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Union College looks for students outside the Northeast

Union College looks for students outside the Northeast

College president talks campus sexual assault, dreamers and town-gown
Union College looks for students outside the Northeast
Union College President David Harris discusses college issues with the editorial board of The Daily Gazette on Friday.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SCHENECTADY -- Union College is looking toward Chicago and other parts of the country as it aims to spread word about its focus on balancing science and engineering programs with a classic liberal arts approach.

The effort to draw more prospective students from farther afield comes as Union looks to expand beyond a student body made up largely of students from the Northeast – a part of the country churning out fewer and fewer high school graduates each year.

“We draw 88 percent of our students from the Northeast, the Northeast is not an area that's booming in population compared to other areas,” Union College President David Harris said Friday during a meeting with The Daily Gazette editorial board.

Harris recently returned from a trip to Chicago, where he met with donors, high school guidance counselors and Union alumni, looking to strengthen the college's foothold in the sprawling metro area. Starting with places with direct flights to and from Albany, similar efforts are underway throughout the country as the college looks to lift its national profile, convinced it offers a unique fusion of science, engineering and liberal arts that can appeal broadly to students.

During the wide-ranging discussion at the Gazette, Harris outlined the college's new five-year strategic plan, detailed efforts to increase prevention of student sexual assault and explained how he sees a student effort to push college officials to divest the college's $440 million endowment from fossil fuels.

“We have to tell our story better: Union College is an amazing institution but too many people know about us, didn't you guys win this national championship in hockey,” he said. “I don't want to reduce the number of hockey mentions, I want to increase other mentions.”

Here's a summary of some of the key subjects covered in the discussion:

Town and gown

When Harris arrived on campus in February 2018 to be announced as Union's new president, he requested his staff set up just one meeting during his visit: a meeting with the Schenectady mayor.

“The future of Union College and the future of Schenectady are linked, so we are going to be working together,” Harris said of his message to the mayor.

Harris and the mayor now have a standing monthly meeting, where they stay in touch on a variety of subjects. He said the discussions have included how the college could potentially help with an extension of a Jay Street corridor, connecting students to the mayor's Smart Cities initiative and strengthening numerous volunteer relationships throughout the city. Union College is planning to establish a new position to serve as a central point of contact to integrate students and staff in the broader Schenectady community.

“We don't do as good a job as we need to do and will do in coordinating what our students and our faculty and staff are doing with the community,” Harris said.

While Harris wouldn't say whether he has had conversations with city officials about paying for city services – a request Mayor Gary McCarthy made of Union a few years ago – he stressed the college's tax-exempt status and said he saw more value in a discussion about how to build on existing partnerships.

“There are things we do for and with the city,” Harris said. “That's my goal as opposed to let's just identify some funds and give those funds for who knows what.”

Sexual assault on campus

A pair of women filed lawsuits this spring arguing Union officials mishandled their alleged rapes at the hands of fellow students, increasing focus on how the college handles the issues of campus rape.

Months before the suits were filed, though, Harris outlined for students his goals of preventing sexual assault and fostering a climate where students feel comfortable reporting sexual misconduct of all sorts.

“Goal one: no sexual assaults at Union College. Goal two: if someone feels like they've been assaulted, they will feel like they can report it and they will be taken seriously,” he said of the message he spelled out for students over a year ago. “Goal three: Any report we receive will be investigated and we will take all the actions we can.”

In recent months, the college has hired a consultant to review its policies and instituted a student and staff committee to assist in the work. Harris said he has not found that Union's policies and practices fall far short of what is needed and insisted campus sexual assault is a universal problem, while adding more can be done to ensure all Union students understand the protections in place.

“The United States has a problem with sexual assault; campuses have problem with sexual assault,” he said. “And Union College is a United States campus, and we have a problem with sexual assault.”

He said college officials are working with students and staff to improve the way the school's sexual harassment policies and practices are shared more widely and to ensure they are fully understood by students.

“When there's a claim of sexual assault that comes to us, then we failed,” he said. “No one can resolve these things in a way that everyone feels good, in fact, usually no one feels good at the end. Everyone feels like somehow they were wronged by the process, so we've got to focus on prevention.”

He also highlighted efforts to increase alcohol-free activities on campus for students to participate in.

In the latest all-that's-old-is-new-again trend, Bingo is popular with students, Harris said.

Concern for 'dreamers'

Harris said he was concerned about the potential impact if the Supreme Court allows the Trump administration to unwind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era effort to give formal protections to so-called “dreamers,” previously undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States at a young age.

The Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a case over whether the Trump administration had the authority to revoke the program established under Obama. While it's not clear what the immediate impact would be if the program was ended, hundreds of thousands of mostly young adults working and learning in America would revert to undocumented immigration status and face new concerns for the stability of their lives and those of their family members.

Harris said he didn't know how many Union students rely on the DACA protections but said he was working to identify those students in order to extend support to them over the coming months.

“We could be in a situation if DACA truly goes away, where we may have students who, like that, all of a sudden are a different status,” he said with a snap of his fingers. “That's something that would affect us acutely.”

He said a change in immigration status could have wide effects for students from mental health issues to fears about family well-being to financial considerations.

“[We are] thinking about how we support those students who are part of our community ... who may find themselves at risk all of a sudden,” he said. “There's a bunch of things that would pop up for those students.”

Endowment going green?

USustain, a student environmental group devoted to improving Union sustainability, this year has launched an effort to push officials toward a strategy of divesting the college's $440 million endowment from investments in the fossil fuel industry.

While Harris expressed sympathy for the moral argument in favor of divestment, an argument that calls for the college to withdraw financial support from the worlds' largest carbon emitters, he pointed to the practical challenges and real financial impacts that could result from actual divestment.

“It's really complicated,” he said.

What's complicated, Harris said, is that the endowment is a key source for the college to support student scholarships, professor positions and countless programs. If the college pursues an investment strategy that results in smaller returns, some of those efforts would have to be curtailed.

But Harris said he plans to continue discussions with the students pressing for divestment and suggested there may be ways of partnering with other schools and driving broader collective action to minimize fossil fuel investments.

“Can you minimize x, which is the amount your returns would be reduced by ... so that the impact on our community and mission is as small as possible,” he said of looking for the right balance.

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