Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng announced Wednesday afternoon that a new community liaison and a new diversity officer will be coming to the university soon. Cheng made the announcement at a town hall meeting she holds at least once every semester.
NAU’s first diversity officer, Carmen Phelps, resigned in March after being on the job for about seven months. The office was part of a list of 22 demands made by NAU students in December 2015 to increase the school’s diversity awareness and to make students of diverse backgrounds and races or from the LGBTQ community feel more welcome. Phelps’ position was part of Cheng’s cabinet and was supposed to bring student concerns directly to Cheng.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Cheng said that many improvements have been made in services for diverse students in the university’s Office of Inclusion and Multicultural Student Services. Students now not only have access to study space and mentoring/counseling programs in the IMSS office but a new organization, NAU Cares. The organization is supposed to be a team of facility, staff and students that can mentor and counsel students and collaborate on making NAU a more diversity-friendly campus, she said.
Cheng added that university officials plan to meet in a special session with the Flagstaff City Council in January on problems and concerns between the city and the university. They will also discuss plans for a new city/university liaison the university and city hope to have hired before the end of the school year.
The city and university have been negotiating possible changes to the job description for the liaison position since the first person hired for the position, Karissa Morgan, resigned in May. Morgan was hired to fill the position in August 2016.
The position was created and funded jointly by the city of Flagstaff and NAU last year as a go-between for students living off-campus and their Flagstaff neighbors. It came in the wake of complaints of rowdy parties in Southside and at The Grove, leading the council to pass a tougher party ordinance. One party in the fall of 2015 on Franklin Avenue spawned a fight that involved the shooting of four NAU students, one fatally.
In May, city spokesperson Meg Roederer said that the vacancy was to be filled by an internal search involving only city of Flagstaff and NAU employees.
Cheng also answered a handful of questions from the public and students online and in person.
One student asked about protections for students who were part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as Dreamers.
“It’s a big deal,” Cheng acknowledged.
She said she has signed on to a letter from more than 400 other universities and colleges in the U.S. asking President Donald Trump and Congress to reinstate the program. She also said that she has signed on to a letter from the Arizona Board of Regents and other Arizona Universities to Arizona’s congressional delegation asking them to support the program.
In the meantime, ABOR and the state universities are planning to fight a lawsuit filed by the Arizona Attorney General that challenges the universities’ right to charge in-state tuition for DACA students, Cheng said. While preparing for that fight, NAU is seeking outside help to gather funds that would cover the difference in tuition for DACA students should the universities lose the lawsuit.
A Flagstaff resident who didn’t identify herself asked if the university planned more student housing projects for the south side of campus.
Cheng said the university recently opened one new dormitory, Sky View Hall, this year and that the new honors college dorm should be open in fall 2018. The university doesn’t currently have plans to build more student housing.
“We’re letting the dust settle on our current construction so we can make sure that we don’t overbuild,” Cheng said.
She also pointed out that the south side of campus doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure for water, sewer and other utilities yet.
Cheng said NAU couldn’t force all of its students to live on campus even if it wished. Students need to make their own decision.
She added the university currently has more than 9,000 beds on campus, and with new projects like The Hub and Fremont Station adding thousands more beds off-campus, there should be more than enough supply.
Another student asked about the increase in minimum wage for student workers on campus and if students at all wage levels could expect an increase.
Cheng announced a change in the lowest paid student and temporary employee minimum wage levels from $8.05 to $8.50 an hour last month. The university also increased the wages of at least 100 regular full-time employees from $10.50 to $12 an hour.
Cheng said most student jobs pay more than the minimum wage already and pointed out that Social Security benefits are not deducted from most student jobs on campus.
Jane Kuhn, the university’s vice president of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, said her office was working on a review of student employment positions across all of the university’s departments. The review found a number of discrepancies in wages, titles and skills called for in similar student jobs in different departments. The Student Affairs Office is working on a plan that would make sure that similar positions in different departments, such as office assistants, require the same skill sets and are paid the same wage.
A third student asked about traffic control on campus. Staff said that the university was working on a multi-modal study of traffic on campus to determine how to improve streets and traffic flow.
Despite having no authority to regulate the transportation of hazardous materials and scientific consensus that the public health risks are low, the Flagstaff City Council is moving forward with a resolution against the hauling of uranium through the city.
The action came in response to a citizen petition with close to 150 signatures that asked the council to consider a resolution opposing the transport of uranium ore from Canyon Mine south of Tusayan to White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah, and to explore the creation of an ordinance opposing the transport of uranium ore on Flagstaff roadways.
Canyon Mine owner Energy Fuels Resources has not yet begun to mine or haul uranium ore, but it was given approval by the Forest Service in 1986 to haul the ore to the processing mill via two route options, one of which would include Interstate 40 and U.S. Highway 89 through Flagstaff.
During a work session Oct. 10, the council heard nearly an hour and a half of public comment that expressed overwhelming opposition to the hauling of uranium ore through the city.
However, the Flagstaff City Council is preempted from regulating the transport of the uranium ore, even on city streets, Assistant to the City Manager Caleb Blaschke said at the meeting. It is the United States Department of Transportation that oversees and regulates all transportation of hazardous materials, Blaschke said.
Blaschke did say that other cities have been able to request that hazardous materials be hauled at certain times of the day, which could mean requiring materials to be transported at night. Two locations within the city of Phoenix have required the rerouting of hazmat trucks, but the new routes remain within a few miles of the preferred route, Blaschke said.
City Attorney Sterling Solomon said other municipalities have opted to pass resolutions against uranium hauling in the city, but the resolutions do not have legal authority to stop the hauling. Solomon said if the city were to try to pass a legally binding ordinance to stop the hauling, issues would arise with the federal government. Solomon said the implications of such an action would have to be discussed in a confidential session with the council instead of in front of the public.
Councilwoman Celia Barotz suggested the city add the issue to its list of legislative priorities, which would allow the city to ask its lobbyists to lobby for local control of uranium transport.
At meeting’s end, Barotz, along with Mayor Coral Evans, Vice Mayor Jamie Whelan and councilmembers Eva Putzova and Jim McCarthy requested city staff work to draft a resolution against hauling of uranium ore through the city. The majority of the council also asked the city attorney’s office to look into options that would be stronger than a resolution, such as a legally binding ordinance to consider at a later date.
During last week's Flagstaff City Council meeting, many public comments focused on the potential health risks associated with uranium ore.
According to two local researchers who study the health impacts of uranium, those risks are small.
“In the grand scheme of things, transport of ore within the city is at the low end of risk,” said Diane Stearns, a professor of biochemistry and the associate vice president for research at Northern Arizona University, whose research focuses on how uranium causes cancer. Flagstaff residents who smoke, for example, or who spend too much time in the sun have a much higher risk of developing cancer, Stearns said.
The most health damage from uranium results from frequent exposures to a significant amount of the material, but that type of exposure tends to be in an occupational setting during uranium mining or processing of the ore, Stearns said.
Under circumstances where a person on the street might come into contact with a tiny amount of uranium ore on a very infrequent basis, the risk is much lower, she said. The average uranium content in the ore being hauled from Canyon Mine, for example, is estimated at 1.08 percent, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
As the director of the Uranium Impact Assessment Program with the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, Chris Shuey studies the health impacts of uranium exposure on the Navajo Nation, where he has found things like an increased risk of chronic disease are linked to exposure to uranium and other radioactive materials from abandoned mines.
When it comes to the hauling of uranium ore through communities like Williams and Flagstaff and across the Navajo Nation, Shuey offered a similar assessment to Stearns.
“I don't want to sound like you would ever minimize an accident involving transportation of uranium ore, especially in an urban area, but the risks of exposure and therefore the health effects are pretty low,” Shuey said.
Shuey and Stearns also said people don’t have much to worry about if they would find themselves driving their car behind or next to a truck with a load of uranium ore.
“I would still argue hypothetically off the top of my head that driving in a car you would have a greater likelihood of getting in a car accident than getting cancer by sitting in a car next to a truck for a couple of minutes,” Stearns said. That radiation exposure would be less than getting an X-ray, she said.
Shuey too, said the increase in radiation in such a situation would be negligible.
Curtis Moore, spokesman with Canyon Mine owner Energy Fuels Resources, also brought up the need to evaluate the ore hauling in relation to other materials being transported along roads, highways and railways through town.
“People need to keep things in perspective. Natural uranium ore poses much lower risks than other substances commonly hauled on our public roads, including gasoline, diesel, chlorine, acid, and other chemicals,” Moore wrote in an email. “The public can be assured that our ore trucks will be operated safely and responsibly, and except for the required labeling, they will be essentially indistinguishable from other commercial trucks operating on the road every day.”