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The Office of the President

State of the College 2015

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State of College, August 21, 2015


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Good morning….Two moments in the past year brought home to me the impact you have on our students.  Our spring Distinguished Speaker, Regina Calcaterra, a 1988 alumna and New York Times best-selling author, received a standing ovation after sharing her personal story. She recounted how the kindness of a few people helped her through an impoverished, homeless, and abusive childhood, empowering her to persevere and become successful. Now an accomplished attorney and advocate as well as author, Regina shared that “a lot of my story happened at SUNY New Paltz.” Both in her best-selling memoir and in her speech she acknowledged her gratitude to several professors “who pushed me to be diligent and persistent, doing their best to propel me forward and make sure I graduated.”

A second example: Earlier this summer, Melly, a recent EOP graduate from the Dominican Republic and a native Spanish speaker, talked at a fund-raising event about her study abroad experience. Instead of studying in Spain, as many of her friends had done and where language would not be a barrier, she challenged herself by spending a semester in South Korea. Melly and another recent alumna mesmerized the audience with their stories of transformative study abroad experiences and praise for their New Paltz education.

After our two students spoke, I shared with those present, as I do with you today, that my greatest source of pride as president is the accomplishments and initiative of our students, and the tremendous work of faculty and staff to create life-changing educational experiences for them.  

Later that evening, a staff member said to me, “Your closing comments brought tears to my eyes.” Making a member of our community cry is never my goal! But that reaction captured the deep connections that you build with our students and the shared and collective pride you take in their achievement.  The doors opened at New Paltz to Regina and Melly capture the care that you invest in your work, and the long tradition of New Paltz as a special learning environment. 

Thank you.

Communities coalesce around traditions and shared values. Today, we continue our tradition of launching a new year by welcoming new community members, celebrating our accomplishments, reinforcing our values, and forecasting the year to come.   

Our annual Fall Convocation – at noon today in the Athletic and Wellness Center – is an important rite-of-passage for new students at the year’s start.  Last year, we revamped Convocation to better welcome new students, help frame their thinking about the opportunities here, and engage them more fully in the life of this community. This year’s version promises to be even better, with conscious inclusion of all transfer students. Sue Books, Professor of Education, will be both the Faculty Grand Marshal and the Faculty Speaker. I am grateful to the faculty who will “gown up” for Convocation, and hope that others will consider watching the live stream.

On a personal note, I am grateful for the privilege to serve as President of SUNY New Paltz. This is my sixth State of the College address, and I hope to give many more. In previous addresses, I have employed various organizing frameworks … the wisdom an elderly blind woman offered a group of young people to help us think about collective responsibility; rapid prototyping to spur us to be innovative in changing times; biomimicry inspired by alpine plant communities – where cooperation is more common than competition in stressful environments; “Only Connect” as a unifying concept of liberal education and a framework for approaching our work.

Despite these different frames, about a half dozen themes and topics recur every year.  These have also been themes in my 41 monthly reports to the academic and professional faculty, beginning in fall 2010: 

The great progress on our path to becoming one of the most highly regarded regional public universities in the Northeast and the U.S., drawing on a commitment to excellence in all that we do;

Financial constraints and lingering impacts of the recession;

Dramatic changes in our external environment, including increased societal expectations for accountability and productivity, and significant demographic change;

A longstanding commitment to liberal education and the liberal arts as a foundation for all educational programs;

The imperative to sharpen our focus on our students, their learning, and their success;
Creating an inspirational living/learning environment through renovation and construction.

I will revisit these themes shortly to establish the “long arc” of our efforts, link our past, present, and future, and help us recognize the enduring context for our priorities.

First, let’s welcome new members of our community and acknowledge people who have stepped into new leadership roles.  New academic and professional faculty will be introduced individually at the first faculty meeting on September 11 and new classified staff at a meeting in October.  Please stand and be recognized.

New members of our administrative team include Dr. Stella Deen of the Department of English, who is serving this year as Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs while we conduct a national search.  Lee Bernstein of the History Department is serving this year as Interim Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies. Please welcome Jennifer Mokren, joining us as the new Dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts.  Three long-term employees were promoted into leadership roles based on their strong previous work. Robin Cohen-LaValle is the new Dean of Students. Maureen Lohan-Bremer is the new Director of Financial Aid. Laura Schultz is the new Registrar, replacing Bernadette Morris, who departed this summer for a position in sunny southern California.

I hope that you will introduce yourselves to our new colleagues and assist them in their transition to New Paltz.

Let me acknowledge several Directors of the SUNY New Paltz Foundation joining us today. Will you stand please? These business leaders, alumni, and committed citizens support the college and our students by raising private funds, and in so many other ways. Thank you for being here today, and for all that you do.

I am continuing the tradition at the start of the year of reinforcing who we are and what we value, as a beacon for our work ahead. We value:

  • A personalized, residential campus environment where students, faculty, and staff learn together through close interaction.
  • Rigorous academics that bring together intellectually capable students and exceptional faculty committed to students and their learning, AND to research, scholarship, and creative accomplishment that support and advance the mission of a top-tier regional university.
  • A commitment to build an open, diverse, inclusive, and equitable college community.
  • A spirit of exploration, discovery, and artistry so critical for our graduates to excel in a rapidly changing society and economy.
  • A commitment to educating each student as a whole person.
  • And, being an intellectual and cultural resource in the Hudson Valley and serving regional economic and educational needs.

We realize these values and fulfill our public mission by careful attention to the above enduring themes.       

First and foremost, we strive and are succeeding as a leading public regional university in the Northeast. We achieve this goal by special dedication to our core mission of providing an exemplary education.

We’ve continued our climb in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. We remain in other rankings, and appear in new ones.  Our inclusion in the 2015 Business Journals ranking places us among the top 75 public colleges in the nation – the top 12% of those considered in the ranking.

Climbing in such rankings or inclusion in more of them is not a strategic goal. But continuing to improve on the measures of institutional performance and student success that underlie these rankings certainly IS a priority.    

The high caliber of our faculty is reflected in an array of scholarly, creative, artistic, and service achievements and in your remarkable contributions to the learning and intellectual development of our students. We’ve seen an impressive flush of new major external grants in the past few months. As I read dossiers for reappointment, promotion, and tenure last spring, I was rewarded to see how many different faculty were described in SEI comments by at least one student as “the best professor at SUNY New Paltz.” Last year’s Heiskell Award from the Institute for International Education for our work to include more low-income and historically under-represented students in study abroad exemplifies our high-quality programming.

We have been thriving in a changing external environment, including an uncertain economy that has affected our campus finances and those of the state, the nation, and our students and their families.  Tight budgets and heightened accountability will remain part of our institutional life. We will manage as we have: by tying funding decisions to our highest priorities through deliberative processes, and by keeping a strong emphasis on students and their learning.

Since we weathered a major budget cut in 2010-11, tuition increases have let us boost financial aid and invest in new faculty and staff positions-- a net increase of 37 new tenure-line positions and 45 total full-time faculty. We heeded the imperative from state and SUNY leaders to invest new tuition revenues in student access, instruction, and degree completion.  

Beyond tuition, this year SUNY received slight increases in state taxpayer funding after several years of flat taxpayer support.  The allocation of this funding to campuses is competitive and performance-based. We will compete for a share, and are finalizing a pre-proposal to meet next week’s deadline set during the summer. Reflecting this emphasis on performance, we are also required to submit a plan to SUNY by September 30, outlining how we will improve our contributions to SUNY performance goals – many of which are the same as our campus strategic plan priorities.  You will have a chance to comment on this plan before it is finalized in the coming weeks. 

This is the final year of the five-year rational tuition policy that has made such a difference in our economy. We will advocate strongly for increased state taxpayer support and continuation of a rational tuition policy.  

A bright spot in our financial picture is private fund-raising.  Private dollars do not replace state taxpayer support and tuition in our basic operations, but help us achieve a margin of excellence above what we can do with state funding.  Last year, we doubled our recent average annual fund-raising, in the first year of a three-year major gift initiative, a result of two years of hard and careful work. This support has increased scholarships, supported students participating in applied learning opportunities, and strengthened our regional engagement.  For example, Professor Emeritus Giancarlo Traverso – here with us today - established a scholarship endowment to support a student engaged in a research or internship project at the Mohonk Preserve. This generous gift is a trifecta – or, a hat trick for hockey fans – scoring on all three goals I just noted – scholarship, an applied learning opportunity, and strengthening our relationship with a key regional partner.

We’ve made remarkable progress in engaging alumni.  I meet many alumni on campus and across the country. I hear about their love for New Paltz and the faculty and staff who touched their lives. Alumni contribute to our fund-raising, foster connections between the College and the broader community, educate and inspire our students, and help find internships and employment for our students and graduates.

Beyond financial matters, other national issues are defining for higher education. Many believe that we are not doing enough to control costs, increase access, help students graduate on time, and prepare graduates with the knowledge and capacities they need. Some are demanding that higher education focus more narrowly on vocation.

We at New Paltz chose our strategic plan priorities because they are right for our students and society, and for the College’s long-term welfare.  They also are responsive to these external pressures. We are helping our students and their families reduce their financial debt by improving on-time graduation, and by preparing our students with broad knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to find sound employment and thrive as thoughtful, engaged citizens.

The number of high school graduates in New York has been dropping since 2009, and will keep falling until about the mid-2020s. Those declines are less pronounced in the Mid-Hudson region and Long Island – our primary recruitment areas.    

Our economy depends on meeting our enrollment targets, because tuition makes up 75% of our state operating budget. This is why we pay such careful attention every year to enrollment.

I am pleased to say that our enrollments for this fall are healthy, while some campuses in the Northeast have struggled.  Some have failed to meet their numbers, and are adjusting their budgets downward. A presidential colleague in a neighboring state told me this summer about the pain of eliminating 42 faculty and staff positions in a two-year period. Some have lowered admissions standards to meet enrollment goals. In contrast, we have not compromised on the academic preparation and caliber of our incoming class, which is also very diverse.  

Every year, about half our graduates came to us as transfers, most from community colleges in the Hudson Valley and Long Island.  Our enrollment success this year was driven in a significant way by transfer student numbers.

Transfer students have long been a substantial part of the New Paltz academic community, in part because we have six community college partners in a 45-mile radius of campus, more than any other SUNY 4-year campus. Many other institutions have historically paid little attention to transfers.  As they face growing enrollment and budgetary challenges, they are stepping up efforts to recruit these students. They will do so in our backyard, for first-year students as well as transfers. Conversations with my SUNY presidential colleagues tell me that this competition for students will only intensify in the coming years.

Our recruitment success this year did not come easily, but is the outgrowth of the great work of our Admissions staff and all that this entire community does to help prospective students. Thank you for this work, and for your continued commitment to showcase New Paltz so that it remains a top choice for both first-year and transfer students.

In an intensely competitive and market-driven world, being very good is not enough. “If you build it, they will come” will not ensure our ongoing vitality. You no doubt have seen our new recruitment materials, including the high-quality video on our homepage created collaboratively by Admissions, Communication and Marketing, and recent alumni. Such efforts to tell the New Paltz story are returning dividends in our student recruitment. They are also making a real difference in how SUNY New Paltz is perceived in the broader world, as I know from my many conversations with alumni, donors, community leaders, elected officials, and higher-education colleagues. 

Effective external communication depends heavily on improved internal communication and a willingness to connect beyond the silos– like the collaborative efforts of faculty and the Communication and Marketing staff to solicit and showcase departmental points of pride. These will be rolled out next week on our website and your department pages, and I encourage you to “brag” about your department, and learn what your colleagues in other departments are most proud of. Points of Pride grew out of an Administrative Council meeting where we discovered how little we knew about each other’s work, and that that is a barrier to shared knowledge and collaborative and interdisciplinary initiatives. 

Internal and external communication is critical to our Strategic Plan initiatives, continued community building, and institutional success.  For that reason, I recently elevated the chief communication leadership role on campus to the level of Vice President.  Thank you, Shelly Wright, for your great leadership and work.

Another enduring theme is our core grounding in the liberal arts and sciences and in liberal education values across all disciplines.  I have spoken of these values, but we might wonder how well we live up to them.  Our discussions about general education revision gradually left behind some of the loftier thinking about liberal education that I know we value. I hope this year we can recapture that spirit, to infuse those perspectives more fully into our teaching and learning.

Michael Roth, in his 2014 book “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” criticized the increased emphasis on vocational education I referred to earlier.  But he was equally critical of defining liberal education as anti-vocational. As we prepare our graduates for life, we must be mindful that this includes earning a living and having a meaningful career. A strong liberal education tailored to 21st century demands is a great way to do that.

Helping students “know how to think” is one way to bridge that perceived distance between preparation for life, and for livelihood.  Both faculty and employers would agree that knowing how to think makes good students, good professionals, and good citizens.  I encourage us to bring such thinking into all of our curricular and programming deliberations. Roth also wrote that we do not serve our students well if we model “critical thinking” solely as deconstructing other people’s ideas. In addition, we must help them develop the ability to take on the much greater challenge of constructing and testing new ideas, approaches, and solutions.    

Our dedication to students and their success is reflected in the steady gains in our retention and graduation rates. While we celebrate these improvements, we know we lag behind our aspirational peers and have more to do.  This summer, I formed a course-availability “SWAT Team,” charged with identifying course shortages and correcting them promptly. The group was authorized to open new courses or sections; to allocate funding; and to direct changes in practices that have kept students from enrolling in essential courses.  This effort is addressing a long-standing and seemingly intractable issue for us, achieving new outcomes by bringing people and offices together in new ways. We will take what we learned from this effort, and apply it to the continuing work of this team. 

The eight-semester plans or templates defined  by departments, and being further refined, support these goals by providing students with a map and compass to navigate the curriculum, make informed choices in their intellectual exploration, and achieve timely degree completion.  The use of such tools also improves advising and reduces time demands on faculty advisors.  It also should improve the preparation and background of students enrolling in upper-level courses. We will couple this work with new approaches to course scheduling that are better informed by more data and analysis. 

We’ve made other impressive strides to enhance student success and the student experience: new living-learning communities, an expanding and enriched Honors program, increasing opportunities to conduct and present research and creative projects, more internship placements, and increased use of capstones and other culminating experiences. We’ve implemented an innovative – and now nationally recognized - co-curricular transcript to document learning outside the classroom.  The Academic Advising Council last year identified ways to improve faculty advising that are being implemented now and will be another focus this year.  

We have new programs in biochemistry, astronomy, disaster mental health, mechanical engineering, deaf studies, an online MBA, and we are developing a digital humanities initiative.   

A working group outlined new initiatives under the purview of the teaching and learning center. These include a mentoring program for new faculty that we will pilot this year, and steps to infuse more high-impact practices throughout our offerings, as we discussed with Professor George Kuh last spring. I am confident that we will advance these initiatives under the leadership of several faculty and the Interim Associate Provost, as we re-group after a failed search for a director of the teaching and learning center.

I am grateful to the faculty and staff who led or supported these efforts.

While we grow and refine student learning opportunities, we must continue to assess student learning systematically. Our Middle States reaccreditation evaluation in 2011 made clear that at our next review every academic program and some non-academic programs are expected to have clear learning outcomes, plans to assess them, and evidence that they’ve done so. It’s quite clear that we will be held to a much higher standard in our 2021 review. By April 2016, we must complete our Periodic Review Report, a check-up on our assessment activities to date. I’m pleased that Student Affairs has developed division-wide learning outcomes with which to direct and measure their efforts. I am confident that other departments and units can meet this expectation as well.   

Assessment data gathered last year identified that we do not integrate and support transfer students as well as we could. To that end, we’ve undertaken a Transfer Student Initiative, implementing ways to better serve these students – and we’ve already received positive feedback from new transfers. You will hear more about this following the first Administrative Council meeting in September.   

Our attention to students and their experience should lead us to grapple with the reality that some students – at any college or university - never feel at home because of the way they are viewed or treated as a result of their gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, ability status, national origin, or other dimension of human difference. Higher education is not doing enough to reverse the growing social and economic stratification so prevalent in our society. As a top-tier public university, we must make excellence inclusive.  That means being better at translating our stated values of equity and inclusion into individual and institutional action.

Such work will improve the student, faculty, and staff experience, and prepare our graduates to make an imperfect world better. We will expand efforts begun last year to help all of us develop language and competencies that will deepen our understanding of equity and inclusion, to foster respectful, informed dialogue and better support and mentor each member of the community.  The well-received training we began last winter with Dr. Steven Jones, a strong national leader in this work, is continuing this summer and fall.

This summer, our health center invited a consultant to assess their patient practices to better understand and serve LGBTQ students. That review was very positive, and the center is making even further changes to its procedures, reflecting my mantra that even if you are very good you can still get better.

We have directed considerable attention to the campus climate surrounding sexual assault, violence, and harassment. We have a history of sound practices and strong commitment that has been a model for the development of SUNY and statewide policies.  We will take every step to ensure a safe and equitable campus for all students and employees.

A goal of our strategic plan is to improve how we do our work -- to achieve better outcomes, serve students and employees more effectively, and save time. We are pursuing numerous improvement projects – some of them suggested by departmental secretaries and chairs. We’ve centralized the process of approving I-9 immigration forms, we’re making it easier to access the most recent and fillable versions of commonly used forms in a central location, and are creating a hiring manual with frequently asked questions.

Some improvements result from new ways to use technology, including an electronic workflow to manage and track hiring for full-time faculty and staff. One search committee chair who used this software praised the reduction of time and busy work, and the opportunity to pay more attention to the most important work of evaluating candidate strengths.

Certainly, we have more ways to improve how we work. As you identify such opportunities, please bring them forward through your supervisor, chair, or dean to the strategic planning council. Faculty are taking the lead this year in exploring new approaches to faculty governance, and I and other campus leaders stand ready to assist.

Our teaching, learning, and scholarship are inspired by our physical environment, and every year I highlight the continuing improvement in the beauty, function, and sustainability of our campus.  We are in the midst of unprecedented activity. New construction and major renovation are making a dent in our shortage of student housing and our academic space deficit – which is about 360,000 square feet. I remind everyone that funding for our major projects comes from state-issued bonds, not operating funds. For example, renovating the library does not take away funds we could use otherwise to hire more faculty. 

Looking ahead, the state has allocated only modest funds to address maintenance needs and small-scale improvements. We will keep pushing for major capital funds, but are unlikely to sustain the current level of activity.

What’s happening is worthy of celebration.  In the past five years, we’ve renovated two residence halls and built a new one, opened an addition to our Student Union Building, and renovated Old Main. We are repurposing Wooster Hall, modernizing Sojourner Truth Library, renovating the Service Building, building a new science building, and planning an engineering innovation hub and another residence hall renovation.

We’ve improved campus walkways, parking lots, lighting, and hidden but critical infrastructure.  We have made many other smaller but notable improvements and will continue to do so as is feasible. 

I have tried today to articulate major themes in our recent past and demonstrate how our success year after year has grown out of consistent attention to these issues, with our strategic plan providing a road map as we move ahead. We should take great pride in our collective accomplishments. Our gains also offer an exceptional foundation for the future, including the initiatives that I have highlighted for this year: 

Students and Student Success:

  • Increase High-Impact Practices
  • Add and Refine Living-Learning Communities
  • Improve Course Availability and Scheduling
  • Enhance Transfer Student Experience
  • Improve Academic Advising
  • Refine and invigorate the curriculum

Direct more attention to equity and inclusion

Pilot a Faculty Mentoring Program

Complete our Middle States Periodic Review Report

Raise at least $3.3 million in Year 2 of Major Gift Initiative

Expand alumni engagement

Improve processes

Conduct national search for a Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs

In closing, the annual and long-term priorities I have identified today describe the long arc of our institution at a crucial time in the history of the College and public higher education. As we work together on these important goals, I wish for each of you testimonials and stories about defining moments and life-changing experiences like those shared by Regina and Melly. Those moments make our work so special and so important – for each person we influence, and for our community, our state, and beyond.

I look forward to working together with you in the year ahead. Thank you, and best wishes to everyone for a productive, and rewarding year.