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April 16, 2004

The Foothold of Antæus

The ancients told of the awesome giant and wrestler Antæus, the son of the sea god Poseidon and the Earth. Antæus was renowned for his invincibility. As long as he kept in contact with the fundamental source of his strength, his mother Earth, he could not be beaten. If thrown, he would rise from the Earth with renewed vigor. He challenged all comers to wrestle, their lives to be forfeit if they lost. Literally fighting on his home turf, he could not be conquered. So powerful was Antæus that it took the legendary hero Hercules to defeat him-which he did by lifting Antæus off the ground and keeping him aloft 1.

As with all myths, the story of Antæus has an instructive purpose. What lessons might New Paltz draw from it-especially if there is wisdom to be gleaned in identifying with Antæus as opposed to Hercules? Lest you think it perverse to begin an address meant to inspire with the tale of a seemingly-unconquerable giant who is, in fact, vanquished, let me suggest that the story of Antæus offers valuable guidance to our college. Guidance considerably more subtle than "Don't mess with a demigod!"

Like Antæus, New Paltz must root itself in its fundamental strength and character. We must recognize-and cherish-and then make full use of-our true assets.

The key to the myth of Antæus lies in what made him such an extraordinary opponent. His primal connection to the source of his power. His rootedness, and his awareness of what he could achieve as long as it was maintained. Like Antæus, New Paltz must root itself in its fundamental strength and character. We must recognize-and cherish-and then make full use of-our true assets. We must focus on our chosen niche, on our comparative advantage. And, as we do this, we shall succeed in venues far more important than wrestling matches.

To be securely rooted and to play to our strengths requires first that we know ourselves and that we embrace our surroundings and history. It then requires that we be clear and wise about where we want to go-and how to get there. Today we purposefully celebrate such knowledge and set such direction.

A Sense of Where and What We Are

If ever there were a college shaped by the physical space it inhabits, with a profound "sense of where it is,"2 surely that college is New Paltz. To work here, to study here, or to live here is to be awed by the brilliance of the setting chosen by the founders of this town and college.

We are supremely blessed by location. Close enough to the greatest metropolis in the world to take advantage of its energy and sophistication, yet far enough removed to retain a sense of rural peace, our home is a small town where neighbors actually know one another and share a stake in the region's health. A town where tolerance and free inquiry have held sway since a dozen Huguenot families came to secure religious freedom in the New World. For 326 years now, a spirit of discovery and a refusal to be hidebound by old ways of doing or thinking, have made New Paltz educationally fertile soil.

Above all we are influenced by the extraordinary history and physical beauty of our home. The Hudson River and its valley have been in turn the hunting and fishing grounds of Native Americans, the path of Dutch explorers, the seat of patroons, the site of fierce Revolutionary War battles, a gateway (along with the Erie Canal) to the Midwest, a station on the Underground Railroad, a smoky chamber in America's industrial workshop, the castle keep of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt-and today, a resurgent spot for recreation and residence. Our river and mountains have inspired generations of artists-from Hudson River School painters such as Frederick Church to the Byrdcliff Artists colony, to Woodstock's George Bellows. Poets and authors have also captured the magic of this area. Washington Irving, the chronicler of old New York, once observed:

Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill Mountains... When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.3
I am repeatedly struck by the number of staff and students who come to New Paltz and stay because of the outdoor life here.

Right behind us, the Shawangunk Ridge and Mohonk Mountain loom over the college, ever-present reminders of the glory of nature and the transience of human concerns-and unrivalled magnets for athletic adventurers and seekers of solitude. I am repeatedly struck by the number of staff and students who come to New Paltz and stay because of the outdoor life here. The Gunks are in a real sense among the playing fields of our college.

Modern climbers marvel at the hardness of the Shawangunk cliffs, held together by a quartz "cement."4 Such a rugged and unyielding geological base is also part of the economic foundation of our region. Beyond the boulders that stud Ulster County farmland, natural cement rock mined in neighboring Rosendale made the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge and the base of the Statue of Liberty.5

The academic foundation of this college is no less durable and equally a source of New York pride. Our scholarly roots run deep and they are securely anchored in this rocky turf.

We must never forget that this college began as a normal school, and that the training of gifted and committed teachers has always been-and will always be-close to our heart. Yet even in the days when New Paltz focused entirely on teacher education, we carved out an academic foothold and Antæus-like source of strength. New Paltz was especially renowned for producing art educators. Even then, the college's identification with art and culture was clear. And we see that legacy today in nationally-recognized programs in fields such as metalworking and ceramics. We see that legacy in the extraordinary actors who have trod the boards of campus stages, such as John and Aida Turturro and Michael Badalucco.

As an avid student of the college's history, I am also struck by the wisdom of a series of defining decisions-made while we were still a normal school-to embrace the liberal arts and sciences as our intellectual core. In the late 19th century, the college added courses in psychology, geography, foreign languages, design, American literature and nature study.6 By 1938, the explicit aims of the college included "develop[ing] the student himself as a liberally educated and cultured person" and "promot[ing] sound independent scholarship."7 And long before the recent imposition of New York State requirements to the same effect, students in our School of Education completed traditional academic majors alongside their teaching methods courses.

One further distinguishing feature: our longstanding commitment to a diverse student body. New Paltz was an early leader in international education-which is why we have more foreign students attending classes here and more New Paltz students studying abroad than any other SUNY college. We were an early leader in recruiting and graduating significant numbers of minority students. We were an early leader in partnering with community colleges, opening an avenue to success to those whose financial or family circumstances compelled them to start college close to home.

photos of John Neumaier, Stanley Coffman, Alice Chandler and Roger Bowen

Over our 175-year history, countless faculty and staff have labored passionately to help New Paltz-and its students-succeed. I want to acknowledge in particular the work of the preceding four presidents, who are still cherished members of our community:

John Neumaier, whose humane spirit and sense of justice are part of our culture;
Stanley Coffman, whose hard but necessary choices allowed us to match available resources to institutional needs;
Alice Chandler, who put academic excellence at the core of everything we do and stand for; and
Roger Bowen, who nurtured a student-centered community across the campus.

I am humbled by the role that now passes to me. But I draw inspiration from the words of author Maya Angelou, who graced our campus last autumn. Humility, she says, means "someone went before me, and I am here to try to make a path for someone who is yet to come."8

A Sense of What We Shall Be

My central theme today is that New Paltz will succeed as an institution to the extent that we fully appreciate and exploit our unique strengths. Higher education is not known for such strategic focus, but other settings offer striking models.

My first example is Princeton University's basketball team. For decades, Princeton has been "the Team No One Wants to Play,"9 racking up Ivy League championships and routinely defeating squads with more gifted athletes. The players master a highly-structured half-court offense that rests on teamwork and razor-sharp skills. They keep the ball in constant motion, patiently awaiting an opening to score through a backdoor cut or a shot from the perimeter. The basketball mechanics are beside the point-but the underlying philosophy is not. Princeton wins because it understands that its fundamental strength is the discipline and unselfishness of its players, and it relentlessly exploits that asset. Think here of an Antæus who can dribble!

Another example comes from the California coast. Alice Waters, the owner and chef of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, helped change the way America eats. A gifted entrepreneur, Waters opened Chez Panisse because she wanted to "feed her friends."10 But only the finest, freshest, healthiest, and local ingredients would do. When she didn't like the fish available in stores, she went straight to the fishermen. When she had trouble finding baby lettuces as good as those from France, she grew her own. Chez Panisse offers one fixed-price menu that changes daily. And because the food is so extraordinary, people make reservations months in advance, not even knowing what will be served.11 Waters succeeded by tenaciously adhering to a core idea. Think here of an Antæus who grasps the power of food!

The preceding anecdotes reveal no desire to challenge UConn on the hardwood or the Culinary Institute in the kitchen! But I do see an unassailable niche for us.

New Paltz is poised to be an elite, highly selective public college-the site of the finest and most intellectually engaging undergraduate education in the State University of New York and a worthy rival to fine liberal arts colleges across the nation.

New Paltz is poised to be an elite, highly selective public college-the site of the finest and most intellectually engaging undergraduate education in the State University of New York and a worthy rival to fine liberal arts colleges across the nation. I intend that we fully realize such quality within the next decade, and that we make our case for the stature commensurate with our academic heft.

Let me speak about what achieving this vision will demand. Obviously, precise goals will come out of rich dialogue across our community-and to this end I have been meeting with every academic department and administrative unit, with further conversations and strategic planning exercises to follow. But even at this stage in my assessment, clear directions are emerging.

A primary emphasis will be continuing to enhance the academic profile of our students. For 14 consecutive years, New Paltz has had more applicants than any other college in SUNY. In 2003 we only offered admission to 39% of our applicants. We have become a "hot school." But we neither take such popularity for granted nor treat it as a guarantor of future success. Instead, we have consciously drawn on the growing demand for a New Paltz education to bolster the quality of entering students. In 1999, 59% of New Paltz freshmen had high school grades or standardized test scores that placed them in the two highest SUNY selectivity categories. Last year 83% of our freshmen came from those groupings. The numbers will be even better this year, and they must continue to rise until we become just the third SUNY school-along with Binghamton and Geneseo-to have the bulk of our undergraduates come from the most selective category. Even more gratifying than rising SAT scores, however, is testimony from faculty that our students are more talented and more engaged in class.

Our thrust, at the undergraduate level, will be on quality not quantity. I do not expect the college to grow. But I do expect to increasingly find ourselves in competition for strong students with excellent public and private colleges and universities across the Northeast. That competition is fierce, and aspects of it will require our concerted attention.

I spoke earlier of New Paltz's historic embrace of diversity as a source of educational quality. We shall not compromise on this commitment. I am proud that last fall's freshman class was not just our strongest-ever academically but also our most diverse in terms of numbers of minority students. In the coming years, the college must realize diversity in all its dimensions, drawing students of every color, across the socio-economic spectrum, from all over New York, from neighboring states, and from around the globe. We want students-and faculty and staff-with a kaleidoscope of academic foci-from microbiologists to baritones to anthropologists-and our community must have room for every ideological and intellectual stripe. The vigorous interplay of diverse backgrounds and views makes this a more lively and more human place.

To attract-and retain-talented undergraduates, we must also offer academic and extra-curricular opportunities found at top-tier colleges.

I am especially interested in involving students in research under the guidance of faculty mentors. Undergraduates who work side-by-side with faculty in the lab, the library, or the studio are often transformed. They recognize and gain confidence in their own talent, become aware of new career possibilities, and acquire intellectual and personal connections that last a lifetime. We should be actively encouraging our best undergraduates to continue their studies; indeed, one of the ways I would have New Paltz gauge its success is by the number of students we place into doctoral and professional programs. Among my priorities as president will be growing the size of our Honors Program (in which participants do independent research) and raising external funds for collaborative faculty-student research.

I expect that over time we shall become an even more residential campus, with more students benefiting from the programs in our residence halls. When we complete the new hall that opens this fall, we must turn our attention to building apartment-style housing for juniors, seniors and graduate students and refurbishing our older residences. The kinds of students we are now able to attract have many college options, and they expect a higher level of services than we have been accustomed to provide. Over the last several years, we have begun to address these deficits: a 57,000-square-foot athletic center is under construction; a spanking new Heath and Psychological Counseling Center opened last month, and our main dining hall was renovated last year.

But more remains if our rhetoric of student-centeredness is to be reality. Our Student Union Building is obsolete and unattractive. We need a more robust and visible intramural and outdoor recreation program that takes full advantage of the nearby mountains. We have made it easier for our students to take classes when they need them, but I want to see more students completing their general education earlier and graduating in four years. We need to make it possible for students to pay their bills and do all their business with the college online. We need to provide more internships so students can gain practical experience across a range of careers. Because today's graduates are likely to change jobs several times over their professional lives, our Career Resources Center should be prized by both students and alumni.

While we are a predominantly undergraduate institution, we must ensure that our graduate programs thrive and evolve wisely. We shall continue to offer outstanding master's degrees to teachers and administrators. And our two newest schools have missions directly linked to the economic future of the Hudson Valley. I would have our School of Science and Engineering supply this area with a growing stream of creative electrical and computer engineers. Our Business School has made itself a smart niche filling local-and international-demand for strategic managers.

Perhaps most worrisome, at 17:1, our student-to-faculty ratio is still high, and too many of our classes are taught by part-time faculty. In the immediate future, among our principal goals must be driving this ratio down closer to 14:1 and hiring more full-time faculty. Even then, we shall lag behind our aspirational peers. But we shall have begun gaining ground on them, and we hold advantages of our own in this race.

Our faculty and professional staff are our greatest long-term asset, as well as the repository of our culture. We ask much from them. And in turn we must provide appropriate support.

The New Paltz of our future, like the New Paltz of our past, will be an institution where teaching is at the forefront of a faculty career. But to remain a gifted teacher over the arc of that career, faculty need to be meaningfully immersed in their disciplines. This is why our faculty are expected to engage in scholarly or creative work that meets the standards of peer review. I recognize that the college has a concomitant obligation to facilitate scholarship with travel funds, sabbatical leaves, help in obtaining and administering grants, and the blocks of time that scholars and artists need to stay intellectually active. Since my arrival at New Paltz I have identified research support as a pressing need and fundraising priority. It will continue to be so.

As we shepherd our human resources we shall also pay careful attention to New Paltz's physical plant. A great college is so much more than bricks and mortar, but we must have first-class facilities, too-especially since we shall increasingly benchmark ourselves against institutions outside SUNY that have beautiful and well-functioning campuses. The passage of a multi-year capital budget for the State University is a crucial first step. Private fundraising and subsequent state support will let us go even further. Over the next decade we must take on projects such as:

  • Completing the renovation of the van den Berg Learning Center;
  • Creation of a Student Union worthy of our student body;
  • An upgrade and likely addition to the Library; and
  • The total rehabilitation of Old Main-the historic heart of our campus which should also be its aesthetic gem.

A significant part of the President's job is raising money, and I assume that duty eagerly. It is a pleasure to share the story of an institution that so richly deserves support. With the help of many in this room-and with the help of others who do not yet appreciate us as they will!-we shall raise more private and public money for New Paltz than ever before. A comprehensive Capital Campaign surely lies in our future. For now, reflecting both our push for academic quality and our pledge to educational access, I shall insist that endowed scholarships for students (including stipends for MFA candidates) remain at the top of our fundraising list. Such scholarships will be a critical ingredient in our efforts to attract the finest students.

We have sometimes been too shy as an institution, too reluctant to speak forthrightly about the academic rigor of our programs, too willing to accept outdated and inaccurate stereotypes of the college. Such reticence is over.

We have sometimes been too shy as an institution, too reluctant to speak forthrightly about the academic rigor of our programs, too willing to accept outdated and inaccurate stereotypes of the college. Such reticence is over. The academic groves tended by our predecessors have borne choice fruit, and I relish the opportunity to proclaim to all who will listen that New Paltz is an excellent, serious, student-nurturing college…and that we are getting better all the time.

Those who know us know our quality. But there are additional opportunities we can seize to make more friends and allies. Our intellectual offerings-such as symposia and lectures-are one important avenue leading the community to our campus. The arts must be another. The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art is positioned as a "can't miss" stop for those interested in the region's artistic heritage. Other campus attractions include our PianoSummer Festival, Summer Repertory Theatre, music and dance performances throughout the year, and our new Arts Week. Imagine a day trip that combines a visit to the Dorsky, a hike at Lake Minnewaska, browsing the village's eclectic shops, and dining at one of our local bistros. The East Bank of the Hudson may have its mansions, its Dia:Beacon and so forth, but the West Bank-our Rive Gauche, if you will!-has its own marvels, from historic Kingston and Huguenot Street, to the Woodstock art scene, to the Mohonk Mountain House, to this distinguished college.

Just as we strive to be student-centered, we also need to be public-centered in our role as host. To greet visitors we shall create a gateway-a more obvious entrance-to our campus. Visitors should then be ushered into our front parlor-a welcome center-where they can ask directions, buy a parking pass or tickets to a campus event, and learn more about our academic and cultural offerings.

Other needs and projects will certainly emerge. But taken together, these strategic initiatives will move us far toward becoming the elite public college we intend to be.

Constancy to Purpose

The statesman Benjamin Disraeli once advised that "[t]he secret of success is constancy to purpose."12 Each of us has a purpose-a charge-to fulfill in achieving our goals for New Paltz.

Our students' task is simple: Take full advantage of the extraordinary education available here. Then tell your family and friends how we have delivered on our promises to you.

To our alumni: Remember how this institution changed your life for the better. Return often and share that story, especially with students. Help us forge new links in our blue-and-orange chain.

To my faculty colleagues, I say: Keep helping our students learn and grow intellectually, and keep deriving fulfillment from the joy of scholarship and creative work.

To my administrative colleagues: Continue to make it possible for us to achieve our mission outside the classroom. Let our students see that you are role models of lifelong learners who practice community citizenship.

And my responsibilities will be to articulate New Paltz's mission and needs in compelling terms; to be a spur for academic excellence; to nurture and safeguard the highest values of our community; to be our most fervent booster and public face; and to remember that this presidency is a trust that can only be met by putting the college's needs first.

Our College Council has a difficult duty: Pose questions that help us realize our strength. We also ask you to support the college proudly in the civic arena.

And my responsibilities will be to articulate New Paltz's mission and needs in compelling terms; to be a spur for academic excellence; to nurture and safeguard the highest values of our community; to be our most fervent booster and public face; and to remember that this presidency is a trust that can only be met by putting the college's needs first.

Fortunately, I have had superb teachers, many of whom are here. My father, whose 40+ years at a rival SUNY college showed me the impact gifted faculty can have on students' lives. My mother, who taught me empathy and diligence. My sisters, who taught me to play nicely with others! I like to think some of my leadership skills come from my grandmother, a Captain in the WACs in World War II. I know for certain that my career has been shaped by my mentor, Hugo Sonnenschein, who showed me how to give the very best care to an institution you love, and whose counsel and friendship are priceless.

I owe many thanks today-to Chancellor King, for giving me a cherished opportunity to serve New Paltz; to Harry Scherr and our College Council, for the confidence you have shown in me; to our local political leaders present today: Senator Bonacic, Assemblyman Miller, Supervisor Wilen and John Bellucci from the Governor's Office. You understand the centrality of this college to the economic and cultural life of this region. I am also proud of-and thankful to-our students, many of whom scrimp and save and sweat to earn a New Paltz degree. To the phalanx of friends and former colleagues in this room-please know how touched I am by your presence. But my greatest-incalculable-debt is to my wife, Jane, and our children, Jill and Craig. The three of you have stood beside me and encouraged me over a path that wound its way from Cortland to Princeton to Cambridge to Washington to Philadelphia-to some of the same places again!-to Chicago and to Albany. I am awed at your love and patience. How glorious to finally be home!

New Paltz, rooted like the giant Antæus in this valley fair, drawing sustenance from a commitment to teaching based in scholarship, invigorated by a desire to do right by its students, and inspired by its values, is primed to achieve extraordinary distinction.

Come with us-and see just how remarkable we shall be!

1 Bulfinch's Mythology (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1968), 153.

2 I have appropriated the phrase "a sense of where you are" from John McPhee's eponymous profile of basketball star Bill Bradley. In explaining his remarkable ability to make shots even looking away from the net, Bradley said: "' When you have played basketball for a while, you don't need to look at the basket when you are close in. … You develop a sense of where you are.'" John McPhee, A Sense of Where You Are (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978), 22.

3 Washington Irving, "Rip Van Winkle," in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, from Washington Irving, History, Tales and Sketches (New York: Library of America, 1983), 769.

4 Jack Fagan, Scenes and Walks in the Northern Shawangunks, 2nd ed. (New York: New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, 1999), 11-12.

5 Walter Williams, "Stories of Rosendale" Williams Lake Hotel, (accessed April 5, 2004).

6 Elizabeth Lang and Robert Lang, In a Valley Fair: A History of the State University College of Education at New Paltz (New Paltz, NY: State University College of Education, 1960), 60.

7 Lang and Lang, 106.

8 Lisa Funderberg, "Power Moves," Essence August 1998, 72.

9 Steve Harrison, "Tale of the Tigers," The Sporting News, March 16, 1998.

10 Ruth Reichl, "There Is Only One Chez Panisse," in American Greats, eds. Robert Wilson and Stanley Marcus (New York: Perseus Books Group, 2000), 41.

11 Reichl, 41-42.

12 Benjamin Disraeli, Speech dated June 24, 1872, cited in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th ed., eds. John Bartlett and Justin Kaplan (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992), 435.