By Austin Ferguson
Rider University’s Student Government Association (SGA) held its spring town hall on March 11 with multiple Rider administrators discussing topics highlighted by the university’s plan to return to in-person instruction in the fall and continued plans to hold in-person commencement ceremonies in May.
The Q&A session fielded student questions about fall operations, commencement, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, cybersecurity and the search to fill the university’s new chief diversity officer (CDO) position.
Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo kicked off the session reflecting on the March 16 anniversary, widely recognized as the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the optimistic outlook to the near future on returning to normalcy in a college setting.
“In that year [from March 16, 2020,] it has been obviously a very interesting, challenging time for everybody for the institution, obviously, for individuals, and God bless those who actually suffered even to the extreme of losing their lives,” Dell’Omo opened. “So hopefully, we’re moving out of this situation, although there’s still ways to go.”
Dell’Omo also said that Rider has been working closely with the New Jersey Governor’s office to “get as much advance notice as possible,” about updates to changes in higher education due to COVID-19 in order to keep the university informed and prepared to accommodate state mandates.
“It obviously takes a lot of lead time for your students to move into residence halls, decide which courses to take and how we’re going to offer modalities,” Dell’Omo said. “So that message has been heard loud and clear.”
After Dell’Omo’s opening statements, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Kelly Bidle elaborated on Dell’Omo and Rider’s March 8 announcement outlining intentions to return to “extensive in-person teaching, residential housing and on-campus activities” in the fall of 2021.
“This decision was not made lightly,” Bidle said. “We took a lot of considerations into our deliberations. Part of those considerations is thinking about the mental health of our students and faculty and working and living in this environment for the past year.”
Bidle also cited vaccine rollout as a major factor in a return to in-person operations, saying that “we’re looking very, very closely at the trends of the pandemic vaccination rollout… and really hoping that by the fall, we have herd immunity and have almost 70% to 75% of our population vaccinated,” which would provide grounds to relax social distancing guidelines in classrooms.
Even with trends toward more vaccinated people, the university is still prepared to mandate mask-wearing and surveillance testing, according to Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Planning and Secretary to the Board Debbie Stasolla.
“These are all precautionary measures as we try to also keep tabs on the prevalence or not of the virus on our campus next academic year,” said Stasolla.
Stasolla also mentioned that the university plans to house more students on campus in the next academic year, while still reserving space for quarantine and isolation housing.
The town hall had a section dedicated to commencement ceremonies, which, according to Rider, are still planned to be held in-person. According to Manager for Special Events and Projects Nadège Toth, the ceremonies, planned to take place between May 15 and 16, will be split up into seven smaller ceremonies each day, with students divided by class, degree, school and major.
“The expectation is that over the course of the day those seven ceremonies will take place and that sometimes will be inclusive of one major or multiple depending on how the RSVPs come back in,” Toth said. “And that’s why the class of 2021 is now spread over two days because we’re anticipating obviously, the majority would like to participate.”
According to Stasolla, guests of students coming from different regional areas will be admitted through “the honor system.”
“You have to keep track of what the travel guidelines are at the time of commencement, and we will indicate on our website that we all need to abide by those,” Stasolla said, “…and we’re not going to be checking in people and asking where you’re from. So it is an honor system, but where we will be asking all participants to abide by the regulations at that time.”
Answering a student question, Stasolla said it was “very unlikely” that the university would be able to raise the two-guest limit for students graduating.
Rider Vice President for Student Affairs Leanna Fenneberg had a section of the town hall dedicated to an update on filling Rider’s new CDO position. Fenneberg confirmed that the CDO office will hold a vice president position at the university, which will mean it will be a part of the senior leadership team and the individual will report to President Dell’Omo.
As for the search, Fenneberg said the university has started to look for a person to fill the position, partnering with search firm AGB Search and reaching out to a dozen national publications in higher education to comb through “thousands of contacts” to find appropriate candidates for the CDO office. Fenneberg also said that Rider has a committee of 16 staff, students and faculty to assist in the search.
“We’re really excited about this position because it offers us expertise and a strategic leadership in a dedicated position to continue to advance our diversity, equity and inclusion commitments,” Fenneberg said. “So this is going to be a really vital position to move us forward.”
Fenneberg noted that the application deadline for candidates is preferred by April 23, with interviews for the finalist pool of candidates planned for the last week of May.
Throughout each discussion, administrators stressed that the objective of the university was to return the campus community to as much normalcy as safely allowed.
“Our ultimate goal, as you’ve been hearing from us, is to get back to as normal operations as we possibly can for everyone’s sake,” Stasolla said.
Caption: Administration provided updated information on the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) search during the meeting.
Caption: Commencement has been a hot-button topic for seniors this year and some concerns were addressed during the town hall.