The following is an interview with President Christopher Fiorentino of West Chester University that was conducted via Zoom on Thursday, Nov. 18 from 11:00 a.m. until about 12:00 p.m.. The following transcript has been minimally edited for grammatical reasons and clarity. I would like to thank President Fiorentino for accepting this interview, and the Senior Associate to the President for setting the meeting up, as well as ensuring everything was up on the technology side of things. The format of this article is meant to be informative, and for each individual to gather their own opinions of each response given. Please read this interview with the intent to learn more about West Chester University and the questions students have had.
Q1: How has the transition from online back to campus been, and how do you think the university and the students have done during the process?
President Fiorentino: “Well, at this point I would have to say that with about 12 weeks of the semester under our belts, we are very pleased with how things have progressed. Obviously when we started, we had a good idea that if, given the number of people that are vaccinated, that as long as we could enforce the masking requirements inside the buildings, that we would be able to keep the COVID virus at bay. And that certainly is what has happened, the number of COVID cases has been really very low. It has remained low, we had plans in place for how we were going to respond if we started to see major increases of the virus on the campus, but we did not see lots of cases coming out of classrooms- matter of fact, very few examples of that.
Most of the cases that we did identify were students off-campus, so from that perspective, we feel that we have been successful — things have played out to be the best-case scenario as far as the virus. It was very clear to us that the students wanted to be back on campus, the remote year-and-a-half or so was very difficult for everybody. Obviously, it’s not ideal to be attending classes in masks — I don’t like wearing masks when I am giving remarks or participating in things, but that’s what we feel we need to do to keep everyone safe, and we have been able to operate our classes under normal face-to-face circumstances, subject to the mask requirements, so my perception, I get around on campus quite a bit and talk to a lot of students, and students are thrilled to be back on campus.
Generally speaking, we are getting a very high level of mask compliance, because they understand that if we want to stay on campus and not have to switch back to remote classes, that they need to cooperate with us so we can then avoid an increase in the virus. So, things are going well. There are still challenges operating in the COVID environment, but I do feel being in the face-to-face mode is better than having all those remote classes. I think the remote classes have served us well during that time, but I think the widespread preference and the way we operate under normal circumstances is most of our classes are face-to-face. So, we are happy to be back in that mode, and while we all look forward to a day when all of our classes will be normal, and we won’t have to wear masks, at this point, this is a better state of affairs than what we had last year.”
Q2 & Q3: Parking is always a topic of discussion amongst students. Do you have any helpful information for students in regards to parking on campus and avoiding tickets? Continuing with parking, one of my peers wanted to ask why parking garages are so expensive compared to other parking lots around campus?
President Fiorentino: “I welcome the opportunity to talk about parking, because it is not well understood, and if you don’t mind I want to talk a little bit about it, and maybe give you more detail than you were anticipating, because I think I might be helpful.
First of all, parking, when we look at how we can use money that comes into the campus: we have tuition revenue, we have state appropriation, and we have fees students pay for a variety of things. And parking is considered an auxiliary activity — other auxiliary activities are housing, the residence halls and the dining hall — so food service in general, and those are things that are expected to pay for themselves. We can’t use tuition revenue or state appropriations to pay for auxiliaries. So, parking being an auxiliary has to cover the cost of providing it. And, our enrollments have grown a lot, we’re in a small borough where we have a landlocked campus, some of our sister institutions have huge tracts of land that they can just pave for more parking, but we can’t do that, so we have had to build parking garages over the years. We have three in operation right now, and we have a fourth one that is nearing completion that is going to help, that is going to add another 460 parking spaces to the campus, and parking is always something that has been a challenge.
One observation I will make is the parking situation is the worst in the fall semester, in particular in the beginning of the fall semester. Before our student teachers and others go off to their off-site locations, and at the beginning of the fall semester, enrollments are at their highest — students don’t miss a lot of classes, and overtime attendance is not quite as good, and then in the spring semester, enrollment is not quite as good, we don’t enroll as many students, because we graduate a significant number of students in December, and we don’t bring that equivalent amount back in, typically there is less of a parking problem in the spring semester. So that’s the ebb and flow.
Now, when [we] are talk[ing] about the surface lots, things like M-lot and other places, [like Q-lot. One of the things we have done in the last couple of years is we’ve really beefed up our shuttle service to Q-lot, because there is a lot of parking down there, and obviously it’s not the most convenient, but the buses have been running very successfully, and we try to monitor that the buses are running on schedule so people can get back and forth. And for someone that comes to campus, going to Q-lot, parking down there, and taking a bus to north campus, spending a day, and hopping on a bus back to Q-lot, is a very efficient thing to do, compared to say cruising around M-lot, trying to find that one empty spot, that someone happened to just leave. We have been very successful in utilizing the south campus, the Q-lot and the R-lot space more effectively, So that’s certainly helped things.
As you’re aware, there’s a fee for a parking tag to park in the surface lots, which is $30. Students also pay a fee to support parking and the shuttle service. That’s part of the basic fees that students pay to be on campus. And then we have the parking garage at M-lot that is considered parking that is available, given if you pay the $30 parking tag. That lot is also the oldest — it’s been here the longest, it’s paid for. The three other lots on campus, two of them were built some time ago, and they were actually owned by the borough. And we recently purchased them from the borough of West Chester. And now the garage is going up, now we are funding that.
From the start, the problem that we have with these three garages right now is that it costs us millions of dollars to put them up. The new one, just for example, it’s $17 million to build that parking garage. And we had to take out a bond to pay for that garage. And we have bonds that we had to take out to pay for the other garages. And when you pay the bonds off, you also pay something called debt service, which is the interest that you pay on your loan. You know, like the interest on a credit card is a similar thing. So we need to generate funding to be able to pay for those garages in order to be able to have them.
And the way that we operate the garages has changed this year. We made it more flexible. It used to be, you had to have a parking pass to get into the garage, and you had to pay for it a semester at a time. And we now allow daily parking in the garages. And the daily parking is set at $1.50 per hour, which by the way is exactly what the borough charges for the parking meters on the streets. And, you know, one of the things you talk about is tickets. Well, if you pull into the parking garage, and let’s say you’re planning to be here three hours, and you end up staying four hours. Well, when you leave, you just, you pay for the extra hour, you pay the extra $1.50. You’re not going to get a ticket because you didn’t put enough money in the meter. So there’s really an advantage to going to the garage because the fee is the same amount as the meters, it is set to be a maximum of $9 a day. But for example, if somebody is on campus for four hours, and then they’re going to pay $6, not $9. So, you know, that added flexibility is intended to make it less expensive for people who are coming to campus.
Now, we also sell students or give students the opportunity to pay $200 a semester to have a parking pass, to go into those garages. And if you do the math on that, if you, if you’re coming to campus three days a week, six hours a day, and you’re parking on the street and paying $1.50 for a meter, you’re paying $400 a semester to park, roughly. If you pay $200 for a semester, you have access to the garage whenever you want it for as long as you want it. And, and it’s just a one-time amount that you pay as part of your university fees. And we’ve tried to keep that lower. That’s actually a good bit lower than what we charge employees to park in those garages. So for $400 a year for the academic year, you can have access to, and I can tell you, I just, in anticipation of this interview, I just took a walk over yesterday to the, to the Sharpless street garage at about nine o’clock in the morning, and there’s plenty of parking space available over there. So I think I would encourage students who are cruising around the streets, trying to find meter parking, just go over to the parking garage and park and pay, you know, for whatever number of hours, pay your $1.50. And I wish there was a better way for us to do that, but we do have to pay for those garages and we need to have the parking available for the campus. We do offer the parking passes to faculty and staff. And, and again, those fees are higher than what we charge the students. And we do have quite a few of the faculty and staff who take advantage of the daily parking. You know, $9 a day might seem like a lot, but if you compare that to what it costs to park in Philadelphia, or, you know, other major metropolitan areas, it is a relatively low amount. And again, we do need to support the parking garages. So, you know, that’s the reality.
Now we do, charge $30 to employees, to faculty and staff. And, because we have unions on campus, in order to increase the parking fees to the employees for the $30 parking pass, to generate more revenue, which would obviously help us keep the costs down, we have to actually negotiate that with the unions. And, we’ve attempted some negotiations, but we have not been successful. A few years ago, we actually negotiated with the local union to increase the parking fees for faculty, which would have generated more revenue to support the overall cost of parking and the statewide faculty union vetoed the agreement that we reached locally. So we were not able to implement it and increase that revenue, but, that’s the situation with parking and, frankly when we add 460 spaces, when the new garage is open, which will be sometime during the spring semester, there will be even more good availability of parking. It’s just that, you do have to pay something to have the ability to have a car on campus and park it. And if you do want to just pay the $30, then the parking would be limited to the surface lots that are available. And again, taking advantage of the Q-lot option, coming in the morning, parking, shuttling up to campus and then not having to worry about your car for the rest of the day. That would be the most economical way to do that.
You know, we’re sensitive to the fact that we’re trying to keep costs down for students. We actually have the lowest cost of attendance for all the schools in the Pennsylvania state system. We’re very careful to try to keep our fees as low as possible and not raise tuition, as much as some of our sister institutions have. So we were sensitive to that, but again, we do need to be able to provide the parking availability to the campus community, and in order to do it, we have to charge for it because we have to be able to pay for it. So that’s a very thorough answer. I hope I’ve given you sufficient information.”
Q4 & Q5: Starting in the Spring, places like Chick-fil-A will stop accepting meal swipes. Why is this? Food options on campus seem to open later and close earlier than usual. Is this because of staffing or some other issues, and will this change in the future?
President Fiorentino: “Well, of course, we’ve heard a lot about the Chick-fil-A issue. I can tell you that I love Chick-fil-A. My kids are big Chick-fil-A fans. So I understand and I researched this — you know, we have Aramark as our food service on campus. And basically what that means is that the university does not provide a food service the way that we provide other services, health center and so forth. We actually hire an outside company that has expertise in providing food service, and we work out a contract with them to provide it.
Now Chick-fil-A is an interesting example. Chick-fil-A is a very popular national brand. And, when meals are bought at Chick-fil-A, Chick-fil-A charges a 10% surcharge on top of what they get paid for the meal swipe, and that has to be paid out of the food service budget. And what we’re finding is that Chick-fil-A is very popular with the students, as you I’m sure well know, and by having to pay that 10% charge, basically that increases the amount that we have to charge the students for the meal plans. So basically, for example, students who don’t eat at Chick-fil-A are actually being charged more to cover the overall cost that we have to pay, to pay that surcharge of Chick-fil-A. So really what we’re trying to do here is take a step that keeps the cost of the meal plans down. And when meal swipes are being used at Chick-fil-A, rather than other venues on campus, that don’t charge the surcharge, it drives up the total costs of providing the food service to the students. And the decision was made because this is set up that way, if the students are going to opt to eat at Chick-fil-A, that they’re not going to be able to use their meal swipe.
We need to concentrate it in the other venues, you know, we’ve added Chickie’s and Pete’s, and, you know, with the new dining hall coming online, and I know that’s one of the questions on here at some point, you know, there will be increased options available, but we’re not trying to penalize anybody. We’re trying to keep the cost of providing food service down for the students.”
Q6 – When is the SECC set to open, roughly, and what should we expect from the building?
President Fiorentino: “We are anticipating that the dining hall will be operational in the spring semester. Now it’s not quite finished. They’re wrapping things up. They’re very close to being finished. When you’re talking about a food operation, obviously we need food handling licenses to be approved. There are building inspection processes that need to be completed. And our expectation is that, those things, that the building is, really just about physically finished, in order to move in and start serving in the building. Aramark has to get in there, they have to fire up the equipment, make sure that their people are trained in operating the equipment. And that takes some time. So we have a plan in place that will enable them to be up to speed and ready to go at the start of the spring semester.
Obviously it’s the middle of November, and they will be able to do training into December and early January. And that’s as long as we don’t run into any roadblocks. Part of the problem with getting the SECC finished, I’m sure you’ve been reading a lot about supply chain issues and, you know, things that happened because of COVID. We’ve run into some of those things. We couldn’t get the equipment we needed in time. And, there are a number of factors in terms of available personnel to work on the building and on… and on. So we were hoping to open it this semester, but it got slowed down and we do believe it’s on track, but I can’t sit here today and definitively say, “Yes, I’m absolutely sure it’s going to be open in time for the start of the semester.” We’re optimistic that it will be, but I have to have that one little caveat that that’s assuming that we get everything finished, everything installed, the building inspections are finalized, the food service licensing finalized and it’s all on track to happen. But we’re still waiting and watching and hoping that it plays out. But if we don’t meet that deadline, it will be shortly after that.
For the Spring ‘22 semester, Aramark will accept meal swipes at the following locations: Greens To Go, The Sandwich Shack, Rammy’s Corner, Grill Works, Chickie’s and Pete’s, Wild Blue Sushi, Einsteins, all of the pods, and the Freshens location, which will be opening in spring of ‘22. So those are the places where it will be available. The new dining hall, it really should be very nice, providing additional options to students. And, you know, there’s more information that’s available. You can go to the email@example.com, all one word firstname.lastname@example.org. If there are issues with meal swipes, you can go there or go to the Ram Card office.
And, just about in terms of the food options and the issue of hours, Aramark did struggle to hire enough people at the beginning of the year. And again, this is a national challenge that we’re facing as a country right now. They can’t get truck drivers to drive trucks, to deliver stuff. And, you know, this is having a major disruption in the economy, and Aramark is no different. They’ve increased their pay to employees to try to attract more people. They’re paying a $5-an-hour shift differential for working on the weekends. The pay to the student workers has been increased to try to attract more student workers. And the information I have is that, in the month of November, they added 30 more people to their dining staff, including student workers, and they continue to aggressively recruit. They obviously need to have sufficient staff to fully support the operation, and they’re working hard to achieve that.
We did just have a meeting with a group of student leaders and, [the] issue was raised about whether the venues are staying open, fully open, for all the posted hours. And we are committed to making sure that is happening. We’ve heard that perhaps it’s not happening in all cases. And Dr. Davenport will be working with Aramark to make sure that if we say a venue is open ‘till midnight, that it will be open till midnight. So we’re aware of that challenge, and we’re working on it, but hopefully as time goes on Aramark will be able to fully staff up, and that some of the challenges that have occurred this semester will be gone. And obviously having the new facility opened is going to be a big help. We regret that the students were inconvenienced, obviously providing food services is something very important that we have to provide. And we’re holding Aramark accountable for achieving what the contract requires, but we’re also recognizing that they’re facing some challenges that are pretty widespread in the country right now.”
Q7: The website redesign has been a point of discussion amongst students, is there still room for changes to the design, and if so, will the university consult some of their faculty that specialize in design?
President Fiorentino: “Well, as a matter of fact, we hired a firm to do a rebranding for us. We didn’t utilize the faculty in this case. I can tell you that we are receiving input. I’m not sure whether the specific concerns you’re talking about are things that we’ve heard about or other things, but we’ve had some complaints about the first page of the website being very flashy and a lot of emotion and could be disturbing to some people, the big complaint that I’ve heard is that the font is too small. We have passed on those concerns to the public relations and marketing folks who are responsible for this work. Matter of fact, there were some modifications made to the font. I did hear this morning in the meeting with the student leaders that the issue has not been addressed at all places on the website. And that I’m going to take that concern back to the public relations people, to see what we might be able to do about that.
As far as the design of the website, the first page at this point, this is really a marketing tool for the university. We are targeting high school students. It really would be that page because we were trying to recruit students, that the success of the university going forward is based on our ability to continue to attract students to attend West Chester. As you’re probably aware, we graduated something on the order of 4,000 students a year. And if we can’t bring in a new cadre of students, we’re going to get into financial trouble pretty quickly, like a lot of our sister institutions have. So we’ve worked with experts in designing, branding and web page communication to the outside world that is focused on attracting that target population.
What I have asked, and I’m still working on this, actually speaking to the marketing people, our existing students and our employees, our faculty and staff really shouldn’t have to go through that first page every time they go into the website, it’s not meant for them. So, I’ve asked, how might we set up student portals and employee portals that would enable people going to the website to bypass the part that’s actually marketing to our external communities and not have to go through there.
So I don’t know if that covers the specifics you’re asking about. If there are other things, we’re certainly open to hearing about them. I can’’ guarantee that we would respond and change everything because a lot of what’s there is designed for very specific purposes to achieve very specific goals. We’ve done a lot of research with our target audience, focus groups, surveys and so forth to make sure that we’re engaging with the potential incoming students in ways that will attract them. I will say this, the data so far — we track our applications year over year — so at any point in time, we can compare how many applications we have this year compared to this exact time last year. And, as of two weeks ago, we had 950 more applications this year for next year, than we had last year for this year. And, to a great extent, that’s attributed directly to the new aggressive marketing campaign.”
Q8 – The university has had some “unwelcome guests” on campus in the past. Could you explain a little bit about why they are able to come to campus, and what you recommend students do when they are on campus?
President Fiorentino: “I’d be glad to have a chance to talk about that. Well, let me talk about the why first, and you’ve already reflected on why West Chester is a public institution and public institutions are required to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas. Freedom of speech is what we’re talking about here. And, these speakers, they’re very skilled at knowing what the rules are, what they’re able to say and what they’re not able to say. When this first happened, when I first became president and I encountered this, I was outraged. They were saying awful things to students who were walking by. I went to our lawyers and I argued that we need to ban them from campus. And I learned a little bit about freedom of speech myself and in that experience, because even though they were saying things that were hurtful, they’re actually very clever — when they’re here, they videotape what they’re doing. And, you might hear the Reverend say something that sounds like it’s targeting an individual or an individual person. But basically if you look at the Reverend, when he’s doing that, he’s not looking at anybody in particular. And so if we say that you just said something, you identified that woman and said something mean about her. He’s going to say I wasn’t talking to her, go look at the video. I wasn’t even looking at her. So they’re, they’re very sophisticated in that regard. And frankly, what they’re looking to do when they come to a college campus, their goal is to upset people. Their goal is to get people mad. And frankly, a few years ago, we had an incident where some students actually threw some things at them. That’s exactly what they want to have happen because when that happens, then they can file lawsuits against those students and win court cases because they’re being attacked, they’re being assaulted. And that’s how they are, that’s how they make their money.
It’s ironic. It’s awful, but that’s what we’re dealing with here. And I am not in a position to stop that from happening, unless it becomes disruptive of our ability to conduct our business. And they’re very careful where they locate and we can still conduct our classes and so forth, but, or if something becomes an imminent threat, if it looks like something’s going to become violent, public safety can intervene and shut them down. But as soon as the danger of violence subsides, they’re able to step back in and open back up again. So, we don’t have the ability to stop them.
And frankly, you know, people have said, well, why don’t you require them to have a license or whatever. And the fact is that if we were to do that, then we have to do that for every student organization, everybody, anybody who wants to use the quad for anything, we would have to make them go through an approval process. And that’s just not feasible to do that. If somebody wants to put a table out there and sell some cookies, or, you know, we have the activity days out there and we have to treat everybody the same. And, even though this is reprehensible, it’s absolutely counter to the culture, the climate of our campus. I can go on and on and on about this. And we don’t want them here. They’re not welcome, but we can’t stop them from being here.
So if that’s the case, then the next question is, well, what can we do about it? Well, when I first became president, of course this issue, whatever students are here, they’re outraged by this. And so what we started to do, first of all, when we find out they’re coming to campus, and sometimes they’ll give us a heads up, they’ll tell us at 10 in the morning that they’re coming at two. And part of that is that we put up barriers actually to protect them, because we don’t want them to be attacked. That’s not good for us. We’re going to get sued if they get attacked. While it’s ironic, we’re responsible to protect them while they’re here saying hateful things to our students. And again, that’s just, that’s something that we’re required to do, whether it seems fair or not, that’s the law.
Now when we find out, we do put word out on the campus and we have a standard message that’s prepared to send out to all members of the campus community, warning of their coming. We have teams of employees, faculty, staff and students who automatically go out there when they know that the speakers are coming and they’ll set up counter rallies or demonstrations or whatever. Now, one thing that you have to realize is that we can’t shout them down. We can’t go out there with megaphones or loudspeaker systems and shout them down because they have a right to be heard. And so if we take a microphone out there, they can take the microphone out there. And before you know it, then we are disrupting our classes in Main Hall and Recitation and disrupting the library and so forth because it’s too loud. But to the extent that we can have students and faculty and staff out there, engaging with students and trying to inform them about this, we have found that this has been very helpful. I think getting down to the bottom line of what I recommend over the past few years prior. So let’s say prior to the remote year with the COVID, we had educated our campus community to just ignore them.
If you come out of Main Hall after class, and they’re set up, they’re off to the side, walk towards the library, don’t even engage them, because if we don’t engage them, they don’t come back. They don’t want to stand there and just speak to nobody. But in past years, students have figured out that if they just ignore them, then they don’t come back as much. Now, obviously they came early in the semester, first week or so, and they drew a huge crowd all day. So they came back shortly after that. Now what we try to do, and of course what happens every year, the juniors and seniors have been through this before, but we have our first year and sophomore students here for the first time. So, they’re curious, that they go over and they listen and they get angry. And then they engage and start yelling and so forth. And again, we have this constant battle of explaining to our students why this is allowed to happen and what they should do about it. And the best thing that the students can do is just to ignore them. Don’t even dignify them by standing there and listening to their hateful messages.
And if all the students coming out of Main Hall, we’re cutting across the quad. We just go around the other side of the quad and not stand there and give them an audience. Then they’re going to be here much less often. So that’s, that’s the thing. And, to the issue, I hear all the time that, you know, I was stressed out by them. I felt upset — well, the best defense against being upset by hateful words is to put yourself out of ear shot. You don’t need to stand there and listen to it. And I know it’s a tendency to kind of stand there and be angry and upset, but that’s playing right into their hands. So I would hope that the message that you would send out is, let’s show these hateful people how we feel about them and not dignify their presence with our presence.
And, we just get maybe one more point on freedom of speech. The problem with freedom of speech is that freedom of speech is a very important underpinning of our free society. And, the danger is if you start stifling free speech — well, whose speech, no, you can’t just agree to freedom of speech for people who you agree with. The whole basis of this is that we can have a free exchange of ideas, that our society can be strengthened by discussions where different points of view come into the discussion and societies that stifle free speech are generally not free societies. They’re not, if you have a society where somebody speaks out and all of a sudden that person disappears, that’s not the ideal of what this country is about. And sometimes that results in people being able to say things that, that many of us, even most of us find reprehensible, but protecting that speech is also protecting the ability of all the rest of us to have freedom of speech that we enjoy.”
Q9: WCU is celebrating its 150th anniversary. How has the university evolved during your time here as President, and how do you see it evolving into the next 150 years?
President Fiorentino: “Well, we’ve done a careful history of the university. So we know a lot about the last 150. It’s pretty tricky to start predicting the next 150, but I guess what I would say is that the university started as a normal school with a few hundred students that was educating teachers for elementary school back in 1871. It evolved to a state teachers college, to a state college and then ultimately to a university. And I would anticipate that it will continue to grow and prosper and continue to evolve, to meet changing needs of society.
We’re referred to as a regional comprehensive university; we’re focused not only on training teachers, but on training college educated professionals for, across [an] entire gamut of professions, in business and the health sciences, and training people in communications and the humanities, and people to become newspaper reporters and a wide array of needs within the society that we are preparing people to be able to contribute. And we will certainly continue to do so.
I don’t know if we’ll continue to grow at quite the rate that we’ve been growing in the past. You know, we have a limited amount of space on campus, but certainly at this point, we’re seeing great growth in our graduate programs. Many of them are online and are not subject to the kind of fiscal constraints that we have on the campus, but online students don’t have to find places to park. So that’s good.
Getting back to our earlier conversation. So I’m very optimistic about the future of the school. During the time that I’ve been here, I came here in 1983, obviously it’s grown a lot. We’ve expanded in a lot of ways. One of the things that I would say, if you look back at the history of the school, there were times in the past, not even that long before I got here where, the racial climate on the campus was absolutely awful. We still have our challenges certainly, but things have continued to evolve in a great direction. I attended some student presentations this morning where students in an FYE class were looking at challenges around, racial disparities and the kinds of things we as a society need to be doing — what we as an institution need to be doing to continue to improve in these areas. And it was wonderful to see the great ideas of these students, that they’re thinking about how they can make the world a better place. And we continue to evolve in that direction. And I’ll admit readily that we’re not perfect, but we are a community of people who are striving to be better. And our young people on the campus are very idealistic and passionate and willing to work hard, to see change occur. And I’m delighted to see that among our student body.”
Q10: Lastly, as we wrap up the fall semester, is there anything you would like to reflect on? How has the fall semester gone, and what are you looking forward to most in the spring semester?
President Fiorentino: “Sure. Well, you know, reflecting on the fall semester, I was on campus basically every day during the last year where the university was operating remotely. I live on campus and came into the office. The leadership team was here with me, the provost and vice presidents. And the campus was a very lonely place because our students and our faculty were not here. And the first thing that really struck me when we started the fall semester was that everybody was back, and it was just so wonderful to see everybody back. Clearly students were thrilled to be back. I had lots of people stopping me on the sidewalk as I walked around and thanked me and told me how excited they were. So the big thing is that we were back as a campus community.
Obviously we had to make adjustments in order to stay back. And as I’ve already commented on, the big fear I had was that we would not be able to sustain the low levels of infection on the campus. We were worried about whether the students were going to step up and willingly participate in the mask wearing or whether we were going to have to do a lot of enforcement. We actually had plans. If you look at the first couple of days, we were actually posting people out and around, to try to make sure that people were wearing the masks. And, we were just sort of cringing, waiting for bad things to happen. And as time went on we realized that, okay, the students are taking this seriously. They want to be here. They’re going to do what they need to do, to be able to stay here. That was a very rewarding outcome to me because we worked very hard to figure out what we needed to do to keep the community safe. We were confident that we could keep the community safe and really what it came down to in the fall semester is we felt we could be safe, but we needed to manage people’s anxiety. Faculty and staff had small children who weren’t vaccinated. And, we were confident that if people were vaccinated and wearing masks, that their children would also be safe.
And now, as we look back, we feel pretty good about the decisions that we made and how our community stuck together and enabled us to be successful. And as we look to the spring, frankly, we’re still going to need to be wearing masks. The conditions that exist, at the present, don’t put us in a position to be able to say, yes, we’re going to be able to stop wearing masks. Even if the K-12 schools stop wearing masks, which is what I’m hearing is going to happen. We, if we’re going to continue to be successful, we’re going to continue to be wearing our masks. So students should expect that we want to get through the spring semester.
The COVID virus is still working out there. We’re actually seeing an uptick in Chester County of cases of the virus, although we’re not seeing hospitalization increases and we’re not seeing increases on the campus, but we can’t drop our guard. We have to stay vigilant because we don’t want to get to spring break again and say, ‘Gee, we’re sorry, we’ve had a major uptick and we have to go remote again.’ Nobody wants that to happen. So I asked everybody to hang in there with us, we’ll continue to follow the guidance. We’re going to be putting out a message later today, obviously, before your article would go to print. But, as I said, at the time that people would read this, there’s a message out. That’s talking about our plans for the spring. And we are anticipating that we will have a successful spring.
And as we receive new guidance, you know, we’re relying on guidance from the CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. As we receive new guidance, we’ll put together teams of experts. We have a lot of expertise in our employees and our faculty and outside experts, who will help inform our decisions about what we might do moving forward. But as for now, expect to be wearing masks in the spring- but we’re expecting that we’ll be back again. Our residence halls will be functioning. Our athletic programs will be functioning, and we’ll be able to continue to operate as the great university we are.”
I hope you found this interview informative, and if you, as a student, have any further questions you would like to ask President Fiorentino then you can direct them to the Student Government Association President. The contact information for the Student Government Association (SGA), so you can have your voice heard as a student, can be found on SGA’s page on WCU’s website.
Evan Brooks is a fourth-year Business Management major with minors in Economics and Civic & Professional Leadership. EB916132@wcupa.edu