Siena College President Chris Gibson is calling on New York state to revise its rules for in-person graduation ceremonies. The private college in Loudonville plans to hold commencement at the Times Union Center in Albany May 30th with the arena’s capacity capped at 10 percent. But if it was a sporting event, the downtown venue would be allowed to fill 25 percent of its seats. WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Gibson, a former Capital Region Republican Congressman, about the college’s plans.
Gibson: We plan in-person commencement. In fact, we're going to have in-person weekend of festivities. And that includes Sunday, May 30 commencement. At the moment, given where the guidelines are for capacity limits in The Times Union Center, what that means for Siena is two different ceremonies. So you know, we got about 800 graduates. And we'll have to do a ceremony for 400, along with a couple guests for each of our graduates and faculty and staff that are supporting. And then we'll clear that ceremony, and then we'll do cleaning. And we'll bring back in the remaining 400 for a ceremony who will also be able to have guests. So I'm reaching out to the governor and his team and asking them to review the guidelines. Because what we have now is the current capacity in the TU Center for a sporting event is 25% capacity. So 16,000 in there, capacity of 4,000. But for commencement right now, it's 10%. So you're talking 1,600. As you can see, that is what requires us to do to two ceremonies. And given all that our students have gone through this year, they have worked so hard as students always do. But under these trying circumstances that we've all been enduring with the pandemic and all the sacrifice, the hard work that's gone with it. We really want to have one ceremony. It’s been one team out here fighting the pandemic, and we want one team in the TU Center for the commencement. So look, I believe that once the governor and his team become conscious of the fact that we got two different standards right now, one for sporting events 25% and one for commencement 10% in the same venue, that they'll realize that doesn't make any sense, because it doesn't. So that's really what reaching out today is to raise that level of consciousness because it has direct impact on us here at Siena College. And of course, we need time to plan. So we're hoping that these changes come here in the very near future, next couple days because a lot of work that needs to be done and details that need to be arranged for, so time is of the essence.
Levulis: And you mentioned your outreach to the Cuomo administration. As the president of a private college throughout this entire pandemic, how has the coordination been with state government, state officials? You're navigating a college with students and staff and faculty and, you know, the government is responsible for the entire state. How is that coordination been throughout the entirety of the pandemic?
Gibson: Well, look, I do want to express my gratitude, the Department of Health, particularly Albany County's Department of Health, but both also the state have been very responsive to us, when we've had questions about the nesting of CDC guidance and state guidance, when we've had advice that we've been seeking from them in terms of expert knowledge, and even support. We are very grateful. We're in a strong place today with regard to coronavirus, we only have one case on the entire campus. And you know, we that's been a team effort all across, including from our state and local governments. So we express our gratitude for that. You know, what I'm talking about here today, I think is really just about information sharing. I don't know that anybody wants to defend the position that we should have 25% capacity limits for sporting events, and in the same venue 10% for commencement. So I am not suggesting that they are defending that. I think they're just not aware of it. So you know, thank you for this interview, because hopefully somebody will hear it from the second floor, and we'll see the change. And I know our students will be deeply grateful.
Levulis: And now state colleges in Massachusetts will require on-campus students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall semester. State colleges in New York, SUNY has not made a definite decision just yet. Being a private school, will Siena require its students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 come the fall?
Gibson: While I'm expecting it, I'm leading by example. I'm double vaccinated myself, and as I've talked to the students and parents, so you know this past weekend, we had parents and students here who are going to be here in the fall. As I told the parents, you don't want your children to be here unless they're vaccinated. I mean, it's just a tough environment. The pandemic, we live on top of one another, so you want your children to be vaccinated, so I expect them to be vaccinated. I told him, look you're going to want your children to be vaccinated. And also if you're joining Siena, you know you really are joining something bigger than ourselves. I mean, it's really about, you know, what we do for each other, right? I mean, that's really the ethic Siena. It's about service to others. So for all those reasons, you want to get vaccinated. What I expect is that when the vaccine moves from emergency use to full use, I do believe that all colleges in New York State will mandate the vaccine, including Siena College. And I think that that's what's in our future once this vaccination goes from emergency use to full use.
Levulis: Just so I understand it correctly. If I'm a Siena incoming student come the fall, and I am not vaccinated…
Gibson: You should be. You need to go get vaccinated, I expect my students to be vaccinated.
Levulis: And if I'm not, I wouldn't be allowed on campus.
Gibson: Well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. But, you know, as the leader of the college who's actually been double vaccinated, and you're joining an organization like Siena, which is really about the greater good, and about the service we do for each other, that I expect them to get vaccinated.
Levulis: Now, beyond vaccination, what are Siena’ plans for the fall semester? You’ve had a whole academic year under COVID-19, anything you learned, any protocols that will continue going forward?
Gibson: Well, so a couple things. One is that, because we'll be vaccinated, we do expect to turn the page. So just as this year, we'll have in-person instruction, residential life, but it's going to allow us to have mask optional and to really to enjoy each other's company by having the protection of the science behind the vaccination. So you know, this is going to be I think critically important and why it all fits together. And then when you take a look at, you know, what's going on here, I mean, you know, we're excited about our academic programs, we see continued expansion. About 30% of our students are actually in majors we didn't even have five years ago, we're talking about a lot in the health sciences, including nursing, communications, journalism. And then there's some other majors that are continuing to flourish biology, psychology, our business majors, all of these things. So, you know, we're excited about our in-person, Franciscan education of a lifetime and really getting at it, just as we did this year. We opened up last August, and we never paused, we went all the way through and knock wood, as I mentioned, only one case on the entire campus right now. We're in a strong position, we're going to finish strong. And, you know, we look forward to the coming year when we'll turn the page and really continue to be excited about this academic program.
Levulis: And finally, President Gibson most of our listeners know that you were an Army colonel and you served in Iraq and later served in Congress. With that experience, what are your thoughts about U.S. plans to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by this September 11?
Gibson: Yeah, I think it's way past time, we should have done that. Look, I mean, nearly 200 countries in the world. And this really, I don't believe a need to have U.S. ground forces in so many different places. We are blessed with so many resources. We are a strong nation in so many ways, including military, but so much more beyond that. But we also shouldn't be leading with our chin. I think what we want to do is have a strong posture, so we deter any potential adversary, but really what we should be doing is leading with our economy, with our values. Really what we offer as far as organizing life. And I think we changed the history of the world, if you take a look at our country, you know, in the history of the world, we're a young country, that's true. But I mean, you take a look at what country, name a country that's changed the world the way we live more than United States, I don't think there is one. And that is, is when we formed a government with, you know, the people in charge, when we brought forward a constitution that limited and distributed powers so that we can protect liberty here. And all these things. I mean, think about when we first got started, it was the era of divine right of kings and queens and aristocracies. And we set up a form of government and a way of life that really put emphasis on human agency and a flourishing life. I mean, that's life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that pursuit of happiness was arguably the most radical in that, you know, before us, you were born a serf and you died a serf. And, you know, we changed all that. That's what we should be leading with, not with occupations. And so you know, if you look at my record in Congress, I worked really hard to sort of steer us away from this. I, you know, stood opposed to the bombing in Libya. I opposed the bombing in Syria. I think we need strong allies, strong posture, but it really is about pivoting to the real strength of America, which is our exceptional way of life. It's our people.
Governor Andrew Cuomo's office did not respond to a request for comment regarding Gibson's statements.