CCRI observatory get facelift, open house greeted by protestors

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An almost equal number of protesters and members of the public showed up for the Saturday open house of the recently renovated Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory at the Knight Campus of Community College of Rhode Island. About 24 students and faculty protested a recent change in the staffing of the observatory.

“Hell no, we won’t go!” they chanted. “Brendan Britton is our bro!”

Associate Professor Britton, who for 10 years has hosted the public open nights at the observatory and also used the telescope intensively for student research projects, has been replaced by Jack Owens, a physics professor.

The change was made after Britton protested when the administration said they were reducing his compensation for the work, which Britton said violates his contract. The faculty union has protested the change.

In a statement released Monday, the college said, “Annually, the college budgeted $6,000 for the public observatory nights. After learning that the budget had been overspent by 100 percent, the college engaged Associate Professor Britton in conversations regarding the budget for these events, including a proposed increase to $9,000. Ultimately, we were not able to come to an agreement and Associate Professor Britton declined to continue in this non-faculty role. He remains employed by the college as a faculty member and will continue to oversee the operation of the observatory for classes and public outreach.”

The statement goes on to read, “Dr. Jack Owens, professor of physics who previously ran the college’s open observation nights, has agreed to take on this part-time, non-faculty position for the upcoming year for $9,000.”

That’s not the way the protestors see it.

“This is just another example of more bad decisions by the administration,” said faculty union president Steve Murray while taking part in the protest. “They can spend $1.8 million on new doors and locks that we don’t need, but they can’t find the money for this? It makes no sense.”

The difference between what Britton and the union say he should be paid and what the administrators offered him is about $3,500 per year.

“Now they’re trying to save nickels and dimes,” Murray said. “I hope they’ll do the right thing.”

Students at the protest were eager to tell reporters why they were there.

“Students from here are going on to four-year programs in astrophysics, thanks to Britton,” a student said. “They’re going to UMass Dartmouth, and UMass Amherst, and Columbia – that’s an Ivy League school. There’s a graduate from here who works at NASA. And that’s because of the work they did here with Britton.”

Others said they had been inspired to change their major after taking courses with Britton, and a creative-writing graduate said he writes about science now thanks to the inspiration he got in his astronomy class, when Britton spent hours helping him to understand the math.

Kacie Hyland, president of CCRI’s Astronomy Club, said her group has been shut out of the observatory and will fall behind on the training they had planned with Britton over the summer using the facility’s imaging camera and spectrograph. The replacement faculty member who has been put in place to run the observatory doesn’t have the same expertise as Britton, Hyland said.

In its response the college said, “We know that Associate Professor Britton is well-respected by his students, peers and members of the public who have attended events at the observatory, and we were disappointed we could not come to an agreement about these non-faculty duties. However, as a state-funded institution, we have an obligation to ensure that our programs work within their budgetary limitations and that our limited resources are spent effectively.”

Saturday’s protest was not the first the college has heard of student concerns over Britton.

CCRI President Meghan Hughes met with Student Government members twice since the Student Government Senate passed a no-confidence vote in her and Vice President Rosemary Costigan last month. No further meetings are scheduled at this time.

The observatory was open to the public from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Saturday, to show off recently completed renovations to the facility built in 1978. Countertops and cabinets and seating have been upgraded and leaks in the dome fixed. According to CCRI 30 people, including families with children, attended the open house. They were given sun-safe glasses and when there was a break in the clouds a chance to view the sun. The purpose of the daytime opening was to show off the $45,000 in renovations as well as orient the public to the observatory’s location that is off the East Avenue entrance to the college.

The observatory is open to the public Wednesday nights, depending on weather. The scheduled opening for tomorrow is 9 p.m.

“I’d like this to go to arbitration as soon as possible,” Britton told the Beacon. “Then whatever they decide, I’ll accept it. I love my job, I love what I do. I’m really grateful that so many friends and supporters showed up here today. I hope we can resolve this and I can get back to doing what I love to do."

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