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Incoming Siena College President Chris Gibson On Furloughs, Fall Hopes

Former U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson is introduced as Siena College's president Feb. 14, 2020.
Jackie Orchard
Former U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson is introduced as Siena College's president Feb. 14.

Incoming Siena College President Chris Gibson says he hopes the campus will be back to “near normal” in time for the fall semester that begins in September. The former New York Congressman will officially take over the private liberal arts college in Loudonville on July 1. This week, the college announced furloughs for 75 employees starting May 1, a $3 million capital budget reduction, and the suspension of retirement contributions, among other austerity measures during the pandemic. 

Gibson says re-opening in September will require a coronavirus testing regime be in place. Siena says it is facing a nearly $9 million revenue loss with students sent home for the spring semester.

What measures is the college taking as we speak?

So, uh, there's the immediate impact. We've seen a loss of about $8.7 million as it relates to revenues for the college, attended to the refunding we're going to do for room and board. And then, of course, we are going through some scenarios as we look forward. For the fall term, the January term and the spring term. So what you saw yesterday is the Interim President, Maggie Madden - as I think, most are aware I start - or may have heard, July 1, is when my tenure begins. But Maggie and I have been working very closely because there's a need to synchronize our actions as it relates to the current operation, with the future operation. So yesterday, you know, the campus took a series of actions to save money based on the fact that, of the $8.7 million loss. And then, you know, going forward, it is our hope, as we said in the communication yesterday, it is our hope that come the first week of September, that we will be able to take the proper precautions to open up campus: to welcome students back and we look forward to that, going forward.

How much time does this buy you?

So, look, if we're able to open up, and I'm assuming that your question is, you know, based on, you know, the hard decisions that were made, what does this mean going forward? So to put a finer point on that, obviously, very sad to say that we furloughed 75 workers that are instrumental members of our team. We've also stopped payments into 401k contributions from now to the end of the year. The Franciscan Friars, who are always at the front when the call for sacrifice is made, they're going to forego their salaries from now until the end of the year. And I've also stated that, based on my first day, I'm going to take a 25% reduction in my salary 'till the end of the year. So, you know, we have taken a number of actions. We have actually, we're incurring some savings. For example, fuel and electricity costs, because the students are off campus. And so, we assess our non-personnel related savings are about $3 million additionally.

So you know, we have, we've taken steps to, to accrue about $6 million worth of savings. And what that buys for us, to get to your question, is that if we're able to open up in September, as we plan to, and have a census- have a total population of students that's pretty close to what we're looking for, we will not require a second round of reductions. And that's the ideal. What was announced yesterday, we hope to, not only bring back to work those that we furloughed, but we hope not to take any further personnel actions. And so we set that condition by taking the decision yesterday that hopefully, you know, if, if, if we're able to get the testing that we need, that we can comply with federal and state guidelines, that we can convince our students and their parents that we can safely and effectively execute the academic program come to first week of September.

So, when you say "open back up in September," you're talking about college as we know it. You know, kids in dorms, people going to class in-person, and not  what we've seen in the last few weeks across the country: remote instruction and people back home.

So, you're generally correct. We do call it "near normal." It's not normal. I don't know when that will, that situation will occur again. But we do call it "near normal," and that is, you're right, students back on campus. But look, I mean, we're going to have to have a testing regime in place. That, you know, before students are allowed back on campus, we'll have...we're working through these details, that's what the working group is for. But as students come in for moving-in day, that there is this immediate test that is done, that the test is shown to be negative, the student then makes their way onto the campus, we get them settled, we begin the orientation.

So, at the very outset, there's a confidence that the students, the faculty, and the staff that are on campus are negative for coronavirus. And then we will have, we'll have reactions, standard operating procedures, in the event that somebody starts evidencing symptoms, there'll be a test. There'll be, hopefully we'll have the 15 minute results tests. And then if somebody tests positive, there'll be immediate reaction. Isolation, tracing. We want to make sure that we can have the safe delivery, and the successful execution of our academic program. So, you know, we're working through some of those details as what it means for residential life. There may be some exogenous factors, like, for example, the state may, we don't know yet, but they may have some guidelines that allow for colleges to open back up, but there may be prohibitions on 'gatherings of greater than x', whatever that is. Now, generally, for college like Siena, I mean, our classes are small, so I don't believe that will have impact there. But as far as what we would call "assemblies," those type of things, major events, they could be impacted by what a, by level of aggregation that the state puts out.

What about study abroad programs, things like that? Are we, you know, years away from returning to that?

So look, this has been the topic of the working group. Lot of uncertainty on many areas, and this is among them. So it's not something we can count on, that we're going to be able to go that way. Our planning right now is, is really facing the reality, that there's a strong possibility, that, that will not be able to occur in this coming academic year. Not ruled out. But we do, we do recognize that, that is a very strong possibility.

You're a parent of college age children. This is a really hard decision for people to make and September sounds like it's far away, but it's really not. When you start talking about people relocating or having to decide on a college, things like that. Are people reaching out to you for your own advice and your view on this? You know, what to do as we head into an uncertain fall?

Yeah, I mean, I have a pretty wide network of friends and family. And so, I have heard from folks and we've had conversations and you're right, I do have, you know, kids of college age. So, what I want all to know was- I mean, you know, given my experiences, not only in combat but also in peacekeeping operations and humanitarian operations in Haiti. And, you know, just from our experiences that we've endured over the last 60 days. I mean, we're taking a very serious approach here to safety. And so you're- a lot of things I would tell you you've probably seen with Dr. Fauci and other, and other experts who said, "Look, we have to have more surveillance, we have to have an understanding, there has to be testing that occurs." And so, as it relates to risk, Ian, you know, I assess at this moment. I assess the risk will actually increase later on. So I assess the risk in the first week of September to actually be lower than it's going to be in, say, late November and December. So that's another matter. We can still hope for the best but we have to plan for worst case conditions. So, you know, as it relates to your specific question, I think if we have the proper security, security and safety protocols in place, which we will, that parents, students should feel comfortable that- having their child back on campus is, is the right thing to do.

I know you're not officially taking office until July 1, but are there things that Siena has learned from the last several weeks of doing remote instruction that could factor into the way the college operates after we're back to what you're calling "near normal?"

So, great question. Look, you know, it actually has been a goal of Siena College for some time, since the last accreditation, a number of years ago, that Siena has had this goal of increasing our ability to do fully accredited online instruction as a hybrid to our Franciscan Person Centered instruction. So, if a student's enrolled in five courses, it might be the case that one of the five, for a variety of reasons, may actually be a hybrid course. Where there are some classes that meet in person, and others that would be done either online or or some kind of remote instruction. So yes. We've actually trying to look at the silver lining in everything. Can't be more complimentary of our faculty and students, for that matter. Our faculty was, you know, like every other faculty- And I'm actually, I'm personally going through this because I'm not yet done with my duties at Williams College. So even as I have been working this task force with Siena, I'm still a professor at Williams College. So, I too had to move my courses to remote instruction. Our faculty has been stellar. They had been remarkably agile. Very professional and focused. Feedback from students is very strong. And I think- look, not- it's not without issues. So if you're in a class that has labs, for example, we are still challenged, and might even say struggled, with some of the implementation of that. And we're working our way through that. But I think the main- I have to tell you that it has gone well, this transition to remote. And likewise, the students, you know, had an opportunity, I had General McMaster with us virtually. Both at Siena College and Williams College a couple weeks back.

Oh, cool.

And was very impressed by the way that, that interaction went. The students, you know, were very engaging - both places, Siena and Williams College, with General McMaster. Very thoughtful questions that pressed him in areas that should be pressing him. And so you see the students too, making the most of this situation.

I know you're, you're retired from politics, but one thing in the Siena College announcement about these cutbacks, it says that, you know, "you're keeping an eye on the CARES Act and the school will aggressively seek and apply for more federal and state aid." Is that something, given your background, having been in Congress, do you have a leg up in that process?

Well, look, it's not gonna surprise anyone that I am engaged on the topic. And I do believe that, you know, our institution is really the kind of institution that receives- that should recieve this kind of help. I mean, we're not in the position that say, Harvard, or Stanford, or one of these larger institutions that have these enormous endowments. That's not the case with Siena. I mean, we do have a very generous alumni, and so, we have some endowments, but it is literally a fraction of the, those of like at Harvard. So some of these headlines, these stories you see of, you know, outrageous- with regard to them receiving the aid, I just want to assure everybody here, you know, Siena is the kind of place you want to see survive. And, you know, that kind of support is very helpful to us, both from the institution and to our students.

So yes, I mean, I've been in contact with Senator Schumer. Senator Gillibrand did a tele-town hall with us just a few days ago. I have, you know- I mean, look, you remember me from my time in the Congress, I'll work with anybody who's trying to help my people. And that is still the case and I've been very pleased with the the work, the dedication, the receptivity, of both Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand on this issue. And so, yeah, I plan to continue that. I think it's important. Because, you know, we all, I can tell you that there's already sacrifice across my institution. You've seen that already. I mean, you have faculty and staff, we've all given way together. We're all in this together. And we'll all come out of it together. I mean, at this moment, my, my thoughts go with those that are on furlough right now. It's a family. You know, I grew up in a working class family. And, you know, some may know, I mean, my dad was in the building construction trades. And look, when he was working, things were good. We had a good union wage for the family. But he spent a lot of time in the 1970s either laid off or on strike. And our family really struggled in these moments. So I'm very grateful for what the federal government has done as far as these enhanced unemployment benefits that are going to help our employees at Siena. And yes, to answer your question, I plan to continue that advocacy for our institution which I think really brings a big benefit to our society.

Last thing. You have been involved, obviously, in mission management in very high stakes situations in your career. You're also a scholar of, you know, American history and how the country has reacted to certain stresses. So how unusual is this time that we're going through right now, in your mind?

Look, in some ways it's similar to a lot of humans have gone through in the past, and then we had this pandemic about 100 years ago. And so, hardship, loss, separation, isolation, some of these things are not new to the human condition. What is new is our sense of consciousness and sense of connectivity. You know, we have this ability through the internet to know immediately how people in other parts of the world are during a situation. And so, that has been at once more anxiety producing, but at the same time, also providing for opportunities and possibilities that we haven't had in the past. I know that your radio station has talked about the increase in use of Zoom, for example, and other medium where family members and friends can have an opportunity to connect, and to really share a sense of experience and to in some ways really find strength among each other. So, you know, again, like, I guess, so many things throughout the span of time, it's very important for us to try to ascertain the lessons of history, but also realize that there are some unique aspects of this and that, you know, leaders have to try to determine the difference between the two.

That's Chris Gibson, and on July 1, he'll take over a very tough job right no as president of Siena College. He's a former congressman from New York as well, and as he mentioned, wrapping up his semester at Williams College. Chris, thanks as always for taking this time for us. Appreciate it.

Thank you Ian. Best wishes to all the listeners out there, be safe and well.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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