Semesterly President and Provost Forum addresses housing, diversity, more

Sun, 2017/03/26

On Wednesday, March 8, the Student Government Association (SGA) hosted their semesterly President and Provost Forum in Hermann Hall, where students and faculty were invited to bring questions and comments to address issues and improvements at Illinois Tech. To start the event, SGA President Hamze Leo Sukkar introduced President Alan Cramb and Provost Frances Bronet, and gave guidelines to make the event run smoothly and efficiently such as a ten minute limit to questions and discussions. The panel alternated between questions from the audience and from an online forum.

The first question, which was submitted online, asked about the salaries of the Board of Directors. President Cramb responded that the Board does not make any money from Illinois Tech, but have other jobs that provide an income. Following that brief question, Sukkar read another that asked about improving the ratio of female to male students at the university. In response Provost Bronet pointed to encouraging gender diversity statistics. She stated that Illinois Tech was the only school out of 26 in the Association of Independent Technical Universities to have 3 academic female leaders including herself, the Dean of Engineering, and the Head of Computer Science. She directed the conversation to focus less on the binary of men and women, but rather a “spectrum” of people that ideally would be attracted to the university. Mike Gosz, Vice President for Enrollment, added that there are about 33 percent women in the incoming 2017 class and that they are on track to reach 40 percent women by Fall 2019. He mentioned that his office is taking active steps to reach that goal, for example offering 150 study abroad scholarships, which statistically are something that female students are attracted to. The initiative also includes marketing majors with an emphasis on IPRO, which attracts a diverse group of students who are interested in problem solving and social entrepreneurship.

The first audience question was presented by Brandon Simons, who asked about the possibility of creating a campaign to divest in fossil fuels, similar to those at schools such as UIC, DePaul University, and Roosevelt University. He also asked what size of group would have to be organized to be recognized by the university and if they would be transparent in their own investment. President Cramb responded by saying that any size of group would be listened to by the university and that if they wanted to come together to make a statement they could. In terms of decision-making, he stated that it is the students' role to provide input but ultimately the final say comes through the faculty and administration looking at the issue.

The following question was submitted anonymously and read aloud by Sukkar. It referenced the new Residence and Greek Life housing policy that requires students to sign a contract before room selection, potentially leaving students in a binding agreement and their room choice unavailable. The submitted question also commented on the new policy of two year mandatory stay on campus for students coming in Fall 2017 and how it feels financially motivated for the university's master plan. It concluded by stating that a lot of these changes are coming at the cost of current students.

Provost Bronet started the response by stating that the university cares about all of its students: past, present and, future. For the specifics of the housing policies, Associate Vice Provost for Residence and Greek Life Slandie Dieujuste came to the microphone to speak. She explained that RGL had been using the housing system Odyssey with a makeshift system on top that sometimes led to miscommunication and confusion. Problems arose such as people reserving rooms with no intention of living in them. She explained this is the first year that RGL will be using the system without its makeshift accompaniment, meaning that students will have to submit and sign a contract before room selection. In the chance that a student signs the contract and does not see a housing option they like, there will be a grace period where they can withdraw without financial penalty. Provost Bronet then answered the second part of the question pertaining to the decision to make housing mandatory for two years. She pointed to the success of students being dependent on the communities they involve themselves in and a dorm community being a strong one. Dieujuste added that she is excited about the priority of residence halls in the master plan and acknowledged that there is work to do on the existing facilities, but she believes that the university is dedicated to housing.

President Cramb concluded the question by stating that the university is not a business and that the commitment to planning for the future is a positive factor in improving student experience. He stated that it wasn't an indication that they aren't doing things for the student body presently, but rather reinvesting in itself.

The next audience question was brought by Shoaib Khan, who asked about the best way to go about creating a student body Congress watchdog group that would monitor Illinois politicians for illegal behavior. President Cramb responded that the most effective method would be for students to self organize and potentially get faculty mentors if they needed additional support.

The next topic was the renovation of Main Building and the affordability of the residential units planned therein. Cramb did not know the exact prices of the units, but stated that the City of Chicago mandated that 10 of the over 100 units will have to be at a price deemed "affordable" by the city's legal definitions. He recalled a recent meeting with the developer who said that the all-rental building will be open and ready by August 2018 and hopefully appeal strongly to Illinois Tech students.

The following question was by Soren Spicknall, who presented his position as president of the Residence Hall Association (RHA) and its challenges in collecting student input and relaying that to those in charge. He pointed out the lack of prior knowledge that RHA, SGA, the Commuter Student Association (CSA), and the President's Student Advisory Council (PSAC) had of the announcement of the two-year housing requirement. He expressed his discontent in the way that the university emphasizes these student organizations as a way to create a dialogue between students and administrators but fails at points to have proper communication. He asked the President and Provost what they can do better to seek student input and what SGA and RHA can do better to communicate it.

Provost Bronet started by explaining that these organizations are given power and responsibility so it is important that the collaboration between leadership remains strong. Spicknall added that even though he knows that all the decisions made by the university won’t go the way that the organizations want them to all the time, he explained that it would be appreciated to know why they are made. Bronet said that she has been working with Jess Goode, the Vice President of External Affairs, to strengthen communication within the university so there aren’t surprises on either end. President Cramb added that the housing decision does not affect any current resident or commuter so that was part of why there was not a large focus on talking to current students about it.

The next online question asked about financial assistance for graduate students. Mike Gosz returned to the microphone and provided the three categories in which graduate students can support their education. The first was the financial aid that carries through if undergraduate students decide to pursue a co-terminal degree. The second is TA and research positions offered at the university. The third, most common, way is for students to fund their degrees themselves by working or taking out loans. In response, a graduate student from India came to the microphone and gave her experience of being told she would have the potential for merit aid once she arrived but never received it. She proposed the idea that all graduate students, even the ones outside of Armour and Stuart colleges have the opportunity to be rewarded with merit aid. Mike responded by mentioning that graduate students can sometimes be offered merit aid, but that would be at the time of admission and it would appear clearly upfront.

Succeeding that, the floor turned back to an audience question by Aaron Brown who asked about the possibility for career-building being implemented more strongly into the curriculum. He noted that students don’t always know about opportunities and that there could be potential to incorporate this skill-building in intro classes such as MMAE 100 or on the IPRO level. He also asked if a mandatory semester co-op would be beneficial for engineering students.

President Cramb first spoke to the second half of the question, stating that he was against anything mandatory. He conveyed that he thinks co-ops and summer internships are a great idea for many students, but believes that they should have the right to choose whether or not they want to do them. Provost Bronet added that each university has a different approach to this issue and that the most important thing for Illinois Tech to do is to ask the question of “what are the opportunities and how do we embed them?” To provide additional information, Gerald Doyle, Vice Provost for Student Access, Success and Diversity Initiatives, came to the microphone. He talked about the importance of weaving the classroom and experiential learning together. He mentioned that his office has been working on initiatives such as the Faculty Innovation Grant to embed funding for this kind of work. That office is also targeting specific majors such as Aerospace Engineering by taking students out to visit companies and bringing those same companies to campus for events besides the semesterly career fair. He pointed to his vision of career planning being about crafting an idea about what kind of career and life you would like to have.

Professor Joseph Orgel, who is also head of the University Faculty Council (UFC), spoke to some ways that he sees this question playing out on campus. As a professor for IPRO, he tailors his class to have a career focus. He also said that the UFC is looking at these questions in an effort to teach students how to create contacts or at minimum provide resources to aid students in finding contacts on their own.

Another student came to reply mentioning his worry that if a student opts for a co-op then they will miss a course that they will need to continue their studies. Provost Bronet responded that it is difficult to offer the same classes consecutively and that kind of flexibility is something that can be attempted to be worked into the university in other ways. Doyle contributed to that point by saying that Career Services is working to emphasize “micro-experiences” over winter and summer break that would not impact a student’s class schedule.

The next question was from Tristan Busch, president of PRISM, Illinois Tech’s LGBTQ+ club. He asked about Illinois Tech’s commitment to students' rights and the inclusion of gender neutral bathrooms. President Cramb started off by noting that nothing has changed and nothing is anticipated to change in the university's commitment to making everyone here feel at home. He cited the school's inclusion and diversity statements as an example of the university communicating its sentiments, but said if students feel as if there should be more, they should tell them. He then spoke specifically to the topic of bathrooms, stating that the university does not even have sufficient women’s facilities, but that they value being sensitive to everyone’s issues and opinions. He mentioned that there soon will be a map made available of gender neutral bathrooms on campus including two new ones in the future Knapp Innovation Center.

There was a brief discussion about MAP grants, and President Cramb noted that the university will go along as if they will eventually be funded and made it clear that Illinois Tech couldn’t fund the deficit on their own. To conclude, the last question was asked by a student who returned to the issue of the two-year housing. She wanted the university to acknowledge that the decision was at least partially financially motivated and also that the mandatory nature of the rule would potentially hinder the positive community development. Provost Bronet responded that both the students and the university have an obligation to each other educationally and financially. She added her hopes that the increase of students in housing will provide density and energy to campus life. In terms of finances, Gosz then explained that there were more financial aid packages available for students to help fund living on campus.

Sukkar ended the event by thanking all of the participants, the President, and, Provost for their time. If students want to voice their opinions at any point, there are many outlets to do so such as student government. Mentioned previously in the event, Sukkar pointed out that nominations for the SGA Executive Board were open and could be, in his opinion, a great way to get involved in positive change at the university.