Town hall addresses Norris chemistry building renovations

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An empty lab space in Norris Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday Nov. 17, 2017. Spencer Patrick/Occidental Weekly

Michael Hill, chemistry department chair and professor, and Eileen Spain, associate dean of the college for research and Carl F. Braun professor of chemistry, hosted a town hall for chemistry and biochemistry students April 4 in Mosher Lecture Hall. Hill and Spain informed students of renovations made to the Norris Chemistry Building in response to last semester’s lab closures and relayed the Board of Trustees’ progress in putting together a plan for continuing renovations. Hill and Spain then welcomed questions from attendees.

Students expressed concerns over the budget, the magnitude of the remodel and the potential effects of the renovations on research and lab work. Hill emphasized at the town hall that the building’s basic footprint and structure will not change, but that the school is committed to a vast remodel within the current footprint and will pursue such renovations over summer break to reduce disruptions. Hill said he does not know the expected finalization date.

Biochemistry major Audrey Shawley (senior), who helped organize last semester’s town hall, said that she felt optimistic after this most recent meeting.

“I think that the administration has heard our concerns,” Shawley said. “I think that the faculty is also optimistic which really instills in me confidence that [continued renovations are] going to happen.”

According to Shawley, the April 4 town hall was the first public dialogue organized by Hill and Spain addressed to the student body regarding Norris’ renovations. Shawley learned about some of the changes earlier via private conversations with Hill and Wendy Sternberg, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, but said that she believed most students were not informed about the situation prior to the town hall.

“I think only really select students that had been talking to their advisers about it knew,” Shawley said. “But by and large, the chemistry students weren’t aware until this meeting.”

Shawley also said that she did not understand why faculty and administrators did not publicize to a greater extent their initial statement concerning the renovations. Hill and Sternberg released this statement via student digest email Feb. 14.

“I was told [the statement] was going to be released over and over and over again, and I kept following up,” Shawley said. “And it turns out it had been released in the student digest but it was buried at the bottom. And so that really confused me. Why with something this important, why it didn’t get its own email addressed to all the students.”

Sternberg, who co-authored the statement, said that she misunderstood how the campus communication system worked. She said she did not realize that a message sent to the student listserv would be sent in the newsletter and not as a stand-alone message.

“There was no intent to bury that story, we wanted to communicate and get that message out,” Sternberg said. “In the future when I communicate with students, I will use a mechanism that hits [students’] mailboxes.”

Danica Gressel (senior), chemistry major and president of Occidental’s co-ed professional chemistry fraternity Alpha Chi Sigma, asked during the town hall whether or not future renovations would lead to the removal of the chemistry fraternity’s storage and meeting room located in the basement of Norris. Hill responded that such a concern had not yet been expressed, but would be taken into consideration moving forward.

“It’d be nice if Alpha Chi Sigma would be included in discussing what a new room would look like for us,” Gressel said. “I guess I was a little surprised that they probably forgot that we had a room.”

Gressel also said that she hopes the administration will remain transparent as renovations continue, and expressed concern that the renovations might complicate the lab and research schedule. Shawley said that she worries the renovations will not be carried through to completion.

“I think that the biggest concern that I have is that small changes will be made but they won’t be able to find enough money to be able to have as complete of renovations as the building necessitates,” Shawley said.

Concerning the dialogue between students, faculty and administration, Shawley said that she was thankful that the administration and faculty had listened to student voices.

“I think that is a lesson for future projects that need to be accomplished on this campus,” Shawley said. “There’s a lot of value to intersecting student and faculty and administration input.”

Biochemistry major Anna Stokolosa (senior) said that she found the chemistry department’s responsiveness reassuring.

“I’m very thankful to Professor Hill for having stepped up and voiced his concerns for this department,” Stokolosa said.

According to Hill, as plans solidify and the college chooses a firm to complete the approved long-term renovations, they will solicit further student input.

“I think at that point we very well may ask for another chemistry town hall,” Hill said. “The more eyes we have on it, I think, the better.”