THE HONORS COLLEGE – STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT ALBANY
BY MATTHEW JOSEPH BOUTIN
MAY 9, 2011
Contained in this writing package are the seven best-crafted and most compelling pieces of writing of my undergraduate career. They have been assembled, expanded and edited under the supervision of my project advisor, Professor Thomas Bass, into this final product. One of the benefits of majoring in Journalism I most appreciate is having the freedom to constantly explore new topics in my writing. This collection reflects the broad scope of the major, as it includes articles covering a diverse range of issues and events, as well as a media study and an autobiographical story. The composition of each of the following works was a miniature intellectual journey for me. I hope that they are as informative and stimulating for those reading them as they were for me to write them.
Cash-Strapped: City Arts Organizations Join National Battle for Dwindling Funds
Pages 1 to 9
SUNY Holiday Criteria Misunderstood by Many Students
Pages 10 to 14:
“Golden Age” of Capital Region Auto Racing Wanes
Pages 15 to 21
Widespread Lack of Accuracy in Civil War Reporting
Battered University of the Philippines Campus Seeks Rebound
Pages 34 to 40
Pages 41 to 48
Cash-Strapped: City Arts Organizations Join National Battle for Dwindling Funds
November 9, 2010
The “Music Mobile” is probably the most famous vehicle in the city of Albany.
A collage of bright yellow, green, blue and children’s drawings, the battered 14-year-old Dodge Ram cargo van announces its presence on city streets by blaring folk music from the twin set of loudspeakers mounted on its hood. The music, recognized by thousands, typically brings scores of singing kids rushing out to the sidewalks in anticipation of seeing the van. Just as recognizable to the children is the vehicle’s driver, Ruth Pelham.
Pelham and her colorful van are the heart and soul of one of Albany’s most cherished art organizations, Music Mobile Inc. An avid songwriter, singer, educator, and unabashed product of the 1970s, she writes all her own music and is able to recite the lyrics from heart at a moment’s notice. Pelham has also authored several books to accompany her recorded music.
The aspiring community activist pitched the idea for her traveling music workshop to the Albany city government in 1977. Her goal was to bring the gift of music to the city’s poorest residents in the form of free instruction and concerts, and “use the power of music to build, empower, and heal communities.”
Albany approved her proposal and supplied her with the original Music Mobile van and the needed start-up funds. Over three decades later, the Music Mobile program has served tens of thousands of Albany’s most underprivileged children and branched out from music and arts programming into social services under Pelham’s guidance.
Each week Pelham pilots her van to parks, schools, and community centers around the city where she conducts different activities for the cities children. Some days she leads them in sing-a-longs, others showing them how to make tambourines, and most of the time teaches them songs about staying in school, picking up litter, and showing love to one another.
As of 2010, three different generations of Albany residents have now partaken in Music Mobile programming. As the Executive Director of the Music Mobile since its inception, Pelham has become a local celebrity for her work with Albany’s children.
Stopping into a CVS pharmacy on Central Avenue in the summer of 2010 to make a purchase, Pelham was immediately recognized by the cash register clerk as the Director of the Music Mobile, a program he had attended as a child. He began singing one of the songs she had taught him-and was quickly joined by customers throughout the store who remembered the same lyrics from their childhood with her.
To help tackle the ever increasing scope of her programming Pelham now rents office space on Central Avenue and employs as many as eight full-time workers in the summer. She relies on interns to complete the remaining work that she can’t take care of herself or afford additional employees to do.
Now, at what is arguably the peak of its popularity, Music Mobil Inc. is going to have some of the gas taken out of its engine this coming fiscal year.
Like dozens of other arts programs in Albany, Pelham’s brainchild is about to lose an important grant awarded annually by the city government. For 25 years Albany has annually divided $350,000 amongst arts organizations in the city, an allotment which Mayor Gerald Jennings has proposed to eliminate from the 2011 city budget.
This cut is just one of many in a budget which also raises property taxes 7.5% and fires 155 city employees in order to close a looming $23 million budget deficit.
Historically, the arts in Albany have enjoyed strong support in City Hall. Mayor Jennings and a number of Common Council members have long advocated for public art as a means of improving the standard of living in the city.
Jennings’ administration has also tried to use the arts, such as the summertime “Alive at Five” concert series held in the Corning Preserve riverfront park, to draw visitors and businesses within the city boundaries as a means of raising revenue though sales taxes.
"These organizations are vital to our city's overall cultural and economic vibrancy and I am very pleased that in collaboration with the Albany Local Development Corporation, we are able to continue our financial commitment to them," Mayor Jennings said about the 32 grant recipients in a 2010 interview with the Albany Times-Union.
Until this coming year grant recipients have been determined by the city Arts Commission and dispensed through the Albany Local Development Corporation. For the 2010 fiscal year, the grant money was divided between 32 different organizations.
The largest five shares went to the Capital Repertory Theatre with $60,000, Park Playhouse and Palace Theatre with $55,000 apiece, the Albany Institute of History of Art with $53,000 and the Albany Symphony Orchestra with $39,000.
The remaining $88,000 was divided between 27 other organizations, many of which, despite their smaller budgets and grants, are just as well known and established as their larger counterparts.
The 18th century South End mansion known as Historic Cherry Hill, which is in the process of having its infrastructure restored, received a $1,000 grant. The downtown Albany Civic Theatre, which is known for its youth theatre training program and year-round performances, received a $7,000 grant. Pelham’s Music Mobile Inc. received a grant for $8,000.
In order to be eligible for the funding, the applicants need to be non-profit organizations, willing to donate a service to both the city of Albany and one of its public schools, and able to submit a written report of the group’s activities at the end of the fiscal year.
Despite its generous track record with the arts, the Mayor’s office insists it cannot provide the funding this coming year. Jennings’ budget also completely eliminated funding for summer work programs, closed the South End public baths and the St. Vincent’s Community Center, and chopped funds for long-standing city events like Tulip Fest by half.
The Budget Director for the Mayor’s Office, Christopher Hearley, has insisted that the proposed cuts are all necessary, and their widespread nature was proof that the Mayor did not single out the arts for elimination.
“We looked at the entire budget and, with the goal of keeping the tax increase as low as possible, we had to prioritize our spending. Public safety is our number one priority,” said Hearley, noting that the ongoing economic recession has hit city and town budgets across the country.
For the 2011 fiscal year $50 million has been earmarked for the Police Department and $30 million for the Fire Department according to Hearley. These sums, which constitute half of the proposed $159.9 million budget, will still leave those two departments understaffed.
Arts leaders have not expressed any anger about the loss of their grants- instead most express and understanding of the city’s financial woes and gratitude for the assistance it has lent them in the past. Pelham hasn’t detected anything adversarial between the city and its arts community as a result of the difficult cuts, and describes a “mutual affection” between the two groups.
“We’ve always had a very supportive relationship with the city of Albany,” she said. They [in city government] realize the impact arts programs have on the standard of living in the city.
The Music Mobile Inc. got its start in 1977 with city and Federal assistance. Pelham credits the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a Federal jobs program started in 1973 and administered locally by the city of Albany, as giving her the initial resources to begin her program.
The Music Mobil continued to grow with the assistance of staff and funds from the city Recreation Department and Albany Community Development Agency block grants. The city even supplied Pelham with the original Music Mobile’s original Dodge van.
State and county grants, donations from individuals and businesses also began flowing to the program. Later, the $8,000 annual arts became an important component of the Music Mobile’s current $140,000 annual budget.
“Direct support from the city has been crucial and immensely appreciated,” confirms Pelham.
A larger and equally appreciative recipient of arts money has been The Albany Institute of History and Art.
They’ve [the city of Albany] been fantastic to us in the past says Steve Ricci, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Institute.
“It’s hard to point fingers at the city because of these cuts. They have to make some hard choices,” acknowledges Ricci. “But it’s also important to recognize the value of the arts. They make the city what it is.”
The Institute, which is located on Washington Avenue overlooking the Arbor Hill and North End neighborhoods of the city, is, unbeknownst to many in the city, the second oldest museum in the United States.
“It was founded in 1791-when George Washington was still President,” explained Ricci. “The museum is an incredible part of Albany’s history.”
The Institute has the stated goal of preserving the art and history of the Upper Hudson and Albany region. Its exhibits include displays of 19th century American sculptures, paintings by the renowned Hudson River School of art, and colonial era artifacts.
Ironically, given the Museum’s emphasis on Upstate New York, the best-known exhibit may be the Ancient Egypt Gallery. This includes a display of two human mummies, and one of a dog, imported from Egypt in 1958. The “Albany mummies,” as they have become known, are a favorite display for student visitors according to Ricci.
The museum is staffed with 18 full time employees and a variable number of additional part time workers. Operations and staff are maintained with an annual operating budget of $2 million.
The $53,000 grant provided by the city constitutes less than 3% of the overall museum budget, but is nonetheless a crucial piece of a fragile budget held together by twelve different grants according to Ricci.
“In this current economic climate every penny counts because it’s very hard to raise money. That $53,000, that’s the equivalent of the salary of one of our employees,” he said
“This lose was tough to take. We count on this money every year.”
The Institute is not acting prematurely on the assumption that the funds are lost, but is holding out hope that the cuts may be reversed before the budget becomes law according to Ricci.
However, Albany’s “strong-mayor” form of government makes it unlikely that the Mayor’s budget will be altered. The city legislature, or Common Council, can vote on the budget, but a two-thirds majority is needed to make any changes. If no changes are made by the Common Council the budget automatically goes into effect on November 30.
Councilman Calsolaro, who represents the First Ward located in the South End of Albany, and Councilwoman Leah Golby of the midtown-based Tenth Ward, don’t see much chance of the arts grants being restored by the Common Council. In fact, neither Council member would themselves vote to replace the grant allotment into the budget.
Calsolaro, who has been at odds with the Mayor during past budget debates, agrees with Jennings’ decision to eliminate the arts funding. The Councilman is quick to point out that, in addition to having become an unaffordable luxury, the grants no longer serve their intended purpose.
“These grants weren’t set up to be permanent. They were just supposed to be start up money until these organizations could find other sustaining sources of revenue, but they came to depend on them,” said Calsolaro.
Calsolaro, who serves of the Advisory Board of the grant recipient Historic Cherry Hill, said he takes no pleasure in cutting the funding so abruptly.
“I hate to see them [the grants] go like this. I wish we had been able to wean the programs off the grant money gradually.”
Like Calsolaro, Golby has a background in the city arts scene. She spent years as a grant application writing for the Albany Symphony Orchestra, where she saw firsthand the tight budgets that many art organizations are forced to operate on
“When the Symphony was on a really tight operating budget and we needed money, I used to have the call the Development Corporation daily to get updates as to when the grant money would be released,” said Golby.
Despite her acknowledgement that arts organizations are typically “severely underfunded.” Golby insisted that the city needed to prioritize and focus spending.
“Art grants are not strategic. We need to concentrate on basic services, keeping the streets clean, and policing the streets in order to draw people and businesses back to Albany. Then maybe we could afford money for arts again,” said Golby.
While direct funding is out of the question in her mind, the Councilwoman does feel the city can assist the arts organizations to leverage money through other sources. For example, she feels the Music Mobile, which she describes as “very important programming”, should be eligible for social service money in addition to arts funds.
Should the final version of the Albany 2011 budget pass without the restoration of the grants as Calsolaro and Golby anticipate, the former recipients will join scores of other arts organizations across the nation that have suffered cuts at the hands of deficit-swamped state and local governments hit hard by the economic recession.
In Dallas, Texas the proposed 2011 budget slashes funding for its Office of Cultural Affairs by 55%, a cut which comes on the heels of a 34% reduction in 2009. The 50,000 cultural and arts events funded fully or partially by the Office of Cultural Affairs attracted 5.5 million people in 2009 according to D Magazine, a Dallas based lifestyle publication.
The Nevada Arts Council saw its funding chopped from $2.8 million in 2008 to $1.3 million in 2010. Plans for more cuts are being proposed in the state legislature according to The Nevada Sagebush, a Reno based newspaper.
The largest statewide reduction in art funding in the United States occurred in Michigan in 2009, when $5 million of its $7 million allotment for arts funding, or 80% was eliminated. This made Michigan the largest defunder of the arts in the United States, followed by Florida with 65% and Illinois with 53% according to Michigan Public Radio.
The Albany arts organizations will have to compete with these art organizations, and scores of others like them across the country, for remaining funding.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is an independent agency created by the federal government in 1965 to support and promote the arts in the United States. It is the largest funder of arts in the country, having doled out $128,000 grants totaling over $4 billion since its creation.
Despite the NEA’s substantial resources, statistics and records kept by the agency show it has less to offer needy arts organizations during this recession than in past decades. The NEA’s budget was chopped by nearly half in the 1990s, going from a high of $176 million in 1993 to $98 million in 2000, a reduction it has yet to fully recover from.
At the same time, the number of applicants for NEA grants has risen steadily. 2,599 grant requests were submitted in 2000. By 2008 the number of grant applicants had leapt to 4,803.
In 2010 there were 5,691 grant applications, an increase of 888 from just two years earlier and over twice the total number submitted in 2000. The increases in funding the NEA has received over that time period have not kept pace with the number of new of applicants according to Jamie Bennet, the Director of Public Affairs for the NEA.
The New York Council for the Humanities is facing similar pressure. Founded in 1975 to support the humanities in New York with grants and cultural programming, the Foundation’ has given millions of dollars to non-profit organizations across the state.
In 2007 the Foundation provided nearly $445,000 to cultural, artistic, and historic projects across the state, including a $2,500 education grant and the services of two historians of Hudson Valley history to the Albany Institute of History and Art and a $2,500 gift to the State University of New York at Albany.
In 2010 the Foundation channeled 485,000 into programs across the state, including another $2,190 grant for the Albany Institute of History and Art and $2,250 for Historic Cherry Hill. However, Council officials fear its currently healthy cash flow, which increased $40,000 between 2007 and 2010, can’t remain so strong much longer.
Executive Director Sara Ogger notes that because the Council is predominantly funded by federal and state resources, it is susceptible to the same cuts that have stricken organizations in Albany and across the country. Her and her colleagues are anticipating that such cuts will soon extend to the Council as well.
“All of our programs are going to come under pressure from increased applicants and decreased funding,” said Ogger.
“We are bracing for the worst and we are probably going to have to make some cuts.”
Like the NEA, the Foundation has already seen its funds stretched thin by a marked increase in the number of grant applicants it has received, an increase Ogger attributes directly to the evaporation of alternate sources of funding across the country driving larger numbers of art organizations to fewer sources of funding.
With increased competition for smaller amounts of money, area organizations will have to get creative with their fundraising efforts if they hope to remain financially solvent.
The leaders of the Albany Institute of History and Art are already trying to identify new possible corporate donors as a result of their inability to persuade private donors to contribute greater sums during the current economic recession according to Ricci.
To help replace the impending loss of the Music Mobile’s $8,000 grant and her ailing van, Pelham is also brainstorming new sources of revenue, mindful that new grant money is not likely to be easily forthcoming.
So far she has come up with a fundraiser called “Running On Your Empties,” effectively a city-wide bottle drive targeting local businesses and colleges which produce large numbers of refundable beverage containers. The fundraiser is in its early stages, and Pelham anticipates it will be at least another month before it goes into operation.
Regardless of how the bottle fundraising goes, Pelham has no plans to put the Music Mobile on blocks anytime soon.
“I am worried that this cut to our funding could cause a decrease in our programming, she said.
“But we are not going to be stopped”
SUNY Holiday Criteria Misunderstood by Many Students
September 22, 2010
This fall semester the State University of New York at Albany suspended classes from September 8-10, a hiatus which left most students happy with the free time and many clueless as to the occasion.
‘Some sorta Jewish holidays I think- not sure which one. I just know I enjoy the days off” responded senior Joseph Stepansky when asked why classes were cancelled.
Like many students, Stepansky and Tolentino misidentify the suspended classes as University recognition of the Jewish holiday. Across the student body a similar misperception exists that the roughly five-week “Winter Break” in December and January is in celebration of the Christian holiday of Christmas and the weeklong “Spring Break” in April is for Christian Easter and Jewish Passover.
This misperception has led to charges against the University of granting preferred status toward Christian and Jewish holidays and shafting Muslim ones. SUNY at Albany has suspended classes during a Muslim holiday only once - during Eid al-Fitr in 2005.
In actuality, State University of New York (SUNY) policy towards religious holidays is driven by pragmatism and affords students of all religions the ability to celebrate holy occasions important to them.
SUNY at Albany, like all other SUNY schools, is officially forbidden by state law from commemorating religious holidays according to Media Relations Director Karl Luntta. Commemoration would include declaring a University-wide holiday for one of a particular religion, a violation of the constitutional separation of Church and state.
SUNY schools are permitted to suspend classes in anticipation of high levels of absenteeism or in recognition of state or national holidays, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Prominent religious holidays typically result in high levels of absenteeism, so classes are often cancelled around those days. The fall 2010 cancellation of classes during Rosh Hashanah is a prime example of this.
Holiday scheduling is handled by the University Senate, a legislative body composed of school faculty and staff. Student concerns and the make-up of the University are taken into consideration when crafting the academic calendar.
“There is a lot of debate and discussion that goes into these decisions,” Luntta said.
State law allows for individual students to request off their most sacred religious occasions without repercussions. The procedures for this are detailed in the New York Education Law, section 244-A, which mandates that teachers and administrators cooperate with students to reschedule tests and exempt them from class on such dates.
Bu this accommodation is deemed insufficient by some Muslims and non-Muslims alike who see suspension of classes as proper treatment for such occasions.
“I believe the current calendar isn't that fair” argues Amira Alkhatib, spokesperson for the University’s Muslim Student Association (MSA).
“If Christianity and Judaism are represented, why not complete the monotheistic trend and add Islamic holidays? After all, of all three, Islam is the most widely practiced religion in the world.”
Shannon Cohen, a junior and devout Jew, agrees with Alkhatib that the calendar isn’t reasonable and that the University should suspend classes during some Muslim holidays.
Cohen points out that few Jews are devout in their observance of holidays like Rosh Hashanah, and simply see the days-off as an opportunity to relax. Through personal experience she has found that putting section 244-A to use is difficult and believes it to be a poor substitute for a university-wide holiday.
Typically Muslim holidays fall far short of creating the conditions that demand a suspension of classes.
Absenteeism is considered high enough to cancel classes “if it is enough to disrupt the normal flow of academic life,” explains Luntta. He also notes that this determination “is not an exact science” because the University does not collect religious data on students. However, all available evidence suggests that there are vastly more Christian and Jewish students than Muslim attending SUNY at Albany.
Christians certainly compose a solid majority of the student body, as they do across the nation as a whole. Jewish students compose a substantial minority. In fact, SUNY at Albany is located in the most heavily Jewish state and likely has one of the largest Jewish enrollments of any university in the nation. The school also employees a large number of Jewish professors who might request time off as result of religious holidays
Of the school’s 13,100 undergraduates, 3,500 (26%) are estimated to be Jewish according to UAlbany Hillel, a prominent Jewish organization on campus. Hillel also claims that 1,500 (30%) of the school’s 4,900 graduate students are Jewish. Even if this figures are overestimates, the Jewish student body is considerable, enough so for its absence to be deemed disruptive to the normal operation of the school.
In sharp contrast, Muslims constitute a tiny portion of the student body. Ashraf Khater, Secretary of the MSA, estimates the number of practicing Muslims enrolled in the low hundreds, and a number more who are non-practicing. Thus, the absenteeism created by this small population has repeatedly been deemed non-disruptive to school operations.
At the SUNY College at Geneseo, Jewish students find themselves in the same position as Muslims do at SUNY at Albany because they constitute such a small percentage of the student body. Of SUNY at Geneseo’s 4,950 undergraduate students, about 300 (6%) are Jewish according to Geneseo Associate Dean Kerry McKeever. As a result, classes are not suspended during Jewish holidays.
“Were we to honor all religious holidays, we would fall into a morass of absenteeism and the difficulties that attend this” McKeever said in support of the Geneseo policy.
McKeever feels that the 244-A section of the Education Law is an appropriate option for students who need to miss school in observance of a holiday.
“Our policy is that we honor the individual requests of all students of all denominations” said McKeever.
“Basically, then, we believe that each faith has one or two holy days that are considered absolutely sacred, and we endeavor to attend to the needs of the students on that basis. Students, and staff, and faculty need to be reasonable in this negotiation, and we all try to be.”
This option is even more sensible for Muslim students when the practical difficulties of scheduling Islamic holidays are taken into account. Religious dates on the Christian, or Gregorian, calendar remain very constant over time. Christmas, for example, always falls on December 25. Both the Jewish and Muslim religions operate on lunisolar calendars, which cause the dates of religious holidays to shift from year to year.
What makes Jewish holidays more practical to schedule is that they shift less dramatically then Muslim ones according to Rabbi Mendel, Director of the Shabbos House Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center. He notes that Rosh Hashanah changes dates yearly but almost always falls in September.
Eid al-Adha, a holiday many Muslim students would prefer to have off, will fluctuate between September, October, and November over the coming five academic years. Furthermore, the Muslim Sunni and Shia sects use slightly different calendars, which can cause divergence in the holidays of the two groups and would further complicate the academic calendar
Khater doesn’t find the current academic calendar to be unfair to Muslims when considering their small population and the difficulty of accommodating Islamic holidays. He has invoked section 244-A with success in the past and found teachers and faculty accommodating to his religious needs.
He still hopes that as the Muslim community grows on campus they will eventually gain enough clout, like the Jewish religious minority, to have class suspensions scheduled over Islamic holidays.
The MSA isn’t waiting long for that time to come. Undeterred by the impracticality of suspending classes during Muslim holiday, the group plans to push the University Senate to suspend classes for Eid al-Adha in 2011. Khater is confident the proposal will make headway.
“More days off from school would be great, right?” he asked with a laugh.