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SGA Town Hall with President Garvey: The State of the University

Image courtesy of Catholic University

By Eva Lynch

On March 3, President Garvey joined the Student Government Association’s Executive Board to host SGA’s annual Spring Town Hall, to give somewhat of a “State of the University” update.

SGA President Gerald Sharpe opened the meeting, which was attended by several university deans, professors, and about 50 students in person and more online. Sharpe highlighted the accomplishments of the association thus far, including expanding transparency between SGA and the student body via revamped social media accounts as well as initiatives by each member of the executive board, inspired by student questions and concerns. These requests include those advocating for students during the difficulty of distance learning—such as SGA’s resolution to deter the use of lockdown browsers like Respondus—as well as those protecting student comfort and culture on campus—such as SGA’s recent resolution and passing vote urging the university to recognize the CUAllies as a campus organization, as well as calls from Black students to hold the university accountable for its promise of an inclusive campus, which actually feels like “a daily struggle” for some, according to Sharpe. 

Sharpe went on to showcase the accomplishments of each of SGA’s subcommittees and their leaders, and finished his comments by thanking each facet of the CUA community for its collective commitment to on-campus safety, in pursuit of fully in-person classes. He also honored Dan Anderl, a former student and beloved friend to many who was killed outside of his home in North Brunswick, New Jersey. Sharpe highlighted SGA’s commission of a plaque in Anderl’s honor to be displayed outside of the law school, as well as SGA initiatives to fundraise for a scholarship in Anderl’s name. 

Sharpe’s remarks were followed by an introduction of President John Garvey, whose comments followed in a typical State of the Union fashion, addressing the community regarding the progress of various on- and off-campus projects and happenings.

Garvey began by praising the student body, as well as the faculty and staff, for their efforts and cooperation with university policies that have ensured the in-person production of on-campus classes and events, of course within the guidelines set by the District. 

He acknowledged many students’ concerns over the perceived uneven distribution of on-campus offerings, explaining that the in-person or virtual status of classes is largely contingent upon major and each individual course size. Garvey also posited these students’ sacrifices alongside the faculty’s and staff’s own sacrifices in the form of pay and benefit cuts, an option which university faculty and staff agreed upon in order to avoid job elimination. 

“We’ve spent millions of dollars, literally millions of dollars,” said Garvey in regards to the sum spent on hiring cleaning staff as well as supplies and technological equipment to ensure a smooth distance and on-campus learning experience.

Garvey also addressed the university’s status on COVID-19 testing, noting that the school has administered 3,100 tests in less than two months and has retained a rate of 1.2% positive tests, although the current four on-campus cases and six off-campus cases represent a bit of a spike from that percentage. Nevertheless, these testing numbers are far beyond those of last semester, wherein only 2,000 tests were administered and there was a 7.2% positivity rate. 

Compared to other universities in the District, “Catholic University is the place to be if you want to have something approaching a normal life,” Garvey said in regards to the university’s testing abilities, also noting that, “I am the safest guy to be around at Catholic University,” because of his current vaccinated status and previous COVID-19 diagnosis in the spring of 2020. 

Because of the low positivity rate students have been able to maintain, Catholic University is able to offer more activities and normality than other schools in the area. Masses are in partial swing, and the school’s athletic teams are doing very well, despite obvious complications with the current season. Garvey noted that 21 of 25 athletic teams are concurrently active as of the date of his speech, and the men’s and women’s Diving teams’ expected Landmark victory this weekend will solidify their standing as dual victors, two years in a row. 

Additionally, study abroad opportunities are in as full swing as possible, which includes open applications for summer and fall 2021 terms, COVID-19-permitting. While little has been decided about the fall study abroad programs, it is known that most of the 132 open applications for summer programs are for the university’s famed summer experience in Rome, which will consist of two separate sessions of four weeks each this year. The most salient consideration for study abroad potentiality is forthcoming European Union decisions.

Garvey also called on students to remember that even though they may see themselves as immune to or unaffected by the pandemic to varying degrees, we are all still part of a greater community, both that of Catholic University and that of Brookland. As such, respect for our neighbors is of the utmost importance, especially to the cleaning and food service staff in light of the great risk they take on every day to keep the campus clean and running smoothly. We have to maintain mask-wearing and social distancing precautions in order to maintain the on-campus activity we are currently doing, according to Garvey. 

The president also mentioned several silver linings that have come out of the pandemic and the subsequently empty campus: on-campus construction has been moving faster than ever before. The most important of these projects is the piping construction that has been allowed to finally progress uninterrupted; the measures being taken to reduce steam output from underground pipes will reduce water and energy consumption exponentially, efforts which have landed Catholic University the 21st spot in the College Consensus’ ranking of Best Green Colleges in the country. 

Among other construction endeavors, the university’s Wayfinding Project, aimed at lighting up campus (and building signs) as well as making campus more navigable through assigning street names, is well underway, and the new dining hall for which ground was broken last December is expected to meet its set deadline in the summer of 2022. 

Garvey closed his remarks by touching on cultural issues that have become more pertinent to campus life in recent weeks. 

“Universities form and reflect culture,” said Garvey, also expressing that he wishes these cultural issues could be discussed more freely. 

In regards to several harrowing accusations that have come to light about Catholic clergy, Garvey shared the steps the university is taking to educate and prevent future events like these, including a newly commissioned research project about the relationship between bishops and their priests, Crisis—a podcast addressing these issues that is approaching 200,000 downloads—and expanded course offerings in the Busch school to train and educate interested students about safe church management and administration.

In regards to racial issues, Garvey highlighted the work of the Thea Bowman Committee, formed last September to observe and make recommendations to promote racial equity throughout every facet of on- and off-campus life. 

In regards to sexuality and sexual orientation, Garvey first commended university officials for the recent departure from the university’s previous harmful ideology about students of the LGBTQ+ community: ignoring their presence on campus at all. He shared that the university is now more freely able to include these students and discuss the issues that they see with campus life. However, he also acknowledged that the university will never be one of the most progressive in this aspect, due to the Catholic Church’s and the Pope’s stance that does condemn discrimination based on sexual orientation, but still maintains that marriage is between a man and a woman and that accepting our bodies and gender is a necessary part of the human experience. Garvey hopes for open discussion about the space between the Catholic Church and “human rights community.”

The last portion of the event was a Q&A format, hosted by Sharpe. He and President Garvey sat across from each other in an interview-style to address questions submitted beforehand via Google Forms.

The first question addressed was regarding the university’s policy about mandating the vaccine, which is becoming more readily available every day. Garvey discussed his own strong appreciation for the vaccine, having been recently vaccinated himself, and encouraged anyone who can get it to do so as soon as possible. However, there are other considerations for mandating the vaccine, including some concerns from the religious community about the ways in which the vaccine was manufactured and tested that may contradict pro-life principles. Overall, once the vaccine enters a stage in which it is no longer experimental, the university will follow D.C. regulations regarding requirements and will adapt to university needs. 

The next question was regarding commencement for the class of 2021, which is currently set for May 15. Garvey said that university officials are hesitant to make the call, because D.C. regulations may open up and allow for more attendees closer to the date. 

Another student questioned an option to opt-in or out of in-person learning next semester, which Garvey confirmed would be available; distance learning will be technologically possible until there is no longer a need. 

Another student question concerned the nature of on-campus residence next semester, primarily whether each resident would be able to request a single room. Garvey’s answer wasn’t definitive, but students can rest assured that the university will try to accommodate each student’s needs to the best of their ability, limited by the number of available rooms on campus, as well as the increased number of students that will be living on campus next year, as the class of 2023 was recently mandated to do so. 

Garvey addressed another question about the CUAllies decision, which has reached the university administration, the last conversation about which occurred in 2017.

“I appreciate the interest of SGA in this, but I have not had the opportunity to speak with the students who are most affected,” Garvey said, hesitating to raise false hopes that the administration would come to a different conclusion than the last four times the issue has been raised. 

Sharpe also asked Garvey whether he expected to renew his contract at the end of this year. While he didn’t give a definitive “yes” or “no,” the president reassured students that “this is the best job I’ve ever had,” even though handling COVID-19 has been “miserable.”

The interview then turned to in-house audience questions, the first of which wondered how fast the turnaround for housing and on-campus activities will be after D.C. COVID-19 regulations change. Garvey said that university officials are in constant contact with District officials and can adapt “on a dime.”

One student shared in the chat via Zoom that she had noticed some of her classrooms’ daily pre-course cleaning was being neglected, and Garvey posited that students and professors should clean the classrooms following their use, to ensure every room is clean. The show of hands that Garvey requested from the in-person audience showed a majority believe that solution is a viable one. 

Garvey also addressed a question regarding mental health days, murmurings of which have been floating among the student body since the outset of the semester. He suggested that students don’t get their hopes up about this possibility, as it is the Provost’s decision and stems from a reluctance to eliminate more hours of instruction than necessary. COVID-19-reliant decisions like a late start to the semester, the cancellation of spring break, and classes on Holy Thursday and Easter Monday accommodate requirements for the university regarding how many hours students spend in the classroom, and may serve as foreshadowing for the answer to students’ hopes for mental health days. 

During the next question regarding tangible steps from the Thea Bowman Committee, the virtual side of the event experienced technical difficulties and was unable to stream the live interview for a few minutes. The stream was restored to catch the end of a discussion about increasing on-campus comfort for LGBTQ+ students. 

Garvey ended the event by complimenting the in-person audience on their formal wear. 

Overall, the attitude of the event was one of radiating positivity and praise. It’s clear that the amount of on-campus activities and classes that are able to be conducted now, overwhelmingly more than other schools in the District, is possible because the university community is collectively committed to safety and getting back to normal. 

As Sharpe said in his initial speech, “the state of our student body is strong, because our students are strong. We pride ourselves in the strength of our student body family who, though spread out all across the world, is united in a common goal: to love and to serve others.”

This message was reflected in the success of the town hall as well as the continued success of SGA and the current executive board, as Student Body President Sharpe told the Tower following the event.

“Wednesday’s Town Hall was another step towards our renewed mission of transparency. This is our fourth town hall with President Garvey this year, the most we have ever done,” Sharpe said. “I thank President Garvey and his staff for their willingness to be partners with us in communicating with the student body during these difficult times.”

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