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photo of President Poskanzer

State of the College

September 7, 2007

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Colleagues and friends, welcome to the start of the new academic year at what Newsweek says is "the hottest small public school in the country!"

photo of President Poskanzer in the 'hottest small state school in America' t-shirt

Now no one-especially my teenage daughter!-has ever described my typical attire as stylish or meant to draw attention. So I feel a bit awkward about the new look our public relations folks have urged me to adopt in light of this ranking. You're laughing now, but all of you are expected to wear the same shirts!

As researchers, we are properly skeptical about the methodology and value of rankings that may be more about selling magazines than measuring academic quality. Still, ever since the Newsweek story it has been striking how many folks on campus have mentioned this recognition with pride, and how many emails I've gotten from friends and neighbors commenting favorably about New Paltz. I even had a congratulatory call from the Governor himself-the first time in years a sitting Governor has gone out of his way to compliment our college! I suspect lots of you have had similar exchanges.

The fact that we are garnering such plaudits is a signpost of our past success and forward trajectory. But rather than basking in the (somewhat artificial) glow of various rankings, let's address the deeper questions such positive rankings raise:

Why are we consistently ranking more highly? What are the consequences of such recognition in terms of our expectations for our students and ourselves? And . . . why does such confirmation of our academic quality resonate so strongly?

These are also the right questions to pose at the advent of a new school year.

New Paltz customarily devotes its first faculty meeting to taking stock. We meet our new colleagues. We salute our recent achievements. And we think about what we must still do to achieve our long-term objective of becoming the site of the finest undergraduate education in the State University of New York and a worthy rival to fine liberal arts colleges across the nation.

Each year when I give this speech I reiterate the goals we've established for the college. They are the framework we use in making expenditures, hiring faculty and staff, and setting priorities. In today's report, I will make a special point of sharing how we seek to measure our progress.

Of course, some important things we do in the academy simply aren't measurable; sometimes we must rely on indirect evidence; and it's always possible to craft better metrics. So I welcome your suggestions for alternative measures.

Our ultimate success, however, depends less upon formal measures than on all of us uniting in pursuit of our goals. As you listen, ask yourself how your day-to-day work and decisions can help us realize our vision.

Let me take each goal in turn. First, we are committed to...

Continuing to raise the academic quality and selectivity of our students.

New Paltz is a singularly popular college. Prospective students and their families appreciate that our open, diverse, and artistic environment prepares students to excel in rapidly changing times that demand creativity and worldliness. The acid test of student recruitment is the quality of our entering class. So how did we do? This fall, 950 freshmen chose New Paltz. Of that cohort, 97 percent are from the top two (of five) SUNY selectivity groups. That figure was only 75 percent as recently as 2001. These freshmen averaged 1140 on the SAT, with a high school average of 91-our highest ever. Our average transfer student GPA is 3.25. Graduate school enrollments are up, consistent with our plans.

As we recruit stronger students, we are fiercely committed to maintaining our diversity. One important measure of that diversity is the percentage of students from traditionally-underrepresented groups. Of this fall's freshmen who reported their ethnicity, 27 percent are minority students.

Another element of our diversity springs from our international character. We have a record 514 international students from almost 50 countries, with the largest growth in our graduate programs. Our dual degree program with some of the best Turkish universities blossomed to 182 students in 2007, and our first cohort of Egyptian students from the American University in Cairo did wonderfully.

One soft spot in our recruitment strategy is a relative paucity of scholarship dollars. I'm pleased that since my arrival six years ago, we've raised almost $1.7 million in endowed funds for recruitment scholarships. Dean Salavitabar had remarkable success last year building the Business School's endowment. But we need to raise considerably more scholarship money to continue to attract the bright and talented women and men who deserve to be here.

Our second goal: New Paltz will hire and retain faculty who are serious about both their scholarship and teaching.

Thirty-five new faculty join us this fall, which means that-even after factoring in attrition-we have added 15 new lines. You'll preen at the accomplishments of your new colleagues when they're introduced; the deans are delighted with the quality of our hires and with their diversity. One quick elaboration of this last point: in a world where women are still underrepresented in the physical sciences, our very strong Chemistry department is now more than half female!

Growing our full-time ranks helps us correct one of our most glaring weaknesses-a historic over-reliance on part-time faculty. We must drive down the number of courses taught by adjuncts and have more full-time faculty teach our introductory major courses and key general education courses, where our students legitimately expect to encounter our very best teacher/scholars.

We've developed a crisp and replicable method to track the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts. In the base year of fall 2006, an unacceptably high 37 percent of our courses were taught by adjuncts. With our latest full-time hires, we expect this benchmark to drop below 35 percent in fall 2007-good, but because of the unusually high number of sabbaticals this fall, still rather less than one might expect.

With our new hires, the number of full-time faculty has climbed to 326 and we are making strides toward our long-term goal of approximately 370-a number that would let us limit part-time teaching to those slices of the curriculum where outside expertise benefits our students. Again, we have a healthy state budget-and again, just as the Provost and I promised-we have committed the bulk of the additional funds to hiring more full-time, tenure-track faculty. We've already launched 29 searches for fall 2008. After attrition, this should translate into 9 more incremental lines.

While we relish gaining new colleagues, in the past our planning for their arrival has often been scattershot. Therefore, we've changed our budgeting so that every hire comes with additional one-time money for a computer and furniture and an increase in the department's base funding to cover supplies and travel.

We need to nurture our faculty so they will have long and successful careers at New Paltz. Last spring, with administrative support, several junior faculty formed a writing group where they devote a day each week to preparing publications. This fall, the Center for Teaching and Learning is spearheading a mentoring initiative, which should dovetail with the Provost's popular information sessions with junior faculty about tenure and promotion.

We have rigorous standards of scholarship and teaching, such that earning tenure here is a significant achievement. So I'm pleased that every candidate who came up for this milestone last year was successful. This shows how responsibly faculty governance is playing its role, making hard calls when necessary and working in tandem with the administration to build a stellar faculty. Central Committee chairs Surinder Tikoo and Keqin Li deserve our thanks. I'm looking forward to implementing the faculty Task Force recommendations to tighten and regularize our personnel processes.

How do we know we're doing well hiring and retaining serious scholar/teachers? Of course we monitor whether faculty earn tenure, and we gauge scholarly activity through annual reports, but before that we can examine data on why prospective faculty choose New Paltz. Associate Provost Garrick Duhaney will also develop rubrics for assessing teaching effectiveness that have robust faculty and decanal support.

New Paltz aspires to teach a curriculum that prepares students for their lives and careers.

Evidence of vitality in our curriculum- new programs, new minors, new courses, and major revisions of programs-are strong measures of our progress. Keeping our curriculum current is the special province of the faculty. So this is the perfect moment to commend some initiatives.

This fall, we will offer an interdisciplinary minor in evolutionary studies that draws upon the fields of anthropology, history, literature, and psychology-only the second such program in the nation. With a founding nucleus of faculty in place, we await the State Board of Regents' approval of our master's degree in Mental Health Counseling. Back on campus, the Department of Communication and Media will seek to convert its successful Public Relations concentration into a full-fledged major.

To meet our student's educational needs we must continue improving our teaching facilities. In a major step I have been calling for since my inauguration, our largest and most special classroom building, Old Main, will shut down next summer for a complete overhaul that will return this one-time gem into a showplace. It's worth noting that only 10 of SUNY's 65 campuses got any capital funding this year. Through successful lobbying we were one of those fortunate few, receiving $10.7 million for Old Main. Indeed, over the last three years we've garnered almost $34 million in extra capital funding for our campus-nearly doubling New Paltz's original allotment from SUNY Central.

With Old Main about to be off-line until its estimated completion in spring 2010, the Provost's Office and Facilities Management have been orchestrating a set of preliminary renovations involving at least six other buildings. At a subsequent meeting, we will describe which units will move where, and when. But the shoe will pinch most tightly for staff and faculty-especially School of Education faculty-who must relocate. Thank you in advance for your patience and forbearance. The reward-a state-of-the-art, architecturally gracious, environmentally green, air-conditioned building with an abundance of new faculty offices-will eventually outweigh any short-term inconveniences.

Our graduation rates are among the most concrete measures of how well we prepare students for their lives and careers. These are also metrics that accreditors, government regulators, political leaders, SUNY Central, and the general public follow closely-and ones we have been told we need to improve. I can happily report that the rates are rising: our latest four-year graduation rate is 42 percent, up from 35 percent the previous year ; our latest six-year graduation rate stands at 59 percent. We believe our improving rates reflect enhanced student quality, more rigorous expectations about progress-to-degree, and better academic advising. But I will not mince words: our graduation rates are too low and we must not rest until we compare much more favorably with peers like Geneseo (with a 79 percent six-year rate) and the College of New Jersey (at 82 percent).

On a brighter note, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities cited New Paltz for its success in graduating Hispanic students. And our Educational Opportunity Program has the highest six-year graduation rate in all of SUNY-72 percent. Perhaps EOP, which has long featured personalized academic and career counseling, can provide models to increase graduation rates in the general student body.

Last year we promised to add several academic advisors and to furnish all professional and faculty advisors with improved information (such as degree audit reports) to help them help students. Those advisors and most of the new tools are now in place, and we shall monitor their impact.

But there is more we should be doing to get our best undergraduates into graduate and professional schools and to position all our alumni to succeed in life and work. Our career advising and job placement activities received poor ratings in the SUNY-wide Student Opinion Survey. Therefore, we have decided to adjust the focus of our Career Resources Center to emphasize internship opportunities and post-graduation employment. We will hire an additional counselor and move the office from the 7th floor of the administration building to a visible and accessible spot on the first floor of Humanities.

We seek to link student intellectual growth with faculty scholarship.

Our faculty's excitement about their own research and creative work should inspire our undergraduates, both in the classroom and in focused capstone experiences. How will we know this is happening? We can start by counting the number of programs that expect students to do capstones. And we will also count the number of students engaged in program-related research. The foundations of a solid undergraduate research initiative are securely in place, including an annual pool of competitive funding and a faculty apostle to promote such activity. The number of students working on supported research projects has doubled, from 12 to 25. From this small base we'd eventually like to have hundreds of students doing research.

The provost and deans recognize the impracticality of asking faculty to supervise growing numbers of student researchers on top of a substantial teaching load. We can do better accounting for the time and effort faculty devote to such mentoring. Provost Lavallee is eager to work with the deans and faculty leaders to devise a system whereby faculty can accrue credit for overseeing undergraduate research or graduate theses-credit that would accumulate so it could eventually be exchanged for reassigned time.

Our honors program, which currently serves about 150 students, has been very successful. Because of that success, we now have an opportunity-like many of our peers and competitors-to make honors even more of a defining feature and recruiting tool. We've begun conversations that will call for faculty direction about how to expand or supplement our present seminar-based program.

Finally, realizing our goals for student and faculty scholarship will always turn in part on providing appropriate internal resources and assisting faculty to seek external support. Our pursuit of sponsored research funding is a good way of measuring our progress. 2007 saw a 16 percent jump in grant applications and a 10 percent increase in awarded funds. This is good, but a faculty like ours that is meaningfully engaged in scholarship should lead, not lag behind, our SUNY college peers. To facilitate research, we increased library funding by $50,000 for subscriptions to electronic journals and we streamlined travel reimbursements so you get paid faster and with fewer hassles.

Our vision for the college calls for our residential character to reinforce our educational goals. Studies show that students who get involved in activities right at the start of college bond with their campus in ways that promise greater success in their studies. Accordingly, this fall Student Affairs is hosting more than 50 activities in the semester's first 40 days to promote such engagement. Our college sits amid stunning natural beauty, in a dynamic college town, with easy access to New York City. And we hope to draw substantial numbers of faculty, staff and students to campus events. But to be honest, this is only likely when those events are just a quick walk or a short drive from home. Thus, one obvious way we measure the impact of our residential character is by tracking the percentage of students living on campus and the percentage of faculty and staff living close to the college.

Currently more than half our undergraduates reside on campus, but we know that more would do so if we could accommodate them. Students tell us they want apartment-style housing-which is why construction of such units will be the next major investment from our residence hall budget.

From a survey of recently-hired faculty, we know that you want affordable and proximate homes, too. We must try to use the current downturn in the local real estate market to the college's long-term strategic advantage, exploring prospects for nearby faculty/staff housing.

A second priority is to improve our existing residence halls and other student facilities. To that end, we have:

  • Completed $17 million in renovations to our old dorms since 2003.
  • Installed artificial turf so our lacrosse and field hockey teams can finally play on campus.
  • With the blessing of a student, faculty and staff Advisory Committee, we're in the design phase of an $11 million extension to the Student Union that will rise from the sunken courtyard next to the existing building. The addition will consciously evoke the iconic outline of Mohonk Mountain, and fill our need for a true campus commons. Consistent with our desire to incorporate green design elements into campus projects, the SUB addition is supposed to be so energy-efficient that it won't add to the college's utility bill!
  • Proceeding on schedule is our plan to air condition the Humanities Building and improve the climate-control system in the Faculty Tower. You can expect comfortable classrooms and offices by late summer 2008.
  • Finally, our multi-year high-temperature hot-water line replacement project is in full swing, as evidenced by the trenches around the Hasbrouck complex. Once we replace this first set of crumbling steam lines, which feed heat to all our buildings, the pipes in the main academic concourse come next. New landscaping will eventually cover all evidence of excavation.

As SUNY Central and New Paltz prepare for a new System-wide capital plan, a Task Force chaired by Stella Dean of English and John Shupe of Facilities will make recommendations about overall campus appearance, traffic and pedestrian flow, parking, accessibility, and sustainability. This group will also consider the future location of several large projects we'd like to undertake over the next decade, such as:

  • renovations to the library (our top unfunded capital priority),
  • a new science building,
  • additional faculty office space, and
  • the apartment-style housing for students I mentioned before.

Back to our eight goals. At a fundamental level we must be committed to meeting student needs. After all, it is the presence of students that truly defines a college.

A powerful symbol of our desire to put students front and center is our decision to move December Commencement back to campus. But long before students line up in their caps and gowns, we must understand and then deliver the instruction and services they require to achieve their goals.

For evidence of our progress, we can rely in part on local student satisfaction surveys. SUNY-wide and national data provide useful comparisons, too. However, no survey offers direct feedback like the sincere thanks of a student or parent you've gone the extra mile to help.

What have we accomplished that meets student needs this year? The Schools of Business and Education now offer extended hours for graduate and evening students seeking help with registration, financial aid, certification, and career choices.

But topping any list would be our almost-finished conversion to Banner administrative computing systems. I'm sure you've heard lots about Banner from colleagues-especially those stalwarts in Enrollment Management, Development and Computer Services who have been putting in late nights and weekends on this project!

In adopting Banner, we have tried to seize the opportunity to make our procedures and processes much more student friendly. There are many nifty things we'll be able to do in Banner that we couldn't do (or do nearly as well) under our old legacy systems. For example, Banner:

  • simplifies registration by checking pre-requisites and enforcing course restrictions and academic standing rules; and it
  • provides deans and chairs immediate access to information needed to manage courses.

One of the few certainties in higher education is that student needs and demands evolve. Consequently, just like we deploy additional faculty where they are most needed, we regularly evaluate our level and distribution of support staff. This year there were a number of administrative areas where we needed to invest, so we authorized the equivalent of 13 full-time staff positions-almost half of which will be in the academic affairs division.

As most of you know, we are still searching for a Vice President for Finance and Administration. We have engaged a consultant to help us generate a deep and diverse pool of applicants. We'll hunt as long as it takes to find the right person. Our Vice President must have:

  • The acumen to develop budget models that give units more autonomy while ensuring accountability;

He or she must have:

  • A commitment to sharing financial information in transparent ways; and
  • A passion that all administrative services exist to meet student, faculty and staff expectations.

Our seventh goal is for New Paltz to address regional economic and schooling needs. A core purpose of all public colleges is to supply talent (in the form of graduates) and to share faculty expertise that serves the citizenry. New Paltz is a willing partner with local business and industry, school districts, social service agencies and governments. Such community engagement wins us friends.

Just this week we announced a major initiative that dramatically deepens our commitment to the Hudson Valley. Jerry Benjamin will be taking off his dean's cap to don a new chapeau as Associate Vice President and Director of a new Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach. In this role, he will draw upon his vast knowledge of public policy in New York State to:

  • conduct and publicize research on regional topics; and
  • encourage faculty to build regionally-based service activity into their scholarship and teaching.

Jerry has long been our campus's most visible-and most-frequently quoted!-public intellectual. I'm grateful to him for taking on these new duties. In what I'm sure will be the first of many such tributes, please join me in saluting Jerry on his 12 years of inspired leadership as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and on his new post.

And we've just learned that Senator Schumer's office has secured $300,000 in federal funds to help us launch our new Center.

In addition to smart ideas and gifted graduates, the college is an economic linchpin of Ulster County and the Hudson Valley. Every few years, we calculate our financial impact, and we've just completed the latest totals. Here's a sneak preview of what I'll be crowing this fall to local chambers of commerce and elected officials: our college contributes $274 million annually to the regional economy.

This brings me to the last element of our vision - being a cultural and intellectual hub for the region.

Clearly the new Center will advance our claim as the pre-eminent intellectual salon on the Left Bank of the Hudson. In addition to the activities conducted under its auspices, we can also monitor how many people take advantage of our cultural offerings.

To draw robust audiences to our fine and performing arts events, athletic contests and public lectures, we first needed to make it easier to get here. Roadway markers and overhead signs on Main Street now clearly route traffic from all directions. Next, we'll install signs to help pedestrians find their way to major campus venues such as the Dorsky Museum.

A prominent example of our cultural outreach, the Museum has been in the news this summer. Our Congressman and alum Maurice Hinchey announced a federal grant of $150,000 to fund a major exhibit of Hudson River School paintings here in 2009.

The narratives we tell and images we paint about our role in the region shape how we are viewed. Our Branding Task Force has given me recommendations about staffing and budgets for our marketing activities. Their research shows that we currently spend about $1 million annually on various forms of marketing, spread across a multitude of offices in an unfocused and-the Task Force would say-often ineffective manner. So we still have work to do in sharing New Paltz's story.

As I close, I want to make a couple of observations about why I think the public confirmation of our academic quality resonates so strongly.

Our college is very good, and it is growing in distinction. Let's not downplay our accomplishments. Instead, let's take pride in how much better New Paltz has become. When others praise our quality too, it is meaningful because it validates our hard work, it reinforces our commitment to do what is needed to take the college to the next level, and it makes it easier to reach our shared goals.

I would ask each of you to think about how your own daily activities and decisions can contribute to these goals. What role in turn can your office or department play? Some of our goals have obvious owners-faculty set the curriculum; departments and deans have primary responsibility for faculty hiring and retention. Other goals-like being a cultural hub-must involve us all. The more dialogue we have about how to achieve and how to demonstrate that we have achieved our objectives, in both formal and informal settings, the better, whether it's large faculty meetings or my next round of brown bag lunches with individual departments and offices.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote that: "...[T]he great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift nor lie at anchor."1 Like Holmes's metaphorical boat, our college must always move forward. In the course of our journey, we seek to fill our sails with fresh ideas and people, we take periodic soundings to ensure we don't run aground or lose our way, and occasionally we have to tack. We don't seek the port of heaven, but something equally ethereal and important-a port of genuine academic excellence. No great college or university can ever be certain it has reached that harbor, but the voyage itself has enduring value to our students and to the world of ideas.

Thank you.



1Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, (New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell & Company Publishers, 1900), p. 91.