Fallout from the federal government shutdown in October has touched Vassar College in small but discernible ways. That 16-day period brought to light all the instances students and the College—despite being a private institution—rely on a functioning federal government.
In the final days of September, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, demanding a delay to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (known commonly as Obamacare), failed to reach an accord to pass a spending bill. This put a cork in the flow of government funding and triggered a shutdown beginning Oct. 1.
Seeing their budgets frozen, federal, agencies ceased all services and work considered non-emergency. Unable to pay their employees, roughly 800,000 federal workers were furloughed for at least part of the shutdown. Government offices were emptied and national parks and museums were closed.
The third-longest shutdown in U.S. history was lifted when Democrat and Republican leaders in the Senate settled on a plan to fund the government through mid-January. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives voted to pass the bill, which President Obama signed shortly after midnight on Oct. 17.
At Vassar, the impact that the College experienced was either minimal or only temporary.
A recruiter for the Peace Corps was scheduled to visit the college on Oct. 3 to meet with students considering joining the federal organization after graduation. Assistant Director for Employer Relations at the Vassar College Career Development Office (CDO), Susan Smith, said she got a call from the Peace Corps the very first day of the shutdown. A recruiter from the New York Regional Peace Corps offices told her that he could not attend as his organization had gone into automatic shutdown.
“We sent an email blast to all juniors and seniors as soon as we received the news on Oct. 1 and posted signs on the Faculty Commons doors on Oct. 3 in case anyone missed the email,” wrote Smith in an emailed statement.
After the shutdown ended and the Peace Corps resumed its full operations, Smith was able to reschedule a new meeting with the recruiter now slated for Thursday, Nov. 7;Vassar students Director of Financial Aid For other offices on campus, an extended shutdown at the wrong time of the year has the potential to be catastrophic. Director of Financial Aid Jessica Bernier said those who receive financial aid in form of Federal Pell Grants and Federal Student Loans were not affected by the shutdown. Those programs are financed through the end of the academic year, [June 2014] and the day-to-day operations in Vassar’s Financial Aid Office did not change during the 16-day shutdown.
This was welcome news for Bernier. She wrote in an emailed statement, “Though we all hate to see the government shutdown, I have to admit that it was a relief to see that the processing of federal aid was not affected by the shutdown, as this may have impacted the ability of millions of students from attending college.”
In addition to the funds for student financial aid, the college also receives federal grants for research and institutional projects. According to Director of Corporate, Foundation and Government Relations in the Grants Office Gary Hohenberger, Vassar maintains $6.5 million in active government awards from various federal agencies.
During the shutdown these grants remained funded, but the services that supported the recipients vanished, causing uncertainty and many hanging questions. The National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other agencies that support the college furloughed employees, put operations on hold and switched websites off.
“We couldn’t call anyone for questions, we couldn’t refer to any documentation,” explained Hohenberger.
Federal awards are subject to a long list of statutes and rules. Professors normally would turn to federal resources to check if the allocations of their awards are in accordance with regulation. The shutdown, however, made these guidelines inaccessible, and some professors chose to delay their projects because of this.
For others, the full extent of the shutdown was not visible until later. Head of Access Services Barbara Durniak, along with the team of Research Librarians at the Vassar College Main Library help students find the sources they need for their papers and projects. Several of the online resources students commonly use in their research for class or their senior theses were suspended, casualties of the shutdown.
Federal agency-run websites like the United States Census Bureau website , the Bureau of Economic Analysis website and all the sites sponsored by the Library of Congress were shut down with the rest of the federal government. Their servers, which like a federal office or national park need public funding to be maintained, were turned off.
Durniak described how in a research consultation one day during the shutdown she was searching online for some bibliographical information on the Handbook of Latin American-Studies website and was surprised to find the information unavailable. The Library of Congress sponsors the Handbook of Latin-American-Studies Online Catalog.
She said, “I was working with a thesis student and there was a ‘Sorry We’re Closed’ message on the website. It brought home the impact of the shutdown.”
However, every time they encountered a problem working with a student, the research librarians said they found the data and sources they needed by turning to private companies. “There are a lot of alternative sources of information in the commercial world,” said Durniak.
Although the effects of the shutdown never became catastrophic for the librarians, they told how they were glad when it ended. Said Research Librarian Gretchen Lieb, “I think we were all delayed, and thankfully it’s over so there weren’t any disasters for libraries, but there was growing anxiety about what to do.”
While the shutdown has ended, it is possible that some inconveniences surrounding the availability of federal data may persist in the future.
During the 16 days of shutdown, no federal agencies were unable to collect new data. This backlog could delay the release of certain information such as state and national unemployment numbers for the month of September.
Still, the Research librarians believe these delays won’t hinder any student projects. “I don’t think that’s probably going to impact any student at Vassar. I don’t think they are looking at the data in that much detail,” said Durniak.
Durniak and Lieb also said it was lucky too that the dates of the shutdown fell partly during October Break when the library quiets down and when it is months before many Senior projects are due.
Elizabeth Ruiz ’14 was one such student relying on data from federal agency websites for her senior project. A biology major, Ruiz is developing a management plan for dealing with invasive species on Vassar’s Farm and Ecological Preserve. Her project follows the models created by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), a sub-agency of the Department of the Interior.
This information became unavailable all the FWS servers and their sponsored websites shutdown went dark. It wasn’t just a matter of missing the right guides or spreadsheets. According to Ruiz, she was also unable to get a hold of the people she needed at the United States Department of Agriculture
“[T]he real problem came with moving forward with some other groundwork details. Part of my project is to establish a cohesive list of contacts for this project and future work on the preserve. Of course, they were furloughed, so that getting in touch with these outside parties was stalled,” wrote Ruiz in an email.
What did catch Ruiz off-guard were the shutdown’s rippling consequences. An office being closed in D.C. can lead to a dozen more office being closed in cities across the country. The Department of the Interior is comprised of 16 branch bureaus or offices, all which experienced complete or partial closure. 81% of their over 72,000 employees were furloughed during the shutdown according to CNN.
“I hadn’t considered the more localized implications of these resources being suspended,” Ruiz wrote, adding “I was startled at how far reaching the shutdown was.”