Millions for a Promenade

Professors at Syracuse University fight a plan that they say reflects the wrong priorities at a time of staff buyouts.

May 11, 2016
Syracuse University
A Syracuse University plan to replace a street through campus with a promenade drew fire from faculty members who felt they weren't adequately involved in the planning process.

Plans to spend as much as $6 million to convert a city street into a pedestrian promenade through Syracuse University’s campus have reopened rifts over faculty involvement, spending priorities and town-gown separation less than three years into a new chancellor’s term.  (Note: The summary above has been corrected to note that buyouts were of staff members.)

A sizable group of professors -- 108 faculty members -- signed a petition asking that the project be halted. The petition, dated May 6, came less than two weeks before a three-month promenade construction period is scheduled to start May 16. It also arrived months after more than 250 university employees accepted a buyout offered as Syracuse said it needed to cut its payroll because expenses were outpacing revenues.

The faculty members’ petition lists concerns over what they see as a lack of transparency in the promenade-planning process and the cost of the project. The petition also questions the project’s details, including its effect on the area’s street grid and how often students will use an outdoor promenade during upstate New York’s snowy winters. Underlying questions about the details is the philosophical question of whether a university that is shedding faculty members should be focused on what many see as a beautification project.

Syracuse has responded that it formed the project as part of a larger “Campus Framework” plan to address strategic infrastructure needs. That plan included surveys and outreach starting shortly after Chancellor Kent Syverud took over in January 2014, the university said. The administration added that it has updated both students and faculty members about the promenade project as it approached. And it scheduled two information sessions on the promenade for Monday and Tuesday afternoons.

Syverud told attendees at the Tuesday session that he would share their feedback with the university's Board of Trustees this weekend. The board will discuss next steps, a spokeswoman said.

But issues still remain, said Tula Goenka, an associate professor of television, radio and film and the chair of the faculty council at the university’s S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Goenka organized the petition after hearing about the promenade plan several weeks ago.

The way the promenade fits into the Campus Framework infrastructure plan has not been made clear, Goenka said. Infrastructure and facilities hang heavy in the collective consciousness at Syracuse, where the aging Carrier Dome’s future is the topic of hot debate. The gargantuan sports facility is soon due for major renovations or replacement.

Against that backdrop, the promenade’s march toward construction surprised many.

“It suddenly started becoming a reality,” Goenka said. “It was like, ‘What’s going on? Where is the money coming from? Who knows about it?’”

The promenade exposed deeper fault lines than capital spending, however. It stoked concerns about top-down leadership and the direction of the university.

Faculty members expressed frustration with the administration for adopting a new travel policy requiring booking though an online portal they say is difficult and expensive to use. The handling of the promenade project also triggered memories of the administration closing Syracuse’s Advocacy Center for sexual assault and relationship violence victims, Goenka said. The university drew protests after it closed that center in 2014, saying it had designated its counseling center to serve as a point of access for those services.

Some also wondered whether the promenade is geared toward assuring students, prospective students and their parents that Syracuse University is walled off from its home city.

“Perhaps, maybe, this is a way to tell future students that the university is sort of a gated community,” Goenka said.

Syracuse’s administration responded to concerns about the project with a letter dated May 5. The letter defended the public process and offered Monday and Tuesday’s feedback sessions on the promenade project.

“We believe that there has been very significant discussion and outreach regarding the University Place Promenade project,” said the letter, signed by School of Architecture Dean Michael A. Speaks and Vice President and Chief Facilities Officer Peter Sala. “However, we also appreciate that not every campus community member has taken part, and that priorities and responsibilities throughout the year can sometimes hinder the ability to participate in this outreach.”

A university spokesman provided the letter in response to a request for an interview with Syverud. Speaks did not respond to an additional requests for an interview Tuesday.

The promenade project will not push capital plans aside, Sala said in a phone interview. He called the $6 million estimated price tag an arbitrary number, declining to give an exact cost estimate. Sala also said the project will improve the heart of Syracuse’s campus.

“I don’t think our students should have to be dodging traffic,” he said. “At that point, it’s almost like an extension of the quad, a second quad, and I think that’s what we’re trying to develop.”

Syracuse also provided a timeline listing outreach efforts that mentioned the promenade under a universitywide initiative it’s calling Fast Forward. The initiative includes the Campus Framework infrastructure plan, as well as academic and operational planning.

Outreach efforts dated back to a university-hosted town hall meeting on the Fast Forward initiative in September 2014, according to the university timeline. Other efforts included an October 2014 survey with more than 3,000 faculty, staff and students taking part. More recently, outreach efforts included Syverud giving updates on the promenade project to the University Senate. Those updates were shared on the university’s news website.

Syverud referenced the promenade project in his January remarks to the University Senate, according to a transcript posted on the news website. It was one of several projects he mentioned under the university’s Campus Framework.

Faculty concerns over facilities plans are hardly unique to Syracuse. A survey of college and university leaders published in October by the Society for College and University Planning ranked faculty members as agreeing the least on planning priorities among campus stakeholders. The group also found higher education leaders face challenges including time constraints, financial constraints and complexity when planning.

Against that backdrop, colleges and universities need to make sure their physical plans contribute to their overall vision, said Ron Mahurin, vice president for strategy and planning at Stamats, a higher education marketing and research firm. When changes are coming, leaders have to be careful to follow a process that makes different campus constituencies feel involved and informed, he said.

“The optics are important for any university leader, whether it’s a chancellor or a board member,” Mahurin said. “I think the approach and the tone you want to take in these moments is having a broad consensus and understanding about the vision and the direction for the university and college as a whole.”

Mahurin gave Syracuse credit for reacting by holding meetings after the faculty outcry. In some ways, friction is to be expected in the years after a new leader takes over and tries to instill a fresh vision for an institution, he said.

But many details were not available until the newly called feedback sessions this week, said David Rubin, a professor and dean emeritus at Syracuse's Newhouse School.

“This particular project is roughly $6 million, which is, for Syracuse, a decent amount of money,” Rubin said. “This came out of yesterday’s meeting.”

The overall campus construction plan, Campus Framework, has not been shared with the university community, Rubin said. He called the meetings that have been held vague and unspecific.

Syverud has followed a strategy of setting up committees with faculty, students and staff members, Rubin said. At the end of the day, though, Rubin believes decisions are made from the top down.

“You could do some modest things, but $6 million for a promenade right out of the box, as the first major space thing that’s going on, particularly when everybody knows we’re going to be spending many, many millions of dollars on the Carrier Dome, and then overlaid on this is we had a buyout on staff over the last few months, that’s rubbed a lot of nerves raw,” Rubin said.

A total of 254 employees accepted the buyout. That represents 6.9 percent of the university’s benefits-eligible staff.

The handling of the promenade has led some to compare Syverud’s management style to that of former Chancellor Nancy Cantor. Margaret Susan Thompson is an associate professor of history and political science at Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She is also a member of the University Senate. Both Cantor and Syverud brought positives and negatives to the job, she said. A bigger picture is that many faculty members have felt left out of decisions at Syracuse for years.

Thompson gives Syverud credit for addressing the senate regularly, then staying and listening to discussion. But she said the Senate isn’t being consulted -- it’s being told what decisions the administration has made. Faculty members have been worried about major announcements that come after classes are finished for the year, when students are either off campus or preparing for examinations.

Thompson also questioned why the money is being spent on a beautification project instead of improving academics.

“I would really rather they spend the money on books or faculty raises,” she said. “The average raise this year was 1 percent, and we’re hiring more and more six-figure university administrators.”

Thompson has some hope Syverud can change his relationship with disenfranchised faculty members.

“I think Syverud has shown that he can learn from experience,” Thompson said. “I just think he’s got some more learning to do, that’s all.”


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