Graduate Batten student Mazzen Shalaby will end his one-year term as student member of the Board of Visitors on May 31. He will be succeeded by third-year College student Sarita Mehta, whose term will begin June 1. During his time on the Board, Shalaby has aided the University in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, pushed for diversity and equity initiatives and advocated for a tuition freeze.
The student member of the Board is a non-voting individual who acts as a liaison between students and the Board by bringing students’ input to the Board. The representative also works to give students a better understanding of how the Board and the University’s administration works.
Shalaby was selected for the position in March of 2020 after completing an application and interview process. Although he did not begin his tenure until June 1, he came in with grand ideas.
His top priority was to improve the advising system for students at the University. But then, less than a week after he was selected, the University shut down due to COVID-19, forcing him to reassess his priorities as he was preparing to take office in June.
After students were sent home, Shalaby said that these priorities went “out the window” as carrying on with his initial goals “would be very out of touch.”
Now, with less than three months to go in his term, Shalaby’s primary initiative is securing a tuition freeze for the 2021-2022 school year. The BOV has proposed anywhere from a 0 to 3.1 percent hike, but the future of the tuition freeze movement lies in the hands of Governor Ralph Northam. The state budget currently requires that the University raise the salaries for faculty and staff, and if the state chooses not to fund that additional expense on April 7, there will be a tuition increase in order to cover that cost. The Board will meet April 13 to determine whether or not it will raise tuition.
Tuition, according to Shalaby, should be considered the “last lever of fundraising” for the University. The BOV plans to “look under every other rock” for funding and only raise the cost of tuition if necessary, as a last resort.
That being said, Shalaby has not lost hope for a tuition freeze.
“I have not stopped beating the drum and harassing anybody who will listen to me — and several who won't — about the need to keep tuition down and to figure out what the heck we can do on that front,” Shalaby said.
Reflecting on previous initiatives, Shalaby said one the most memorable moments during his time on the Board was last September when the Board passed six recommendations laid out by the Racial Equity Task Force. The task force was appointed by University President Jim Ryan in June to address racial equity concerns at the University and published twelve recommendations and initiatives to better address racial equity at the University.
The Board endorsed six out of the 12 recommendations, including changes to the historic landscape, the contextualization of Thomas Jefferson statue, the removal and relocation of the George Rogers Clark statue, the rededication or removal of Hume Memorial Wall, the renaming of the Curry School of Education and Human Development and the removal of Withers’ name from Withers-Brown Hall.
The Board also endorsed other goals such as doubling the number of underrepresented faculty at the University by 2030; reviewing the tenure and promotion process and hiring policies to ensure equitable staff hiring, wages, retention, promotion and procurement; and recruiting a student body that reflects the racial demographics of the Commonwealth.
Several of the task force’s recommendations were not adopted, such as using the University’s strategic investment fund to endow equity at the University.
Shalaby said he was happy to see at least some of the proposed twelve recommendations materialize.
“My priority at that point was just take what we could get at the time and run with it, [and] make sure we just went full tilt with what we could get and then hopefully work on it down the line,” Shalaby said.
Shalaby said he has seen the University step up and help students during the pandemic and hopes some of the changes enacted this year will live on in the future — notably the option for students to opt-in to the credit/general credit/no credit grading system and increased discussions and concerns about tuition affordability.
Shalaby added he wants the Board and the administration to look at what has worked in the University’s response to the pandemic — such as increased administrative support and additional online CAPS appointments — as well as what hasn’t, and he wants to “build on those strengths and address those weaknesses going forward.”
“If we go back to normal after this, we will have failed as an institution,” Shalaby said.
One thing Shalaby thinks is lacking at the University is communication. He thinks many of the problems and friction between students and administration at the University are due to either miscommunication or a lack of communication entirely between the two.
“So many of our goals are really very closely aligned, but we spend so much of our time just talking past each other,” Shalaby said. “By the time we actually end up finally getting together on an issue, everybody is so kind of spent and aggravated to some extent that it makes it hard to go somewhere productive.”
While the Board makes larger strategic decisions for the future direction of the University, Shalaby works hard to meet with student leaders and Student Council members to direct their questions and concerns to the various arms of the administration that make the day-to-day decisions.
Shalaby also interfaces with the administration, briefing them on pressing student concerns — such as financial access challenges — so that they can do their jobs more effectively. He said that he also puts certain students in contact with the administration so that they may better understand the students’ perspective.
When going about his job, Shalaby emphasizes that the major priority for him is separating his personal opinions from that of the student body and notes that he is careful to delineate whether he is expressing his own opinions of those of the student body when he sends emails or speaks in meetings.
“I think of my role really as like a great facilitator of just putting people together, to some extent,” Shalaby said. “I hope and think that I've done a good job with that.”