person saying that students were resistant to change. I never said that students are resistant to change. So this was not a quote for some saying students or the Student Association are resistant to change.”
Todd Foreman answering questions for President Rodríguez
Photo Credit: Shawn Ness / ASP
Israeli-Palestine Conflict Email
Senators William Loreti and Irena Aloyce both questioned the timing of the university’s statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict. That the university did not release a statement when Russia invaded Ukraine, or about other conflicts in the Middle East or in North Africa
“There is a lot of debate about what a university’s role and responsibility are when responding to those types of events. Do we respond, when do we respond, when do we issue a statement. Or whether we should issue a statement,” President Rodríguez said. “We try and make statements when we believe they are going to be directly impacting the university and its community. There’s just horrendous things happening all across the world, and if we were to issue a statement for everything that happens everywhere around the world, we would issue four or five statements a day.”
President Rodríguez said that his internal team and the communications team discussed when the university should or shouldn’t issue a statement. “Regardless of what we will say, we receive pushback, and that’s fine,” President Rodríguez said.