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photo of President Poskanzer

State of the College 2008

September 12, 2008

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Colleagues and friends, welcome to the beginning of the new academic year.

Any physicist will tell you that the formula for linear momentum is p=mv—in other words, momentum equals the product of mass times velocity. In popular parlance, momentum also means the force gained by motion or through the development of events.

Over the last several years, New Paltz has certainly been characterized by forward momentum. We have in place a critical mass of talented students, faculty and staff. This enables us to build quality at an accelerating pace. As the velocity of our progress grows, so does our reputation.

Today, I’d like to talk about where this growing momentum is propelling us and how we shall get there.

Our objective is to become the site of the finest undergraduate education in the State University of New York.  And our strategy in pursuing this objective is sound.  There are wonderful—and wonderfully expensive—private colleges in the Northeast, but there is an opening for a small number of public colleges to emerge as powerful rivals for strong students, competing both on price and quality.  New Paltz intends to be one of them.

To this end, we have focused on a limited set of goals that shape our work.  We use them to set targets, prioritize among expenditures, and measure our success.

Let’s assess how well the college is meeting its goals, taking each in turn. First, we want to continue raising the academic quality and selectivity of our students.

We offer admission to our very best applicants—and, thanks to our growing stature and effective recruiting by faculty and staff, more of the strongest students are choosing us.  This year’s yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) was exceptionally high at 24 percent.

We selected these freshmen from a pool of almost 14,000 applicants—a pool that has risen 54 percent since 2000.  Such popularity, combined with our intention to maintain a steady-state undergraduate enrollment, has made us one of the most selective public colleges in the Northeast.  In 2008, we only accepted 35 percent of our freshman applicants and 34 percent of our transfer applicants.

Advances in student quality should be evident in your classrooms.  Our new first-year students had a high school average of more than 90 and mean SAT scores of 1158.  One hundred percent of our freshmen (excluding our modest special admit population) come from the top two SUNY selectivity groups—compared to 75 percent in 2001.  Entering freshmen in Group 1 alone have risen to 33 percent. 

As we recruit stronger students, we also seek to maintain our socio-economic, ethnic, geographic and intellectual diversity.  One important measure of this is our healthy percentage of students from traditionally-underrepresented groups.  Of the first-year students reporting their ethnicity, one-quarter come from such groups.  International students, constituting three percent of our undergraduate student body, are also a key ingredient in our diverse mix.

With higher yield, we have a larger-than-normal (and, candidly, larger-than-desired) first-year cohort.  Fortunately, we were prepared for them.  Faculty shifted to teach courses for freshmen, including critical GE offerings.  We hired several one-year instructors in high-demand areas. Staff made sure the new tighter schedule would work, that classrooms and residence halls were ready, and that summer orientation ran smoothly.  Employees, student-athletes and fraternity and sorority members were out in force on move-in day—in some cases whisking belongings up to rooms even before parents returned from parking the car!  To sustain this momentum, we’ve added staff to shepherd first-year students and get them involved in campus life.

As we launch into a new year of student recruitment, we’re refusing to rest on past laurels.  We are keenly aware that competition for the best students is escalating, and that the number of New York high school graduates will begin to decline in five years.  It’s time to lock New Paltz in at the highest possible selectivity level.  So we’re adding another fall open house and a spring open house targeting high school juniors.  We also appointed Lisa Jones as Dean of Admission.

Second, we want to hire and retain faculty who are serious about both their scholarship and teaching.

Adding full-time, tenure-track faculty is our number one budgetary priority.  We have 33 new faculty this fall—including our new Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English Jim Schiffer. They come from universities as far away as France and New Zealand and as close as Columbia and the CUNY Graduate Center.  With these new hires, our student-faculty ratio is 14:1, which compares favorably to our rival in western New York, Geneseo. Counting our new colleagues, we have grown to 336 full-time faculty (a net gain of 26 over the last two years).

We have 29 searches under way for next fall. (I’ll say more on the financial context of these searches in a moment.)  Based on historic retirement patterns, these lines should add six more positions—another meaningful step toward our long-term goal of 370 full-time faculty.

Adding full-time faculty helps correct one of New Paltz’s historic weaknesses:  over-reliance on part-time instructors.  A major institutional goal is to drive down the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts.  With new hires targeted in areas with heavy adjunct use, and tighter control over course offerings, instruction by adjuncts is declining.  Thirty-four percent of courses were taught by adjuncts in fall 2007, down from 37 percent in fall 2006.  This is considerably closer to SUNY-wide averages, and our next milestone will be to drop below 30 percent.

Because we are committed to having our new faculty succeed, we are careful to recruit colleagues who embrace New Paltz’s desired mix of excellent teaching and serious engagement in peer-reviewed research and creative activity.  We expect them to earn tenure at New Paltz.  And our processes for making such decisions are working rigorously and well. Once again, in 2008 the Central Committee, the Provost and I agreed on every single tenure case.

Earning a promotion in rank is a profound achievement that ought to be celebrated—and rewarded.  Consequently, after dialogue with UUP, Provost Lavallee increased the salary bump for new associate professors from $1,000 to $2,500; and for new full professors from $2,000 to $4,000.  Before leaving this discussion of measures to improve faculty retention, I should note that we continue to plead with SUNY Central for a geographic differential that acknowledges the high cost of living in this region.

An important metric we use to gauge our faculty’s success at scholarship is the volume of externally-sponsored research.  2008 saw a 13 percent jump in grant applications and an 11 percent increase in awarded funds, putting us above the average for our SUNY peers.  For the first time, New Paltz broke the $4 million mark for grant funding. Even these lovely numbers, though, are obsolete: just this month the National Science Foundation awarded two coveted grants to New Paltz faculty:

  • Megan Ferguson and her colleagues in Chemistry and Biology garnered $250,000 for an atomic force microscope to be used for research with undergraduates; and
  • Glenn Geher of Psychology and Jennifer Waldo of Biology received $211,000 to support our Evolutionary Studies program.

Back to our eight goals. 

We are committed to teaching a curriculum that prepares students for their careers and lives. 

How well are we teaching our students?  Do we keep our promise that they can earn a degree in a timely fashion?  Retention and graduation rates are key measures of our success.

First-year retention for the fall 2006 cohort (the percentage of freshmen returning for their sophomore year) reached an all-time high of 86 percent.  Second-year retention (the percentage of sophomores returning for their junior year) rose to 75.7 percent.

Even more important, we have attained what we believe are the best graduation rates in recent college memory:

  • Our latest four-year graduation rate is 44.7 percent;
  • Our latest five-year graduation rate is 66.7 percent, and
  • Our latest six-year graduation rate is 66.2 percent, up from 59 percent for the prior cohort.

Because at its core New Paltz is a liberal arts college, our curriculum does not change dramatically from year to year.  But data that demonstrate the vibrancy of our curriculum will help students and accreditors appreciate the quality of our teaching.  As our next 10-year reaccreditation nears, we can do an even better job of tracking new courses, course revisions, and new minors.

Because where we teach can be intimately connected to how and how well we teach, we must also continually improve our classroom facilities.  Many of you were directly affected this summer as moving crews emptied Old Main and relocated its occupants across campus.  I thank you for your patience during this $27 million gut renovation of a beloved (but sorely outdated) structure.  Just keep in mind that when you return to the building in 2011, you will be greeted by high-tech classrooms, more and modern faculty offices, electrical upgrades, central air-conditioning—and beautifully restored and gracious finishes.

You will recall that the college received $48 million this spring for a new science building on the corner of Plattekill and North Manheim, and an additional $12.8 million to implement fully our plans to renovate the Sojourner Truth Library.  The new science building will likely house Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics and Geology. A representative planning committee, convened by Dean Jelski, is considering the ideal layout for interdisciplinary teaching labs and how to use this structure to encourage joint faculty-student research.  Reflecting our campus values and environmental responsibilities, I’m pleased to confirm that this building will qualify for LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. Indeed, from now on all new campus buildings should at a minimum meet the LEED silver standard.

A quick update on the library.  Because of our previous planning, we want to jumpstart this project.  Step one is to engage an architect to work with the existing library renovation committee to finalize the design and staging for the entire renovation.

In addition to these major enhancements to our instructional spaces, we added 17 more “smart” classrooms this summer, mostly in the Humanities Building.  Seventy-five percent of our classrooms are now fully state-of-the-art, and when Old Main reopens, we’ll be at 85 percent.  We also completed another important project without a hitch:  installing new air-conditioning units in Faculty Tower offices.  The same chiller project that brought blessedly cooler temperatures to the Humanities Classroom Building this spring should now make life and work considerably more comfortable for the denizens of JFT.

Finally, because preparation for a meaningful career is important to our graduates, we pledged last year to enhance job placement services for students and alumni.  The Career Resource Center has sharply increased the number of employer visits to campus, aggressively promoted off-campus job fairs, partnered with Campus Auxiliary Services to underwrite internships for financially-strapped students, and even helped some kids buy an “interview suit!”  Later this year, Career Resources will move to a more accessible home on the first floor of Humanities, reinforcing its centrality to students’ expectations.

Next we want to link student intellectual growth with faculty scholarship.  With better students, our expectations for them rise.  Therefore, we have come to view connections between undergraduate learning and faculty scholarship as an important and distinctive part of New Paltz’s niche.  The annual pool of dollars for faculty-student research is bearing fruit, with the number of students working on funded projects climbing to 34 in 2008 (compared to 25 in 2007).  This year for the first time we sent three students to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.  From this base we'd eventually like to have hundreds presenting their scholarship at our annual Student Research Symposium.  But to achieve this, we need better data about the range of capstone experiences currently offered. We should start by looking at the total number and percentage of students taking advantage of such life-shaping opportunities, broken out by major.

Because we recognized that it was unrealistic for faculty to supervise growing numbers of student researchers on top of a substantial teaching load, this spring Provost Lavallee established an innovative “exchange rate” system whereby faculty can earn credit for overseeing undergraduate research or graduate theses—credit that accumulates so it can be traded in for reassigned time.   

As student research grows, more New Paltz graduates will be competitive at top-notch Ph.D. programs and professional schools.  Each year I hear anecdotally about students offered admission to graduate school.  Systematically sharing these terrific outcomes will help both our assessment efforts and our recruitment of more talented students.  So I’ve asked Institutional Research to collect data on where our graduates are headed.  We’ll turn to deans and chairs for help, since they are likely to have the most current information on students’ plans. 

We also intend that our residential character will reinforce our educational goals. Most of our undergraduate students should live on campus and many faculty and staff should live in close proximity to campus.  Last November saw a major breakthrough:  we acquired a 42-arce parcel of land contiguous to the southern border of the campus, which will be used for faculty, staff and student housing.  The residential community developed here will be within walking distance and seamless with the rest of our campus.  We are beginning to design buildings for this site; but realistically, it will be several years before the new housing appears.  I’m delighted that our plans for this land will help address the college’s greatest long-term vulnerability:  namely, the high cost and limited supply of faculty/staff housing.  By increasing the size of the campus by more than 20 percent, we have also gained a land bank for the next century. 

While we await new housing options for students, we have completed a five-year, $20 million effort to refurbish our eleven oldest residence halls, all of which have now received new windows, roofs, carpets, paint, furniture, lighting, signage and kitchenettes. Looking ahead, we must find a way to finance a further round of improvements to these halls, replacing obsolete plumbing and electrical systems and installing new bathrooms.  We’ll want to begin this project with the Hasbrouck complex.

Before the end of the semester, the college will break ground on a substantial and architecturally striking addition to our dowdy student union.  The environmentally-sensitive design—which consciously evokes Mohonk Mountain—is already winning prizes. But what our students will like most are the public function spaces, meeting rooms, an expanded bookstore, wireless technology, and plenty of couches where they can lounge with their laptops and lattes and socialize with friends.  At last we shall have a true campus commons.

In November, students and faculty can also meet for lunch in a new café in the Parker Theatre lobby.  Food Service is creating this venue in response to legitimate student frustration over the dearth of eateries on the west side of campus. (Campus veterans will note a delicious irony in the fact that Parker—before it was a theatre—was originally a cafeteria!)

And in case you’re wondering about the status of the ugly trenches that have made a labyrinth around buildings, I’m happy to report that we’ve replaced most of the rotting high-temperature hot-water pipes that heat the central campus.  By the end of next month, the new energy-efficient pipes will undergo final tests and the trenches will be filled.  This winter, classrooms and offices along the academic concourse should stay warm and our Physical Plant crew will not have to spend weekends plugging geysers of hot steam and mopping rooms flooded by broken pipes.

Our sixth goal is to meet student needs.  This may be a concise statement, but it’s complicated.

New Paltz is clearly getting better at delivering the amenities and services students require to realize their educational dreams.  I’ve already discussed how we teach, house and feed our students.  We also aspire to offer a rich co-curriculum that reinforces what they learn in the classroom, reflects their interests, and takes full advantage of the college’s physical setting.  We promote the Gunks as one of our playing fields, and camping, kayaking and rock climbing excursions fill up fast.  Back on campus, there is a staggering array of student organizations.  In addition to the typical academic, political, and musical groups, we even have an equestrian club and a charitable organization called Up Til’ Dawn (I’ll confess I was a bit disappointed to learn this was not an all-night study group!)

I like that our students are not shy about asking for the kinds of help and services they need.  For instance, the Student Association president has taken the lead in creating a campus shuttle bus to begin running this fall; the college administration has joined this effort by supplying the gasoline.

Some of our students’ needs can best be met through technology.  As we close the book on our conversion to Banner computing systems, we should be proud that we seized this opportunity to make many of our administrative procedures more student friendly.  For example, we now generate a single electronic bill for all charges and we have simplified registration by enforcing course restrictions and academic standing rules.  Computer Services and the Registrar’s Office promise that our degree audit program will be fully operational in time for advanced registration this November, automatically checking the status of all course prerequisites, even if taken elsewhere. We understand how important this is to academic advising.

In Human Resources, Marda Reid and her colleagues are striving to give staff (and faculty too!) the skills and tools to respond effectively to concerns from even the most demanding students and hyper-vigilant parents.  Tapping its new training budget, HR will launch a professional development program for all office staff this fall, with the first sessions focused on customer service.

Next, we are committed to addressing regional economic and schooling needs.  Part of our mission is to provide talent to the Hudson Valley in the form of our graduates.  This is the focus and pride of almost all our master’s programs.  Of course we also meet an important regional need by educating substantial numbers of undergraduates who transfer to New Paltz from local community colleges.

Graduate enrollments are holding steady, but should rise with the recent approval of our new master’s in School Counseling.  The Provost, Graduate Dean and I think this may be a good time to consider ratcheting up graduate student selectivity, just as we’ve done with our undergraduates.  Our excellent MFA programs—including the Metal program named best in the nation by USNews—ensure admissions quality through rigorous portfolio reviews.  Perhaps in parallel all our other graduate programs should require GRE or GMAT scores?  I would ask the Graduate School Council and the Council of Deans to initiate a discussion this year on the broad topic of graduate admission standards.

Both in this discussion and in other contexts, the college needs a better understanding of how our alumni move into regional workplaces.  We should survey local employers about their satisfaction with New Paltz graduates, and we should query our alumni on how prepared they felt they were for employment and graduate programs.

Finally, we want to be a cultural and intellectual hub for the Hudson Valley.  I think of this goal as having “import” and “export” facets.  On the import side, plays, concerts, scholarly lectures, general interest speakers, sporting events and art exhibits enrich our students’ experience and the lives of our faculty and staff.  They also bind New Paltz alumni to their alma mater and can attract local friends and leaders who will support the college financially and politically. So I love the regular crowds at PianoSummer recitals and openings at the Dorsky Museum, which—as part of the Hudson Quadricentennial—is gearing up for a 2009 blockbuster show of Hudson River School paintings. 

I have also obtained generous seed funding from Peter and Helena Bienstock of the Shawangunk Valley Conservancy to pilot a Distinguished Speakers Series on campus this year, featuring high-profile individuals from the worlds of literature, art, public affairs and popular culture.  Author and humorist Dave Barry will be our inaugural speaker November 12th; Newsweek’s senior editor Jonathan Alter will visit in the spring.

Our chief intellectual “exports,” of course, are the ideas, energy and commitment of our students and faculty.  The Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach has swiftly become our primary vehicle for engagement with local business, government, school districts, and social service agencies.  Under CRREO’s auspices, faculty are encouraged to consider issues of regional significance in their research and to build regionally-based service activity into their teaching.

In summary then, each of the elements of our vision for New Paltz is falling into place.  The college’s academic quality and its reputation are steadily rising, for all the right reasons.

Let me now offer some observations on other important aspects of institutional health.

Financially, New Paltz is solvent with healthy reserves.  To achieve these results, though, we have kept a tight rein on expenditures.  In years when we are fortunate enough to run a surplus, we allocate some of our one-time savings to cover the one-time costs of construction projects that enhance campus life.  We listen carefully to complaints about what saps faculty, staff and student morale, and we try to address those conditions.  For example, we air-conditioned Humanities, we are installing a security card access system in studio art buildings that are open late at night, and we built office space in Wooster for adjunct faculty. 

However, the struggling state economy could slow our momentum. All of you surely know about the projected $5.4 billion state deficit and how the new Governor seeks to drive down this number. 

The State University—and our campus—have already been subjected to three separate rounds of cuts this year: 

  • an initial $38 million cut negotiated as part of the 2009 state budget;
  • a $109 million cut imposed by the Governor on all state agencies in April; and
  • a further $96 million cut imposed by the Governor in late July. 

What does this mean for New Paltz?  Drilling down past the legerdemain of Albany budgeteers (for instance, taking percentage cuts off a smaller base to reduce the absolute decrease), the first two rounds of cuts translated into a reduction of about $660,000 in support to our campus.  While unfortunate, we could absorb this without great pain. 

However, we do not yet know the local impact of the latest $96 million cut.  SUNY Central assures us it is trying to negotiate this to a more reasonable figure.  But since New Paltz represents about three percent of total SUNY enrollment, in a worst-case scenario we could be tagged with a further base operating cut of about $2.9 million.  That would be a serious matter indeed.

There is profound unfairness—even perversity—in how the state is allocating these cuts.  SUNY is particularly disadvantaged because two rounds of cuts were only imposed on state agencies whose budgets are under direct gubernatorial control—a set that most regrettably lumps SUNY with the Department of Motor Vehicles and the State Lottery office!  And while politicians and university presidents might disagree about the relative importance of education vis á vis other state expenditures, it is deeply troubling that even within the category of education spending, the 29 state-operated campuses are being asked to bear a wildly disproportionate burden.   Consider that, while these campuses face over $200 million in base cuts, the 30 community colleges are essentially shielded from any cuts, and the cuts imposed on the City University of New York and the state’s private colleges are markedly smaller.  Of course, at the same time, state funding for elementary and secondary education has increased by an unprecedented $1.75 billion!  Hopefully a new Chancellor will correct these inequities.

In the meantime, SUNY’s budget problem boils down to a straightforward matter:  How much and how quickly can tuition be raised if we are to avoid substantial cuts in programs and/or people?  SUNY has only raised tuition once in the last 13 years.  Therefore, barring a sudden infusion of state support, we shall need a substantial mid-year tuition increase and must devise a plan for rational and predictable tuition increases in coming years.

I do not know whether the cuts will be reduced to more manageable levels, or whether timely tuition increases will resolve the current dilemma.  But I do know that our campus enters even this rocky financial zone with robust reserves, a local budget that has been consistently in balance, and wise fiscal planners.

Indeed, the college’s leadership team was bolstered this summer by the arrival of a new Vice President for Finance and Administration—Jackie DiStefano, formerly the chief operating officer at SUNY Albany’s Nanotech campus. 

All summer the Vice Presidents and I have been sharing financial and political information with your UUP President and the Presiding Officer.  With the new year under way, we’ll expand that consultation. All faculty and staff will receive reports and have an opportunity to ask questions.  I expect there will be critical opportunities where we can all lobby on SUNY’s behalf.  In the meantime, we are still proceeding with a reasonable number of faculty searches.  We are still making other necessary expenditures to repair our infrastructure and advance our academic work.  And we are still maintaining the momentum that has been a hallmark of this college over the last several years.

We continue to look for new sources of revenue.  Fundraising is an essential part of realizing our goals. All together, we have raised more than $13 million in gifts and pledges since fall 2001. The ranks of our donors are growing, from about 3,800 in 2002 to more than 5,000 in 2008.  I am pleased that many of these gifts have been for scholarships. But if tuition rises, we must raise even more for this pressing need.

We recently made over $2 million by selling the underutilized Ashokan field campus.  The college, and in particular, the Campus Auxiliary Services Board, will need to think carefully about how this one-time windfall—funds that are clearly part of the college’s patrimony—should be deployed in a lasting way to advance our institutional goals.

In pursuit of additional resources, I have cultivated relationships on both sides of the aisle in the state Legislature—ties that have so far led to $94 million in extra capital appropriations beyond what New Paltz was slated to receive.  This is how we’ve financed Old Main, the library, the Student Union Building, and the new science building.  I’ve also built strong ties to our federal representatives.  New Paltz was the only SUNY college that obtained multiple federal earmarks in 2008, totaling $440,000.

Pursuant to the state capital budget, New Paltz received about $16.5 million dollars for critical maintenance projects this year.  This is the first installment of a new five-year capital plan projected to bring $82 million to our campus.

With this initial chunk of funding, we can move forward with the recommendations of our Facilities Planning Task Force about campus appearance, traffic and pedestrian flow, parking, accessibility, sustainability, and future building placement.  Over the summer, I received this group’s final report.  I have endorsed its recommendations, which have been vetted with and well received by the campus community.  I thank co-chairs Stella Deen and John Shupe and the rest of the Task Force for their hard work.  Now we can move forward with Phase I of the recommendations, which include:

  • the proposed Mohonk Walk
  • the greening of the main academic concourse
  • the replacement of our obsolete swimming pool; and
  • the renovation of Wooster Science Building

This list hardly exhausts our facilities needs.  For instance, we badly require a new police station and Smiley Arts Building cries out for attention.  But it is wonderful that we have the funds to embark on the largest set of construction projects at New Paltz since the Rockefeller era, literally transforming our campus.

I’ll bring this address to a close by highlighting several of our principal tasks for the coming year.  Our fundamental objective, as always, is to continue building academic quality.  To this end, our priorities must include:

  • Recruiting a next class of 1,200 freshmen and 500 transfers, with academic credentials even stronger than this fall’s cohort;
  • Further improvement in the college’s graduation rates—an effort that will call upon the skills of a new Dean of Advising;
  • Finding a new Provost. Alas, after 10 years David Lavallee has decided to return to the faculty.  I have asked Professors Mick Adams of Mathematics and Jan Schmidt of English to lead a search committee with representation from all academic units.

We also need to

  • Recruit a new Dean of Fine and Performing Arts; and to
  • Cultivate more donors, solicit more major gifts, and seek other streams of funding.

Let me conclude by noting how inspiring it is to see our community reassembled, brimming with energy and passion, eager for learning and discovery.While much important work lies ahead, we should all be optimistic about the college’s future.

That future rests on the shared pursuit of our goals.  Ask yourself how your day-to-day actions can help us realize our vision. Consider how the priorities of your office or program nest within these larger goals. The vice presidents, deans, directors and I would be happy to join in such conversations. And, of course, I look forward to discussing these and other matters with you at faculty meetings.

May this be a terrific year for our students and for us all.

Steven G. Poskanzer